Thanks to new reporting from the Associated Press, and thanks to cooperation from whoever is providing documents on U.S. government programs in Cuba, we now know of another failed adventure of USAID’s covert action that began in 2009: an attempt to steer Cuban hip-hop into creating “youth networks for social change” and that would constitute a political challenge to the Cuban government.
The operation was run by Xavier Utset, who worked for USAID contractor Creative Associates in an office in Costa Rica. The idea was to replicate a Serbian social movement from a decade before that involved youth, music, and anti-Milosevic politics. A Serbian music promoter was hired to work with Cuban rappers. Funding was done through a Panamanian shell company headed by a lawyer in Liechtenstein. The promoter, Rajko Bozic, got to work in Cuba, presenting himself to Cuban artists as someone who works in alternative media and marketing. In the course of the program, only one Cuban was told that the U.S. government was behind it.
Pity the USAID spokesman who has to issue statements like this, from yesterday: “Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false.”
Covert action is defined in U.S. law as “activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” Which is precisely what USAID has been doing.
But to accept that it’s covert action involves more than semantics. It would imply USAID having to run programs competently, starting with assessments of feasibility that would fall apart as soon as its cast of amateurs were revealed. It would imply coordination, such as stopping Alan Gross from traveling to Cuba with satellite equipment in December 2009, just one month after the Serb Bozic was detained as he entered Cuba with “all of Best Buy on his back,” as a contractor described it to AP. And it would imply a leadership that takes responsibility for operatives who get in trouble rather than issuing drivel like this or this.
A few more points:
This program was conceived and funded during the Bush Administration and carried out at the beginning of President Obama’s first term. The Obama people seem not to have taken stock of USAID’s operations in Cuba. That non-decision now looms as a big decision with important foreign policy consequences and one man in jail.
This program collapsed in part because, like Alan Gross, its operatives traveled to Cuba with laptops that were the equivalent of their filing cabinets, giving Cuban intelligence access to their contracts, program documents, and U.S. government affiliation. This is what I mean by “amateur.” And as with the Alan Gross and ZunZuneo projects, the money was one hundred percent wasted.
Through this operation, USAID harmed civil society in Cuba. It gave Cuban security services reason to increase vigilance on hip-hop and other aspects of genuine civil society because they were being targeted by a foreign government’s political programs. The main target, the rappers Los Aldeanos, no longer live in Cuba. USAID compromised an independent Cuban music festival and tried to influence covertly the concert organized by the Colombian artist Juanes. The Cuban confidant now works at a Papa John’s in Miami.
It is profoundly disrespectful to Cuban citizens to enlist their participation in U.S. programs without disclosing the U.S. role or purpose, and it’s patronizing for USAID to claim it’s for their protection. In the case of the rappers Los Aldeanos, their training was intended “to focus them a little more on their role as agents of social mobilization,” the program manager said. This mentality views Cuban civil society as ours to shape, with the Cubans involved having no right to know our role.
If you wonder why the U.S. government would go to such lengths, the answer is that for all its talk about the effectiveness of Cuba’s dissidents, the assessment in private was different. Utset himself published in 2008 an analysis that credited the dissidents’ ability “to exert influence on the state of relations between the Cuban government and the international community” but doubted their ability “to build a broad-based movement and influence State-society relations.” The dissidents “have been largely unable to establish strong connections with the broader population and successfully appeal for its active engagement,” he wrote.
In other words, it was determined that the Cuban people needed a big push and lots of training from the United States to put themselves on the path to self-determination.