Was ZunZuneo Ilegal? International Media Is In Desacuerdo

Twitter buzz took on a Central American spin this morning as users digested a massive Associated Press story about a U.S. program called ZunZuneo.


The program is a sort of “Cuban Twitter,” as commenters quickly nicknamed it, reportedly designed to create a Cuban uprising and undermine the Castro regime. Named after the slang term for a hummingbird’s tweet, “ZunZuneo” ran from 2010 until 2012 and hit as many as 40,000 users during its peak usage period. The service has remained dormant since then, and a single post on the program’s Facebook page alludes to exactly when it fell out of usage:

ZunZuneo Facebook

Unlike Twitter, ZunZuneo was a text messaging-based service, and was designed and executed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). However, no users were ever aware that it was a U.S. government-built tool. Early in the piece, the question of legality is raised:

“The program’s legality is unclear: U.S. law requires that any covert action by a federal agency must have a presidential authorization and that Congress should be notified.”

That question of legality is now being dissected by experts both at home and abroad, along with other issues and questions in the report.


The Washington Post
In our nation’s capitol, Adam Taylor focuses on the issues with the USAID’s perception in his opinion for The Washington Post. “USAID can’t be perceived to be both delivering foreign aid and covertly trying to influence regime change at the same time,” Taylor says. He notes that Russia removed USAID amid suspicion that it was supporting opposing powers. “USAID oversees billions of dollars in foreign aid,” he writes. “That sounds innocent enough, but the agency’s work has often been viewed with suspicion.” So while the program may not have been strictly illegal, the look of it may be all the worse.


Cuban News Agency
Meanwhile, in Cuba, the Cuban News Agency (ACN) has branded the ZunZuneo affair a “scandal” and a “Cyber War.” The outlet also takes a hard stance on the legality issue, writing in their lede, “The United States illegally spent over one and a half million dollars in a so-called ZunZuneo social network aimed at promoting a regime change in Cuba.” Notably, Cuba’s government has not commented, meaning that ACN is one of the only major Cuban bodies to weigh in at all.


Russia Today has been in the news mostly for its anchors with opinions recently, but that won’t stop the Russian-owned network from throwing some tonal shade at the U.S. While most of the report is just regurgitated from the AP, there are certain word choices, from the headline (“Exposed: How US created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to take down Castro”) on down (“To try and hide their tracks”), that raise an eyebrow when reading.


Finally, the Brits include some analysis with their news report from BBC News Havana’s Sarah Rainsford. The analysis mostly focuses on explaining why the service was messaging-based. “Cubans were only permitted to own mobile phones in 2008, but now they are very common,” Rainsford said. “In this void – telephone messaging has emerged as a common form of organisation for Cuba’s small dissident community – who send photos and post to Twitter via their mobile phones.”

Graphic Credit: Kevin O’Keeffe


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