The battle for minds of Cuban Millennials has begun. Well, technically the hunt is for digital folk in Cuba, but as we all know, it’s the youth culture that has this language on lock. There has been all this controversy this week from the left to the right, to the moderates on this issue of infiltrating the Cuban digital sphere. It’s posed some very hard pressing questions, but before I get ahead of myself, let me summarize the story.
The United States government, through an organization called USSAID (self-described as a “development agency”) whipped up a digital experiment to harness the attention of young Cubans on the island. Considered a micro-blogging site with some sort of text messaging network, the agency called the platform “Zunzuneo”, which is Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s call.
Because the Cuban government has draconian laws controlling the internet, the next smartest way to gather this demo is by utilizing cellphone text messaging to collect a subscriber base. Cell phones were legalized in 2006 in Cuba in one of Raul Castro’s reform efforts when first inheriting power from his brother, Fidel. Therefore, the last few years have seen a spike in Cubans owning cell phones.
A USAID document stated that the plan for Zunzuneo was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” In other words, to create “smart mobs” after hundreds of thousands cell phone numbers were collected. In essence, to eventually spark a “Cuban Spring”. The platform was marketed chiefly to young Cubans.
Zunzuneo was launched in February 2010. Through a string of secret tactics (the US government calls this “discreet, not covert”), the front company was based in Spain with a shady bank account in Cayman islands. Upon the launch, Zunzuneo was marketed strongly with non-controversial content — sports, weather, entertainment — anything to just attract Cubans to sign up. The plan worked. Within 6 months, at least 25,000 subscribers signed up. Without realizing it, this government agency became a tech start-up, but didn’t’ have the bandwidth to run the business.
The Cubans didn’t care. They just ate up social networking. How can you blame them? One puzzled yet joyful Cuban told the AP Press, “The whole world wanted in, and in a question of months I had 2,000 followers… I have no idea who they are, nor where they came from.” Another savvy digital Cuban user called ZunZuneo “the fairy godmother of cellphones.” For the first time, young Cubans were developing followers — a virginal concept to this isolated youth.
By early 2011, the front company (Mobile Accord) was running into serious problems. According to AP, “USAID was paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies”. In an effort to take the burden off US government’s pocketbook, some tech companies were approached. It was rumored that Jack Dorsey (Twitters Founder) was approached as a buyer, but he has not commented nor obviously purchased Zunzuneo. Thank god too, considering none of the potential buyers were given the true facts of this projects origin.
And so began the conundrum — a social platform with 40,000 Cuban subscribers growing fiercely, and at the same time drowning in bills, and paying ungodly sums to the Cuban government. In mid 2012, the US pulled the plug, thereby confusing young Cubans all over again. After the tease of providing social networking, the website shut down leaving no explanation, leaving thousands of Cubans to scratch their heads in wonder. Was it a dream? Poor guys. I feel for them. All along, they had no idea it was a US government operation. They were just flirting with their honeys, exchanging sport scores, and texting joyously — probably the deepest part of this experiment, however, was the ability to make young Cubans FEEL CONNECTED for the first time.
On the other side of the coin, I found myself being hypocritical with myself. When I read about the uprisings of Iran through social media during their 2009 elections, I was rooting fists up in the air for any organization fostering the usage of internet for activists in repressed countries (USAID being one of the organizations promoting the flow of information in digitally prohibitive States). Yet somehow, this Zunzuneo blunder made my stomach turn. Why do I feel the same US tactics of fostering activism online used in North Korea, Burma, Syria, and Iran are OK, but why do I get creeped out when we meddle with Cuba?
And so I began to soul-search for linear belief, assuming a “one-size-fits-all” model would work for worldwide online diplomacy. The truth is, the story of Cuba is unlike any other in our history with the US. Most of these Cuban millennials were raised on a strict diet of storyline, which is that “the bad Americans are always usurping Cuba’s sovereignty” (not entirely false) and ready to attack. Even in 2004, when I was filming my documentary, East of Havana, I witnessed a State Official lecturing a crowd of young Cubans on how Bush might bomb Cuba that week, now that he is bombing Iraq. “Cuba could be next” implored the President of Hermano Saiz, “and we would have to organize marches all over the island against Bush” he continued. This is the everyday script handed to young Cubans, that the big bad wolf is lurking around the corner and ready to pounce.
