Wow. You want some conspiracy theory shit up in here? This will feed your paranoid brother-in-law’s tin-foil-cap-wearing imagination for years.
A report published by the AP Thursday morning details a complex and intricate strategy devised by the U.S. government to artificially foment political dissent in Cuba and spur a Democratic uprising—using a fake social media platform. While not quite the Iran-Contra affair of our generation, it’s still pretty mind-boggling to see what lengths the U.S. government is still willing to go to to undermine communist regimes.
The report tells the story of ZunZuneo, which is Cuban slang for a hummingbird tweet (a play on Twitter, of course). The social media platform was concocted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with the help of a for-profit company called Creative Associates International.
The plan was to create a Cuban Twitter-like service that would allow users to communicate en masse using SMS, since the Internet is tightly controlled in Cuba—so much so that smartphones are still restricted and citizens only recently gained the right to use cell phones. It was critical to the plan’s survival that at no point could it be known that the U.S. government was behind the service, so front companies were created and bank accounts in the Cayman islands were set up to cover up U.S. involvement.
The idea was to first build up critical mass through benign sharing content, such as discussions of movies, sports, music, and the like. From there, a Cuban-born satirical artist in the U.S. was paid to send out slightly more subversive messages—without being subversive enough to catch the attention of the Cuban government.
The end goal was the mobilization of smart mobs—as had been seen in Tunisia, Moldova, Egypt, Turkey, and other countries—to catalyze a “Cuban Spring” (no joke). Because a country that provides free healthcare to all of its people must be stopped pronto!
The service was actually a huge hit in Cuba and the user base grew at a rapid pace, gaining 25,000 users just six months after its February 2010 launch. By March 2011, it had over 40,000 users and was growing beyond USAID’s control (ironic, isn’t it?).
In order to keep the service alive without being found out, the agency decided to step back and install a puppet CEO who would be able to run the service without any knowledge of the U.S. government’s involvement. But the bigger problem was money. Because text messages are so expensive in Cuba, where the average person earns just $20 a month, the U.S. government was offering bulk text messages to ZunZuneo users at a rate of four cents per message—but that meant the U.S. government was actually paying the bill to Cuba’s mobile carrier Cubacel.
At one point, agency officials met with Square CEO Jack Dorsey in an attempt to raise money, but it appears that deal never panned out.
Unable to raise money to scale the operation while covering up any trace of U.S. involvement, ZunZuneo was shuttered in 2012 without explanation.
What’s so bizarre about this story is the fact that the whole thing was orchestrated by USAID—an agency that’s dedicated to distributing humanitarian aid to countries in crisis—not an intelligence agency. And the whole time ZunZuneo was in operation, it was gathering data on users--unbeknownst to said users--to find out which ones could be most effectively mobilized. Cray cray!
Of course, the report comes just days after Turkey’s prime minister imposed a block on Twitter and YouTube following incriminating leaks that indicate government corruption. A Turkish court has since ordered the government to reinstate access to Twitter. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms have been banned off-and-on in various countries—because those governments are trying to suppress organic uprisings, not U.S. sponsored uprisings.
So USAID can kiss any hopes of a Cuban Spring goodbye now.