The U.S. Tried to Use Social Media to Overthrow the Cuban Regime

Ramon Espinosa/AP

AA Font size + Print

USAID spent years creating a ‘Cuban Twitter’ to try to overthrow the island’s communist government. By Adam Pasick

The Associated Press has a bombshell: The US Agency for International Development (USAID), which is responsible for administering American foreign aid and development funds, spent years covertly establishing an SMS-only social network in Cuba, in the hopes that it might develop into a “Cuban Twitter” that would undermine the island’s communist government.

The mobile social network, called ZunZuneo after the Cuban slang word for a hummingbird’s tweet, allowed people to follow each others’ updates and join groups to discuss mostly innocuous subjects like sports, music, and weather (link in Spanish). However, the USAID contractors running the network were also harvesting information about users and categorizing them by their “political tendencies,” according to the AP.

ZunZuneo eventually grew to about 40,000 users, none of whom had any idea that the social network was secretly funded by the US government. The network, which got going in 2009, was closed in 2012 due to a lack of ongoing funding—though the State Department did reportedly approach Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey for additional funds. Dorsey, who declined to comment to the AP, presumably said no.

Text messages are one of the only ways to connect Cubans to the wider world, since internet access there is rare, expensive, and severely restricted. Most Cubans have access only to email, which is heavily monitored, plus a limited “intranet” of sites that are authorized by the government. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are only available via covert satellite phones and black market internet connections that are granted to select officials.

Cuba has long cited US attempts to undermine its government as a justification for the internet restrictions. It will have even more cause now.

“The euphoria around social networks coexists with the risk of regime change operations, which have increased, as well as the threat to peace. These hazardous conditions make it necessary and urgent that we appropriate these platforms,” Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez said in 2011, according to a report in the Havana Times.

In a leaked video presentation to Cuba’s interior ministry in 2010, an internet expert said the government feared that the US was promoting social networks as a way to create an internet-enabled grassroots uprising like the kind that took place during Iran’s 2010 presidential elections. Indeed, the Associated Press reports that the US hoped ZunZuneo “might eventually trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.’”

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

    Download
  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

    Download
  • GBC Issue Brief: Supply Chain Insecurity

    Federal organizations rely on state-of-the-art IT tools and systems to deliver services efficiently and effectively, and it takes a vast ecosystem of organizations, individuals, information, and resources to successfully deliver these products. This issue brief discusses the current threats to the vulnerable supply chain - and how agencies can prevent these threats to produce a more secure IT supply chain process.

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.