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Behind USAID’s failed attempt to infiltrate Cuban hip-hop

December 13, 2014 at 6:43 PM EST
This week the Associated Press revealed that the U.S. government attempted and failed to co-opt the hip-hop scene in Cuba to "spark a youth movement against the government." Trish Wilson of the Associated Press joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington, D.C with the latest.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: This week, the Associated Press revealed that the United States government attempted and failed to co-opt the hip-hop scene in Cuba to, quote, “spark a youth movement against the government.”

This failure comes on the heels of two others also reported by the A.P. — one to create a fake “Cuban Twitter”, and the other to send young people into Cuba to recruit activists.

Here to help us make sense of this story is Trish Wilson of the Associated Press, who joins me now from Washington, D.C.

So, Trish, what was this program? How did it work?

TRISH WILSON: Well, the intent was to radicalize the Cuban people to challenge their own government.

And the way it worked was the USAID contractors infiltrated the hip-hop scene and were trying to generate a fan base that would speak out against the government and challenge it and ultimately lead them to democratic reforms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how did they — how did they sort of try to foment more dissent?

I mean, who did they have on the ground?

TRISH WILSON: Well, USAID activities in Cuban are illegal there, so — and people who operate or participate in those programs can go to jail.

So, what the USAID contractors did is they went to Serbia, where they recruited two Serbian music promoters to help them in Cuba.

The reason why they thought this would work was because in 2000, it was a youth movement and student protest concerts in Serbia that helped bring down the presidency of Slobodan Milosevic.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, there was already a community there, there was already citizen speech against the government that was happening?

TRISH WILSON: Oh, yes. The hip-hop scene was pretty much at its peak at that time.

The artists were speaking out against the government. It was — it took a lot of people, I think, by surprise to realize how much dissent was allowed in Cuba at the time.

But the artists that USAID was focusing on were called Los Aldeanos — and they had a song called “Rap is War.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so, where did this go wrong?

How did the Cuban government find out? Or what were the repercussions of this program?

TRISH WILSON: Well, the people that were part of the program kept getting detained by the Cuban officials who would go through their computers and their thumb drives and which constantly trying to figure out what was going on.

The USAID contractors continued to go through customs with their computers and they were detained so many times, that the Cubans ultimately figured it out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so, what happened as a result, say, to the band members?

TRISH WILSON: Well, one of the key things that happened is that there was an independent music concert festival in Cuba at the time called La Rotilla.

And at the concert in 2010, the Los Aldeanos performed before a big crowd of 15,000, the biggest crowd ever.

But afterwards, the Cubans figured out that the concert was actually funded by USAID.

So, they took it over, and that ended the big independent music festival that existed on the island at the time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Most people in the audience are also going to wonder, what does USAID have to do with any of this?

I mean, when we think of USAID, usually, we are thinking of bags of foods in countries that are desperate for food.

How did this line up with the mission?

TRISH WILSON: Well, beyond its humanitarian mission, part of USAID’s mission is to promote democracy efforts around the world.

So, this is one of those pro-democracy efforts.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Trish Wilson joining us from Washington, D.C., from the Associates Press, thanks so much.

TRISH WILSON: Thank you.

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