Last November, President Obama stated that freedom in Cuba will one day come from activists within the country, but that the United States can help in “creative” and thoughtful” ways. Today, thanks to an impressive investigation from the Associated Press, we found out just how “creative” the U.S government can be.
The AP report reveals that a ‘Cuban Twitter’ that gained popularity on the communist island between 2010 and 2012 was masterminded by the U.S. government, and executed through secret shell companies and foreign banks. According to the AP, the end goal of the program, called ZunZuneo (Cuban slang for hummingbird), was to gather a young Cuban audience, push them towards dissent, create political unrest, and ultimately bring a change of regime. Additionally troubling is the allegation that the U.S. government was secretly collecting data on the Cuban users of the program in hopes of one day using it for political purposes.
Timing for the report comes at a very sensitive time. Amid allegations that U.S. meddling in Ukrainian domestic affairs contributed to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, and similar allegations by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro that the U.S. is inciting anti-government activity in his country, the report serves as a reminder that these Cold War tendencies and conspiracy theories are not so far fetched, after all.
Cuba, Venezuela, Russia and other countries skeptical of U.S. “imperialism” are currently basking in an “I told you so” moment.
The report comes at a time when U.S./Cuban relations have seemingly been warming up, after a rocky relationship that has lasted more than half a century. Though the countries haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1961, in recent years President Obama has loosened travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, allowing them to travel to the island at-will instead of every three years, as was the case under President George W. Bush. For its part, Cuba has slowly instituted free-market reforms that the U.S. cautiously cheers, and loosened travel restrictions from the island, bringing thousands of Cubans to the U.S. for cultural exchanges.
The Cuban government has long maintained that the U.S. is attempting to overthrow its regime, and undermine the island’s autonomy.
Dissidents on the island, while closely monitored, have recently found ways to raise their voice to the outside world through Twitter and blogging, even as the internet is heavily controlled and censored.
According to the AP, Suzanne Hall, who was then a State Department official working for then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, helped spearhead an attempt to get Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to take over the project at one point, though he did not respond to the AP for comment in the report.
Another issue emerging from the report is the role that USAID played, which seemingly contradicted the agency’s claims that it doesn’t conduct covert operations, which could undermine the needed cooperation with foreign governments that it needs to operate. It also directly contradicts what USAID spokesman Karl Duckworth said after Cuba intercepted details of U.S. relationships with dissidents in November of last year.
“Nothing about USAID’s Cuba program is classified,” Duckworth said at the time. “We simply carry out programs in a discreet manner to help ensure the safety of all those involved.”
The revelations in the A.P. report will likely draw more scrutiny for other USAID missions abroad.
It is also unclear how this revelation will impact American efforts to free Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who was imprisoned shortly before ZunZuneo came about during a separate, secret USAID mission to provide illegal internet access to Cuba’s Jewish community.
Much like the NSA phone tapping scandal, the report will feeds into an old Cold War narrative of U.S. imperialism and meddling, with the intention of creating political unrest and bringing about regime change, much as we have done in the past in Chile, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Iran, to name a few.
While these past actions might have been temporary victories, they severely damage our reputation and credibility in the longer term.
It doesn’t matter if the regimes we target are dictatorships that have no business being in power or not. When we show ourselves to be as dirty and sneaky as our enemies portray us to be, we play right into their hands. By shooting ourselves in the foot with a program like this, we have only strengthened the very regimes that we seek to topple.