Today's big Associated Press story about the United States apparently creating a "Cuban Twitter" to help foment dissent in the country has caused a big stir. It's easy to see why — on one level, the plan looked like an especially absurd version of the Silicon Valley dream: The U.S. government creates a start-up ("ZunZuneo"), gets some traction, tries and fails to get Jack Dorsey involved, and finally has to give up as they couldn't find a revenue stream. Now all that's left is a moribund Facebook page.
However, it's worth noting the most remarkable thing about this operation: The U.S. involvement in this project, clearly designed to go unnoticed, was not conducted by an intelligence agency. Instead, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal agency primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid, was calling the shots.
USAID oversees billions of dollars in foreign aid. That sounds innocent enough, but the agency's work has often been viewed with suspicion. Russia kicked the agency out in 2012, accusing it of supporting opposition groups. "The decision was taken mainly because the work of the agency's officials far from always responded to the stated goals of development and humanitarian cooperation," a statement from the Russian Foreign Office said at the time. "We are talking about attempts to influence political processes through its grants."
Bolivia followed suit in 2013. “The United States does not lack institutions that continue to conspire," President Evo Morales said at the time, "and that’s why I am using this gathering to announce that we have decided to expel USAID from Bolivia.” In Ecuador, USAID pulled out late last year, not long after President Rafael Correa threatened to expel them.
The idea that USAID is used to covertly conspire against foreign governments doesn't just exist overseas. When Pando Daily recently reported on Pierre Omidyar's donations to Ukrainian opposition groups – donations made with USAID – it said the eBay billionaire had "co-invested with the US government to help fund regime change in Ukraine."
It doesn't necessarily matter whether this image of USAID is true (though perhaps it is). What matters is the perception. USAID can't be perceived to be both delivering foreign aid and covertly trying to influence regime change at the same time. Political scientist Jay Ulfelder put it well in a blog post:
Programs like this “Cuban Twitter” fiasco erode USAID’s credibility as an agent of development assistance everywhere. “If the U.S. government used USAID as a Trojan horse in Cuba,” politicians around the world might ask themselves, “why not in my country, too?”
Actions like this make Russia look smart for expelling USAID. And Cuba has an especially complicated place in the USAID world – for example, in the past the money it's funded to democracy organizations and Cuban American groups reportedly ended up being spent on Godiva chocolates and cashmere sweaters, plus the "Cuban Twitter" plan came remarkably soon after Cuba arrested American contractor Alan Gross for installing Internet networks. Gross was a USAID subcontractor, and he was later sentenced to 15 years in prison – his release is regarded as one of the key steps needed for increased dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba.
So, "Cuban Twitter" isn't just a strange story of a start-up: It's a sign of a flawed strategy. And as Alberto Arce, Desmond Butler and Jack Gillum of the AP note, it's not clear whether it was legal: "Covert action" by a federal agency must have a presidential authorization, and USAID wouldn't say whether they had received that.
Update: USAID's Cuba operations are not run from within the country. A line that suggested they were has been removed.