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Dear USAID: What Were You Thinking With Cuban Twitter?

By Wayan Vota on April 4, 2014

cuban-twitter-flag

Imagine the scene: a stale conference room off Barcelona’s lively La Rambla, an assortment of techies, government bureaucrats, and development contractors seated around a table, and on the whiteboard, a simple question: How can we create an Arab Spring in Cuba?

What probably started as a good brainstorming session quickly took a dark turn. Somewhere along the way, USAID, Creative Associates, and Mobile Accord decided that they could use stolen phone numbers to trick unsuspecting Cubans to overthrow Castro using a fake Twitter-like service, and no one would find out.

Oh yeah, and radically underfund the whole enterprise from the start.

That’s the story of Cuban Twitter, which should infuriate all of us in international development, and especially the ICT4D community.

In the few hours I’ve had to track and digest this news via the #CubanTwitter hashtag, I’ve come up with three serious problems with the whole idea: questionable ethics, a lack of planning, and now, massive blowback.

1. Questionable Ethics

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As Tony Roberts points out, the USA has financed invasions, assassinations or coups in almost every Latin American country. Back in the day, USAID and the CIA worked hand-in-hand, but more recently, there’s been a separation between USAID, which is to focus on basic needs, and the State Department, which has a greater political development role.

And while there is some DoD funding that goes through USAID for community building to give potential militants better options in their lives, the CIA (and NSA) do not work with or through USAID.

Or so we thought.

I am very uncomfortable with the idea that USAID and its contractors would use the tools of technology to foster outright revolutions. As Jon Camfield says, building civil discourse is one thing, but building political opposition for regime change is a whole other story. Isn’t that the role of the CIA? If not, just where do we draw the line?

  • How is using stolen phone numbers and collecting user data without consent legal?
  • What makes trying to organize flash mob protests a part of development?
  • Where is attempting to overthrow governments in USAID’s mission?
  • And who thought no one would find out? Or when we did, it not tarnish our image even more?

Seriously, kids, have we not learned anything from history? Or at least from Alan Gross, who is still in a Cuban jail? How many more aid workers will be arrested, kidnapped, or killed on the belief that we are spies now?

2. Lack of Planning

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Oh to be a fly on the wall during the budgeting process for Cuban Twitter! I love how they had the goal of reaching 200,000 Cubans with SMS text messages, one of the most expensive bit-per-dollar technologies, but surprisingly (to them) ran out of budget before they even got to 20% of their target. Oh yeah, and this small, inconvenient fact:

“USAID was paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies. It was not a situation that it could either afford or justify – and if exposed it would be embarrassing, or worse.”

But it gets better.

USAID and Creative Associates decide they want to overthrow Castro through a Caribbean Spring via text messages, but once they realized the actual cost of a text message revolution (waaaay more than their $1.6 million budget), they balked and did a classic development stunt – blame the subcontractor.

In a searing evaluation, Creative Associates said Mobile Accord had ignored sustainability because “it has felt comfortable receiving USG financing to move the venture forward.”

Um, yes, they were very comfortable taking government funding for the project, because it was a government project!! Please repeat after me: sustainability has to be designed from the start, not an afterthought at the end of the funding cycle. You cannot just call up Jack Dorsey and ask for a bailout when your shortsighted budget runs out.

Oh and for those at home keeping score, Twitter is still cash-flow negative, ie. unsustainable, even after a $1.8 Billion IPO.

3. Negative Blowback

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I love how USAID and Creative Associates thought that somehow they could keep Cuban Twitter a secret, or that when it was eventually brought to light, it wouldn’t be highly controversial.

Well now it’s a poop show.

First, we have USAID’s congressional paymasters calling it “dumb, dumb, dumb” and claiming they didn’t know of the program. Senator Leahy, who has tried to disband USAID for years, now has yet another reason to be combative with Raj Shaw when he presents USAID’s budget on Tuesday. Sadly, this will also give Republicans more reason to join him in criticizing international aid. Expect the budget session to be ugly and don’t be surprised if there are hearings on the Hill about this and other democracy projects.

And that lack of trust is the greater issue. USAID has always had an association with US foreign policy, and often a perception of being a political tool to reward or punish countries. Yet, I believe all of our efforts as aid professionals reduced that negative perception, and helped enhance the positive connotations of the “from the American people” tag line.

Cuban Twitter sets us back a decade.

Now, what government is going to welcome an ICT4D project with an open and trusting welcome? It was bad enough that the NSA was spying on everyone, but to a point they did it to everyone equally – US citizen or not (despite their claims otherwise).

But Cuban Twitter is a whole other activity. Specifically targeting a country for regime change using ICT is decidedly CIA, regardless of how much we might think that government is or isn’t committed to its citizens’ development.

Where do we go from here?

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As you can tell, Cuban Twitter seriously frustrates me. While some defend the program, and I can see their point, regime change should not be the role of USAID. And thinking that a Twitter clone (or even Twitter itself) could cause a Caribbean Spring in Cuba is the height of ignorance of technology and arrogance towards Cubans.

Cuban Twitter also destroys trust in the Internet in general. What government is now going to believe in an open and free Internet when the US government is using it to subvert sovereign nation states? Even the few that do will not trust American organizations to have control over it.

Snowden’s revelations of the NSA spying were bad enough, but to an extent, expected. Cuban Twitter shows that even the good US agencies do evil things online. And how can we tell China to stop hacking US companies or government, when we are doing it to others ourselves?

We have to live with this black mark on all of us, which begs the question: Just how can we be honest brokers of ICT4D now?

More frightening: what else has USAID done?

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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4 Comments to “Dear USAID: What Were You Thinking With Cuban Twitter?”

  1. Pat Hall says:

    Wow! thanks Wayan for raising this. It is particularly ironic given the recent events in the Ukraine where Russia interfered in the internal affairs of their neighbour and the US has castigated Russia over this. Well, I suppose it is just another event in the US neurosis about Cuba. See the film “638 Ways to Kill Castro”, though of course it is now 639 or higher.

  2. Wayan Vota says:

    Oh it gets better. Apparently, everyone knew USAID was mucking it up in Cuba. Most of their Cuba programs were taken over by the State Department back in February, “because there was agreement that USAID frankly needed to get its act together on the Cuba program.”

  3. Eric says:

    Nice article. This debacle totally gives credence to Russia’s claims that USAID programs were undermining its sovereignty when Putin kicked out USAID in 2012.

    FYI, Wayan, “begging the question” does NOT mean to raise a question. http://begthequestion.info/