Why USAID Got Into Bed With Cuban Rappers

The U.S. Agency for International Development has been quietly backing Cuban rappers opposed to the Castro regime.

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 4crop

For evidence that the U.S. government really has run out of ideas in its policy toward Cuba, look no further than the U.S. Agency for International Development. According to an Associated Press report Thursday, USAID spent more than two years trying to infiltrate Cuba’s underground hip-hop movement.

According to the AP, USAID worked with a U.S. contractor, Creative Associates International, to promote Cuban rappers and organize concerts with artists opposed to the regime of leader Fidel Castro. As the AP tells the story, it’s an effort that mostly failed and ended up backfiring. The Cuban government ended up taking over a musical festival that Creative Associates had become involved in, and one of the groups the contractor worked with, Los Aldeanos, ended up leaving the island for Florida. Moreover, “On at least six occasions,” the AP reports, “Cuban authorities detained or interrogated people involved in the program.”

On its face, the story reads like a classic case of bureaucratic bumbling and second-rate spying. The notion of a Washington agency having an ability to identify promising Cuban rappers sounds ludicrous. And USAID’s involvement itself harkens back to the agency’s failed, and controversial, effort to start a “Cuban Twitter.”

USAID, however, forcefully maintains that the program was not secret and that efforts to promote the independent Cuban music industry fall well within the agency’s efforts to promote civil society in undemocratic countries. “Our work in Cuba helps to empower Cubans, increase their access to information, and strengthen civil society,” USAID spokesman Matthew Herrick wrote in an email to Foreign Policy. “The issue here is not our support for peaceful civic engagement or a strong civil society — which is well known — but how Cubans and others were harassed and detained for supporting a concert.”

Trying to influence Cuba’s government and people via rap music actually makes some sense. Black Cubans are heavily discriminated against and have disproportionate poverty rates.

Cuban hip-hop, nurtured by Miami radio stations snatched out of the air on wire-hanger antennas and exiled Black Panthers, emerged as a key voice of dissent on the island after the communist revolution there. “Cuban hip-hop played an important role in the early 2000s in that it talked about racial discrimination,” said Sujatha Fernandes, an associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. “Prior to that, politicians were saying ‘we got rid of racism when we had the revolution!’”

According to Fernandes, whose book Cuba Represent! examines the island’s music and politics in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the first generation of Cuban hip-hop artists wasn’t categorically opposed to the Castro regime. Rather, it asked the government to deliver on the communist revolution’s promises of racial equality and justice.

When, for example, Hermanos de Causa sings of “black tears” in its song “Lagrimas Negras,” the group is addressing Cuba’s rampant racism. It’s a distinctly Cuban brand of hip-hop, rooted in the revolution and with nods to the country’s deep musical tradition.

But younger artists are taking a much harder line against the Castro regime. Emblematic of this trend is a duo known as Los Aldeanos, which became the centerpiece of USAID’s local hip-hop promotion. “Los Aldeanos are part of a new crop of rappers that build a broader audience outside of Cuba and are much more confrontational in their politics toward the state,” Fernandes said.

By creating a Cuban Rap Agency, the Castro regime has tried to harness the power of a genre it once viewed as a suspicious American import. The body gives the island some control over its rappers, but Los Aldeanos have refused to join, likening membership in it to slavery, when interviewed by the New York Times in 2006.

Indeed, their song “Viva Cuba Libre” is a testament to their stance against the government.

For a U.S. bureaucrat trying to push democracy in Cuba, the duo, who now live in Florida, was almost too good to be true. So far, Los Aldeanos haven’t commented on the revelations that USAID tried to promote their work.

While not calling the program covert, USAID’s Herrick said discretion is important. And that, he said, should be the point. “We recognize that ordinary Cubans run the risk of upsetting the Cuban authorities by participating in community initiatives,” Herrick wrote. “And that is the issue — the restrictive, repressive environment that limits Cubans’ ability to express themselves freely.”

With that Los Aldeanos would probably agree.

YouTube/Los Aldeanos Oficial


Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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