ZunZuneo: Is it Obama’s Elián moment?

We return to the Cuban Twitter story and begin with one remarkable, but obvious fact.  More than a week after the story broke people are still talking about it.  The obvious question: is why has it struck a chord?

It reminds us of the Elián González matter, over a decade ago.  How the six year old Cuban boy was plucked from the water after the raft that carried him from Cuba disintegrated and his mom died.  How his relatives in Miami clung to him for months denying Elián’s right to return to Cuba and live a peaceful life with his father.  How the Clinton administration seized him at gunpoint and finally returned him home.  How decisive majorities of the American public sided with Elián and supported the operation.  How the affair became a Waterloo for radical elements of the Cuban American community in Miami, causing many to reconsider their position of supporting any anti-Castro cause.

We may be wrong.  It’s too soon to tell.  But, we think the Cuban Twitter story has ushered in a similar moment for the broader community of Americans.  If that is the case, it should send a fairly clear signal to the Obama administration about its contradictory treatment of U.S.-Cuba relations.  This is a moment not simply to reconsider, but to choose a very different course.

USAID says it inherited the program from the Bush administration, a craven and deficient explanation, reminiscent of how the Kennedy administration’s hands came to be stained by the Bay of Pigs.  It made many other mistakes – more about those later – but a big one was thinking such a horrible idea could be kept a secret in the age of Edward Snowden, or that the traditional excuses for invading Cuba’s sovereignty (we did it to make Cuba democratic) would satisfy anyone at this moment in time.

We’re not saying every American is following the story, or knows the minute details of U.S.-Cuba relations in order to have a lasting reaction to what is being revealed.  But we – and we mean all of us – are experiencing a heightened sense of vulnerability with regard to our on-line lives.  Its familiarity is what makes the Cuban Twitter story so vivid and real to us all.

Just ask tens of millions of consumers who ran their credit cards through cash registers at Target thinking their information was safe.  Or think about a poll released last July showing that 70% of Americans believe that the surveillance programs exposed by Mr. Snowden are used for “other purposes” than investigating terrorism. Or that fifty-five percent of Internet users have tried to take steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the (U.S.) government.

Since much of what we’ve come to fear about the government’s surveillance programs and potential violations of our privacy has a familiar counterpart in the ZunZuneo scandal, this is what makes the Cuban Twitter episode so powerful.

The essential facts, as Phil Peters described them, are easy to understand.

“USAID created ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like information service for Cubans that operated by text message.  The U.S. government’s involvement was hidden ‘to ensure the success of the Mission.”  Cuban subscribers registered for the service, USAID gathered their personal data, and through interactions with subscribers it ranked their political tendencies….The idea was to build the subscriber base by offering interesting news content, gradually to introduce political content, and eventually to try to mobilize subscribers to political activism so as to ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society’.”

The AP quotes a primary actor in the bungled affair, James Eberhard, who noted the “‘inherent contradiction’ of giving Cubans a platform for communications uninfluenced by their government that was in fact financed by the U.S. government and influenced by its agenda.”

After that, it gets worse.  Not only did the U.S. government go to great lengths to conceal its role in creating ZunZuneo from Cuban users of the service, putting at risk, “young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea that this was a U.S. government-funded activity,” as Senator Pat Leahy said.  But, our government went to great lengths to conceal it from Members of Congress and the American people, and it continues to do so even after the secrets have come spilling out.  There are many.

The State Department said, “no political content was every supplied by anyone working on this project or running it.” Five days later the AP had the satirist who composed the text messages on record saying “Everything I do is politics,” and ran a series of them to prove the State Department wrong.

USAID tried to debunk a part of the story that said a Spanish company was formed to support the network, but the AP found expense reports for the costs of incorporating the firm, proving USAID wrong.

The White House said it wasn’t a covert operation; but it was. There was no other reason to hide the money that paid for it.  No other reason to conceal it from Congress.  No reason for the USAID administrator to come to a Congressional hearing and deny knowing who thought the program up.

Beyond the deceit, what makes this episode so galling is the incompetence of the contractor to whom our government outsourced this seamy side of our foreign policy.  As the AP reported, by basing the system on SMS messages received in Cuba, they ended up paying of tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to “Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies.”  They simultaneously poured money into the Cuban government’s pocket and exposed the operation to detection.

