Just a few days before President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, something strange happened, and the federal government still isn’t talking openly about it.
A quick recap of events: The Associated Press released a report in December detailing how USAID, the federal agency responsible for administering aid to foreign countries, sought to co-opt Cuba's burgeoning hip-hop scene with a flood of funding over several years to "spark a youth movement against the government." News of the program provoked widespread outrage, particularly from members of Congress from both parties. But six days later, "normalization" became the marquee topic of U.S.-Cuba conversations. The same morning Obama and President Raul Castro announced the thaw, the USAID's top administrator quietly submitted his resignation.
The diplomatic shift dominated the news, and the hip-hop scandal was largely forgotten.
However, Cuban hip-hop artists are still seething about the report. Earlier this week, eight prominent Cuban hip-hop artists released an angry 8-minute track aimed at USAID and the AP, claiming the news agency was an accomplice in "discrediting" their movement and fails to be critical enough of the Castro government in its news coverage.
The song's simple hook is telling: it’s a bitter chant of "A mi no me pueden comprar," or "I can't be bought."
The rappers paint themselves as stuck between two extremes in the wake of the scandal: the oppressive, censor-crazy Castro regime on one side and the appearance they were bought and manipulated by a foreign government on the other. The rappers say the AP report, which said the rappers were unaware of USAID’s involvement, led authorities in Cuba to censor them even further, undermining their once well-respected role in Cuban culture.
The AP told Fusion: "We stand by our coverage."
Fusion brought the song and a few of the lyrics to the attention of USAID Deputy Administrator Mark Feierstein during an interview on Wednesday. His response: "Our programs there are pretty straightforward and I believe they should be uncontroversial for anyone who cares about promotion of democracy and rights."
"None of our programs are covert," he added. "The intent is to provide to civil society and others the fundamental rights that are enjoyed by people all over the world… We are helping Cubans exercise the rights that are enshrined in their international covenants."
The response left some unanswered questions.
In an interview with a key figure in the controversy last December, film producer Diddier Santos told me that Cuban artists "were not complicit in this scandal; we artists are the victims of it." He added the scandal is indicative of the struggles independent artists face on the island.
The rappers agree, and they say they want a more detailed explanation from USAID.
"We did what we could do, because we wrapped it in a nice video clip. We wanted it to come out just after the news broke, but the conditions in Cuba are extremely difficult; people live too far apart from each other for these kinds of collaborations," Soandry, one of the rappers featured on the song, told El Nuevo Herald on Monday.
"Something like this should at least warrant a response," he said.
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.