Thursday, April 3, 2014

USAID funded ZunZuneo

The Associated Press reports that Cuba's ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like service based on text messages, was financed by USAID. (Twitter was also initially based on texting).

USAID also financed the work of Alan Gross.

Was this deception illegal -- in Cuba or the US? Was it immoral?

More later, but you can read the AP report here:

and watch CBS News video coverage here.
Update 4/3/2014

I only wrote a quick note this morning and had to do other things, but I want to add some thoughts on this revelation.

This is the third effort I know of by the USAID to facilitate Internet communication in Cuba. First and best known is Alan Gross' attempt to bring in satellite equipment. The next try was also a satellite connectivity project, but no one was arrested so it attracted less attention.

Like everything else in Cuba, opinions on this are sharply divided. For example:

Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee said "USAID is flying the American flag and should be recognized around the globe as an honest broker of doing good. If they start participating in covert, subversive activities, the credibility of the United States is diminished." I imagine Fidel agrees with him.

But Senator Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commended the effort saying "The whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies."

There is no black-white truth. I share Senator Menendez' strong belief in the free flow of information. I also understand Senator Chaffetz' point that the effort makes us look underhanded and dishonest, undermining our credibility.

On balance, I have no problem with the effort to facilitate communication with and among Cubans and, if this goal were to be achieved, the program had to be covert.

I do; however, have a problem with the fact that our goal was not simply to provide a communication channel, but we also monitored that channel in an effort to collect data on the Cubans using the system. We wanted to know who used the system and what their political views were. I wonder where those electronic profiles are now and who has access to them.

It would have been easier to support an effort to enhance communication then step away and let the people use it as they wished -- for or against the government or for talking about rock bands -- like Twitter.

I also believe that this program made more sense than the satellite communication efforts mentioned above. Even if they had succeeded, they would have had little impact at great cost. We wasted our money and Fidel got a propaganda prize. (That being said, a large, government-sanctioned satellite program would be an effective interim step toward modern Internet connectivity in Cuba).

One thing is for sure -- this "outing" will be politicized in the U. S. and Cuba -- the Republicans and Fidel will jump on it.
Update 4/4/2014

I did a short interview on BBC Radio yesterday. My interview was preceded by a 30-second introduction by the host, Tom Green, and a 30-second statement by White House press secretary Jay Carney in which he said "USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency. Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong."

If this was not a covert action, why the front companies and where was it publicized? And, if it was a development program rather than an intelligence program, why was it discontinued?

You can hear the entire BBC segment (5m 35s) here.

You can see a longer statement by Carney, in which he says "It is neither covert nor an intelligence programme," here.
Update 4/7/2014

An excellent article by Anne Nelson puts ZunZuneo in context and gives reasons why it was a "terrible idea."

Update 4/11/2016

An Associated Press post describes their frustration in obtaining documents for their investigation of Zunzuneo. The government response to requests for relevant documents using the federal Freedom of Information process was "glacial."

They requested further documents on the discussion of their original request within USAID. These newly released documents on the back-and-forth among USAID officials are heavily redacted "largely for personal-privacy reasons."

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