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    Senator – USAID’s Cuba hip-hop project ‘reckless’

    Senator: USAID’s Cuba hip-hop project ‘reckless’
    By DESMOND BUTLER, MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN, LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ and ANDREA
    RODRIGUEZ

    HAVANA (AP) — A U.S. agency’s secret infiltration of Cuba’s underground
    hip-hop 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.

    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.

    “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.”

    The plan called for contractors to recruit dozens of Cuban musicians for
    projects disguised as cultural initiatives but really aimed at stoking a
    movement of fans to challenge the government. They filmed TV shows and
    set up a social network to connect some 200 musicians and artists on the
    island, who would be encouraged to start a social movement. Artists were
    flown to Europe ostensibly for concerts and video workshops, but the
    real aim was to groom them as activists.

    The hip-hop operation was conceived by one of USAID’s largest
    contractors, Creative Associates International, using a team of Serbian
    music promoters. The Washington-based contractor also led other efforts
    aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government, including a secret
    Cuban Twitter text messaging service and an operation that sent in young
    inexperienced Latin American “tourists” to recruit a new generation of
    activists.

    The collection of USAID missions, which were all undertaken over the
    same period and cost millions, failed.

    “These actions have gone from boneheaded to a downright irresponsible
    use of U.S. taxpayer money,” Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a longtime
    critic of the USAID’s programs in Cuba, said in a statement.

    To keep their Cuban targets in the dark, Creative Associates contractors
    used a front company in Panama with directors in Tortola in the British
    Virgin Islands — and a lawyer in Liechtenstein to head it. Contractors
    used codenames, encrypted email and cover stories to fool Cuban authorities.

    A mountain of evidence is revealed in hundreds of pages of contractors’
    documents obtained by the AP that detail the hip-hop project.
    Nevertheless, in a statement, USAID said, “Any assertions that our work
    is secret or covert are simply false.”

    Creative referred questions to USAID.

    At a briefing Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said
    Creative “provided USAID assurances that it had security protocols in
    place” for “operating in a closed society and would strictly employ
    those protocols for all professionals traveling to Cuba.”

    She said Cubans risk upsetting authorities by being involved in normal
    community initiatives. But working for U.S.-funded groups is illegal in
    Cuba and Cubans recruited for the hip-hop program were not told they
    were partnering with American-backed contractors.

    Aldo Rodriguez, the front man for Los Aldeanos hip-hop group, was
    detained on at least two occasions, spending a night in jail. A Serbian
    contractor was detained coming into Havana with equipment, including a
    potentially incriminating memory stick that worried the contractors. He
    cut his trip short just weeks before Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen working
    on another secret USAID program, was arrested.

    In 2011, a Cuban knowingly working for the U.S. program was detained in
    Havana after a meeting with a Creative manager in Miami. Computer
    equipment was seized with documents linking him to USAID.

    In the end, the USAID program accomplished the opposite of what it
    intended, compromising Cuba’s vibrant hip-hop culture. When the program
    started in 2009, it had already produced some of the hardest-hitting
    grassroots criticism since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

    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.

    Los Aldeanos former manager, Melisa Riviere, had suspicions about the
    music promoters, and documents show that Creative considered recruiting
    her, but thought she wouldn’t play along. She says the manipulation
    harmed rappers.

    “I think they were exploited as a resource, they were used as a tool and
    they’ve lost their authenticity,” she says.

    But in an interview Thursday in Tampa, where he lives, Aldo Rodriguez
    said that neither he nor his partner, Bian Rodriguez, ever took money in
    Cuba from anyone to sing and that he had no idea the Serbian who came to
    invite him to the EXIT festival was working for USAID.

    “I never sang anything because someone was telling me what to say,” he
    told the AP. “My songs, I compose. The most real thing in that country
    were the rappers, and now they are trying to discredit us.”

    View gallery
    In this Aug. 6, 2010, file photo, people enjoy the ocean during the 12th
    annual Rotilla Festival in …
    He said he was committed to speaking out against the government and had
    been arrested “too many times to remember”long before he met people tied
    to the USAID operation.

    On his Facebook page, Bian Rodriguez also said he was never aware of the
    USAID program and had pursued his artistic career without ever
    compromising his beliefs. “It’s unfortunate that we get pulled into this
    type of situation, when art is being made from the heart,” the statement
    read. “The truth will never be tainted.”

    In a written statement Thursday, the organizers of the Rotilla festival
    said they expected a “storm” in reaction to the revelations, one that
    could severely damage Cuban artists unknowingly targeted by the USAID
    program.

    “The destruction that it will bring won’t be seen in homes, structures
    or property. The whirlwind will drag away names, reputations and even
    history itself,” the group wrote. “The events to come will transform or
    extinguish independent art and culture in Cuba.”

    ___

    Documents on USAID program: http://apne.ws/1B2vAys

    ___

    Associated Press writer Desmond Butler reported this story from
    Washington and Belgrade, Michael Weissenstein and Andrea Rodriguez
    reported in Havana and Laura Wides-Munoz reported from Miami.

    Source: Senator: USAID’s Cuba hip-hop project ‘reckless’ – Yahoo News –
    http://news.yahoo.com/senator-usaids-cuba-hip-hop-project-reckless-230944485.html;_ylt=AwrBJR8T3YpUzS0A0obQtDMD