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ZunZuneo, USAID and How the U.S. Lost the Confidence of the Cuban People

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A recent article by the Associated Press brought to light an intricate cover operation by the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) in Cuba. With the help of mobile and technological contractors, bank accounts in the Cayman Islands and computer and social media whizzes, USAID developed a Twitter-like communication style in the island called "ZunZuneo." The service allowed Cubans to send text messages, have followers and share thoughts about soccer, music and hurricane updates through their mobile phones, and participate in a mobile community that evaded the government's restrictions over the Internet. Pretty much all the things we do on the internet right now.

The main objective of ZunZuneo, however, was to promote, through text messages, a strong political motivation to change the current Cuban government or, as USAID called it, "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."

The ZunZuneo operation will create three prominent outcomes in Cuba.

1. Cuba recoils

ZunZuneo is a déjà vu to the CIA's Operation Mongoose in the 1960s. Authorized by President John F. Kennedy, Operation Mongoose aimed to ignite the revolutionary spark in Cuba necessary to topple the communist regime and flush Fidel Castro out of the island. The operation failed, wasted millions of dollars, and exposed the eerie desire of American policymakers to get rid of the Castro revolution.

Operation Mongoose did succeed in making Cuba citizens more wary of the U.S., and fueled hours of political speeches by Fidel Castro.

ZunZuneo, although not as radical as Operation Mongoose, will impulse Raul Castro to call on his defense to deter western offensive to his regime. It may not make Cuba more secluded to what it already is, but it will certainly hurt any advances by Cuban social entrepreneurs that are less preoccupied with past communist ghosts than a more inclusive and interactive society.

2. Foreign investment? Oh, wait a second...

USAID's operation will have an indirect effect on the recently passed foreign investment law. As Cuba aims to lure foreign investor to sectors like agriculture, electronics, constructions and others, the government might be more careful to grant foreign companies easy access to Cuban resources. Tighter measures to assure there is no American involvement in the island could potentially increase the risk of nationalization and consequently scare away any potential foreign investor.

This might be potentially dangerous to a Cuban economy that is begging for cash. Although the oil bonanza that Venezuela provides to the Castro government (estimated to be$9.4 billion per year) is still flowing, recent economic measures imposed by Nicolas Maduro, as well as political turmoil in the allied country can make the Cuban future more ominous.

3. No resources for entrepreneurs

In 2010 Raul Castro introduced new private enterprise laws that have helped to produce a healthy growth rate on small entrepreneurial ventures in Cuba. From tourism to restaurants to cinemas, Cubans have savored the advantages of freer business.

ZunZuneo followed along the entrepreneurial lines. It had a healthy relationship with the Cuban youth that saw the site as a success history in a country that denied free access to press and the Internet. For instance, on September, 2009, the site got around 100,000 replies to a question related to the "Peace without Borders" concert organized by Colombian singer, Juanes.

My guess is that, now that is it has been proved that USAID and other contractors were behind ZunZuneo, the entrepreneurial spirit of the Cuban society will change. Cubans might see technological advances as irrelevant to the progress of society, as well as be more careful about creating new information tools that might anger the government. This change will mean more dependency to regular, not so society-changing ventures such as tourism and restaurants, and hence delay the search for more access to information that could yield a more democratic society.

Kudos to USAID for thinking outside the box and trying to solve this 20th century problem with 21st century technologies. Nonetheless, the agency failed too soon and too publicly in a topic as hotly debated as Cuba.

My guess is that USAID will see more vigorously scrutiny to its resources and programmatic activities.