If you needed any reminding of how archaic and clueless U.S. policy on Cuba can be – and the extent to which it so often actually aids an oppressive communist dictatorship – look no further than Thursday’s excellent Associated Press article about the “Cuban Twitter” fiasco.
Called ZunZuneo – Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet – it was a covert enterprise hatched inside the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The plan: create a stealth social media network and inject it with political messages aimed, as the AP quotes government documents, “at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs.’”
The goal was to incite a Cuban Spring that would bring down the Castro regime.
The reality was a ham-handed debacle that looks more like the Bay of Pigs in 140 characters or less.
ZunZuneo was aborted in 2012, according to the AP, after a two-year run that included international intrigue like furtive drop-offs in Madrid and secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.
But ZunZuneo’s only apparent accomplishments were to squander millions of taxpayer dollars and to gather – in legally questionable fashion – personal data on some 40,000 Cuban subscribers who had no idea the cellphone platform was a U.S. pro-democracy project.
What we’re left with is one more exasperating instance of Washington trying to jam the square peg of 20th-century Cold War cloak-and-dagger into the round hole of 21st-century Latin American politics. And the anti-imperialista ammunition this gives the Castros – the kind that’s helped keep them in power for 55 years – is distressing.
But what’s truly astonishing is how we’ve been employing USAID – Memo to the White House: This is a humanitarian foreign aid agency, not the CIA – to do spook work in Cuba. I have a generally high opinion of USAID’s real mission in the Americas, including its promotion of democracy, but there’s a reason its people aren’t heroes in Tom Clancy novels.
ZunZuneo will go down as one more big reason – though not as costly in human terms as the case of Alan Gross, the 64-year-old USAID contractor now serving a 15-year prison term in Cuba.
The espionage charges against Gross are questionable at best. But the USAID program Gross was working for all but set him up for communist kangaroo court by letting him bring unlawful satellite communications equipment onto the island.
One of the most damning parts of Thursday’s AP report is the realization that USAID forged ahead with ZunZuneo even after Gross had been arrested in late 2009, as if his situation weren’t precarious enough.
It all seems part and parcel of ZunZuneo's oblivious nature, made worse by the ineptitude of the contractors USAID employed, Creative Associates and Mobile Accord, as described by the AP.
Even if ZunZuneo did briefly become a popular social media destination for its subscribers – who, however, turned out to be five times fewer than USAID’s objective, thanks largely to Cubans’ severely limited means – its ultimate purpose was delusional. Anyone remotely familiar with Cuba knows by now that despite the political repression and economic deprivation, it’s not a tropical Tahrir Square.
The bottom line, sad as it may be, is that the Castro brothers will die in power – and all the bitter insistence to the contrary from an inordinately influential Cuban exile caucus will not change that. The Cuban democratization effort has to be focused through a post-Castro lens – and ventures that envision Cuba morphing into Kiev right now will likely yield more dumb failures than smart mobs.
That goes for other Latin American hotspots. The Cuban caucus is loudly contending that ongoing street protests in Venezuela could topple socialist President Nicolás Maduro if only the Obama Administration would throw its weight behind them. But that’s an exercise in foreign policy naivete, considering that half the Venezuelan population still at least grudgingly supports Maduro’s disastrous government.
The sad part is that there are so many genuinely effective things USAID could have been doing in Cuba to undermine communist totalitarianism.
Raúl Castro’s desperate capitalist reforms, like last week’s new foreign investment law, are admittedly halting at best. But the window is open enough now for the U.S. to find creative ways to funnel capital to the island’s growing number of private entrepreneurs.
It’s not as exciting as a Tom Clancy novel. But it’s better than being the subject of an AP exposé.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.