by DARIEN CAVANAUGH
For decades, the United States had sought to destabilize and overthrow the Cuban government. But the most recent attempt to antagonize the Castro regime may have been the strangest.
The effort involved the United States Agency for International Development and its attempts to infiltrate the Cuban hip-hop scene. It wanted to “break the information blockade” and inspire young people to rise up against the Castro regime through the power of rap and dance.
The 2009 plan mixed politics and popular music, and was as much a battle of the bands as a battle for hearts and minds. Think of it as Bay of Pigs 2: Electric Boogaloo.
The plan failed. Worse, it disrupted the nascent Cuban hip-hop scene and neutralized its political energy. The Castros remain in power and in January 2015, Pres. Barack Obama began attempts to normalize relations with Cuba.
This diplomatic approach began just four years after America’s latest, strangest attempt to overthrow the Castro government collapsed.
Hip-hop arrived in Cuba in the 1980s and originally centered on break-dancing. It gained popularity throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and turned political as Cubans experienced the hardships of the country’s post-Cold War economic decline.
The Cuban government initially treated hip-hop and rap in much the same way it dealt with other imported music. The Ministry of Culture didn’t ban it, but it didn’t support it either.
That changed in 2002 when the ministry created the Cuban Rap Agency. The agency supported hip-hop on the island and promoted Cuba’s hip-hop stars abroad.
The government endorsed the genre, provided the performers toed the communist party’s line. The Castro government banned outspoken critics such as the rap group Los Aldeanos from performing publicly in Havana.
That censorship forced the group to join the Cuban hip-hop underground, despite the group’s popularity.
Adversaries of the Castro regime saw a golden opportunity. The growing popularity of the genre, the performers’ political emphasis and the Cuban government’s vacillation between repressing and ignoring the groups might serve America’s interests.
Enter USAID. Founded in 1961 by the John F. Kennedy administration, USAID’s mission statement “highlights two complementary and intrinsically linked goals — ending extreme poverty and promoting the development of resilient, democratic societies that are able to realize their potential.”
That seems innocent enough, but critics have accused USAID of possessing direct links to the CIA, including involvement for decades in covert activities abroad.
“In South Vietnam, the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] provided cover for CIA operatives so widely that the two became almost synonymous,” investigative journalist Jeff Stein wrote in a 2010 Washington Post column.
Many Latin American governments and newspapers have accused USAID of influencing elections, supporting dictators and establishing media programs to undermine democratically elected governments.
Because of its reputation as a front agency, USAID cannot legally operate within some countries, including Cuba. So when the agency decided to infiltrate the Cuban hip-hop scene in 2009, USAID took a different route — it subcontracted the work out to another organization.
USAID gave Creative Associates International — a development company based in Washington, D.C. — a contract to coordinate a multimillion-dollar plan in Cuba that involved promoting hip-hop performers and festivals.
The company also created a “Cuban Twitter” platform called ZunZuneo and brought young activists from other Latin American nations to Cuba to inspire dissent.
Serbian contractor Rajko Bozic headed the Creative Associates hip-hop program. Inspired by the student movement’s protest concerts that helped destabilize former Serbian Pres. Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, Bozic posed as a promoter.
He sought to enlist Cuban rap star and Los Aldeanos front man Aldo Rodriguez to ignite a youth-led movement that would topple the Castros.
Rodriguez and Los Aldeanos were perfect for the mission. The Cuban hip-hop scene adored their music and respected their outspoken lyrics criticizing the Castro government.
They had already been under scrutiny for the songs El Rap es Guerra [“Rap is War”] and Viva Cuba Libre [“Long Live Free Cuba.”]
“I’m tired of following their plan / Socialism or Death is not a slogan,” Los Aldeanos raps in one song. “People marching blind, you have no credibility / Go and tell the captain this ship’s sinking rapidly,” they say in another.
Bozic’s goal was to intensify government pressure on Los Aldeanos and foment hostility towards the government’s oppressive censorship.
But Bozic never told Los Aldeanos his aims or that he worked for USAID. According to the Associated Press, he told Rodriguez he “worked in alternative media and marketing” and offered to produce a TV series on the group as well as other young music artists.
Bozic said he would distribute the series via DVD and thumb drive to circumvent Cuban censors.
Although the Cuban regime had banned the group from publicly performing in Havana, Los Aldeanos put on a concert for 150 fans in Candelaria on June 5, 2009.
Bozic and his crew filmed the show, and kept the cameras going when the police showed up afterwards to arrest Rodriguez. But the crew ducked away before attracting attention to themselves.
Soon after Rodriguez’s arrest, Bozic spent two days trying to convince Colombian rock sensation Juanes to allow Los Aldeanos to open for him at his concert scheduled for Havana in September 2009.
While Bozic worked with rap artists, Creative Associates pursued social media. It brought computer equipment into the country to set up its illegal Internet network and the ZunZuneo social media platform.
At its peak, ZunZuneo had 40,000 users according to the AP, or 68,000 users according to a post titled “Eight Facts About ZunZuneo” on USAID’s official blog.
Creative Associates used the platform to blast out hundreds of thousands of texts to its users asking if they thought Los Aldeanos should join Juanes on stage in the lead up to the Havana concert. At the time, none of the users nor Los Aldeanos knew who had sent the texts.
Juanes declined to share the stage with the dissident hip-hop group, but did give a “shout-out” to it after his performance and posed for photos with the group.
Around the same time it tried to team up with Juanes, Creative Associates began taking Cuban hip-hop artists to “leadership training” workshops in Madrid and Amsterdam. It wanted to indoctrinate them so they would serve as agents of social change.
A Cuban video jockey named Arian Monzon, whom Creative Associates considered to be their “contact of highest confidence” in Cuba, helped select the musicians and organize the trips through his networking site, TalentoCubano.org.
Among other lessons provided at workshops, the groups learned how to use guerrilla marketing and graffiti campaigns to promote their music and political message.
In July 2010, Los Aldeanos performed at Serbia’s Exit music festival — one of the biggest in Europe — and attended the leadership training workshops.
But the hip-hop program proved fruitless despite the money and effort expended by the U.S. government. “Instead of sparking a democratic revolution, it compromised an authentic source of protest that had produced some of the hardest-hitting grassroots criticism since Fidel Castro took power in 1959,” the AP reported.
American senators were openly critical of the USAID program after learning of it.
“USAID never informed Congress about this and should never have been associated with anything so incompetent and reckless,” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy told the AP when asked about the report. “It’s just plain stupid.”
“The conduct described suggests an alarming lack of concern for the safety of the Cubans involved, and anyone who knows Cuba could predict it would fail.”
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake was equally harsh. “These actions have gone from boneheaded to a downright irresponsible use of U.S. taxpayer money,” he told reporters.
The Creative Associates campaign relied on naive youths from Cuba and Latin America. The immigrants came to the island disguised as aid workers, but were actually there to introduce subversive ideas to Cuba’s youth through the hip-hop scene.
Many of them were unaware of the role they were playing in the political tug-of-war between Havana and Washington. This created a particularly dangerous situation for those involved.
By 2011, the Cuban government discovered the scheme and cracked down on Creative Associates and its affiliates. “On at least six occasions, Cuban authorities detained or interrogated people involved in the operation,” The Guardian reported.
Many of the performers that USAID and Creative Associates promoted either fled Cuba or quit performing out of fear of government reprisals. Los Aldeanos moved to South Florida, where their sound has taken a more commercial and less political turn.
The Cuban Rap Agency now wields much firmer control of the hip-hop movement in Cuba, promoting groups such as Doble Filo and Obsesion that are more friendly to the communist cause.
And the Castros are still in power.