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Los Aldeanos
Los Aldeanos: unwitting US agents

US agency used Exit festival to stir up youth unrest in Cuba

The head of Exit PR was paid to book a Cuban anti-government hip hop act to destabilise the authorities

If there's one genre of music capable of sparking revolution, it's hip hop. From Public Enemy through to Nas, rappers have always used their music to deliver calls to arms – which maybe explains why a US government agency tried to use Cuba's underground hip hop scene to spark youth unrest in the country.

Inspired by the Serbian protest concerts that helped to dethrone Slobodan Milošević in 2000, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) recruited the Serbians involved in organising those shows to help with what they saw as a Cuban equivalent. At the head of the international operation? A protest-savvy Serbian called Rajko Bozic, who also heads up PR for Serbia's renowned Exit festival.

According to documents obtained by Associated Press, the US hired Bozic and other Serbians to tap up Cuban hip hop musicians “to break the information blockade” and build a network of young people seeking “social change”. The operation spanned over two years and involved Cuban rap duo Los Aldeanos, who were none the wiser as to the US government's direct involvement. 

Los Aldeanos have been notoriously critical of corruption in Cuba, making them perfect candidates to whip up feelings of discontent. Sale of their music and their right to perform has been outlawed by the Cuban government since around 2003, but they remain extremely popular with Cuban youth – which made them ideal vessels for US propaganda.

Bozic recruited Los Aldeanos and other members of the Cuban hip hop scene to perform at Exit in 2010. It's likely that Bozic and USAID had little interest in actually seeing Cuban hip hop in Novi Sad. They just wanted to raise Los Aldeanos' global profile to create discontent among young Cubans, the message being: "Hey, these guys can perform at Exit – why can't they play in Havana?"

Exit festival writes of Los Aldeanos in an archived page from their website: "The best Cuban rappers have reached a status of heroes in their mother country without a single official release, and have become role models to rappers all over Latin America."

While in Serbia, the rappers also made a documentary about youth culture and received leadership training, with the intention being "to focus them a little more on their role as agents of social mobilisation". 

As part of the operation, USAID hired a private contractor called Creative Associates International to assist with their attempts to undermine the Cuban government. Creative was paid millions of dollars to recruit people like Bozic and fund a documentary about Los Aldeanos that was distributed on DVDs in Cuba.

A website with the domain name was also built. The contractors gathered around 200 "socially conscious" Cuban youth and connected them on the site, hoping that it would lead to the sharing and gestation of anti-government ideas.

But Cuban authorities smelled a rat. On multiple occasions, they detained or questioned people suspected of being involved with the program, including Bozic. They confiscated computer hardware, memory sticks and documents, often implicating Cubans who had no idea that they were being mainpulated by the US government.

USAID said in a statement yesterday: "Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false." So why did no-one know that the agency was flying Cubans to Exit festival to whip up civil unrest back in Havana? Guess it's one of those things that you just forget to mention.

This isn't the first revelation about USAID operations in the country. In April, it was revealed that the agency had set up a Cuban social network intended for propaganda purposes. A few months later in August, USAID was also discovered to have sent young Latin American spies to Cuba posing as health workers.