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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Freedom for One?

February 28, 2014

After more than 15 years behind bars, a Cuban named Fernando González was released from prison on Thursday and immediately turned over to immigration officials.  A member of the “Cuban Five,” Mr. González returned home today to his family.

While we celebrate his freedom, it makes no sense to us that Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and  Gerardo Hernandez remain jailed in America, and Alan Gross remains jailed in Cuba, and all still face years of confinement before the reunions with their families can take place.

The Obama Administration has refused appeals to swap the Cuban Five members in exchange for the release of Mr. Gross, dissuaded apparently by phony discussions about equivalence.  Critics say the Cubans were here as spies, but they obfuscate the motives the U.S. government had in sending Mr. Gross to Cuba, and mislead their fellow Americans about his mission when he entered that country and engaged in serious violations of Cuban law.  It seems to serve the purposes of those hardliners to have him sit in prison for his full fifteen year term, so long as he is not considered a spy.

President Obama has a chance to end the suffering of all four prisoners by setting aside the argument over equivalence and do what needs to be done to bring an American, who has been left on a Cold War battlefield, home to be reunited with his family.  If that means ending the wait for the families of the three remaining members of Five for their homecoming, that’s a small price to pay.  It will make the Cubans happy, virtually no one in the United States outside a few precincts in Florida and New Jersey will care, and the President can have the satisfaction of restoring four lives and uniting four families.

Rather than freedom for one, why not mercy and compassion for four?

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