USAID’s Hip Hop Hiccup and the “Smart Power Prom”

A new USAID scandal was exposed yesterday by the exceptional investigative team at the Associated Press.

USAID, acting through its notorious contracting partner, Creative Associates International, tried to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop community to intensify the political messaging of its artists and use their fans to foment a rapper’s revolution.

The elaborate plan recruited Cuban musicians for initiatives that included trips to Europe for concerts and video workshops that were actually covers for anti-regime training. The Cuban participants did not know that the U.S. government was behind it.

Cloaked in elaborate secrecy using lawyers, front companies, and banks, the project was also concealed from Members of Congress whose job it was to scrutinize it.  Senator Patrick Leahy, the USAID oversight chairman who first learned of it Thursday, called the effort “reckless” and “stupid,” although the program ended in failure two years before. It seems that only the agency, its contractors, and Cuban state security knew what was going on.

There is a detailed item below that explains the story in nearly all of its troubling dimensions, so we’ll try to avoid duplicating it here. Instead, we focus on what comes through so clearly in the coverage and in AP’s accompanying documents, and that is the air of arrogance that permeates this latest example of the regime change program.

The U.S. completely misses the fact that Cuba has its own rap community that has been leading a conversation on the island about tough issues like race and the system’s stewardship of the revolution since the Soviet Union fell. Our government can’t imagine Cubans deciding for themselves what kind of country they want to build without our training them to do so.

As Phil Peters puts it, “This mentality views Cuban civil society as ours to shape.” You can see this myopic thinking at work in reports by the consultants (their writing is cleaned up for readability) who came to Amsterdam and Madrid to train their unwitting Cuban clients to be rappers for revolution. They found Cubans who were thoughtful, cautious, and not yet ready to take decisions that could put themselves or others at risk:

“Adrian is perceiving that their work is creating a change but he is not sure what type of change…It is my perception that he will need some time to think about change he wants to cause in his community and his personal responsibility.”

“They are perceiving themselves as young artists and they would like to stay in that role (without taking the burden of big responsibilities for societal processes) although they would like to see changes in their community.”

“Trainees were very receptive, motivated and enthusiastic… But, my impression is that they are not quite sure what this they would like to do together is? Or even better why they want to do it”

“My impression is that there is a consensus within the group they want to some changes in their society but it seems they never fully discuss what kind of changes they would like to see.”

What is slowing them down? Just take a look:

“In terms of group dynamic they are quite flat and democratic — they are bringing decisions through discussion. I am sure that was great environment to work within while executing A’s map project (a previous project) but I am not sure it would be best way for the future.”

The group was being too democratic. That must have made their democracy trainer really mad.

You’d like to think that there would be accountability, that somebody would take responsibility for this effort.

Not USAID. In making the debatable claim, “Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false,” they refused to address the damage it inflicted on the existing discourse, or the risks placed on the Cubans from whom USAID involvement was concealed. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick: “It’s not something we are embarrassed about in any way.”

Not the State Department, whose spokesperson said in a briefing yesterday, “these programs are managed with appropriate discretion. So it was the responsibility of the grantee.” By grantee, we suppose she meant Creative Associates International. By responsibility, we think she was saying not the State Department’s problem.

Not the contractor, Creative. We visited the Creative website, and couldn’t find a trace of apology or even a Cuba program. Not in their news or press release page. We couldn’t even find a Cuba-Creative connection when we clicked on a map of the island on the page titled Where We Work. In the overt-covert world where they operate, Cuba seems to vanish without a trace.

We didn’t expect to find an apology because, truthfully, Washington really loves this stuff.

The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition held its annual tribute dinner the other night, an event which wags in Washington call the “Smart Power Prom.” Who was dubbed this year’s “Smart Power Prom King”? USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

The dinner was also a coronation of sorts for Senator Lindsay Graham, who will take the gavel from Senator Pat Leahy and chair the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee when the new Congress convenes in January. The subcommittee oversees Dr. Shah and the programs he administers at USAID.

