Shortly after President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba in December 2014, his administration created exemptions around the embargo for U.S. telecommunications companies to invest in Cuba.
Since then, the U.S. and Cuba have routinely held talks about expanding Internet access in Cuba, which has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the world.
The U.S. State Department has pushed to close telecommunication agreements before the end of Obama’s presidency.
All the while, Cuban officials have proceeded with caution.
According to David Sepulveda, the coordinator for international communications and information policy in the U.S. State Department, there are currently at least a half a dozen proposals by U.S. and non-U.S. companies for the construction of an undersea fiber optic cable between the U.S. and Cuba.
But the Cuban market seems officially off limits unless Cuban officials agree to allow the companies access to the island, and Cuban officials might have a reason for being so reluctant to expand their island’s connectivity.
In April 2014, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) confirmed reports by the Associated Press (AP) that the U.S. government had created a phony “Cuban Twitter” network with the intent to undermine the Castro government.
It was dubbed “ZunZuneo” after the sound of a hummingbird’s call.
The online social networking service was covertly created by USAID in 2010 and was marketed directly to Cuban users. ZunZuneo was deemed a long-term strategy to encourage Cuban youth to create a “Cuban Spring” movement.
Initially, subscribers were attracted to the service over discussions about a variety of topics like sports and music. But the project’s plans were to eventually introduce political messages with the aim of encourage free thinking.
Information about ZunZuneo subscribers, including age, gender, political tendencies and receptiveness were also monitored.
According to an AP report, contractors funded by USAID set up a network of front companies using Cayman Islands bank account and recruited executives who were unaware of ZunZuneo’s ties to the U.S. government.
At its height, ZunZuneo reached at least 68,000 Cuban subscribers.
In 2012, ZunZuneo ended when, according to AP, the grant for the project expired.
After its discovery, USAID staunchly defended the program, stating “Cubans were able to talk among themselves, and we are proud of that.”
At a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chairman Patrick Leahy referred to the program as “dumb, dumb, dumb.”
Cuban officials condemned the program. In a statement, Josefina Vidal called on the U.S. to “cease once and for all its subversive, illegal and covert actions against Cuba.”
In an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, highlighted the fact that the discovery of ZunZuneo had the potential to backfire, but that the economic need for digital expansion in Cuba would not cause the Cuban government to take drastic action to cut off the island’s connectivity.
“I think that this is not going to cause the Cuban government to shut down the use of social media or to stop its strategy of trying to expand the Internet digitally,” Ms. Sweig told David Greene.
Instead, Ms. Sweig said the discovery of the program would result in a sharpening of attitudes within the Cuban government where cooperation would be more positive in the future between the two countries.
That cooperation would come nine months later when President Obama announced the normalization of relations between the two nations in December 2014.
Since then, the US – both government and private companies – have attempted to engage in telecommunication activities on the island.
This year, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) removed Cuba from its exclusion list which means that U.S.-based telecom operators can provide Internet and telephone services to Cuba without separate approval from the FCC and can export telecom equipment and products to Cuba.
In July 2015, Google executives traveled to Cuba to probe the government’s willingness to allow the company to scale up the island-wide Wi-Fi broadband internet access
On Sunday, ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications company, announced a pilot project that would bring broadband Internet into Cuban homes, as well as new WiFi service to three parks.
Businesses like cafes, bars and restaurants can also request broadband internet services for their customers.
These broadband Internet services will be provided through fiber optic connections operated by Chinese telecom operator Huawei.
Despite initial shock of ZunZuneo’s apparent attempt to undermine the Castro government, the importance of expanding Cuba’s telecommunications industry and Internet connectivity for its residents is paramount as Cuba normalizes relations with the West.
However, Cuban officials still don’t seem ready to rush into agreements with US entities without careful deliberation.
Here is USAID’s response to the ZunZuneo’s demise.