All of this is more than bad luck; many will pay the costs.  Just before the scandal broke, Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger, debuted in Miami her latest effort, a digital news project, so sensitive that she would not disclose its name.  She and every other on-line activist in Cuba and around the world will be bearing the burden of ZunZuneo every after.

Another cost is the constitutional principle of oversight and accountability.  When Senator Jeff Flake asked for all the text messages sent by the Cuban twitter, the USAID administrator said he doesn’t have most of them but promised to turn them over if he got any from the contractor.  By outsourcing critical foreign policy decisions to corporations who appear to be unaccountable, Congress is unable to control what is done in our name.

Another cost was exacted from Cuban citizens themselves.  As one said to the AP, when the service disappeared “In the end we never learned what happened.  We never learned where it came from.”  They were abandoned by the program when it lost its funding.  You can just imagine how Alan Gross feels.

The greatest deceit of all is that any of this had anything to do with breaking Cuba’s so-called information blockade.  You can expose Cubans to American information and values without exposing them to the risk of a U.S.-designed covert operation; simply by allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba without restrictions.  But that option is not currently on the table.

It should be.  The administration has to decide whether it can smother this story through deception, or whether it can seize the moment, start telling the truth, and change course on policy.  The Cuban Twitter saga is President Obama’s Elián moment.  Let’s hope he makes something of it.  It’s time to take regime change off the table.


To sign CDA’s petition requesting that the Obama Administration end USAID’s dangerous, wasteful and counterproductive regime change program in Cuba, click here.

Alan Gross begins and ends hunger strike; Cuba reiterates willingness to negotiate release

Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor imprisoned in Cuba since 2009, went on a hunger strike to protest inaction by the U.S. and Cuban governments in resolving his case, reports the Washington Post. His fast began on Thursday, April 3rd, and ended on Thursday, April 11th. The announcement of the fast included a telephoned statement from Gross:

“I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal.”

Gross originally said he would continue his hunger strike “as long as necessary,” until a resolution was reached that would allow him to return home to his family. Upon ending the strike, Gross dictated the following statement to Scott Gilbert, his lawyer:

“My protest fast is suspended as of today, although there will be further protests to come. There will be no cause for further intense protest when both governments show more concern for human beings and less malice and derision toward each other.”

The press release said that Gross ended his fast at “his mother’s urging.”

When the fast was announced earlier in the week, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Director of North American Affairs for Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, issued a statement on the Ministry’s website:

“The Cuban government reiterates its willingness to find, together with the U.S. government, a solution to the case of Mr. Gross that is acceptable for both parties, taking into account Cuba’s humanitarian concerns with regard to three of the Five Cubans who have remained unjustly imprisoned in the United States for more than fifteen years.”

Gross’ hunger strike, coupled with last week’s revelation about a failed USAID project to set up a “secret Twitter” in Cuba, have brought increased attention to USAID programs on the island. Gross’ lawyer harshly criticized the Twitter project, called ZunZuneo, which began after Gross’ arrest in Cuba, stating: “Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba.”

In testimony Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, Dr. Rajiv Shah, USAID Administrator, said that “responsibility for [Gross’] detention rests with Cuban authorities,” and that “The State Department takes the lead in these types of issues,” not USAID, reports the AP. Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) stated at the hearing that it seemed to him USAID “has all but forgotten about [Gross].”

Fulton Armstrong, a former analyst for the CIA and the White House National Security Council, who also worked for Secretary of State Kerry when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Newsweek that USAID’s leadership, along with the State Department, had worked to tone down its Cuba “democracy” programming to secure Gross’ release in negotiation with Cuba. He said that despite negotiations, certain career USAID officials thwarted those efforts:

“When Gross was arrested, Cuban officials gave pretty clear signals of two desires for his release. …That the programs be made less blatant and insulting to them, and that the Obama administration designate a serious, non-bureaucratic person to discuss this and other matters with them. [But USAID officials] reassured their contractors and grantees that, despite rumors of change, business would continue as usual — information that would surely reach Cuban ears — and they later leaked to the press that, in fact, program funding remained unchanged and the reforms were not being implemented. At that point, the discussions about program reforms to gain Gross’s release ended.”

Gross, who is 64, has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009 after being arrested while traveling to Cuba on a tourist visa, bringing satellite and Internet equipment to the island clandestinely as part of a USAID program contracted through Development Alternatives, Inc.