A trade reporter at the event quoted Graham as saying, “I challenge any other part of the American government to prove a better return on investment than USAID.”

He said that at dinner on Wednesday. If he stands by that statement today, well, that’s kind of sad.


USAID infiltrated Cuba’s hip-hop scene to stir unrest 

For two years, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) conducted a program that infiltrated Cuba’s hip-hop community with the goal of encouraging an anti-Castro youth movement, the Associated Press reports. The effort included co-opting artists and urging them to politicize their performances and musical compositions to encourage their fans to engage in anti-government activity.

The program, which concealed its U.S. sponsorship and funding from the Cubans it tried to recruit, was eventually detected by Cuban intelligence, who detained the operatives running the project and seized the computers and USB drives they were carrying. The confiscated equipment was found to contain evidence implicating USAID and Creative Associates International in the plot. Alarmingly, some of the confiscated hardware also “contained information that endangered Cubans who are thought to have had no idea they were caught up in a clandestine program,” the AP said.

Creative Associates International is a Washington, D.C. based global contractor with a long and lucrative relationship with the U.S. development agency.

In investigative reports published earlier this year, the Associated Press revealed that Creative was behind ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like social media and text messaging platform that sought to send anti-government messages to thousands of Cuban subscribers, as well as the “travelers” program that sent Latin American youths undercover into Cuba to foment dissent. In both instances, Cubans who innocently subscribed to ZunZuneo, or who participated in an HIV/AIDS prevention workshop that was actually a front for identifying potential anti-government leaders, were never informed of the U.S. government’s involvement.

Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, told the AP “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.”

To kick-off the hip-hop campaign, Creative started a front company in Panama and hired Rajko Bozic, a Serbian music promoter, to manage the effort. Bozic visited Cuba to push Aldo Rodriguez, a famous Cuban rapper and member of the hip-hop group Los Aldeanos, to intensify the anti-government content of his music, but was instructed to keep the musician in the dark about the project’s connections to the U.S. government.

Bozic told Aldo he was trying to start a TV show about Cuban rappers, and he encouraged the rapper to use anti-government rhetoric in a filmed concert. When Juanes, the renowned Colombian singer-songwriter, announced in 2010 he would stage a concert for peace in Havana, Bozic maneuvered to get Los Aldeanos to meet with Juanes and take a picture with him, hoping that such a boost to the group’s popularity would shield them from government censorship.

After Bozic was detained entering Cuba with the equipment containing evidence of his ties to the U.S. government, he fled Cuba and Creative Associates paid Adrian Monzon, a Cuban citizen, to take over the project after Bozic left. Monzon started a social media platform for Cuban rappers, and took a group of them to Europe for a “leadership training” workshop that served as a front for teaching the rappers techniques for sparking anti-government sentiment.

Monzon also infiltrated an independent music festival in Rotilla, which Creative Associates paid $15,000 to underwrite. After Cuban officials discovered the link between USAID and Monzon, they took over the Rotilla music festival, bringing an end to one of the few outlets of independent expression that managed to spring up on the island.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Aldo confirmed that he was unaware of U.S. involvement in Bozic’s project, but he rejects the idea that Bozic convinced him to “pump up” the political content of his lyrics. “Who can believe that I would allow a man who doesn’t even live in my country to come and tell me that I have to sing stronger, politically charged songs?,” he said.

U.S. 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.

Oversight is needed more than ever. As Ric Herrero of #CUBANOW said in a statement today,

“As long as Helms-Burton is around, more stupid cowboy programs will continue to get funded through its regime change mandate and the prestige of all agencies and NGOs involved–we’re looking at you, NEDwill continue to be tarnished when the next inevitable story breaks about another half-baked operation goes nowhere.”

The AP’s timeline of the story can be read here.

Six Guantanamo detainees transferred to Uruguay 

The U.S. government transferred six detainees from its military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Uruguay, the New York Times reports. Earlier this year, Uruguay’s President José Mujica offered to take in the detainees as a humanitarian gesture, but delays attributed to the decision making process in Secretary Hagel’s office and the politicization of the issue during Uruguay’s presidential election left the deal up in the air.

