If it comes from the United States it must be bad. That is the conclusion some critics of ZunZuneo, the U.S.-sponsored Twitter-like platform that the Obama administration promoted in Cuba to disseminate information and encourage personal communications on the island.
One of the more vocal critics, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, called the program “dumb, dumb, dumb” and “cockamamie” because the United States “discreetly” promoted the platform, as if any communication system free of the Castro government control could be presented any other way.
The fact is these programs are not new and, if done properly, should be encouraged as an additional mechanism to promote democracy. Besides, in this day and age of NSA surveillance on all Americans, a program such as ZunZuneo overseas should come as little surprise.
ZunZuneo is consistent with previous U.S. strategies in effecting foreign policy. Historical archives show that it was vital in aiding Soviet dissidents in Europe during the Cold War. Radio Free Europe came into being in 1950, touted as the only nongovernmental American radio programming in an age where many countries had their freedoms denied, as in Cuba.
The programs included news, music and stories that captured the imagination, portraying what living in freedom could be like. The program became so successful that, when several members of Congress attempted to end it upon discovering that it was CIA-funded, its popularity was too great. It had become an integral part of the freedom movement behind the Iron Curtain, despite periodic radio jamming by the Soviets.
Government funding was then shifted from a covert operation to an overt program, and it survived the fall of the Berlin Wall. Countless numbers of dissidents relied upon Radio Free Europe, fully aware of its history as a U.S.-funded operation, because it was the only means to get any information of what was happening within the region and in Washington D.C. It is responsible, in part, for bringing about peaceful change in Europe. The same approach could do the same in Cuba.
The United States has a history of using foreign aid to foster democracy through economic development. The federal foreign-aid agency known as USAID was established under the Kennedy administration in 1961. Created initially to save poverty-stricken Third World countries from starvation, USAID also introduces free-market strategies in emerging economies, particularly in the former Eastern-bloc countries. The mission has been consistent and not particularly veiled in its efforts to forge pro-U.S. ties.
Now we’re in the age of personal communication technology, and it has made revolution faster and more expedient. During the Arab Spring, many Egyptians used technology, specifically texting and social media, to share information about what was occurring in Cairo. Crowds gathered faster, journalists reported faster, change — for better or for worse — came faster. In Venezuela, students opposed to the Nicolas Maduro regime use text messages to coordinate strategies to bring down their oppressive government. Dissidents can move together in real time.
Some argue that the United States should not sponsor such unrest. The truth is the United States is just tapping into the organic discontent that already exists.
Yet, ZunZuneo is a different program that brings some discomfort, but only as to its home at USAID, not its mission. The question is whether this program might be better served if it were implemented by another agency. The answer is a resounding Yes. USAID is an invaluable tool, but it has been more successful in promoting economically sustainable communities than programs such as ZunZuneo.
The Twitter program in Cuba is different in method and feel. USAID’s economic and pro-democracy missions are equally important, but openly distributing technology within a hostile country presents circumstances and expectations that make USAID the wrong place for such a program. After the disclosure of ZunZuneo’s funding roots, USAID’s presence overseas will be viewed with greater suspicion, although in certain quarters any U.S. program is met with suspicion. USAID is expected to be transparent internationally and in Washington, D.C. The reality is that government programs can’t be transparent and discreet all at once.
Change the venue, change the conversation.