ZunZuneo: Is it Obama’s Elián moment?

April 11, 2014

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.

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Snapchat, ZunZuneo, and Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

April 4, 2014

Living as we do in the “Snapchat” – or even ZunZuneo – era, where the present can disappear or be buried by new material in 1-10 seconds, history may not stand a chance.  This is not a new phenomenon.  In 1999, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni did a survey which revealed that seniors at 55 leading colleges and universities were more familiar with Snoop Dogg (98%) than with James Madison’s role in writing the U.S. Constitution (23%).  Even if Snoop’s numbers have drooped in the intervening fifteen years, it’s hard to imagine that Madison’s have seen much of a revival.  If the present disappears in an instant, what chance does history have?

Forgive us, then, our faith.

A couple months back, we at the Center for Democracy in the Americas were contacted by Louis A. Pérez, Jr., asking if we might be interested in publishing his article “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”  Dr. Pérez is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and Director of the Institute for the Studies of the Americas at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and editor of Cuban Journal. His research and award-winning publications examine the history and identity of the nineteenth and twentieth century Caribbean, with a special focus on Cuba.

We readily agreed.

In “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” Dr. Pérez offers a powerful case that this country’s fixation with determining Cuba’s destiny did not originate with the Castro Revolution of 1959.  Instead, it began much earlier, dating back to America’s preoccupation with its own manifest destiny, starting with the acquisitions of Louisiana and Florida, three centuries ago.

In his article, you will hear the ringing voices of U.S. statesmen and figures nearly lost to history.  These include: John Adams, the second president of the United States, who called Cuba “An object of transcendent importance to the political and commercial interests of our Union.”  His son, John Quincy Adams who, as Secretary of State, said Cuba was a “natural appendage” of the United States.  John Clayton, Secretary of State under President Zachary Taylor, who promised the “whole power of the United States would be employed to prevent . . . Cuba from passing into other hands.” Senator Robert Toombs, the secessionist Senator, who declared “I know of no portion of the earth that is now so important to the United States of America as the Island of Cuba is.” And President James Buchanan, who said breathlessly, “We must have Cuba. We can’t do without Cuba.”

To them and others, making Cuba an American possession was a strategic imperative and a psychological obsession.

With this chorus from the 19th Century, the voices we hear of statesmen and political figures in our own era now come across with greater fidelity.  The Cold Warriors of the past like CIA Director John McCone -“In my opinion, Cuba was the key to all of Latin America; if Cuba succeeds, we can expect most of Latin America to fall” – as well as his heirs of today, who refer to efforts by President Obama to relax travel restrictions as “appeasement.”

This leaves us, as Dr. Pérez writes, with a Cuba policy that is an “anomaly of singular distinction: more than 50 years of political isolation and economic sanctions, longer than the U.S. refusal to recognize the Soviet Union, longer than the hiatus of normal relations with China, longer than it took to reconcile with post-war Vietnam. Cuba has been under U. S. sanctions for almost half its national existence as an independent republic.”

History does have a powerful claim on this policy; a claim that long precedes the emergence of Fidel Castro and the success of the Cuban Revolution. To make this assertion is not to disenfranchise the claims of Cuban Americans or their very real grievances; no, it is to recognize that what happens between the United States and Cuba affects and implicates all of us.

Understanding the history may not actually make changing the policy any easier.  After all, the resilience of this failed, fifty year-old policy springs from what the hardliners have built around it – the network of political action committees, fraternal organizations, relationships, elections, appointments, websites and more -to keep it in place for them to control no matter what the rest of us may think or want for the future.

Yet, we have this abiding faith that it will be easier for policy makers to find the way forward if they better appreciate how we arrived at this place where we’ve been stuck.

We “Snapchat” Americans may not remember or know what to do with this history upon being presented with it.  But, there’s one thing we can promise you: the Cubans have never forgotten.

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