The detainees, including a Palestinian, a Tunisian, and four Syrians, spent 12 years in the Guantánamo Bay prison for alleged connections to al-Qaeda, but were never charged. Once on Uruguayan soil, the men will be free to work, bring their families, and travel abroad.

The 45-square-mile Guantánamo Bay naval base has been under U.S. control since 1903. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he made clear his opposition to U.S. military presence on the island but decided not to take the base by force. In a 2009 blog post, Fidel Castro said the base “violates the most elemental principles of international law.”

Much attention has been drawn to the instances of torture and mistreatment of the prisoners held in the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, but, as retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer and former Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana Michael Parmly notes in his 2013 Fletcher Forum article:

“At its core, the question is not how the United States is treating the 166 detainees. The central issue is why the U.S. government feels it can behave exactly as it wishes, on soil that has repeatedly — by legislative as well as judicial branches of the United States — been affirmed as Cuban territory.”

Uruguay’s President Mujica, who decades ago spent eleven years in solitary confinement after being shot and captured while fighting in an urban guerilla movement inspired by the Cuban revolution, is a longtime critic of U.S. presence in Guantánamo and of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Mujica’s agreement to take in the prisoners was made without conditions, but in March Mujica said that the decision will allow Uruguay to petition the U.S. “from a moral position, to please try to improve the relationship with Cuba.”

In an open letter written last Friday to all Uruguayans and also addressed to President Obama, Mujica called for the “liberation of Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino and Gerardo Hernández, Cubans imprisoned in the United States for sixteen years,” referring to the three remaining members of the Cuban Five, whom many hope will be released in exchange for Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor arrested in Cuba in 2009 for carrying illegal communications equipment.

Peter Bourne, a former health policy aide to President Jimmy Carter, discusses plans he learned from Fidel Castro to turn the Guantánamo Bay naval base into an international medical center should the U.S. leave. See CDA’s interview with Bourne here.

Kerry hints at U.S. acceptance of Cuba presence at 2015 Americas Summit 

The Miami Herald reports that, in a speech Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it was time to “get beyond the perennial debate of attendance — who comes — and focus on the substantive issues at the summit that will be crucial to ultimately building a better future in the Americas.”

In 2015, the meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders known as the Summit of the Americas will take place in Panama. Since the Summit was started in 1994, the U.S. had been able to veto Cuba’s participation, much to the growing frustration of the region. After the 2012 Summit in Cartagena, Colombia ended in failure due to the continued exclusion of Cuba hemispheric leaders made clear that without Cuba’s participation in Panama, they would boycott the event.

Last week, Panama, the host country, formally invited Cuba to participate. The State Department has tiptoed around the issue in the months leading up to the invitation. Department officials have said that Cuba does not meet the “basic qualifications” for attendance, but they have avoided statements explicitly opposing Cuba’s presence.

Kerry’s speech ended whatever suspense remained over whether Cuba and the U.S. would finally be seated at the summit table together with the other leaders of the region.

President Obama: “In conversations” to bring Alan Gross home 

In an interview with Univision’s Jorge Ramos, President Obama said his administration has “been in conversations about how we can get Alan Gross home for quite some time,” as Fusion reports. According to the president, officials have been “working through a variety of channels” to press for Gross’ release.

USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 for “Acts Against the Independence or Territorial Integrity of the State” after being caught with illegal communications equipment that were intended to be used to establish an independent Internet network on the island. Today, his imprisonment is the greatest obstacle to improved U.S.-Cuba relations.

During a visit to Miami, former United States President Bill Clinton sat down for interviews with the Miami Herald and with Univision’s Jorge Ramos. “It is really foolish to allow what is clearly a questionable incarceration to imperil the whole future of U.S.-Cuban relations,” Clinton told the Herald. He went on to add that after resolving the Gross case “we would be well on our way” toward ending the embargo.

