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ZunZuneo: Do Former Users Even Care That It Was Secretly Built by USAID?

Our criticism of the U.S. government's covert or "discreet" funding of communication channels like ZunZuneo or Radio Free Europe presumes that they try to seed something non-native.
(Photo: Tuitui/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Tuitui/Shutterstock)

The term "covert" is among the latest blasts from the Cold War past in the year that should occasion the conflict's 25th anniversary celebrations but keeps bringing on its re-enactments instead. On April 3, a report by the Associated Press alleged that the federally funded United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had served as a front for American propaganda. This is bad news for us—but do the 40,000 former beneficiaries care?

Between 2010 and 2012, the agency facilitated operations of the Twitter-like communication platform ZunZuneo, designed to circumnavigate Cuba's Internet control and mobilize users into flash mobs. Founded in 1961, USAID now reverted to the old Cold War ways, critics say, using federal funds to fuel dissent and destabilize a foreign government by transmitting "overly political" messages. Both USAID and the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney have asserted that ZunZuneo was neither secret nor covert but "discreet"—placed under congressional oversight in 2008, if not truly public.

Without a doubt, this disclosure carries substantial political burdens. Shaken by the last year's National Security Agency scandal and the recent cyber attacks on China, the reputation of the U.S. has taken a hit. The same pertains to the humanitarian USAID, again distrustfully eyed as the CIA's junior partner. Compromised also are several third parties. Unaware (as far as we know), countries like the U.K. or Costa Rica hosted servers, bank accounts, or content-generating staff. Besides, U.S. taxpayers are rarely thrilled to hear about the tens of thousands of their dollars spent on any programs, let alone “discreet” ones.

This is exactly what U.S.-bound political narcissism obscures: The fact that imported "public diplomacy" only takes off when the domestic preconditions are there.

The ongoing domestic outrage has focused on the U.S. And in many ways, that is only fair. Isn't it high time that the so-called "public diplomacy" be done responsibly and, indeed, publicly—a rarity since its inception some 70 years ago? But this exclusive emphasis on the U.S. can easily translate into political narcissism, the kind shared by unlikely bedfellows, American liberal non-interventionists and conservative isolationists.

The truth is that worrying about American hubris or dignity (depending on one's leanings) leaves little room for discussing the Cuban users' responses to ZunZuneo's exposure. And indeed, in the story's U.S. coverage, their voices tend to be absent. All we know is that they, too, have been kept in the dark about the U.S. government's sponsorship of the product on which they relied. That is not nearly enough.

Without these voices, the picture of this particular incident—as well as the bigger picture of how exactly democracy gains a foothold worldwide—is incomplete. Those who accuse the U.S. of single-handed interventionism may be giving it too much credit. Because some credit for destabilizing the communist regime goes to ZunZuneo's former fans. More than a few among them may indeed be disappointed about USAID's role. But countless others, in search of an outlet to speak more freely, may not care that the one-time message network was the work of the capitalist devil incarnate.

It would be naïve to think that we will hear from them soon—outing oneself as the regime's critic is dangerous. But in the meantime, we could certainly consult the rich evidence of user responses to similar situations. And the Cold War years left behind a plentiful archive of those. In fact, the disclosures about ZunZuneo sound like an uncanny echo of one of the biggest Cold War media scandals: one involving Radio Free Europe (RFE), subsequently known as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

Like ZunZuneo, RFE was founded as a non-governmental voice to broadcast, in six languages, across the Iron Curtain. Moreover, since the beginning of its operations in 1950, it was advertised as the only non-governmental American voice. Like ZunZuneo, it had a front, or even two: the political National Committee for Free Europe (NCFE, subsequently Free Europe Committee, FEC) and the fundraising Crusade for Freedom (CF). Rather unlike USAID, NCFE and CF solicited additional donations from rank-and-file U.S. citizens and residents, on top of tax money. These came in at a million or two a year—a grain of sand in the high-tech station's multimillion-dollar budget. Behind the scenes, the CIA forked out cash for the rest—about $350 million over the first 20 years of operation.

Also like ZunZuneo, RFE traded not only in political news: on its airwaves were rock ‘n' roll, folklore, émigré stars, and other expressions of "soft power." Like ZunZuneo, RFE bred dissent and occasionally incited unrest. The Budapest uprising of 1956 is the best-known case: At the time, some RFE's Eastern European staff promised their audiences what the West could not deliver, either a military or political intervention. Following that, American supervision of all broadcast scripts increased, mandating factual reporting only. The station's work proceeded with relatively minor disturbances until in 1967, when press reports exposed its covert CIA funding—along with the Agency's similar "investments" in 33 other private organizations.

Many in the Congress heaved with anger. The U.S. public was likewise upset. Lengthy hearings ensued, culminating with the report of the committee headed by the then Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach. The verdict was that "no federal agency shall provide any covert financial assistance or support, direct or indirect, to any of the nation's educational or private voluntary organizations." Ultimately, however, the broadcaster was too successful a weapon to eliminate. With the government's overt support, it outlived the end of the Cold War.

But little of that outrage rubbed off on the receiving end—among Eastern European listeners, instrumental to the station's success. Few of them were shocked at the news of the CIA's sponsorship, if they heard it at all. After all, this is all that their less-than-democratic governments had ever told them, notes former RFE director A. Ross Johnson. To this day, the CIA involvement rarely comes up in their memories—and if it does, it is seldom a topic of great interest. Alexandru Salomon, a Romanian filmmaker behind the 2007 RFE documentary Cold Waves, puts it matter-of-factly: "In the '70s or '80s, I had no idea it had been created in 1950, as an instrument for American propaganda. Or that it was financed by the CIA, in the beginning, at least. The world was at war at that time. The Cold War. And propaganda was an important weapon."

This was also my experience in 1991, the last year in the life of the Soviet Union. In August of that year, during the failed hardliner coup d'état against Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, we huddled around a radio set as if we were 1956. Once again, RFE (at that point, RFE/RL) was being jammed. But through white noise, it provided us with the only news about the goings-on. And news was what we craved in the midst of the second act of Swan Lake or some such classical piece, typically aired non-stop in critical situations. RFE's broadcast was, indeed, U.S.-funded, but the hope and receptiveness to change were our own.

And this is exactly what U.S.-bound political narcissism obscures: The fact that imported "public diplomacy" only takes off when the domestic preconditions are there. Our criticism of the U.S. government's covert or "discreet" funding of communication channels like ZunZuneo or RFE presumes that they try to seed something non-native. But in reality, they often succeed precisely because they hit the nerve of the pre-existing discontent. Let us not deny authenticity to those who deserve it the most.