In November of 2013, 66 senators sent a letter to President Obama, urging the President to take “whatever steps are in the national interest” in order to secure Gross’ release. “Democracy promotion” activities by the U.S. government in Cuba, like those being carried out by Gross, are illegal on the island.

AP reveals political ZunZuneo messages; USAID Administrator questioned about program in Congress; Senate committee orders review of program

Following last week’s revelation about ZunZuneo, USAID’s “fake Twitter” program in Cuba, the Associated Press has published several messages that were drafted for the service, which are of a political nature and poke fun at Cuban officials. Some of the messages were sent, while others were marked as drafts, and it is unclear whether several of them were delivered or not.

One message that was apparently nixed for being “too political,” called former President Fidel Castro “The coma-andante,” (“the walking coma”). Another message that was sent made fun of Ramiro Valdes, the former Telecommunications Minister, for statements calling the Internet a “wild colt’ that “should be tamed.” The message reads “Latest: Cuban dies of electrical shock from laptop. ‘I told you so,’ declares a satisfied Ramiro. ‘Those machines are weapons of the enemy!’”

Alen Lauzán Falcón, a Cuban satirist based in Chile, said he was hired to write political texts for the program, but had no knowledge of its U.S. origins. To see samples of the draft messages Lauzán wrote for the ZunZuneo program, see here.

Last Thursday, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf denied that the U.S. government provided or generated political content, saying, “No political content was ever supplied by anyone working on this project or running it.” State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki toned the denial down on Wednesday, stating, “That was the information that was available at the time…about text messages that were from five years ago.”

USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah was questioned about the ZunZuneo program during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee FY2015 USAID Budget Hearing on Tuesday and a House Foreign Affairs Committee Meeting on U.S. Foreign Assistance in FY 2015 on Wednesday. He reiterated USAID’s position that the program was to facilitate access to information and foster communication, but not to influence political conditions on the island. He claimed that the AP report had a number of inaccuracies – detailed on USAID’s blog and rebutted in part by the APhere.

At the hearing, Sen. Leahy called the program a “cockamamie idea” which had no chance of working and expressed that such a program could endanger USAID employees in the field. Sen. Leahy told Dr. Shah, “We’re already getting emails from USAID employees all over the world saying, ‘How could they do this and put us in danger?’”During the House and Senate hearings, Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio, as well as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, defended the USAID program, including ZunZuneo.

On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator Menendez, ordered USAID to turn over all records on the ZunZuneo program. Sen. Menendez made the request after Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) asked Dr. Shah for data about the program as part of Congress’s oversight responsibilities. Dr. Shah said that USAID does not have access to most of the records but would attempt to obtain them from contractors.

ETECSA, Cuba’s state-owned telecommunications firm, denounced the use of communication platforms for illegal purposes, as well as the unauthorized use of its databases. Daniel Ramos Fernández, Chief of Security Operations at ETECSA, has also accused USAID of overwhelming Cuba’s communications system with spam. The firm has launched an investigation into how USAID was able to obtain the information used to launch the ZunZuneo program, which used hundreds of thousands of Cuban cell phone numbers to set up its service, without knowledge or permission from the owners of the numbers. ETECSA added that “these types of operations will not affect the development plan that drives the company to increase access to the Internet to the entire population, despite the persistence of the U.S. embargo.”

Another AP report notes that revelations of the ZunZuneo program could complicate the work of bloggers and dissidents on the island, who can be discredited by accusations of receiving funding from the U.S. He said that it could also raise suspicions about efforts by Cuban-Americans to bring cell phones, flash drives, and computers to the island. Phil Peters of the Cuba Research Center stated, “It’s damaging to Americans who try and do good things in Cuba. It makes the Cubans question whether they’re really part of a covert U.S. government program.”

Cuba importing less food, more medicine from U.S.

Cuba’s imports of U.S. food and agricultural goods dropped 23.7% in 2013, whereas health sector imports from the U.S. have increased, report Cuba Standard and Café Fuerte. According to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, Cuba’s state food importer, Alimport, purchased $348.75 million in agricultural goods in 2013 — the lowest amount in seven years. Cuba’s main purchases in 2013 included frozen chicken ($144.4 million), soybean oil ($69.3 million), corn ($57.5 million), and soybeans ($39.4 million).

Medicine and medical equipment imports reached $2.18 million — the highest rate in five years, reports Café Fuerte. Cuba’s imports from the U.S. peaked in 2008, at $710 million. Congress authorized the sale of food and agricultural goods to Cuba on a cash basis in 2000, and authorized the sale of medicine in 1992.