See last week’s News Blast marking the fifth year of Gross’ arrest here.

Cuban Interests Section extends passport renewal services

The Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C., which was forced to suspend consular services in February of this year after M&T Bank announced it would cease banking services for foreign missions, will continue renewing passports for the next three months, EFE reports. Because of tough restrictions imposed by the U.S. embargo against Cuba, the Interests Section has not yet found a replacement bank.


Protesters arrested in Havana 

Havana police arrested 32 demonstrators on Wednesday, AFP reports. Half of the protesters are members of the Ladies in White, a dissident group made up of relatives of political prisoners. Counter-protesters shouted “Long live Fidel” and “Long live Raúl” in support of Cuba’s government. A Reuters video captured the scene.

Cuban doctor, now recovered from Ebola, wants to go back to Sierra Leone 

Félix Báez, the Cuban doctor who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone, has returned to Cuba after a full recovery at a Swiss hospital, reports Reuters. Báez was among the 256 Cuban medical workers deployed to West Africa to join international efforts to contain Ebola in the region. He returned to his home country Saturday and was greeted by his wife and son. The doctor told Juventud Rebelde that he hopes to return to his post after he fully recovers. “I’m returning to Sierra Leone,” he said. “I am finishing what I started.”


Personnel shortages, training delays hold up Cuban doctors 

Many of the 256 Cuban doctors deployed to West Africa to join Ebola containment and treatment efforts have been unable to treat patients, the AP reports. Cuban health workers were given three weeks of training in Havana before their deployment, but in West Africa there have not been enough on-ground personnel to provide the Cubans with the additional training needed to start administering medical care. Officials in Guinea have also cited a language barrier as a source of the delays.

The humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders has taken a lead role in training newly-arrived medical personnel, but because of their limited staff and resources they have only been able to train 12 doctors every two weeks.

Some 342 health workers have died of Ebola while serving in West Africa. Lack of proper training for healthcare providers is one of the leading causes of infection in the region. Only one Cuban doctor has contracted the disease. He experienced a full recovery and is back in Havana.

The AP reports that many of the logistical challenges that the Cuban doctors have faced are the result of the U.S. embargo. A World Health Organization official told the AP that the U.S. halted a payment that would have covered food and lodging expenses for Cuban doctors fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone.

EU talks suspended after photography exhibit causes dispute 

Negotiations between the EU and Cuba that began in April of this year have been put on hold because of a disagreement over an EU cultural event that took place in Washington, D.C. featuring aerial photographs of Cuba, Reuters reports. Cuba also disapproved of some of the people who attended the exhibit’s inauguration.

Teams from both parties made substantial progress toward reaching a bilateral accord during the second round of negotiations in August. The third round of talks was set to take place in early January in Havana and would have focused largely on the EU’s human rights concerns. Spain’s foreign minister, who visited Havana last month, has called for better treatment of dissidents and political prisoners.

EU officials speculate that Cuba has suspended the talks to avoid the sensitive topic of Human Rights. “It seems like a pretext because Cuba feels it is not ready for the next round of talks,” said one Reuters source.

Colombia-FARC peace talks resume in Havana 

After a 10-day hiatus prompted by the kidnapping and subsequent release of Colombian Army General Ruben Alzate, peace talks between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Colombia’s government have resumed in Havana, AFP reports. General Alzate has resigned after admitting that he broke protocol by traveling into FARC territory in civilian clothing.

“We are beginning a new cycle of talks today. This clearly shows that we have left behind the events of the past weeks,” said Humberto de la Calle, Colombia’s lead negotiator. According to Colombia Reports, the parties will put in place new measures to avoid future crises.

CARICOM members call for end to embargo, greater regional cooperation 

At the 5th Summit of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) that took place in Havana over the weekend, members called on the U.S. to welcome the “full integration of Cuba into the Western Hemisphere,” in the words of Trinidad and Tobago Foreign Minister Winston Dookeran, as AFP reports.

