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Operation 'Twitter'

Interview: Spencer Kimball
April 4, 2014

The AP news agency has reported that the US tried to undermine Cuba's government with a social media website called ZunZuneo. Expert William LeoGrande tells DW that US credibility in the region has been damaged.

Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro at Mandela's funeral
President Obama shook hands with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's funeral service last DecemberImage: Reuters

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) clandestinely developed ZunZuneo, which was similar to Twitter, in order to incite flash mobs at sensitive political moments in an effort to force democratic change in Havana. At its height, ZunZuneo had 40,000 users in Cuba, who were unaware of the US government's involvement. Realizing that the US role would eventually be discovered, those involved in the operation sought to find independent financing for ZunZuneo. Unable to secure a private sector sponsor, they shut the social media site down in 2012 when government financing dried up.

DW: US-Cuban relations have warmed since Barack Obama became US president and Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul. The White House has eased the US embargo on Cuba and Havana has introduced some economic reforms. Will the revelation that Washington tried to use social media to destabilize Havana jeopardize the US-Cuban détente?

LeoGrande: The improvement in relations has been an on-and-off thing. Relations between the United States and Cuba during the Bush administration were just terrible, so they couldn't really have gotten much worse.

President Obama came into office saying he wanted a new beginning in his relationship with Cuba, but the changes he's made have been mostly people-to-people changes rather than engaging directly with the Cuban government very much. So, for example, he lifted all the restrictions on Cuban-American travel and Cuban-American remittances to their families on the island. He liberalized people-to-people travel so people in the United States can more easily go and visit Cuba. At the government-to-government level, however, there's only been relatively small advances on issues of mutual interests, like Coast Guard cooperation [and] oil spill mitigation and prevention.

The problem that Obama has faced is that he's got significant congressional resistance not just from Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio [from Florida], but also from some Democrats like Senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey. Obama doesn't want to fight a battle on Capitol Hill over Cuba when he has so many other battles to fight on Capitol Hill. And he doesn't want to fight one that's going to divide Democrats.

William Leo Grande Lateinamerikaexperte
William LeoGrandeImage: privat

Things have been sort of stuck particularly around the issue of Alan Gross. He was a subcontractor for USAID who went to Cuba under the auspices of USAID's democracy promotion programs. He brought fairly sophisticated satellite telecommunications equipment and computers to Cuba to distribute within the Cuban-Jewish community to provide people with access to the Internet independent of the Cuban government's normal Internet servers. This was against the law in Cuba. So he was arrested in December 2009 and put on trial for subversion and convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Since that time, the Obama administration has been reluctant to move ahead with any improvement in bilateral relations.

This kind of revelation does not help the case of Alan Gross. It shows that what he was doing was part of a broader effort by the United States government to use digital technology to destabilize the Cuban government.

USAID ran the operation that created ZunZuneo. Is it appropriate for a development agency to run an operation aimed at triggering political change in a sovereign nation? What impact will this have on USAID's work in other nations?

It is absolutely not appropriate for an aid agency to be engaged in covert operations to destabilize another government. I think the Cuba program may be the only program in the world where USAID is operating covertly as opposed to operating under the auspices of an agreement of the host government. It taints USAID; it makes other governments suspicious of what they're doing. It's a very, very foolish policy. You have people whose specialty is humanitarian assistance doing what amounts to intelligence operations.

Will the ZunZuneo operation harm the credibility of popular uprisings elsewhere, particularly in Latin American nations such as Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro has long accused the US of being behind popular protests there?

The president of Venezuela has already pointed to this incident as proof that the unrest in his country is being fomented by the United States. This operation in Cuba gives other governments the perfect excuse to blame internal problems on USAID and the United States government.

In March 2011, President Obama delivered a speech in Chile, in which he said that the US and Latin American nations are equal partners. Does Obama's promise of equality have any credibility among the governments of Latin America?

Obama first promised a new partnership with Latin America, in which the United States would act as an equal [and] not as first among equals, in his meeting with Latin American heads of state at the Summit of the Americas just after he was inaugurated in April of 2009. And it was a welcome message - he was received very warmly by Latin American heads of state. At the next summit in Cartagena, Colombia, Latin American heads of state were much more skeptical because nothing had really changed.

Now you have the revelations from Mr. Snowden about US eavesdropping on Latin American heads of state [such as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto] and this issue of trying to destabilize the government in Cuba through USAID. I think the administration has done enormous damage to our relations with Latin America. The Latin Americans don't believe the United States is willing or able to get beyond the old mentality of this being our own backyard.

William LeoGrande serves as a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. and specializes in US foreign policy toward Latin America. He has been an adviser to both the US government and the private sector on Latin American issues. LeoGrande is the author of five books, including "Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992." Most recently, he was the co-editor of "A Contemporary Cuba Reader: Reinventing the Revolution."