Record number of Americans traveling to Cuba

In the first trimester of 2014, approximately 173,550 U.S. travelers visited Cuba, according to a report by the U.S.-based Havana Consulting Group, reports the Associated Press. This figure includes Cuban Americans as well as other travelers taking part in legalized categories of travel to the island, such as people-to-people trips. According to the report, so far in 2014 there been over 1,000 Miami-Cuba and 109 Tampa-Cuba flights. The number of Americans who traveled to Cuba during this period surpasses the number of visitors from England (149,515), Germany (115,984), and France (96,640) in all of 2013.

Emilio Morales, president of the Havana Consulting Group stated that the U.S. is now the “second greatest source of tourists to Cuba after Canada.” Over 600,000 U.S. travelers visited Cuba in 2013, and Morales said he expects 2014 to be a record year.

The Cuban Interests Section in the U.S. has been without a banksince February, when M&T bank ceased providing financial services to the mission. Cuba has not been able to find a replacement bank, impeding the consular office from processing new visa and passport requests. Though many travel providers requested visas before the bank’s cut-off date, Armando Garcia, the owner of Marazul Charters, said that this issue is “no doubt” affecting travel to the island.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce to send delegation to Cuba in May

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC) is planning an educational trip to Cuba in May, reports Cuba Standard. The Chamber, which represents more than 3 million U.S. businesses, has confirmed that they are planning a trip, but declined to provide further details. Cuba Standard reports speculation that the group will be headed by the Chamber’s President Thomas Donohue. In 2010, Myron Brilliant, USCC Senior Vice President of International Affairs, testified on U.S.-Cuba policy in front of the House Committee on Ways and Means’ Subcommittee on Trade, arguing for lifting trade and travel restrictions.

Cuba wins the first U.S.-Cuba boxing match in the World Series of Boxing

Last Friday, April 4, the U.S. and Cuba squared off in a semi-professional boxing match in Havana, reports the Associated Press. Cuba beat the U.S. 5-0, in the first match between the countries to be held in Cuba in 27 years. Cuba and the U.S. have a long history of competing in boxing, and annual matches were held between 1977 and 1995. Cuba and the U.S. have recently engaged more in cultural and sports exchanges. “We know it is a traditional clash that always recalls connotations that can be bigger than sports, and Cuba,” Cuban lightweight champ Lázaro Álvarez stated recently. The Cuban team, the Wranglers, is scheduled to face the U.S. Knockouts again on April 12 in Salem, New Hampshire.


French Foreign Minister to travel to Cuba this weekend

Laurent Fabius, France’s Foreign Minister, will arrive in Cuba this Saturday, marking the first time a French Foreign Minister has visited Cuba in 30 years, reports Cuba Standard. While in Havana, Fabius will meet with Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister. He will also oversee the opening of Cuba offices for Ubifrance, a French trade agency which promotes the presence of French business abroad. According to Prensa Latina, around 60 French firms already operate in Cuba. Cuba and France’s Foreign Ministers met in Paris in March to discuss Cuba-EU negotiations.

Reporters Without Borders sent a letter to Foreign Minister Fabius leading up to the trip, urging that “Cuba’s violations of freedom of information must not be ignored during this visit. Improvement in relations between the European Union and Cuba must not be at the expense of Cuba’s journalists and bloggers.”


Cuba eliminates 109,000 state jobs in health sector

Cuba’s labor newspaper, Trabajadores, announced Monday that 109,000 health sector positions have been eliminated, reports the Associated Press. In March, Cuba’s government announced that many healthcare workers would be receiving raises that in some cases would exceed 100%.

Two years ago, Cuba’s government announced the elimination of 50,000 posts in the sector. The cuts are part of a greater economic reforms process under which President Raúl Castro has slimmed the size of the state sector and encouraged Cubans to become self-employed. There are currently around 450,000 Cubans with self-employed licenses.

Cuba establishes new environmental regulations for Mariel Port

Cuba’s Ministry of Transportation published and put into effect regulations governing the use, development, management and provision of maritime services at the Port of Mariel, reports Prensa Latina and CubaDebate. The regulations stipulate that businesses must adopt spill-prevention measures and natural disaster contingency plans, reports AFP. All new construction projects require an environmental license and, in some cases, an environmental impact evaluation. Cuba’s government may suspend businesses that do not comply with the environmental regulations:

“In case of serious or repeated violation of environmental regulations or negligence of the licensee, operator or service provider and port users; the Port Administration (…) may temporarily or permanently suspend any permit or authorization for the provision of a service in the port.”

