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Revealed: USAID’s Twitter-like attempt to foment unrest in Cuba

Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. --AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

A report by the AP today reveals that a US-backed program attempted to develop a Twitter-like service with the goal that it would help spark political unrest in Cuba.


Most surprising is that it was backed by the humanitarian arm of the US government, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). By channeling funds through offshore accounts and working with US and Spain-based contractors, USAID helped to establish ZunZuneo (a slang term for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet). At its peak, the text-message based application had more than 40,000 users.

There are already concerns that the revelation will cause harm to US foreign policy and future US humanitarian work.

ZunZuneo was built on the back of the state-owned mobile phone company Cubacel. The contract between USAID and Creative Associates International, was to build a system where people could connection on issues related to news, sports and entertainment. Data was to be collected about the users so that more political messaging could be shared, at the direction of USAID.

Taking a page out of Iran and other places where social media aided civil unrest, the hope was ZunZuneo would lead to “smart mobs” and other actions that may “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society,” as a USAID document obtained by the AP, states.

The story raises questions of the legality of such a program, but USAID defended itself saying that it is perfectly legal and was not secretive.

“USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency, and we work all over the world to help people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and give them access to tools to improve their lives and connect with the outside world,” said USAID spokesman Matt Herrick to the AP.

“In the implementation, has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments? Of course. That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we’re working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba.”

Trying to incite revolution in Cuba is nothing new for the US. The Bay of Pigs invasion carried out in April of 1961 is one of the more spectacular failures. The CIA sponsored opposition and paramilitary groups to overthrown the Castro-led government, but it was a complete failure.

This is also not the first time that US humanitarian work has been used as a cover for covert operations. Support for revolutionaries in Latin America came through various cover programs in the 1980s. More recently, the CIA’s effort to catch Osama bin Ladden included a fake vaccine campaign that hoped to verify the DNA of his children as a means to know if he was in the Abbottabad compound. The revaluation of the campaign is believed to have created more fears of vaccine campaigns in Pakistan.

As a result, armed guards are being deployed to protect polio vaccination workers and deadly attacks continue in parts of the country. The insecurity has slowed down the progress towards eradication in the country and led to outbreaks of polio in nearby countries. The fall out from the USAID program in Cuba may be felt in and out of the country.

The recent leaks about NSA metadata collection have already caused concerns in countries around the world from Brazil to Germany. Evidence that the US is taking a more active role in the area of communications could cause future problems. Though not everyone is convinced that the news will have any real impact on other USAID programs.

The objective for ZunZuneo was to “push [Cuba] out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again towards democratic change,” said the USAID documents. Cuban cellphone numbers, collected by a Cuban engineer living in Spain, were introduced to ZunZuneo in early 2010. Creative Associates brought on the Denver-based Mobile Accord to help with developing the service.

This was a newer area for Creative Associates. There are existing organizations, such as InterNews, that are taking an above-board approach to news and information sharing. For example, InterNews has partnered with the International Rescue Committee to provide information tools for Syrian refugees.

Steps were taken to hide the connected contractors and the US government to ZunZuneo. The USAID program hoped to garner 200,000 users, but mismanagement and not enough funds led to ZunZuneo falling apart. People within Creative Associates pointed the blame on Mobile Accord for not finding sustainable solutions to the reliance on US government funding to pay for the text messages sent through the service.

The AP reports that people who used the service liked it, but it started to decline in quality in the middle of 2012 and then suddenly disappeared.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]