“We continue to stand with Cuba on the United States embargo against Cuba… I call on President (Barack) Obama to lift that senseless, that senseless embargo now,” said CARICOM chair Gaston Browne.

As EFE reported, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro also asked member countries to reduce tariffs on some 300 goods to improve intra-Caribbean trade. “As small insular states and developing nations we face the challenge of surviving and moving forward in a world convulsed by a global economic crisis,” he said.

Miguel Dí­az Canel attends Ibero-American Summit 

Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Díaz Canel took President Raul Castro’s place at the 24th Ibero-American Summit that took place in Veracruz, Mexico over the weekend, the Tico Times reports. Last month, Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel García Margallo visited President Castro, who has missed every Ibero-American Summit that has taken place during his presidency, to encourage him to attend.

The Ibero-American Summit, which brings Spain, Portugal, and Andorra together with the Spanish and Portuguese speaking nations of the Americas, has struggled to stay relevant in a hemisphere increasingly turning to younger regional organizations like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Only half of the invited heads of state attended.

President of El Salvador travels to Cuba for medical treatment 

El Salvador’s President Salvador Sanchez Cerén is in Cuba for a “periodic medical checkup” after falling ill Monday at the Ibero-American summit in Mexico, EFE reports. A spokesperson of El Salvador’s government has sought to dispel uncertainties about President Cerén’s health. “I tell you the president is doing very well,” he said. “It was certainly rest that they prescribed him.”

China’s Confucius Peace Prize awarded to Fidel Castro 

Former president of Cuba Fidel Castro has received China’s Confucius Peace Prize for “contributions to peace,” the AP reports. The prize was conceived as an alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize, which China’s government has labeled as western-biased.

“As Cuba’s leader, when managing international relations, especially with the US, he did not use military force or violence to resolve controversies and disputes,” said Liu Zhiqin, co-founder of the award.

Recommended Reading

The Worst Cuba Embargo Story of 2014, Sarah Stephens, Huffington Post

The Chinese-government-funded trip that staffers of hardline Cuba travel opponents Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) and Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) took to China earlier this year is “the worst embargo story of 2014,” Stephens says. “Why do they fiercely criticize Americans who go to Cuba… while also permitting their staffs to accept travel junkets to China paid out of the pockets of China’s government?”. See CDA’s video and petition that aims to hold Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen accountable for this double standard.

The history of absurd American plots in Cuba, Adam Taylor, The Washington Post

The USAID plot recently uncovered by the AP “may sound more like a bad Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy than a real-life example of government action,” Taylor quips. But, Taylor says, the plot, with its remarkable absurdity and ineptitude, is not unusual in the broader history of U.S. covert action in Cuba.

Time Names Ebola Fighters Person of the Year, Forgets Cubans, teleSUR

Time Magazine dedicated this year’s Person of the Year issue to the health workers fighting Ebola in West Africa, but no mention is made of Cuba’s outsized contribution to treatment and containment efforts.

Why I changed my mind about Cuba, Carmen Cusido, CNN

As a daughter of Cuban exiles, Cusido grew up with a hardline approach toward her parents’ home country. Recently, though, she has started to see the embargo against Cuba is actually thwarting democratization on the island rather than cultivating it.

New Comedy Wave Tests Limits on Criticism in Cuba, Anne-Marie Garcia, Associated Press

“Vivir del cuento,” a popular Cuban TV show, makes light of the corruption, shortages, and government inefficiencies that Cubans struggle with every day. School teacher Yahima Morales says the show “speaks to the social reality of our country with humor. He doesn’t cover things up. He makes us think, and I hope he makes the people in power in this country think, too.

Cuban Scholars in U.S. Can’t Get Bank Accounts, Ernesto Londoño, New York Times

President Obama has encouraged academic and artistic exchange between the U.S. and Cuba, but for Cuban scholars that visit the U.S., tough obstacles remain. Elaine Díaz, a Cuban citizen and fellow at Harvard University, is unable to open a bank account in the U.S. because of restrictions placed on banks by the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

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