The United States Agency for International Development created a social media platform in Cuba akin to Twitter in an attempt to create a social sphere to foster political dissidence, according to a report by the Associated Press.
The report, an extensive look at the development of a secret project to promote democracy on the island, details little more than a year of the creation and destruction of a project called “ZunZuneo” – a Spanish onomatopoeia for the humming of a hummingbird – that would allow users to share SMS messages similarly to Twitter with little concern of oversight from the Cuban government.
ZunZuneo was introduced and marketed to young Cubans as a social media platform with no political undertones, using texts to avoid Cuban Internet policing. The AP notes that it would initially only be used for “‘non-controversial content’: news messages on soccer, music, and hurricane updates. Later when the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs.'” The end goal was a “Cuban spring” that would topple the Castro government.
The leaders of the project found a database of cell phone users in Cuba and began marketing the network to them. Young Cubans desperate for free expression flocked to the service, with ZunZuneo peaking at 40,000 users.
The Associated Press notes that USAID’s program exhibited signs of dubious American legality, as it collected the private information of users to create a database of Cubans ranked by how susceptible to a pro-democratic message each user was. Cubans interviewed by the AP did not seem to mind remotely that they had been roped into a U.S. government program, instead lamenting that the service, which shut down after the American government stopped funding it, is no longer in existence. One user, a young woman who became the second most followed user on ZunZuneo, called it a “marvelous thing.” “We always found it strange, that generosity and kindness,” her boyfriend, who also had upwards of one thousand followers, told the AP, adding that it was the “fairy godmother of cell phones.”
The marketing worked because it was written by a Cuban satirist working out of Chile who was never told that he was working for the United States government. Alen Lauzan Falcon told the AP that he “would have done it anyway” and was proud to have been involved with the project, even without knowing its origins. “In Cuba they don’t have freedom. While a government forces me to pay in order to visit my country, makes me ask permission, and limits my communications, I will be against it, whether it’s Fidel Castro, (Cuban exile leader) Jorge Mas Canosa or Gloria Estefan,” he said.
Ultimately, USAID was unable to find someone to legitimize ZunZuneo by becoming its CEO and breaking its ties with the American government, but the project proves that Cubans desire an open marketplace of ideas to communicate and unite as a nation – in that way, it is a resounding success. ZunZuneo’s Facebook page still exists for posterity, but the mobile phone-based service no longer exists, leaving what one user described as a “vacuum” for young Cubans who cannot access Twitter thanks to communist oppression of expressive liberties.
While many in the media report on the so-called “opening” of the Cuban regime under Raúl Castro, the reality on the island is much graver, as arrests of political dissidents increase and violence against those who express themselves freely grows without international attention. On March 18, human rights activist and veteran of 23 hunger strikes Guillermo Fariñas tweeted that he and 20 others at an anti-communist protest were “arrested, beaten and tortured.” Last Sunday, 71 members of the Ladies in White – a female protest group of those related to political prisoners or those murdered by the communist regime – were arrested for going to a Catholic mass wearing white and bringing images of the victims of the Castro regime with them. According to Cuban exile outlet Babalú Blog, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights has found a significant increase in the number of political arrests in Cuba since late 2013, with 806 people being arrested for acts of political expression in March.