The rise and fall of ZunZuneo


Trying to create a social network in Cuba is tricky business, especially if you want to hide from users the fact that the U.S. government is paying for it.
But ZunZuneo grew rapidly, attracting 55,000 mobile phone users in Cuba by 2012.
The U.S. Agency for International Development hired a private company, Creative Associates International, to manage the project and Creative paid a subcontractor, Mobile Accord, to build ZunZuneo.
USAID experimented with ZunZuneo at times, sending text messages directly to cell phone users in Cuba and polling them to try to understand their “political tendency.” Most cell phone users – 70 percent – answered the survey questions, but some Cubans questioned who was sending the messages. A 2011 presentation about ZunZuneo stated:

The respondents often request more information about the sender before feeling comfortable about giving an opinion, and when they do not receive an answer, they express a lack of trust, which can become an obstacle for future communications.

The ZunZuneo presentation is among 493 pages of documents released Oct. 13, 2016, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by MuckRock News.
The presentation stressed the importance of building trust among users:
“When writing a message with (redacted), etc., any political bias should be treated carefully, so as not to create animosity in the recipients.
“A strategy should be developed to address information requests in order to ensure both continuity and the highest level responses with useful content.”
I’ve been following U.S.-financed projects in Cuba for much of the past 10 years. On Nov. 24, 2012, I wrote about a secret U.S. government-financed base in Costa Rica that assisted democracy activists in Cuba. I had filed a FOIA request about it 405 days earlier, but had no luck getting any answers.
By then, USAID had given Creative Associates more than $11 million for the Costa Rica project, records showed. I wondered what was going on. About four months later, the Associated Press revealed that ZunZuneo was one of the Costa Rica projects.
Touted as a “Cuban Twitter,” ZunZuneo was aimed at helping Cubans rise up against the socialist government, the AP reported.
Then-White House spokesman Jay Carney played down the project’s covert nature, saying it was just another way “to promote the flow of free information.”
ZunZuneo was “discreet,” not covert, Marie Harf of the State Department told the New York Times. “There was nothing classified or covert about this program,” she said. “Discreet does not equal covert. Having worked for almost six years at the CIA and now here, I know the difference.”
Covert or not, USAID refused to release 71 pages of documents about ZunZuneo and redacted portions of an additional 226 pages in response to MuckRock News’ FOIA request.
The agency determined that 267 pages were “fully releasable.”
Below are highlights gleaned from pages that were released.
ZunZuneo’s mission, the documents said, was to “develop an alternative platform for mass communications and networking that empower Cuban citizens to virtually organize themselves through the creation and exchange of information.”
On July 2, 2010, Creative gave $200,000 to Mobile Accord to expand the capacity of a “communications platform to provide Cubans the means to form shared interest groups and coordinate activities through the use of new technologies.”
The six-week contract was the third phase of an “alternative communication services initiative aimed at establishing horizontal communication networks among citizens.”
The project targeted from 450,000 to 800,000 mobile phone users in Cuba.
The document stated:

Technology has been revolutionizing democratic processes around the world by allowing ordinary citizens to be direct participants. Recent events have demonstrated how effective technology has been in aiding individuals to advocate, strongly and with decisive civil unity against repressive regimes. In Cuba, despite the dearth of cutting-edge technologies and widespread censorship, savvy individuals find ways to access and share limited information. A strong desire for knowledge of current events and anything novel, coupled with access to basic cell phones has created the prime opportunity to build off of previous efforts to allow Cubans to be engaged with the rest of the world.
SMS (Short Message Service) is being used in a wide range of social and business applications such as polling, electronic voting, delivery of stock quotations, delivery of e-mail notifications, etc. In Cuba accessing the news, even if not of a political nature, is very difficult. Only people living in Havana have access to limited versions of the Internet. Others only have access to very filtered official news. This project targets basic mobile phone users by providing customized messaging services via an SMS platform.

USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives or OTI managed the Costa Rica project. The grant documents state:
“Through the implementation of two previous grants (SJ0019 and SJ0040), OTI/CREA applied learned lessons on both the technological as well as the strategic and communicational applications of the tool. As of now, OTI/CREA has over 16,000 subscribers to four information channels. Through this initiative, OTI/CREA seek to increase information channels (user-driven), expand the user base, and build a multi-directional social networking platform on SMS technology.

