ASSESSMENT: The ZunZuneo “Hummingbird” Social Network and The Cuban Spring
Cuban Intranet and Internet Access:
Cuban internet access is minimal and very controlled the the government. There were as of 2011 about 124K addresses listed to the .cu domain on the internet belonging to Cuba and the average ownership of a computer was low. The same was true over cell phone ownership and use compared to other Caribbean countries. The regime’s control over all of the infrastructure pervades to the intranet being primarily a tool for propaganda and a means of control via surveillance on those who could access it.
Internet access though became a feature to the rich in the country or the political (both are the same in reality) and one could buy access to the internet for a hefty price underground. In fact some blogs have shown up over the years on the proper internet after dissidents paid for or obtained access either themselves or by exfiltrating data to outside sympathizers for publication on blogs like WordPress or LiveJournal. Generally, if you wanted a source of outside news you had to either buy access to the internet in the black market, get it on the streets from people with SW radios, or by some other means. This control over the media and technology has perpetuated the control of the Castro regime and allowed his dictatorship to continue.
Cubacel also is a single proprietorship of all cell phone communication (state run) on the island and in fact the ownership of cell phones is one of the lowest as well in the world for penetration of cell phone owners and use. This too means that the Castro government has greater control over what the people can access as well as a single point of surveillance that can be used as a mans of control as well. Of course today this is all being said in the age of the NSA tapping just about everything so please take this with a grain of salt and the knowledge of how that makes you feel about surveillance by any government.
I am unsure of the prevalence of cell phones today in Cuba but I am guessing that these statistics are only a little different today due to the controls that the Castro government has in place over it’s populace as well as the poverty rate of the island itself disallowing general ownership and use. While the numbers may have grown so too might the attitude of the government due to a shift in power from Fidel to Raoul Castro. While the former was a bit more hard line the latter seems to be a little more open to allowing the country to loosen it’s grip on the people and allow communications with the US. This may also play a part in easing the minds of the people into thinking they could in fact use cell phones and platforms like ZunZuneo to air grievances.
The ZunZuneo platform went live in 2010 and was a “Cuban Twitter” which was text based on the cellular network on the island. It was in fact a program put in place by USAID (likely a covert program run by CIA in reality) and ran until about 2012 and at it’s end it had about 40 thousand users on the island. The broad idea of the project was to have the Cuban’s generate their own “buzz” around dissident ideas and allow them a means to text one another outside the controls (ostensibly) of the Castro governments eyes and ears. This though likely was not a complete success nor was the program a success from the standpoint of mass demonstrations happening either as far as can be seen by any news sources reporting on this.
ZunZuneo was inserted and run by contractors and purported to be a Cuban creation with cleverly hidden funds and controls from USAID/CIA. The program’s aegis was to insert itself, gain a user base, and then to start to send texts to the users to spur political unrest against Raoul and Fidel Castro’s government. In the end the program came to a sudden halt due to finance issues (alleged) but the reality is it never actually got the directive to insert itself as an influence operation. It operated unbeknownst to the users and in reality was a failure because I think USAID and CIA had hoped they would see dissent traffic on it’s own. It did not and thus perhaps the idea was seen as not feasible and the finances were withdrawn.
Influence Operations are nothing new and over the years many have been carried out on places like Cuba. With the advent of new technologies like the internet this has become even easier to carry out on average when the populace has easy and free access to the net. in the case of Cuba this is not so much the case like the DPRK. I would say though that Cuba has a much more permeable information border than the DPRK due to it’s geographical location as well as the current regime’s leanings towards opening up a bit more. Though it is still the case that the current government still holds all the keys to information flow as well as a secret police force that controls the populace who get out of line. So it is no paradise of freedom and beauty.
That the US decided to use USAID to carry out this operation is an interesting choice but in their charter is the mandate to “spread democracy” so while some might question the aegis here and say that this was a rogue operation I don’t necessarily agree with that. One must understand that at least USAID has access to many places under its mission in general of providing humanitarian aid so there is purview there. The question though becomes do we want to taint such an org in the future and deny access to critical areas where people really do need help? This will be the fallout from this in general globally and likely will hurt people in the end. As influence operations go though this was a bit of a flop in the short term however. In the long term though perhaps this may lead an internal company or group to create a new ZunZuneo because the 40 thousand people using it really enjoyed it. If someone were to create a new one and if the populace felt that they could in fact speak their minds freely, then maybe they would rise up.
My analysis of the ZunZuneo operation is that it was a novel idea but lacked oversight. An influence operation that inserted itself as a platform for communication in a place where cell phones and internet access is tightly controlled was a gambit that was bound to fail in my opinion. This was in fact the digital equivalent of releasing balloons with propaganda over the DPRK (which is ongoing today) and does not have a penetration level at which a real traction could occur. It is my belief that the CIA/USAID thought that what they had seen with popular uprisings like the Arab Spring could be effected in Cuba internally by it’s populace. What they failed to comprehend was the amount of outside help the Arab Spring had from the likes of Anonymous and the general internet to assist them in carrying it out. In the case of the Arab Spring and other incidents the governments attempted to clamp down on communications that they controlled only to be denied absolute control by key players outside allowing access through POTS and other means.
In the ZunZuneo scenario two things did not happen to cause it’s failure at the end. One was that the populace who had access perhaps did not feel they could speak their minds because everything was on Cubacel to start with. The second was the fact that this program was not a populist movement from the start. You will note that the other “spring” incidents had access to the internet proper not only on twitter but also by other means. These countries already had a populace who had access to external information and were consuming it regularly. The same cannot be said about Cuba in general as I have described it above. The traction just wasn’t there because the people know already that the vehicle that the information operation was to use was already monitored by the government that is oppressing them.
At the end of the day though I have been seeing an easing in the Castro regime since Raoul took over from Fidel and this would I hope, continue as the two of them age into retirement (aka their graves) and the people might have a chance at that point to make a change. Time will tell just how much more Raoul opens things up post this little debacle. However flights in and out of Cuba are more plentiful and there is a flow of monies etc that could be much more beneficial in the long run than any influence operation ever could. My fear though is that the old guard Cubano’s in Florida may have had a hand in this as well and there may be more out there in the wings. It could upend the growth that has happened and that would be a shame.
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