Matthew Aho, Inter-American Dialogue's Latin America Advisor
The U.S. Agency for International Development created and operated "ZunZuneo," a communications network similar to Twitter that had the aim of destabilizing the Cuban government, the Associated Press reported on April 3. USAID responded by saying the purpose of the program was "to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period," while the White House denied that it was a covert program. How much of an impact will the revelations have on U.S.-Cuban relations? What does the controversy mean for bilateral issues such as the imprisonment in Cuba of former U.S. government contractor Alan Gross? Are social media programs such as these a good use of USAID funding and the U.S. government's resources?
The U.S. Agency for International Development's 'cockamamie' (to borrow Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy's descriptor) scheme to foment unrest through semi-covert bootleg Twitter site ZunZuneo is only the latest embarrassment stemming from Congress' $15–30 million annual allocation for democracy promotion in Cuba.
The program's failure lies not in the Obama administration's mission to increase the flow of information to the Cuban people, but rather in its methods and cost: at its zenith, the site reportedly attracted some 40,000 users, most of whom only ever received sports scores and entertainment updates. By the time it was terminated in 2012, the cost to American taxpayers was more than $2 million—or $50 per user—and the most significant deliverable was another public relations coup for the Castro government.
In terms of U.S.-Cuba relations, ZunZuneo's outing will only sour ongoing bilateral talks. It will also confirm the paranoid suspicions of Cuban government hardliners, thereby emboldening them to oppose unilateral steps toward rapprochement, such as the release on humanitarian grounds of Alan Gross. Although most moderates have always understood that USAID-led democracy promotion programs in Cuba will never bear fruit, they are a thorn in the side of
bilateral relations and a reliable tool for hardliners in both Washington and Havana who prefer the status quo.
To break through this logjam, the White House should take two steps: 1) order the State Department to review the programs with an eye toward supporting the Cuban people and; 2) open the information floodgates by authorizing companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook and others to do transparently what USAID never could: create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period.