Friday, April 4, 2014

Why the AP’s ‘Cuban Twitter’ Story Matters

Yesterday, the Associated Press published a bombshell investigation revealing that the U.S. humanitarian agency USAID used front companies to secretly finance a Twitter-like social media app in Cuba -- called ZunZuneo -- meant to trigger a “Cuban Spring” on the island. Surprisingly, the story has gained relatively little traction in the U.S. press. Of the five major U.S. papers that report on Latin America (the Miami Herald, New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal), only the Herald republished the full AP investigation (online at least), while the NY Times and WSJ ran articles citing it. Yet much of the cross-reporting on the story has been muted. The NYT referred to the USAID program as “on the milder side” compared to previous U.S.-backed covert operations in Cuba, and the Herald’s Fabiola Santiago even called it a “a big ‘so what.’”

There’s a lot to sift through in the AP report, but it’s abundantly clear that it deserves more attention than it’s received so far. Below are some of the story’s highlights, including several gems which merit headlines of their own:
  • USAID contractors gathered information on thousands of unknowing Cubans, sorting them by political affiliations. At its peak, some 40,000 subscribers used the app. Researchers were hired to build an extensive database using Cuban responses to ZunZuneo’s seemingly innocuous user polls, cataloging their “gender, age, ‘receptiveness’ and ‘political tendencies.’” The goal was to target potential participants in the “democratic movement” and distinguish them from hardcore government supporters, which some involved with the program dubbed “Talibanes.” According to the AP, this demographic information was used to help USAID shape its other programs on the island. This appears to contradict USAID spokesman Matt Herrick’s remarks to the NYT that the agency “had no use for” such data.
  • Great pains were taken to hide USAID involvement, a factor which could open up USAID operations elsewhere to heightened criticism and skepticism. The lengths to which ZunZuneo’s operators went to conceal the source of their funding are astounding. Even the company’s management team was kept in the dark. The money was channeled through front companies and servers operating in Costa Rica, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Caiman Islands, to hide any trail leading back to the U.S. The company’s website even made sure that its website looked every bit like a private initiative. “Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise,” read an internal proposal cited by the AP. The WSJ report does a good job of highlighting arguments made by several observers who fear that the program’s discovery could “boomerang,” fueling arguments used by Cuba  and other ALBA bloc countries which dismiss USAID as a tool of Yankee imperialism.
  • The domestic legality of USAID support for ZunZuneo is questionable. While this is one of the main points of the AP article, it has gotten the least play in the press. Covert actions by U.S. federal agencies must have presidential approval, and it’s unclear whether President Obama authorized the program. The most senior official named in the AP-obtained documents, USAID’s Joe McSpedon, declined to comment. So far, the White House has sidestepped the issue by insisting that the USAID-funded program was “discreet,” not “covert.”
  • ZunZuneo may have violated foreign laws and international agreements. According to Carlos Sanchez Almeida, a European data protection law specialist cited by the AP, the use of a Spanish platform to send unsolicited messages and gather data on users to categorize them by political affiliation is prohibited under Spanish law. It would also break a US-European data protection agreement.
  • The program shows just how much U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba remains stuck on the Cold War-era goal of promoting regime change on the island. This is perhaps the biggest takeaway from the story. Several critics of the current U.S. approach to Cuba -- see Senator Patrick Leahy or WOLA’s Marc Hanson -- have argued that ZunZuneo and other programs like it lack Congressional oversight and only serve to heighten tensions between the U.S. and Cuban governments, instead of fostering productive dialogue and engagement. Still others have pointed out that, ironically, the app may not have even been necessary if it weren’t for the 50-year-old U.S. embargo. If U.S. companies were able to conduct the same kinds of operations in Cuba as the USAID contractors, Cubans might have greater access to social media platforms without the need for U.S. assistance. Analyst James Bosworth makes this point particularly well, noting that ZunZuneo’s ultimate failure appears to be a case study in the futility of expecting “a centrally-planned, non-transparent, government-funded program to take on a central-planned, non-transparent communist government.”



News Briefs
  • Ahead of Sunday’s runoff election in Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solis of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) is expected to win easily, as his main rival, Johnny Araya of the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN), has withdrawn his candidacy. Reuters notes that Araya’s name will remain on the ballot as constitutionally required, but that Solis is for all intents and purposes running unopposed. La Nacion reports that Solis’ campaign team has signaled that, if victorious, Solis will announce his cabinet picks on two occasions, April 14 and April 21.
  • The AP offers an update on the situation in northern Chile, which saw another night of aftershocks in the wake of this week’s 8.2-magnitude earthquake that caused six deaths. While no more deaths have been reported, there is a heavy police and military presence in the area and power remains out in many parts of the affected zone. Meanwhile, the top prosecutor in the northern Tarapaca region has announced that speculators who have risen the price of basic goods in the wake of the disaster will be prosecuted. According to La Tercera, President Michelle Bachelet has signaled that her 100-day plan could be delayed, as her administration is prioritizing the response to the earthquake.
  • Writing for Plaza Publica, Hector Silva Avalos looks at the four year trial of former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo, highlighting the role that the U.S. played in the case against him in Guatemala, as well as his extradition, according to declassified State Department cables.
  • Reuters has an interview with Brazil’s main opposition presidential candidate, Aecio Neves. As the news agency notes, the 54-year-old economist remains in distant second place compared to support for President Dilma Rousseff, but he maintains that much of this is due to his lack of name recognition.
  • Peruvian lawmakers favoring a bill allowing civil unions for same sex couples in the country received a petition signed by 10 thousand individuals in favor of the initiative this week, sparking a national debate. Lima Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani has called for a referendum on the issue, and the country’s Conference of Bishops released a statement yesterday saying that such a move would “distort the identity of the family.” El Comercio offers two arguments on either side of the proposal, one in favor by gay rights activist Susana Chavez and another against by former Defense Minister Rafael Rey Rey.
  • Some 20 protestors and police in Peru sustained injuries as a result of gunshots yesterday after police in the Madre de Dios department broke up roadblocks by informal miners in the area protesting an April 19 government deadline to halt illegal gold mining. According to El Comercio, local authorities are in consultation with the Humala administration on the miners’ demands.
  • Yesterday, students gathered in Caracas’ Central University of Venezuela (UCV) to march against the government’s economic policies. El Nacional reports that the march attempted to pass through a police barrier, sparking a clash with riot police.  BBC Mundo has photos of the incident, one of which clearly shows an armed member of an apparently Chavista group pointing a weapon at opposition protestors.
  • The Venezulean government has followed through with its promise to create a human rights commission, on the apparent recommendation made by the visiting UNASUR delegation last month. Ultimas Noticias reports that while the President Maduro’s executive order places the office under the Vice President’s office, the commission will include two representatives of human rights organizations and two members of the National Assembly.
  • The L.A. Times’ Vincent Bevins writes an interesting profile of the changing nature of Brazilian funk music. While funk has roots in the country’s urban favelas, and its lyrics usually focus on gritty reality and social ills like crime and poverty, a number of “ostentation funk” artists are embracing consumerism and excess, mirroring the similar transformation of hip hop in the U.S.
  • The Mexican government appears to have stepped up its efforts to either incorporate or disarm the so-called “self-defense” groups in Michoacan state. In a press conference yesterday, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong praised the accomplishments of security forces against the dominant cartel in the area, the Knights Templar, but said the government would take action against unincorporated militia groups in the coming weeks. Alfredo Castillo, head of a federal commission on security in Michoacan, said that while “autodefensas” could register as volunteer units under military command, their barricades would be torn down and unregistered gunmen would be arrested. More from the L.A. Times.