U.S. Co-Opted
Cuban Hip-Hop

 A U.S. agency’s secret infiltration of Cuba’s underground hip-hop groups scene to spark a youth movement against the government was “reckless” and “stupid,” Sen. Patrick Leahy said Thursday after The Associated Press revealed the operation.

Photo: AP Photo

On at least six occasions, Cuban authorities detained or interrogated people involved in the program; they also confiscated computer hardware that in some cases contained information that jeopardized Cubans who likely had no idea they were caught up in a clandestine U.S. operation. Still, contractors working for the U.S. Agency for International Development kept putting themselves and their targets at risk, the AP investigation found.

Hip-hop artists who USAID contractors tried to promote either left the country or stopped performing after pressure from the Cuban government, and one of the island’s most popular independent music festivals was taken over after officials linked it to USAID.

“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,” said Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee. “USAID never informed Congress about this and should never have been associated with anything so incompetent and reckless. It’s just plain stupid.”

US. Sen. Jeff Flake also criticized USAID Thursday. “These actions have gone from boneheaded to a downright irresponsible use of U.S. taxpayer money,” the Arizona Republican said.

The Cuban government issued no official response to the report, but the AP story led state-run television’s afternoon news broadcast and was featured prominently on the websites of government news outlets.

The same contractors, Creative Associates, created a “Cuban Twitter” social network and dispatched inexperienced Latin American youth to recruit activists, operations that were the focus of previous AP stories.

“Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false,” USAID said. Creative Associates declined to comment.

At first, the hip-hop operation was run in Cuba by Serbian contractor Rajko Bozic, who headed public relations for the EXIT Festival, an annual music event that grew out of an anti-government student movement.

Bozic declined to talk about the Cuba program.

The Serb homed in swiftly on Los Aldeanos, a hip-hop group frustrated by official pressure and widely respected by Cuban youth for its hard-hitting lyrics.

Creative used a Panama front company and a bank in Lichtenstein to hide the money trail from Cuba, where thousands of dollars went to fund a TV program starring Los Aldeanos. It would be distributed on DVDs to circumvent Cuba’s censors.

Then the Colombian rock star Juanes announced a September 2009 concert in the heart of Havana. Creative managers held a two-day strategy session on how to persuade Juanes to let Los Aldeanos perform with him.

It didn’t happen, but Juanes publicly thanked the rappers after the concert and was photographed with them.

In a statement Wednesday, a Juanes spokesman said that the concert had no political agenda and that Juanes was unaware of the USAID activities.

A week after the concert, Los Aldeanos’ charismatic front man, Aldo Rodriguez, was detained for illegal possession of a computer.

Xavier Utset, who ran the program for Creative, saw the arrest as a “perfect test” of whether raising Aldo’s profile would keep the rapper out of jail.

In the end, a relative of Aldo’s turned to Silvio Rodriguez, himself a legendary singer. Rodriguez, in an AP interview in Havana, said he called a friend in Cuba’s Culture Ministry and asked for the computer to be returned.

“When you find out you could be surrounded by a conspiracy, it’s shocking,” Rodriguez said.

At one point, the contractors approached a government sex education institute run by President Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, to be part of the EXIT Festival in Serbia, even as its organizers were running the anti-Castro hip-hop operation.

Mariela Castro told the AP that her institute sent two representatives to the festival but didn’t build deeper ties.

Contractors paid $15,000 to underwrite an arts and music festival put on by the family of Pablo Milanes, the famed singer of “nueva trova” music and a man with close government ties. Their secret aim was to seed “the minds of festival organizers with new ideas” and persuade them to send “high-impact messages” to the audience, read one report.

Milanes’ daughter, Suylen Milanes, said government officials showed up the day before the festival and warned her that she was associating with unsavory characters. They even showed her copies of Bozic’s emails, which they called suspicious, she recalled. Her father declined to comment.

Clearly, Cuban officials had figured out what was going on.

Bozic was detained coming into Havana with equipment, including a potentially incriminating memory stick, generating anxiety among the contractors. He cut his trip short and other contractors were told he wouldn’t be returning soon.

Then, Cuban authorities detained a photographer working with Adrian Monzon, the only Cuban who documents show knowingly worked for Creative Associates on the hip-hop program. State security then interrogated Monzon, a video jockey. He told Creative that the Cuban authorities were worried about Bozic and suspected links to the CIA.

Four months later, Los Aldeanos left Cuba for their first trip off the island to perform at the EXIT festival in Serbia. They were the unwitting recipients of leadership training meant “to focus them a little more on their role as agents of social mobilization,” wrote Utset, a veteran of Cuban pro-democracy efforts.

Monzon was detained again returning to Havana in April 2011, his computer and a memory stick seized. When they were returned, he realized they contained a document with the names of two Creative Associates managers.

Monzon and Utset did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Aldo would only say that his “conscience is clear.”

In August 2010, Los Aldeanos took the stage at Rotilla, one of Cuba’s largest independent music festivals. Before a crowd of about 15,000 people, they lacerated government officials by name and taunted the police.

Within months, a USAID contractor told his handlers that the Cubans said USAID had infiltrated the festival, and soon enough, the Cubans took it over. In the end, Los Aldeanos moved to South Florida after complaining that the Cuban government made it impossible for them to work in their own country.