This is what Internet diplomacy looks like.
The United States discreetly supported the creation of a website and SMS service that was, basically, a Cuban version of Twitter, the Associated Press reported Thursday. ZunZuneo, as it was called, permitted Cubans to broadcast short text messages to each other. At its peak, ZunZuneo had 40,000 users.
And what government agency made ZunZuneo? It wasn’t the CIA. No, it was the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, working with various private companies, including the D.C. for-profit contractor Creative Associatesand a small, Denver-based startup, Mobile Accord.
The news about ZunZuneo broke Thursday morning, around 3 a.m. Eastern time. 11 hours before, I had been in the D.C. offices of none other than Mobile Accord, talking to the company’s president about a future product release.
The company’s not in the discreet social network game anymore; now it surveys countries in the developing world by SMS. On Wednesday, Mobile Accord’s president Steve Gutterman told me, “More information and more transparency is always a good thing.”
The next day, I called his cell phone. He reaffirmed his company’s commitment to transparency. He said that Mobile Accord didn’t know the ZunZuneo news was coming, and he echoed the statements that USAID and the White House issued on Thursday.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, claimed that Congress had debated and invested in ZunZuneo. “All of our work in Cuba, including this project, was reviewed in detail in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law,” said a USAID spokesman Thursday.
Senator Patrick Leahy, who as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee oversees USAID’s budget, shunned it in the AP article. “If you're going to do a covert operation like this for a regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it's not something that should be done through USAID,” he said.
He was more blunt on MSNBC: “It was just dumb,” he said on the network Thursday.
As I started piecing together Mobile Accord’s past on Thursday—and that of the State Department that encouraged and hired them—I found that a project like ZunZuneo wasn’t out of the ordinary at all.