The Cuban cocoon is airtight. My only fear is that we have thickened the walls of this cocoon by a perceived creepy digital invasion. The Cuban Twitter was not only about liberating information, but it was also a surveillance operation for the US Administration to categorize and diagnose the Cubans’ dissident level, from “low” to “medium” to “high”. Alas, now all Cubans can feel as vulnerable and naked online as us Americans do. Snowden woke us up. Zunzuneo woke them up. Finally, the Cubans have joined the 21st Century. We are all paranoid now.
Author Emily Parker, advisor to Hilary Clinton on digital diplomacy (and author of a book on Internet controls in Cuba, China and Russia) tells AP, “The U.S. needs to tread very carefully in countries like Cuba because to directly support [dissidents] makes it easy to call them mercenaries,” Parker said. “That sometimes does more harm than good.”
The more that the United States continues these secret operations to undermine Cuba’s everyday life, the more it allows the Cuban PR machine to spin out of control and stoke the nationalist fires of this David-and-Goliath narrative. I’m not saying I’m against freedom of internet. On the contrary, I find it is one of the most important basic human rights. All Cubans deserve freedom of information. I just feel the United States needs to play their cards smarter. The failed digital experiment just gave us more rope to hang ourselves, and ultimately, damaged any credibility or trust from the exact demo we aim to earn respect from — the Cuban Millennials.
It’s funny because, a good portion of people trying to uphold the US Embargo are the same people supporting this online cloak-and-dagger project. Senator Marco Rubio even stated his support for Zunzuneo: “Because this program, in my mind, is successful,” says the hardliner. “Not only am I glad that we did this program, what I’m upset about is that we stopped”.
Oh, the irony. The US Embargo (which Rubio supports) forbids any US citizen to spend money in Cuban civil society, and worse yet, putting money into the coffers of the Cuban government directly. Here is a US approved operation that is funneling major dough and writing checks to Cubacel (Cuba’s version of AT&T). Basically, it’s OK for the US government to pay a Cuban State business, but it’s evil if I spend my money in Cuba supporting whatever positive causes I believe help open the minds of my friends down there? Why the double-standard? Why does the US government get to spend money secretly infiltrating Cuba, but I cannot go openly and spend my money for what I believe are positive steps towards reconciliation. Wouldn’t it be easier to just drop the Embargo, be transparent, and foster change by letting ideas come in and out freely?
There’s a famous saying that goes: “a dictators best friend is a foreign enemy”. While Americans continue playing the big antagonist, the Cuban State pushes its propaganda. It buys more time for the repressive control of Cuba’s media, travel, voting rights, etc, because an attack on Cuba (digital or military) by America is always another distraction. Can we just stop this dance? We do not have this romantic tango with North Korea, and thus I believe the caribbean nation needs to be handled uniquely. It’s a different storyline, and requires a different strategy.
Another example of handling Cuba with honey, versus salt, was the simple gesture Obama made last year when shaking Raul Castro’s hand at Mandela’s funeral. I happened to be visiting Cuba that week and felt the ripples firsthand on the island. As a foreign policy tool with Cuban youth, it created a tidal wave of smiles that week in Havana. After 11 American Presidents had snubbed Cuba’s leader, here is one US President who shook a Castro hand — a small gesture but titanically symbolic. Did it solve any problems with political prisoners or human rights? Hell no. Is this too simplistic an example? Probably. All I can tell you, is that “the handshake” offered healing balm for a wound long infected. Despite young Cubans criticizing their own system (and sometimes their own leaders), it was a show of respect by America, and we earned some brownie points with Cuban youth. I believe that it IS possible to expose Cubans to good American values without implicating them in a dangerous covert US operation which can get innocent (and unsuspecting) young Cubans jailed.
Another friend once said, “If you drop the Embargo, let the real Fidel stand up”. That means, if we stop playing into the aggressive storyline, then maybe the Cuban administration would have to provide solid answers to their own people — of why they can’t vote? Why their travel is so regulated for citizens? Why their media is censored? Why the controls on the internet? Some of these official Cuban State answers hide behind the Embargo itself, so how about lifting the veil, and removing all excuses?
I mean, we’ve tried 55 years of Embargo already. Clearly, that plan ain’t working. What do we have to lose? The rebellious young Cubans have already discovered YouTube and Facebook and are using it wisely to their advantage (albeit their limited usage). Let’s remove our blockade and support the young Cubans without a forced hand. The kids will be alright.