What A Failed Hip-Hop Experiment Can Teach Us About The Future Of U.S.-Cuba Relations A report suggests that USAID infiltrated Cuba's nascent hip-hop scene several years ago. Now that Cuba-U.S. relations have officially begun to thaw, what is the future of programs like these?
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What A Failed Hip-Hop Experiment Can Teach Us About The Future Of U.S.-Cuba Relations

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What A Failed Hip-Hop Experiment Can Teach Us About The Future Of U.S.-Cuba Relations

What A Failed Hip-Hop Experiment Can Teach Us About The Future Of U.S.-Cuba Relations

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A new chapter has been announced in U.S.-Cuba relations. But for more than half a century, there've been serious diplomatic hostilities and blunders between the two countries. We're going to examine one of the most recent accusations - that the United States Agency for International Development covertly funded anti-government musicians in Cuba. NPR's Jasmine Garsd filed this report.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Cuban of rap has been criticizing the Castro regime for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CENSURADOS")

LOS ALDEANOS: (Singing in foreign language).

GARSD: Cuban rap duo Los Aldeanos has been criticizing the Castro regime for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CENSURADOS")

LOS ALDEANOS: (Singing in foreign language).

GARSD: But these days, the duo's political position is coming under scrutiny. A recent investigation published by the Associated Press says USAID secretly funneled money to contractors to recruit, promote and set up concerts for young rappers like Los Aldeanos - artists seeking social change. The program reportedly took place between 2009 and 2011.

Peter Kornbluh is with the National Security Archives and is the author of the book "Back Channel To Cuba," about secret negotiations between Cuba and the U.S. He says the allegations aren't really surprising. The hip-hop community represents a disenfranchised part of Cuban society.

PETER KORNBLUH: The hip-hop groups were mostly Afro-Cuban young people and - who have, you know, by and large, been more marginalized. They have less relatives in the United States sending money than the white and lighter-skinned Cubans. So, you know, there's been a lot of frustration...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CENSURADOS")

LOS ALDEANOS: (Singing in foreign language).

GARSD: For his part, rapper El B says he never in his life received money from USAID.

EL B: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: He goes on to say the AP's accusation that he and his musical partner received, quote, "political training" is simply untrue. But he also says he sees no problem with organizations funding dissent on the island.

EL B: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: What is the problem with receiving help and funding? How do you think Fidel Castro made a revolution? Do you think he broke his piggy bank? Fidel Castro went looking for money everywhere.

EL B: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: USAID declined NPR's interview request, but provided this statement. Quote, "for decades, USAID has provided assistance to the people of Cuba to meet basic human needs. Allegations that USAID has conducted or supported covert operations are baseless," unquote.

Nevertheless, between 2009 and 2011, Congress allotted $55 million for Cuba programs - more than half of which went to USAID. Christopher Sabatini is a senior policy director at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, a think tank and business organization focused on Latin American issues.

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI: Congress - currently Sen. Menendez, but previously under the Bush administration - will not let USAID scale back these programs. There was at one point, in the Bush administration, $20 million allocated to these programs. That's for a country of 11 million people. It's absurd.

GARSD: If USAID involvement in Cuban hip-hop is true, it won't be the first such program. In fact, the USAID hip-hop project took place around the same time as two other high-profile, failed ventures. Zunzuneo, or Cuban Twitter, was a 2010 project to build a social media network to facilitate regime change. And Alan Gross, the imprisoned American who was released from a Cuban prison last week after the announcement of the fall in Cuba-U.S. relations, with a USAID telecommunications contractor. But the U.S. and Cuban governments have been building cultural bridges for years. Kornbluh points to a 1999 independent cultural exchange program.

KORNBLUH: The Cuban government hosted something called Puentes Musicales - Musical Bridges - in which a whole series of artists came down - Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac was there, playing the drums. Bonnie Raitt was there.

GARSD: And earlier this year, when Jay-Z and Beyonce went to the island, it was with the people-to-people program, which stipulates that travelers must support civil society. But do recent changes really mean there will be no more Cuban Twitters or USAID-funded rappers? Kornbluh hopes so.

KORNBLUH: We have begun now a new era. And in the writing of this next chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations, the whole issue of regime change is going to fall by the wayside. We're going to have normal relations - normal diplomatic relations, normal cultural relations, hopefully, down the line, normal economic relations.

GARSD: As for rapper El B, it's not the accusations of being a USAID puppet that hurt him. It's the fact that anyone would believe them.

EL B: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: Everything I did, I did because I wanted to. I never felt used at any time, and people who know me know I'm genuine. The part that really hurts me is how the people get manipulated. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Washington.

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