HAVANA - 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. Still, contractors working for the U.S. Agency for International Development kept putting themselves and their targets at risk, the AP investigation found.
Hip-hop artists whom USAID contractors tried to promote either left the country or stopped performing after pressure from the Cuban government, and one of the island's most popular independent music festivals was taken over after officials linked it to USAID.
'Lack of concern'
"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."
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake also criticized USAID on Thursday. "These actions have gone from boneheaded to a downright irresponsible use of U.S. taxpayer money," the Arizona Republican said.
The Cuban government issued no official response to the report, but the AP story led state-run television's afternoon news broadcast and was featured prominently on the websites of government news outlets.
The same contractors, Creative Associates, created a "Cuban Twitter" social network and dispatched inexperienced Latin American youths to recruit activists, operations that were the focus of previous AP stories.
Hiding the money trail
"Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false," USAID said. Creative Associates declined to comment.
At first, the hip-hop operation was run in Cuba by Serbian contractor Rajko Bozic, who headed public relations for the EXIT Festival, an annual music event that grew out of an antigovernment student movement.
Bozic declined to talk about the Cuba program.
The Serb homed in swiftly on Los Aldeanos, a hip-hop group frustrated by official pressure and widely respected by Cuban youth for its hard-hitting lyrics.
Creative used a Panama front company and a bank in Lichtenstein to hide the money trail from Cuba, where thousands of dollars went to fund a TV program starring Los Aldeanos. It would be distributed on DVDs to circumvent Cuba's censors.
Then the Colombian rock star Juanes announced a September 2009 concert in the heart of Havana. Creative managers held a two-day strategy session on how to persuade Juanes to let Los Aldeanos perform with him.
It didn't happen, but Juanes publicly thanked the rappers after the concert and was photographed with them.
In a statement Wednesday, a Juanes spokesman said that the concert had no political agenda and that Juanes was unaware of the USAID activities.
A week after the concert, Los Aldeanos' front man, Aldo Rodriguez, was detained for illegal possession of a computer.
Xavier Utset, who ran the program for Creative, saw the arrest as a "perfect test" of whether raising Aldo's profile would keep the rapper out of jail.
In the end, a relative of Aldo's turned to Silvio Rodriguez, himself a legendary singer. Rodriguez said he called a friend in Cuba's Culture Ministry and asked for the computer to be returned.
Bozic was detained coming into Havana with equipment, including a potentially incriminating memory stick, generating anxiety among the contractors.
He cut his trip short, and other contractors were told he wouldn't be returning soon.