Cuban Twitter Project was a Tweet in the Dark
Cuban Twitter Project was a Tweet in the Dark

by Rachel Marsden

First, Cubans would receive fun little text messages about baseball and music. Then, one day -- bam! -- they would learn via cell phone that they'd been living in a dictatorship for over half a century and would realize that it was time to overthrow the regime.

Hopefully American taxpayers like the plot of this far-fetched geopolitical revenge fantasy, because they've already paid for it. It's yet another example of technology encroaching on the valuable space once occupied by gray matter.

The project, called ZunZuneo, was meant to be a Twitter-style service developed and funded by America's foreign-aid program, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to deliver information to citizens of technology-censored Cuba, leading to a "Cuban Spring" that would be a precursor to regime change.

By the time ZunZuneo was yanked off the taxpayer's teat in 2012, it had only reached about 4.5 percent of Cuban cell phone users, based on USAID's claim of 68,000 users and an estimate of 1.5 million Cubans with cell phones by the end of 2012. You'd think the program would have had better penetration, given that cell phone ownership among Cubans more than tripled from 2009 to 2012 due to lower prices and less prohibitive restrictions on phone purchases. That might have been USAID's first clue about what a technological self-flagellatory exercise ZunZuneo really was.

Surely the agency noticed the sudden explosion in Cuba's mobile phone market and in its own ZunZuneo usage figures, despite the relative proportion of users remaining small. That would have pointed U.S. officials in the direction of their biggest challenge, China, the major source of investment and development behind Cuba's technological infrastructure. Compared with Chinese efforts in Cuba, the relative banality of USAID's project doomed it to failure from the outset.

While America was busy providing Cubans with baseball stats and the sort of cultural softballs that surely Cuba's ruling enemies of freedom would never permit, the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei was busy upgrading Cuba's Internet infrastructure, and China was working with Venezuela to build an underwater broadband linkup for the island. (According to WikiLeaks, France-based Alcatel-Lucent won the cable-supply contract with a bid via the company's Chinese subsidiary.)

Yes, government censorship in Cuba remains a serious problem. But China has provided Cuban citizens with something of tangible value through a cooperative business initiative. And the United States was going to trump that with some text messages? News flash: China and Cuba can both block text messages already, and China now has the technology to hijack cell phones to send intimidating messages to demonstrators at protests.

ZunZuneo is what we would refer to in high school as a "make-work project" -- like having to break out the pencil crayons and color a title page for a book report. Obviously, some government bureaucrat was sufficiently impressed by the idea to spend other people's money on it, thereby allowing it to get a good running start into its eventual belly flop. Even if ZunZuneo users didn't become exasperated by all the inane spam and had actually stuck around long enough to be regaled with serious talk of government overthrow, what exactly would have been the next part of the plan?

Whoever wins the economic war in Cuba is going to control the regime. Right now, China is winning that war. Perhaps U.S. President Barack Obama was trying to re-establish a foothold by twice softening the embargo against Cuba that has been in place since 1960.

The rationale behind the embargo has always been that it would prevent American money from going into the pockets of the regime and propping it up. But now China is propping it up anyway by investing in ventures such as the Mariel Bay development zone and in the exploration, drilling and refining of offshore oil. The question is whether America wants to ultimately cede Cuba to China's economic and ideological sphere. He who controls the local economy controls the hearts and minds.

It's one thing to have our heads up in the data clouds, but our feet still have to remain firmly on the ground.