Latin America Report
10:56 pm
Tue April 15, 2014

Was "Cuban Twitter" Dumb Or Defensible? Or Both?

Listen to Tim Padgett's interview with El Nuevo Herald's Juan Tamayo and The Miami Herald's Juan Vasquez.
A Cuban state television camera at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana.
Credit cubadebate

Confession: When I criticized ZunZuneo as the story emerged earlier this month, I left something important unsaid.

I support its basic intent. That is, the effort to help Cubans or anyone else access news, information and opinions that authoritarian governments around the world try to block.

ZunZuneo was a clandestine social media program hatched in 2009 at the federal foreign aid agency USAID. Its pro-democracy aim was to give Cubans a Twitter-style communications network independent of their communist government’s repressive monopoly on information.

But as the Associated Press reported when it revealed ZunZuneo’s existence two weeks ago, documents suggest it was also designed to incite popular uprising in Cuba – to inspire anti-government “smart mobs.” That’s usually a job for spooks. Either way, ZunZuneo – Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet – was aborted by USAID in 2012.

Having covered Cuba for 25 years, I blasted ZunZuneo on two levels. First, I’ve grown weary of watching USAID try to play CIA in Cuba. Second, I’m even wearier of Washington’s insistence, after 55 years of utter failure, that it can provoke regime change inside Cuba. There are so many more effective ways it could foster the island’s democratization at this point.

RELATED: Cuba Clueless: Covert Twitter Scheme Tweets U.S. Policy Failure

And, yes, one of them may well be social media projects. The central question is how best to carry out that stealth task without it backfiring – without it looking like an official U.S. call for rebellion, which so often ends up aiding the very despots we want to undermine.

And, like last year’s NSA revelations, that’s one very important thing about this month’s ZunZuneo news: It has engendered a healthy debate about the nature of these programs as well as U.S. policy on Cuba.

It’s a discussion that was off and running on Capitol Hill almost before the AP ink was dry. In one Senate hearing last week, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) lambasted USAID and called ZunZuneo “a cockamamie idea” that “would be so easy” for the Cuban government to discover. “This one from the get-go had no possibility of working.”

Programs that try to break the information blockade are perfectly defensible. - Juan Vasquez

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, responded by calling on USAID to not only “start this program again… but expand it, so that people in Cuba can… speak freely to the world and to each other.”

For less politics and more insight on the so-called Cuban Twitter dispute, I talked to veteran Miami journalists Juan Tamayo, Cuba writer for El Nuevo Herald, and Juan Vasquez, deputy editorial page editor for the Miami Herald.

Tamayo, who examined the issue in an April 3 article, says projects like ZunZuneo of course should have limits. But he warns that if they’re too transparent about U.S. government involvement, and if they’re too deferential to Cuban sovereignty, they’re “not going to get a lot accomplished.”

TWITTER REVOLUTION?

The Cuban government, Tamayo notes, “does not like these programs. It is going to block them, it is going to filter them out.” So somewhere “between the two extremes” of cloak-and-dagger and total openness, he says, “someone needs to find out what’s doable.”

In a Herald editorial last week that supported ZunZuneo’s core intent, Vasquez recalled successful Cold War programs like Radio Free Europe. He thinks Cuban Twitter wanted to emulate that model, the kind “that tried to [help] people to listen to a voice other than Big Brother.”

Vasquez points out, however, that ZunZuneo and its smart-mob ambitions may have erred in a way “similar to the early Radio Free Europe broadcasts that some people later regretted.” Namely, he says, “it might have tried to raise false expectations or hopes” about a Cuban Spring or some other sort of groundswell of political change.

And as Vasquez sees it, USAID probably shouldn’t be flirting with the spy business.

“I think programs that try to break the information blockade are perfectly defensible,” Vasquez says. “The issue is whether you should have an organization like USAID sponsoring" them when "we already have one for this sort of thing in Langley, Virginia.” (The CIA.) For one thing, he says, it compromises USAID’s true mission in the eyes of foreign governments all over the world, not just Cuba’s.

Tamayo too feels “a general sense that USAID is perhaps not the best agency to be handling this,” if only because it's too bureaucratic. But even so, he believes the criticism of ZunZuneo seems overheated. There are big questions, for example, about how serious the “rise up, Cubans!” nature of the program was. And even if it were bent on regime change, Tamayo adds:

“That Twitter can start a revolution is not only ridiculous but has been proven wrong historically.”

Congress, meanwhile, has instructed USAID to provide more documentation to help it determine if ZunZuneo was about social revolution or merely social media.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas Editor. You can read more of his coverage here.

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