It comes as one of the stranger attempts for the U.S. government to attempt to stir unrest in Cuba—a social media platform, with a healthy dose of soccer and harmless news, to later be a political platform to stir unrest.
The Associated Press broke the story about ZunZuneo—Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet—on April 4 and still the story marches on. The U.S. government’s response has been odd at best. At issue is not the actual attempt itself but the covert nature of it. Nothing, according to USAID, was secret at all.
According to the documents obtained by The Associated Press, the plan was to develop a bare-bone “Cuban twitter,” using cell phone text messaging as a way to circumvent Cuba’s restrictions on internet usage and Cuba’s control of information.
The U.S. government would build a base of subscribers by featuring “non-controversial” content such as news features about soccer, music and hurricane updates. Later, when the social media platform would reach a certain amount of users, the news features would turn to political messages designed to inspire “smart mobs” or mass gatherings that could spring up at a moment’s notice.
The idea: “to renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
USAID, otherwise known as the U.S. Agency of International Development, would put together the social media platform, hiding U.S. involvement with a company funded through the Cayman Islands.
“There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project's contractors. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.”
USAID has responded to The Associated Press article with its own post titled “Eight Facts About ZunZuneo,” which features a debunking of some facts within The Associated Press article, such as that there were “68,000 users” at peak usage rather than “40,000” mentioned in the article and that there was “no shell company” formed in Spain for the project.
"The purpose of the Zunzuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period," USAID spokesman Matt Herrick told CNN. "USAID is proud of its work in Cuba ... to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people."
The issue the U.S. government takes umbrage with is the insinuation that the project was at all covert.
“Suggestion that this is a covert program are wrong,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. “These appropriations are public unlike covert actions; the money invested has been debated in Congress.”
As mysteriously as it appeared, ZunZuneo disappeared in 2012.
Image via Wikimedia Commons