When it comes to espionage, virtually anything can be weaponized. That's a lesson the U.S. government has learned well, as evidenced by one agency's recent efforts to subvert the Cuban state through the power of hip-hop.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) spent over two years covertly nudging Cuba's hip-hop movement to undermine the nation's communist ruling party, according to an exclusive report from the Associated Press. Contractors working for USAID cultivated local rappers as assets, bankrolled a music festival, and — according to one contractor involved in the program — trained musicians "to focus them a little more on their role as agents of social mobilization."
U.S. agencies have spent decades manipulating artistic movements into cudgels to be used against foreign enemies. And while the art of U.S. sponsored cultural propaganda reached its apotheosis during the Cold War, the tradition is very much alive today, as the Cuban hip-hop program shows.
In April, it was revealed that USAID — along with private contractor Creative Associates International, the same group behind the hip-hop program — had secretly worked on a social media platform called ZunZuneo, better known as "Cuban Twitter." USAID hoped the platform would become enormously popular in Cuba, and could then be used to orchestrate demonstrations against the government. Instead, the program fell apart when funding dried up.
"Cuban Twitter" was, in part, modeled after Twitter's role in amplifying protests against Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. But its most direct antecedent may have been the U.S. radio propaganda of the Cold War. From 1950 until 1971, the CIA secretly bankrolled the pro-Western broadcasting company Radio Free Europe (RFE) as part of a "psychological warfare" campaign throughout the Soviet Union's Eastern Bloc. RFE still exists today, but receives its funding from Congress instead of the CIA.