Means and Ends: Tensions with USAID’s Efforts in Cuba

My maternal ‘abuelos’ arrived in Miami in 1961. They fled Cuba after my grandfather was thrown in prison for a month, accused of working against the government. My father’s family fled to Mexico City in 1962 before settling in South Florida later that year. None have ever returned to the island. I have never set foot in the country of my heritage. I am thankful, however, that young Americans of Cuban descent like me know what freedom is thanks to the sacrifices of our parents and grandparents. And we know the power of open communication and how it can affect change in closed societies.

The Cuban regime, established by Fidel Castro and continued under his brother Raul, has been among the most repressive and violent in the western hemisphere. The state controls all economic activity. There is no independent press or judiciary. Labor unions and alternative political parties are nonexistent. Democratic activists are beaten and harassed by government-organized mobs. Over more than 50 years of Castro-led autocracy, millions have fled the island – mostly to the United States.

On April 3rd, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded and oversaw a project that the agency says was aimed at improving communication within Cuban society, especially among younger tech-savvy citizens.  ‘Zunzuneo,’ which is local slang for a hummingbird’s buzz, was the name of this “bare bones Twitter” that reached approximately 40,000 active users in Cuba.

The objective was purportedly to promote the exchange of information by capitalizing on the network that had been built through the dissemination of information about popular topics including sports and the local weather. Ultimately though, Zunzuneo was discontinued in 2012, vanishing as mysteriously as it had appeared.

Assertions that Zunzuneo was intended to stimulate social unrest in Cuba has made it a subject of debate among Cuban-Americans, media commentators, and development practitioners. Much of the conversation has focused on whether or not the program was “clandestine” as the press has reported or merely “discreet” as the White House is insisting. Public criticism of the project has been widespread, and USAID Director Rajiv Shah faced derision from senators during a normally routine budget hearing on the Hill last week.

The Cuban government incontrovertibly has a stranglehold on both the internet and the island nation’s general access to information. In fact, Freedom House’s annual report Freedom on the Net ranks Cuba as ‘Not Free;’ with a score of 86 out of 100 possible points, this is one of the worst rankings reported across the entire globe. The goal of promoting freedom in a closed society such as Cuba’s is always an admirable end to pursue.

The U.S. placed an extended economic embargo on the Castro government in 1962. While there are legitimate arguments regarding how outdated U.S. policy towards Cuba may be, the country continues to be classified as a State Sponsor of Terror by the State Department. Put simply, Cuba is not our friend; due to prolific human rights abuses, I would submit that the Cuban government needs to change its behavior much more than the U.S. does.

Critics of Zunzuneo do have a valid concern, however, in that undercover operations coming from USAID jeopardize the credibility of U.S. humanitarian assistance. This story brings to light USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, a little-known organization that “supports U.S. foreign policy objectives” in largely unreported ways. Congressional oversight of these operations is needed. Authoritarian governments constantly seek excuses to marginalize, restrict, or ban U.S. aid, and policymakers must not give them more ammunition. Zunzuneo will be yet another reason for Cuba to rail against the U.S., but it must lead to a reexamination of internet freedom promotion – not its end.

Ultimately, the U.S. should keep the promotion of open societies as a foreign policy goal while also considering the effects of our innovative efforts on the wider mission of development. Going forward from ZunZuneo, the U.S. must continue efforts to bring dignity and democracy to the people of Cuba in a way that preserves the integrity of aid projects around the world.

Many probably hoped that ZunZuneo would lead to a ‘Cuban Spring.’ I personally doubt that – large-scale unrest in Cuba could just as easily result in another mass exodus to the U.S., which isn’t necessarily something our government would want. But what Cuban-Americans and the American government both undoubtedly hope for is a free Cuba promotes democratic principles and economic freedom throughout the western hemisphere. And that is a very worthy goal.

Michael Hernandez is a Sr. Director of Governmental and Public Affairs and Miami Office Director for Penn Schoen Berland, where he provides strategic advising to Latin American governments. He is also a Partner with the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.