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Cuba: the fall of the humming-bird

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No more exploding cigars, now ZunZuneoThe recent revelations that it was USAID, the United States’ main development agency, that was behind the ZunZuneo social media network, active within Cuba from 2009 until 2012, has stirred fears within the Cuban government over the political uses of new technology. 

The revelations were made by the Associated Press (AP) who discovered that ZunZuneo, dubbed the Cuban ‘twitter’ because the network’s name is slang for the sound that a Cuban hummingbird makes, was set up using shell companies and was financed through a bank account in the Cayman Islands. 

According to AP, the plan was to use text messaging to avoid Cuban government control over new media. The apparent aim was to lure the 40,000 mainly young Cuban subscribers to ZunZuneo with sports and entertainment news, and then later on channel them towards dissent.

It would seem that the American contractors behind ZunZuneo were gathering data about the subscribers for political purposes, although many of the executives were unaware that the project was being financed by the government agency.

New Technology as a Tool for Promoting Democracy

It is clear that the United States sees technology and social media as a way of spreading democracy. 

As Bob Menendez, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told AP, ‘the whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies’.  

The ultimate goal of ZunZuneo was apparently somehow to facilitate a ‘Cuban Spring’.

Social media played a significant role in the Arab Spring, and in the protests that accompanied the staging of the football Confederations Cup in Brazil in 2013, as well as recent protests in Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Peru.

In setting up ZunZuneo, the US was, as Anne Nelson has written on techpresident, laying ‘the groundwork for the “smart mobs” of the future’, as part of a push for regime change in Cuba. 

In many ways, ZunZuneo is a twenty-first century version of Radio Martí which was itself based on Radio Free Europe.

What is different is that this is an operation being run by an agency geared towards development rather than security. Nevertheless, many commentators have asked what an agency with a humanitarian remit is doing running a clandestine or, as the White House had it, ‘discreet’ operation of this sort. 

Democrat senator Patrick Leahy, who is the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been a particularly prominent critic of the programme, labelling it ‘dumb’. 

 ‘If you’re going to do a covert operation like this for regime change’, he told Associated Press, ‘assuming it ever makes sense, it’s not something that should be done through USAID’.

Cuban suspicions

The discovery that it was a US agency behind ZunZuneo lends credence to Cuban assertions that the US is using technology to undermine the government and foment political unrest. 

In the wake of the revelations about ZunZuneo, the Cuban press agency Prensa Latina  highlighted comments made by President Raul Castro in his January 1st 2014 speech in which he pointed to ‘ideological and political subversion aimed at toppling [Cuba’s] socialist system’, as well as attempts by ‘global power centres’ to introduce ‘neo-liberal and neo-colonial thinking’ into the country.     

From the perspective of the Cuban government, technology represents both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, it represents an opportunity to project a positive image of the country and of the revolution. Cuban internet policy, for example, has tended to privilege the ‘common good’ and has been geared towards serving the needs of the state rather than the needs of the individual, particularly industries deemed vital to the Cuban economy like tourism. 

On the other hand, it is also represents challenges, particularly in terms of preserving the revolution and controlling the flow of information in and out of the country. 

As technologies progress and as more and more Cubans gain access to the internet and more sophisticated mobile phones, something encouraged by Raul Castro, the challenges become that much greater.  

Much of the coverage given to technology in Cuba has focused on the internet and the difficulties faced by dissident Cuban bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez whose blog Generación Y, which has been active since 2007, is the most prominent and visible.     

Blogs such as Generación Y highlight issues which are left unsaid in Cuba’s mainstream press. As Cristina Venegas writes in her book Digital Dilemmas, these blogs ‘fill in the blanks’ of mainstream media. They focus on ‘the obstacles of everyday life – inefficiencies, insufficiencies, infrastructure problems and impractical problem’’.

Although the tone of these blogs is comparatively mild, and dissent has always been part of the Cuban system, the government has railed against dissident bloggers because of their international visibility.  

Mobiles and Smartphones    

Mobile phones present new challenges, enabling Cubans to record incidents that show a different side to life to Cuba than that projected by Granma.       

The ban on using mobile phones was lifted in 2008, as part of efforts to increase and expand the population’s access to technology and combat resentment towards shortages, especially among young people. It is for this reason that, in 2013, the government open a few hundred cyber-cafes across the country.  

Mobile phone use has grown significantly over the last few years, although as with accessing the internet, it can be prohibitively expensive (indeed a  BBC report published online in May 2013 noted that an hour’s worth of web surfing costs $4.50, which equates to approximately one quarter of the average monthly salary of a Cuban worker).

An April 2014 report on The Guardian website noted that whilst in 2007 there were approximately 400,000 mobile phone accounts in Cuba, by 2012 that figure had tripled to 1.2 million. Official figures do not take into account the black market, which is large and which offers a variety of technologies to Cubans, including DVD’s, CD’s, flash cards, Bluetooth and SIM cards. 

As an April 2014 BBC report noted: ‘the growing number of Cuban smartphone owners use unlicensed traders to transfer dozens of offline apps to their handsets for a few dollars’. The same report noted that for about $3, Cubans can obtain on a flash drive 100 GB of televisual or magazine content.   

The black market acts as a kind of ‘safety valve’ allowing Cubans to obtain otherwise scarce products. As the dissident Cuban blogger Claudia Cadelo de Nevi put it, ‘the black market has allowed the population to escape [a state of] technological helplessness’.  

Clearly, Cubans, and especially young Cubans, are as tech-hungry as young people anywhere else.

Whether ZunZuneo causes the Cuban government to rethink its policy on technology remains to be seen – although with the ‘genie out of the bottle’, it is unlikely. According to the Associated Press, ZunZuneo disappeared in 2012 from Cuban mobile phone screens when the money from USAID ran out.

The only beneficiaries from a project supposed to be fostering democracy in Cuba and which would quickly become self-sustaining, appear to have been the Cuban state telecommunications monopoly, which received many thousands of US dollars each month in text messaging fees – from USAID.