[News] Why USAID Could Never Spark a Hip Hop Revolution in Cuba

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Dec 15 16:10:55 EST 2014

  Why USAID Could Never Spark a Hip Hop Revolution in Cuba


Any attempt to engineer a U.S.-affiliated movement from above is 
destined to be revealed for the farce that it is.

Sujatha Fernandes

Between 2006 and 2007, I received numerous visits from two State 
Department officials at my home in Harlem, New York. I had just written 
a book on Cuban cultural production, with a large section on rap. I was 
never home when they came, so they left messages with my neighbors, 
telling them I should urgently contact them. When they finally found me 
at home one day, I agreed to meet with them at a nearby Starbucks. 
During the meeting, they wanted to know about my research on Cuban rap. 
One of the agents, a male, said that he enjoyed Cuban rap, he listened 
to it frequently and wanted to know what my favorite groups were. The 
other, a woman, pressed me for more details about my work in Cuba. I 
didn't give out any information. I told them that anything I could say 
on the topic was already written in my book. After this meeting, the 
harassment continued. I finally sought out a human rights lawyer, 
Michael Smith. He informed me that it is never advisable to meet with an 
agent of the government alone, and that if an agent should try to make 
contact, one should have a lawyer write to the agent on one's behalf. 
Smith then sent them a letter saying that I did not wish to speak to 
them anymore, and that if they had any questions, they could contact him 
directly. We didn't hear from them again.

So last week, when the AP news story broke about USAID infiltrating 
Cuban rap groups 
between 2009 and 2010, I was not surprised. Infiltration is something 
that Cuban rappers have been wary of for some time. Navigating the 
legions of foreign journalists, producers, researchers, and artists has 
always been a challenge for Cuban rappers, especially during the heyday 
of the movement in the early 2000s, and there was sometimes a suspicion 
of people who didn't enter the scene through someone known to the 
community. But in the latter half of the 2000s, when many rappers were 
emigrating and foreign contacts and state support were drying up, Cuban 
rappers were more vulnerable to the likes of outside actors like USAID, 
who sought to infiltrate the movement and manipulate it to its own ends.

But the USAID mission to "spark" a "pro-democracy" movement of Cuban 
rappers was bound to fail for many reasons. Cubans already had a 
movement. Over the last several decades, Cuban hip hoppers have built a 
multi-faceted movement that raises issues of racism within Cuban 
society, provides a channel of expression for Afro-Cuban youth, makes 
connections with activists and celebrated artists around the globe, and 
has had a long-lasting impact on Cuban cultural production. It was an 
organic movement built from the ground up, from the streets and the 
housing projects. Cuban rap is hope, and anger, and poetry, and no U.S. 
agency could create that.

The Cuban hip hop movement was not trying to overthrow the Castro 
government. Artists found ways to work within the system, while making 
their criticisms in veiled ways, or even openly at times. The "Hip Hop 
/Revolución/" that they talk about is one that is in dialogue with the 
historic Cuban revolution, and youth have been putting pressure on their 
leaders to live up to the promises of that revolution. Even the younger, 
more confrontational artists like Los Aldeanos, one of the groups that 
USAID tried to infiltrate, didn't see themselves as trying to topple the 
government. That was never part of their agenda.

Pro-democracy means something completely different to Cuban rappers than 
it does to USAID. For Cuban rappers, democracy has been about a more 
full sense of participation and recognition within their society. It has 
been about being able to influence policy and express their ideas about 
racism, inequality, and the contradictions that free market policies 
have brought to an increasingly dysfunctional bureaucratic socialism. It 
has been about trying to rethink what revolution might mean for the next 
generation and how they could see that in practice. For USAID, democracy 
promotion means overthrowing the Cuban government and ushering in a free 
market regime friendly to the United States. Those two goals have never 
been and could never be compatible.

The documents secured by the AP reveal a frightening level of 
manipulation of Cuban rappers by USAID. Like with ZunZuneo, the failed 
Cuban twitter project also engineered by USAID 
the actions of this agency put Cubans at risk of state repression and 
threatened a closure of the critical spaces that rappers had already 
built and defended. USAID realizes the power of culture to provide a 
powerful political voice for young people. What it doesn't realize is 
that in a society shaped by successive generations of revolutionary 
projects, any attempt to engineer a U.S.-affiliated movement from above 
is destined to be revealed for the farce that it is.


/Sujatha Fernandes teaches Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate 
Center, CUNY. She is the author of several books including /Cuba 
Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary 
Cultures/(Duke University Press, 2006), and, most recently, /Close to 
the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation/(Verso, 2011)./

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863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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