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Thu Apr 3, 2014, 08:49 PM

USAID’s Cuban Twitter: “Democracy Promotion” Does More Harm than Good [View all]

Washington Office on Latin America


Hours after Vice President Joe Biden welcomed famed Cuban blogger and social media political activist Yoani Sánchez for a high profile photo op and meeting, the Associated Press broke a story about a clandestine U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program that reportedly stole thousands of phone numbers of Cuban cellphone users in an elaborate attempt to inspire social unrest in Cuba.

According to the AP, in 2010 the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives and contractor Creative Associates secretly created a Twitter-like cell phone platform that allowed U.S. information technology contractors to gather private data on its 40,000 Cuban users and blast out text messages to the subscribers. The platform, called ZunZuneo, also allowed Cubans to communicate via text message with people who subscribed to their feed.

While the platform was popular among its Cuban users, Creative Associates was unable to find a way to make it financially sustainable, and ZunZuneo abruptly disappeared when its government funding dried up in September 2012. In the end, similar to other USAID initiatives that are described as “promoting democracy” but seem aimed at making trouble for the Cuban government, ZunZuneo was a costly failure that wasted millions of dollars, and it will likely undermine genuine internal reform efforts in Cuba and further damage the U.S. government’s reputation in the region. The program is another ugly reminder of how an insular group of well-positioned politicians from Florida and New Jersey have long protected wasteful USAID programs that damage broader U.S. national interests.

While the AP story has rightly captured a great deal of attention for exposing such a controversial approach to reaching Cubans, it did not even mention another lightning rod issue associated with USAID’s misguided Cuba programs: the existence of cozy contractor relationships with high-level government officials.

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