On first read, the Associated Press report on the “Cuban Twitter” sounds ominous and cloak-and-daggerish — like an old Cold War caper.
It has secret operatives and secret meetings, front companies and an overseas account — and impeccable timing. The report was released overnight Thursday after Cuba’s most celebrated blogger, Yoani Sanchez, on her third U.S. visit, held a Twitter talk from Washington D.C.
What else could one possibly want now that Russia has invaded Crimea?
A good tussle with Cuba, of course.
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Headlined “U.S. secretly created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest,” the lengthy report chronicled in detail the existence of a short-lived social media project the news agency said was “aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.”
As if a Cuban could overthrow a 55-year-old dictatorship in 140 characters.
According to the AP, the operation used a Cayman Islands bank account and recruited contractors who didn’t know they were working for the U.S. government. The techies met in a Casablanca of sorts, Barcelona, and came from places reminiscent of the Iran contra affair, like Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and from Washington and Denver (although I failed to detect a marijuana connection).
The techies, given what we know from the report, had no idea who was signing the paychecks.
One of the contractors wrote in a memo that the U.S. government’s involvement should not be mentioned, as it was “crucial” that the “Mission” (note the capital M) be kept secret.
It’s only the seventh paragraph of a lengthy story, but by now, you’re already seeing Bogart in a trench coat.
But when placed in the context of history, the U.S.-sponsored creation of a Cuban social media network sounds more like just another run-of-the-mill U.S. Cuba policy fail.
This was not a CIA plot, but a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which not only delivers humanitarian aid abroad, as the AP pointed out, but also funds all sorts of international projects more successful than this one.
A dedicated Cuban communications zone — even one cleverly dubbed “ZunZuneo,” after what Cubans call the sound of a hummingbird — in a country where people earn an average of $20 a month and own little if any technology, is not exactly a prescription for “smart mobs,” flash crowds, and a Cuban Spring.
To tweet, or even to do so as Sanchez often does from the island via SMS messaging, one needs a cell phone, no?
Not to mention, as retired University of Miami scholar Andy Gomez reminded me Thursday, that what keeps people in Cuba from protesting en masse is not the lack of a tweet but the brutal repression to which they’re subjected for much lesser offenses.
“Youth in Cuba are more interested in getting out of the island than in taking to the streets and taking over the government,” Gomez said. “The repression is so bad, why would they want to take on the government?”
All that aside, what’s the difference between Radio and TV Marti, founded during the Reagan administration, and the Obama administration’s Cuban Twitter?
The answer is two decades of modernity — the explosion of social media and technology — and the fact that the hawkish President Reagan publicly announced the creation of radio and television stations that would broadcast news and information to Cuba.
President Obama, on the other hand, only hinted when he was in Miami last November the need to be “creative” when it came to U.S. Cuban policy.
Now we know — or think we know — some of what Obama may have been talking about the night he met with Cuban dissident leaders at the home of the president of the Cuban American National Foundation.
“We’ve started to see changes on the island,” Obama said that night. “Now, I think we all understand that, ultimately, freedom in Cuba will come because of extraordinary activists and the incredible courage of folks like we see here today. But the United States can help. And we have to be creative. And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies…. And what we have to do is to continually find new mechanisms and new tools to speak out on behalf of the issues that we care so deeply about.”
So why not a “Cuban Twitter” — a site in which Cubans could communicate with each other — from a maverick president who was the first to successfully campaign and press his agenda on social media?
Too bad it didn’t work, and that the only Cuban Spring is the travel roster of a few brave dissidents, who have earned international acclaim yet speak in a voice heard only outside Cuba.
And so here we are, the rest of us in Miami in the same place where we were before we delved into the AP report — but a little more exhausted, desgastados, following another sad installment of a never-ending saga.
There’s even a name these days for what ails us.