People getting all bent out of shape by the idea of USAID funding Cuba's underground hip-hop scene need to drink a rum and coke and relax, according to a figure at the center of the controversy.
Before critics start to squawk sanctimoniously about the U.S. using hip-hop artists in a plot to destabilize a foreign government through subversive songs, people need to understand the reality of trying to survive as an independent artist in Cuba, says Cuban filmmaker and event producer Diddier Santos.
Santos denies that he or his production company Matraka Productions ever knowingly received funding from the U.S. to support their countercultural music and arts festival in Cuba. "But with that said, who would you rather get money from? The Cuban government who will only give you money if you follow the party line, or another government who will give you creative freedom to do what you want to do?" Santos told Fusion.
"We've gotten money from the government of Holland too, and no one ever had an issue with that. It all comes back to this mess that we have between our countries, that [the U.S.] is the 'enemy'," he added. "My conscience is clean, but if things were how they should be this [scandal] would have been no big deal. But it's not, so it's seen as a treason."
The scandal broke on Wednesday with an AP report that found USAID had a program aimed at fomenting unrest in Cuba by infiltrating the island's hip-hop scene.
The report said that a Serbian national was contracted by USAID as a bagman to subsidize Cuba's largest hip-hop group, Los Aldeanos. The Serbian agent used his monied influence to encourage the group members to amplify their anti-government statements in public. Members of Los Aldeanos were brought to Serbia for a "training" that U.S. handlers hoped would embolden the group's socially conscious messages. The artists claim they were not aware of USAID's role or political intentions.
Santos' project, the Rotilla Festival, once Cuba's largest independently organized counterculture music festival, also received funding from USAID, according to AP. The event, which prominently featured the island's top hip-hop artists and drew tens of thousands of fans at its peak in 2010, was expropriated by the Cuban government once it apparently caught wind of the U.S. involvement, according to the AP report.
By funding Los Aldeanos and the Rotilla Festival, USAID hoped to spark a greater anti-government movement.
A 2013 documentary film called Ni Rojo, Ni Verde, AZUL, which Santos and others produced, documented the Cuban government's expropriation of the popular festival. Before a premier screening of the film in Miami in April of last year, Santos said that he and his team were shocked by the government's takeover of their festival. "It was at this moment that we decided to make the documentary, to make sure that everybody knew what had happened," he told me in an interview last year.
"We were robbed," he lamented.
This week's AP report, however, made it clear what had happened — the Cubans got whiff of U.S. funding and moved in to take over the party.
The producer insists that he and others were stuck in the middle of an old geo-political tussle.
"We were not complicit in this scandal; we artists are the victims of it," Santos told Fusion in response to the AP report. "It's the Cuban government who comes out on top here, because now [the report] gives them free reign to censor hip-hop like they have wanted to do for so long. All they have to say is 'you're getting American money!' and that's it."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.