THE BLOG
04/15/2014 12:36 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

USAID's Twitter Trojan Horse

More than a week after the story broke, why are we still talking about USAID and the Cuban Twitter scandal? Why has it struck such a chord?

Think about the Elián González saga from fifteen years ago. He was the six year old boy plucked from the ocean after the raft that carried him from Cuba disintegrated and his mom died. His relatives clung to him in a Miami enclave for months, denying Elián's right to return to Cuba with his father, Juan Miguel.

Polls showed that decisive majorities of the U.S. public supported the Clinton administration's decision to remove him at gunpoint and reunite him with his father. Even if they didn't like or understand Cuba, the story could not make sense to Americans unless it ended with the father and son returning home together.

This could be a like moment for Americans who, once again, may not think much of Cuba, but understand this social media scandal because it raises issues about privacy, surveillance, and democracy they know all too well.

USAID is a government agency whose mission is to end extreme poverty and promote the development of democratic societies. But for nearly twenty years, a Congressional mandate has required the agency to play a key role in the long-standing U.S. effort to overthrow Cuba's government. This is how "Cuban Twitter" came to be, along with USAID's benign dismissal of the project as merely an effort to bypass the Cuban government's "information blockade."

Phil Peters, who writes the Cuban Triangle blog, explains what really happened:

USAID created ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like information service for Cubans that operated by text message. The U.S. government's involvement was hidden 'to ensure the success of the Mission.' Cuban subscribers registered for the service, USAID gathered their personal data, and through interactions with subscribers it ranked their political tendencies... The idea was to build the subscriber base by offering interesting news content, gradually to introduce political content, and eventually to try to mobilize subscribers to political activism so as to 'renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society'.

Since the story broke here, USAID has made many mistakes. But, a big one was thinking in the age of Edward Snowden that such a horrible idea could be kept a secret, or that its well-worn defense for disregarding Cuba's sovereignty ('we did it to make Cuba democratic') would make anyone who shivers when their credit card is run through a cash register at Target believe this story was simply about "democracy promotion."

No, this scandal captures us, as debates about our fossilized Cuba policy rarely do, because the ZunZuneo saga is so powerfully consistent with what we know about the government's surveillance programs and the everyday privacy violations all of us face.

It resonates with the government's familiar reliance on secrecy and deception. Not only did the U.S. government conceal from Cubans its role in creating the service, which put at risk, as Senator Pat Leahy said, "young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea that this was a U.S. government-funded activity". It also sought to conceal it from Congress and the American people; and then, as the secrets tumbled out, its addiction to secrecy allowed the press to quickly contradict nearly every excuse the government used to cover the scandal up.

For example, the State Department said, "No political content was ever supplied by anyone working on this project or running it," to deny the plan's regime change intent and spread the impression that Cuban users created the content on ZunZuneo organically. Not so. The Associated Press responded by publishing a selection of its overtly political text messages and a comment by the satirist who composed them, "Everything I do is politics."

The White House insisted ZunZuneo wasn't a covert operation; but that cannot be true either. Otherwise, why hide the money that paid for it? Why conceal it from Congress? Why send Rajiv Shah, USAID administrator, to a hearing unable to respond to simple questions from Sen. Leahy's, like who specifically thought the program up?

ZunZuneo also resonates due to the role of federal contractors. When Senator Jeff Flake asked the administrator at a hearing for all the text messages sent by the Cuban Twitter, Dr. Shah said, he didn't have most of them but would turn them over if he got any from the contractor. By outsourcing critical foreign policy decisions to corporations who appear to be unaccountable, Congress can't control what is done or spent in our name.

Then there's the collateral damage to people like Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger. Days before the scandal broke, she debuted in Miami a digital news project so sensitive that she would not even disclose its name. Now, she and other on-line activists will bear the suspicions that her work, like ZunZuneo, is funded by the U.S. government, and has a regime change agenda.

But here's the worst of it. Our country never needed a Twitter Trojan Horse to get more information to Cubans. Many of the information restrictions they face -- the loss of contact with Americans banned from traveling to the island, or restrictions that stop Cuban students from accessing global education courses on-line -- are imposed by our government, not theirs. This means, of course, the information blockade made in America can also be lifted by America.

When the Elián Gonzalez matter exploded, as radical hardliners in Miami fought to prevent a father from being reunited with his son, the adverse reaction across our country caused large numbers of Cuban Americans to rethink their reflexive support of any anti-Castro cause.

Years later, there is little wonder that we find this social media scandal -- with its Cuban users unknowingly equipped with an American-built app and subjected to political profiling by USAID -- so gripping.

This is President Obama's chance to rethink his administration's support for the regime change programs that should have been retired with the fax machine. This is his Elián moment. Let's hope he makes the most of it.