Currently, OTI/CREA is working with NIMESA, a small technology firm in Nicaragua, to develop this initiative. However, NIMESA does not have the experience required to expand the platform to the desired level of subscribers. Thus, from this stage forward, OTI/CREA will work with Mobile Accord, Inc., a US-based communications and technology firm with vast experience in the field. Mobile Accord proposes a multi-phased approach to implementing this initiative. The first stage, financed through this grant, will manage the transition of the communications platform, technology and information gathered from NIMESA to Mobile Accord. It is expected that the transition will take place in one month.”
During that month, the document said Mobile Accord would focus on:
Well, USAID redacted what the company was doing because trade secrets exist even in the democracy promotion business.
Subsection (b)(4) of FOIA is designed to protect “confidential commercial information.” Contractors are allowed to review FOIA requests and ask that the government redact information if “disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause substantial competitive harm.”
In a later document, the company reveals at least some of its plans, saying it would choose 10 to 20 “influential Cuban people/groups to pilot end-user content distribution.”
Mobile Accord’s next contract was worth $96,975.59 and covered one month, from Oct. 16 to Nov. 15, 2010. Objectives included preparing for “massive multidirectional communications.”
By then, the target had increased to “26,000 current subscribers of SMS Service.” The contract said the project would have an indirect impact on 1 million cell phone users.
Budget details are redacted, so it’s impossible to know how much the contractor spent on such things as staff, consultants, travel, workshops, administration, allowances and overhead.

By Nov. 15, 2010, Mobile Accord expected to have “a new, fully functional and manageable database with the cell numbers” and the company planned “to conduct data analysis stemming from data in this database.”
On Nov. 22, 2010, Creative Associates agreed to give Mobile Accord $231,557.65, covering Nov. 22, 2010, to Jan. 14, 2011. The number of SMS subscribers had reached 30,000, the agreement said.
New goals included creating a website and developing “plans for branding and financial sustainability.”
More contracts followed:

  • $200,180.27 on Feb. 7, 2011
  • $90,000 on May 6, 2011
  • $90,000 on June 20, 2011

In the project’s seventh phase, Mobile Accord received another grant, but USAID redacted the amount, according to a June 30, 2011, memo to company president James Eberhard.
The memo stated that the company had developed the ability “to send information to Cuban mobile users in a unidirectional capacity.”
Contract documents also listed a new goal: To “secure private financing and transition to a sustainable private enterprise structure.”
USAID redacted contract amounts in July and August. On Sept. 27, 2011, Creative gave Mobile Accord $144,921.64. Five civil society organizations were using the platform and Creative wanted to push that to “20 to 25 groups consistently sending quality messages.”
USAID also wanted to use ZunZuneo to collect information about users in Cuba. A contract document stated:

While the network has allowed users to use the SMS-messaging services to form user networks, and communicate within their groups, OTI/CREA has not had the tools or resources to collect user data on a large scale up to this point.

USAID’s new objective was “a mobile polling tool that can reach the full user base.”
Creative shoveled another $175,400.01 to Mobile Accord on Oct. 1, 2011, and $70,000 on Oct. 11, 2011. ZunZuneo was to “foster dynamic communication among active groups” and “engage inactive users to create new groups.”
New goals called for “8-10 new quality groups organized around a theme or topic recruited from Civil Society Organizations and fostered to engage platform.”
Mobile Accord was awarded $80,143.08 on March 1, 2012. Objectives included:

  • The creation of a list of “five island-based groups” that could be recruited to join ZunZuneo.
  • Growth in the number of “Celebrity Tweets”
  • Profiles of five prospective private funders of ZunZuneo
  • Delivery of text messages to “tiered user groups.”

ZunZuneo reached its ninth phase in 2012 and the number of users rose to 55,000, but private funding never materialized and USAID stopped funding the platform.
“The platform continues to experience growth in the user base and quality of content,” a April 2012 report said, “but sustainability efforts have yielded little concrete impact.”
Since the demise of ZunZuneo, a new platform has gained popularity in Cuba and it doesn’t cost U.S. taxpayers anything.
It’s called Twitter.

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