The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. thinks it can invent a Cuban Spring? Puh-leez, say Internet freedom scholars.

In this March 3, 2014, photo, a woman uses her cellphone in Camajuani, Cuba. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

An arm of the U.S. government seeking to destabilize the Castro regime in Cuba has taken covert actions to overthrow the government there.

No, that's not a line out of a Cold War history book. The U.S. Agency for International Development created a fake version of Twitter for Cubans to use in hopes of fomenting what the Associated Press calls a "Cuban Spring" that could, according to one of 1,000 pages of USAID documents, "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."

The plan was to bring Cubans onto the service, called ZunZuneo, then begin feeding them political content designed to incite huge protests reminiscent of 2011's democratic uprisings in the Middle East, according to the AP. It all sounds rather implausible at a time when the United States is trying to avoid embroiling itself in places, such as Syria and Ukraine. But the program actually exists. In an e-mail, USAID said the plan was reviewed by the Government Accountability Office last year.

"USAID is a development agency, and we work all over the world to help people exercise their universal rights and freedoms," USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said.

But just because Washington says ZunZuneo is above board doesn't mean it has an effective grasp on technology's role in social movements, Internet scholars say.

Beginning with 2009's Green Revolution in Iran, an entire school of literature has cropped up to analyze social media and its political implications. It wasn't until 2011, though, that social scientists got their hands on enough case studies to be able to draw meaningful conclusions about Twitter and Facebook as weapons in the hands of revolutionaries. The early days of the Arab uprising in Tunisia and Egypt were marked by breathless reports about social media overwhelming dictatorial regimes. Government attempts to shut the services down only fueled the perception that social media helped cause the uprisings. That perception was quickly dashed by academics and activists with direct ties to the region.

"One of the big points of consensus in our community following the uprisings in the Arab region was that, yes, the [social media] tools were a catalyst, but there were really smart, powerful and long-lasting activist networks that put all of that into motion," said Ellery Biddle, the editor of Global Voices Advocacy and a close observer of Cuban affairs. "Most of my friends in Egypt who were very, very involved in the first phase of revolution there had been organizing and talking and working together for 10 years before any of this happened. It wasn't as if someone gave them a cellphone one day, and somebody figured out they could have a revolution."

Technology can facilitate organizing. But it can't overthrow governments, much less on a timetable of your choosing.

That USAID failed to appreciate such an important lesson — from the most up-to-date evidence available — seems surprising for an agency that specializes in international development. It also raises questions about why it still (reportedly) forged ahead with the program, and why it kept it a secret. Some are still in doubt about the report itself.

Jonathan Zittrain is the director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "It's hard to believe there's somebody in the government rubbing their hands together, Mr. Burns-style, thinking you can orchestrate a revolution this way," Zittrain said, referring to the classically devious "Simpsons" character. "It may be, the truth is a little less interesting and a little more reasonable."

Cold War overtones aside, it's understandable why USAID might want to shield its subversive activity from public view. It was likely not for the benefit of the Cuban government, nor to give the agency itself plausible deniability — but perhaps to protect vulnerable Cubans who would want to participate. Collaborating with the United States is considered a crime by Havana, according to Biddle. If ZunZuneo operated openly as a U.S. government program, the Cuban government could track down and punish potential dissidents.

"It is no secret that in hostile environments, governments take steps to protect the partners we are working with on the ground," said Herrick.

Even so, however, going to the trouble of setting up a special social media platform makes no sense, said Biddle — particularly when there's already a thriving network of cellphone users who text each other news and information in secret. Around 25 percent of the population in Cuba now carries a cellphone, thanks to a recent liberalization in ownership policies. In 2008, it became legal to acquire a mobile device without going through an extensive permit process. Since then, informal news networks involving as many as 30 to 40 people — using just their cellphones — have become common.

"To be honest, I think a lot of work the U.S. government is doing there is probably having exactly the wrong effect," she added. "It divides civil society. There are people who choose to accept U.S. money or associate with U.S. government programs. They usually lose friends, family, their job. It suddenly becomes their only source of income. So they get stuck in it, and there's a big separation between people who want change and are willing to go down that road, and people who want change but want it on their own terms."

Others believe there's a much simpler way to achieve regime change: Just keep liberalizing the United States's trade policy with respect to Cuba. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Jillian York, there's a lot of technology that could help Cubans circumvent censorship that isn't making it to the country because of the United States's own ideologically motivated export restrictions.

Lifting those barriers might do far more to promote American values in Cuba than directly stirring up unrest with a covert communications program, said York.

If that's true, USAID might have more luck trying its hand at soft power — not subversion.