Cuba is moving forward on proposals from 15 investors from countries including Spain, Brazil, China, Russia, and Italy, who are interested in establishing their companies in the Mariel Port Special Economic Zone, reports EFE. Ana Teresa Igarza, director of the Regulations Office of the Zone, said that their plan is to confirm proposals by the first half of 2014 “at the latest,” and that the companies could begin work in Cuba in the second half of the year.

Cubans remember Vilma Espín on the 84th anniversary of her birth

On Monday April 7th, Cubans commemorated Vilma Espín on the 84th anniversary of her birth, reports Prensa Latina. Espín, who was a key leader in Cuba’s Revolution and the founder of the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC), passed away in 2007. A flower offering was placed at her grave, and a photo exhibit opened featuring photographs of Espín, reports Granma. CDA’s publication: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future,” describes Vilma Espín’s role in pushing for initiatives to increase gender equality following Cuba’s revolution.

Recommended Reading

Struggling to Film in America’s Chokehold: Cuban Moviemakers Feeling Burden of U.S. Embargo, Victoria Burnett, New York Times

This piece illustrates the negative effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuba’s filmmakers, who, like many U.S. artists, have attempted to turn to crowd funding platforms for their projects. However, U.S. sanctions preclude the possibility of using PayPal and other online money transfer services. One filmmaker told the author that he doesn’t believe that he and other artists are meant to be the targets of the embargo, but that they are the policy’s “collateral damage”.

The Dangerous Absurdity of the Secret “Cuban Twitter”, Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker

Jon Lee Anderson writes an intriguing, piece about the secret intelligence operation that was ZunZuneo. He concludes, “If ZunZuneo was meant to be today’s El Mercurio [alluding to the CIA’s use of the Chilean newspaper in the 1970s to overthrow democratically elected President Salvador Allende], what does that say about the evolution of U.S. foreign policy?”

AP investigation helps Obama to take action, Jorge de Armas, Progreso Weekly

Jorge de Armas argues that instead of bringing about greater tension between the U.S. and Cuba, embarrassing revelations about ZunZuneo could provide the impetus needed for the Obama administration to adjust its policy toward Cuba.

The Fall of Internet Freedom: Meet the Company That Secretly Built ‘Cuban Twitter’, Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic

Robinson Meyerprofiles Mobile Accord – one of the private companies behind the ZunZuneo program. Meyer details the history of Mobile Accord’s involvement with U.S. government initiatives in Pakistan, Haiti and Cuba.

America’s tricks don’t help Cubans, Dr. William LeoGrande, Washington Post

In response to the Washington Post Editorial Board’s support for the U.S. government’s covert ZunZuneo program in Cuba, Dr. LeoGrande’s letter to the editor explains how “fomenting unrest in another country by secretly trying to manipulate its domestic politics violates U.S. treaty obligations under the charters of both the United Nations and the Organization of American States.”

In another piece, “When Is Covert Action Not Covert? When It’s ‘Discreet.’ USAID’s Indiscreet Twitter Program in Cuba,” LeoGrande encourages USAID officials to “review the statutory definition of covert action, pointing out that “USAID’s ZunZuneo program meets the two key definitional attributes of a covert action: it was intended to influence Cuban politics, and the U.S. government’s role was intentionally hidden.”

Cuba’s Youth Were the Target of USAID’s ZunZuneo, Patricia Grogg, IPS

Grogg details how Cuba’s youth are now in the eye of the ideological storm between Washington and Havana. With commentary from scholars such as Peter Kornbluh, Grogg depicts how the U.S. targeted young Cubans with its ZunZuneo program.

Recommended Listening

USAID Tied To Secret “Cuban Twitter” Operation, The Kojo Nnamdi Show

Marc Hanson, Senior Associate on Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America, and Jack Gillum, a reporter for the Associated Press Washington Investigative Team, visit the Kojo Nnamdi Show to discuss the investigation into the ZunZuneo program and how it could affect future relations between Cuba and the United States.

One Response to ZunZuneo: Is it Obama’s Elián moment?

  1. […] the first trimester of 2014, approximately 173,550 U.S. travelers visited Cuba, according to a report by the U.S.-based Havana […]

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