#CancelCastro: Why Is U.S. Policy Toward Cuba So Absurd?

A Twitter knock-off is just the latest ridiculous attempt by U.S. officials to bring down the Cuban regime.

A man enters a doorway next to a wall which reads "Long live Fidel" in Havana in 2009. (Enrique De La Osa/Reuters)

For years, American outreach to Cuba came in many forms: mafiosos, poison-drenched wetsuits, toxic cigars. But today we learned of a new tactic in the campaign to undercut the Castro regime: a stealth effort by the U.S. government's humanitarian aid agency to create a Cuban version of Twitter.

On Thursday, the Associated Press revealed that ZunZuneo, a short-lived Cuban social-messaging service, had been secretly built and operated by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID:

According to documents obtained by The Associated Press and multiple interviews with people involved in the project, the plan was to develop a bare-bones "Cuban Twitter," using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba's strict control of information and its stranglehold restrictions over the Internet. In a play on Twitter, it was called ZunZuneo—slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet.

Documents show the U.S. government planned to build a subscriber base through "non-controversial content": news messages on soccer, music, and hurricane updates. Later when the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize "smart mobs"—mass gatherings called at a moment's notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."

At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions. But its subscribers were never aware it was created by the U.S. government, or that American contractors were gathering their private data in the hope that it might be used for political purposes.

The social network, which operated from 2010 to 2012, never achieved its goal of launching a "Cuban Spring" of protests similar to those that rocked Iran after a disputed presidential election in 2009. To the U.S. government's credit, its strategy of organizing protests through social media to disrupt and overthrow an authoritarian regime predated the Arab Spring by at least a year.

Then again, we shouldn't be that surprised by the news. U.S. officials have repeatedly resorted to extreme measures to undermine Fidel Castro's communist government. When Castro overthrew Cuba's U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, he initially enjoyed a honeymoon with the U.S., including an 11-day tour of New York City and Washington, D.C. in which former Secretary of State Dean Acheson hailed him as "the first democrat of Latin America." But the young revolutionary soon turned toward the Soviet Union for economic support amid tensions with the Eisenhower administration and U.S. multinational corporations, and imposed a communist dictatorship in Cuba. A series of nationalizations shortly thereafter prompted the U.S. to impose sanctions on Cuba in 1960, followed by a full embargo in 1962.

Fidel Castro arrives in Washington, D.C. in 1959. (Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. scheming against Castro began almost immediately. In 1960, CIA agents contacted high-ranking mafia officials and discussed ways to assassinate Castro, perhaps by poisoning his food and drink. The assassin they chose and supplied, Juan Orta, reportedly got cold feet and abandoned the attempt. The agency's next attempt to overthrow the Cuban regime was relatively conventional by CIA government-overthrow standards. Using Guatemala (whose own government had been toppled in a U.S.-sponsored coup in 1954) as a base of operations, U.S. spies organized, funded, armed, and trained a ragtag group of about 1,500 Cuban exiles, who planned to storm the Caribbean island and eventually topple the government. In April 1961, these exiles landed in Cuba's Bay of Pigs and were defeated within three days by Cuban military forces, embarrassing the Kennedy administration and the CIA.

After the Bay of Pigs debacle, the CIA's anti-Castro plots veered away from the typical Cold War templates of coups and uprisings and into the realm of absurdity. One scheme involved somehow getting Castro to wear a poison-coated scuba-diving suit. Another, which also played upon Castro's well-known love for diving, involved obtaining a beautiful seashell that would catch the Cuban dictator's eye, only to explode when he reached for it. Perhaps the most famous proposal involved poisoning Castro's iconic cigars.

And these are just some of the plots we know about; more were undoubtedly organized. Fabian Escalante, a former chief of Cuba's Department of State Security, claimed in 2006 that 638 assassination attempts had targeted Cuba's longtime ruler between 1959 and 2000 (all of them failed). According to Escalante, the closest Castro came to danger was when a supposed CIA operative tried to poison a chocolate milkshake the leader ordered at a Havana bar. The capsule apparently broke when it froze to the side of the freezer compartment in which it was being stored.

Beyond assassination, the CIA also tried to humiliate Castro. At one point, the agency discussed putting thallium salt in his shoes, in the hopes that it would make his beard fall out. Intelligence officials also debated blaming the Cuban government if John Glenn's Mercury 1962 spaceflight orbiting Earth failed, faking an attack on the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay as a pretense for invading Cuba, and even distributing doctored photos of an overweight Castro feasting with beautiful women to undermine his reputation.

After the Watergate scandal and congressional investigations into the U.S. intelligence community revealed many of these plots, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order in 1977 that formally banned the U.S. government from conducting political assassinations. But other policies, including the U.S. embargo against Cuba, remain in place.

U.S. President Barack Obama greets Cuban President Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela's funeral in 2013. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

More than 50 years after Congress and the Eisenhower administration first imposed trade restrictions on Cuba, the U.S. State Department explains that U.S. policy toward the island is "focused on encouraging democratic and economic reforms and increased respect for human rights on the part of the Cuban Government." But the Castro regime, despite America's five-decade embargo, does not appear to be in danger of imminent collapse. The ruling Communist Party endured what it called the "Special Period" in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union's collapse cut off vital aid and subsidies, sending the Cuban economy into a tailspin. Now, Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother and successor, has opened the country up to more foreign investment and taken other small steps toward market liberalization without U.S. influence.

John F. Kennedy, it's worth noting, imposed the embargo against Cuba to prevent the spread of "Sino-Soviet communism," something that hasn't existed for almost two and a half decades. And as we move further away from the Cold War, American public opinion on Cuba is also shifting. A February 2014 survey by the Atlantic Council, for instance, found that 56 percent of Americans support changing U.S. policy toward Cuba, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Sixty-two percent of Hispanics nationwide also favor a policy shift. In Miami-Dade County, which boasts a Cuban-American exile community that can swing presidential elections, nearly 64 percent of respondents now support normalizing relations with the island.

U.S.-Cuban relations have become so surreal that Obama's fleeting handshake with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela's funeral made headlines around the world. As public opinion swings steadily toward bringing one of the Cold War's last conflicts to a close, how long will it take for Washington to follow suit? After today's revelations, per longer than we thought.