Cuba’s cultural counter-revolution: US gov’t-backed rappers, artists gain fame as ‘catalyst for current unrest’
The Grayzone | Tuesday, 27 July 2021 | Click here for original article
Painting itself as a grassroots collective of artists fighting for freedom of expression, the San Isidro Movement has become a key weapon in the US government’s assault on the Cuban revolution.
“My people need Europe, my people need Europe to point out the abuser,” Yotuel, a Spain-based Cuban rapper, proclaimed in an EU parliament event convened by right-wing legislators before handing the mic over to Venezuelan coup leader Juan Guaidó. Days later, Yotuel held a Zoom call with State Department officials to discuss “Patria y Vida,” the anti-communist rap anthem he helped author.
As the dust clears from a day of protests across Cuban cities, the Wall Street Journal has dubbed “Patria y Vida” the “common rallying cry” of opponents of Cuba’s government, while Rolling Stone touted it as “the anthem of Cuba’s protests.”
Besides Yotuel, two rappers who collaborated on the song are among a collection of artists, musicians and writers called the San Isidro Movement. This collective has been credited by US media with “providing a catalyst for the current unrest.”
Throughout the past three years, as economic conditions worsened under an escalating US economic war while internet access expanded as a result of the Obama Administration’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, the San Isidro Movement has invited an open conflict with the state.
With provocative performances that have seen its most prominent figures parade through Old Havana waving American flags, and through flagrant displays of contempt for Cuban national symbols, San Isidro has antagonized the authorities, triggering frequent detentions of its members and international campaigns to free them.
By basing itself in a largely Afro-Cuban area of Old Havana and working through mediums like hip-hop, San Isidro has also maneuvered to upend the racially progressive image Cuba’s leftist government earned through its historic military campaign against apartheid South Africa and the asylum it offered to Black American dissidents. Here, the San Isidro Movement appears to be following a blueprint articulated by the US regime change lobby.
Over the past decade, the US government has spent millions of dollars to cultivate anti-government Cuban rappers, rock musicians, artists, and journalists in an explicit bid to weaponize “desocialized and marginalized youth.” The strategy implemented by the US in Cuba is a real life version of the fantasies anti-Trump Democrats entertained when they fretted that Russia was covertly sponsoring Black Lives Matter and Antifa to spread chaos through North American society.
As this investigation will reveal, leading members of the San Isidro Movement have raked in funding from regime change outfits like the National Endowment for Democracy and US Agency for International Development while meeting with State Department officials, US embassy staff in Havana, right-wing European parliamentarians and Latin American coup leaders from Venezuela’s Guaidó to OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro.
San Isidro has also welcomed support from a network of free market fundamentalist think tanks which make no secret of their plan to transform Cuba into a colony for multi-national corporations. Days after protests broke out in Cuba, San Isidro’s leadership accepted an award from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a right-wing Republican think tank in Washington that includes Nazi German soldiers in its count of historic deaths at the hands of communism.
Behind their branding as cosmopolitan intellectuals, renegade rappers, and avant garde artists, San Isidro’s has openly embraced the extremist politics of the Miami Cuban lobby. Indeed, its most prominent members have expressed effusive support for Donald Trump, endorsed US sanctions, and clamored for a military invasion of Cuba.
The cultural collective has nonetheless made inroads into progressive circles of North American intelligentsia, working to weaken traditional bonds of solidarity between the Cuban revolution and US left. As we will see, the rise of the San Isidro Movement is the latest chapter in the emerging playbook of intersectional imperialism.
A “forgotten group of people”: Afro-Cuban protest participation captivates US media
The scenes of an overturned police car in Havana’s October 10 neighborhood, mobs pelting police officers with molotov cocktails, and the looting of commercial centers this July 11 ripped the cover off the resentment of a class of citizens that has fallen through the cracks of Cuba’s beleaguered special economy.
Following years of deepening economic deprivation, Cubans have experienced blackouts and food rationing brought on by former President Donald Trump’s intensification of the 60-year-long US economic blockade of Cuba. A sudden collapse in tourism due to the Covid-19 pandemic together with the government’s elimination of Cuba’s dual currency system exacerbated the economic chaos.
While Cuba’s social safety net has prevented this demographic from slipping into the misery familiar to slums of IMF-managed states such as Haiti or Honduras, Escobar says “they are a forgotten group of people, disintegrated, without roots in society. They are expressing the inequality they experience and unfortunately, they are not doing it peacefully anymore.”
US corporate media has seized on the images of Afro-Cuban protesters to paint the demonstrations as an expression of explicitly racialized discontent. In an article headlined, “Afro Cubans at forefront of [Cuba’s] unrest,” the Washington Post quoted anti-government NGO’s and activists associated with the San Isidro Movement denouncing Black Lives Matter for its statement of solidarity with the Cuban revolution.
Left unmentioned by the Washington Post was the role of the US government in backing many of these same NGO’s and activists in a bid to weaponize the Cuba’s underclass. At the forefront of Washington’s strategy are two traditional CIA fronts: the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Throughout the Cold War, USAID worked alongside the CIA to liquidate socialist movements across the Global South. More recently, it helped implement a phony CIA vaccination program in Pakistan to track down Osama bin Laden, and instead wound up spawning a massive polio outbreak. Across Latin America, USAID has funded and trained right-wing opposition figures, including Venezuela’s US-appointed pseudo-president Juan Guaidó.
For its part, the NED was established under the watch of former CIA director William Casey to provide support to opposition activists and media outlets wherever the US has sought regime change. “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA,” NED co-founder Allen Weinstein told journalist David Ignatius, who celebrated the organization as “the sugar-daddy of overt operations.”
Throughout their history, USAID and NED have worked to exploit the grievances of ethnic minority groups against socialist and non-aligned governments. Their financial and logistical support for the Uyghurs against China, the Tatars against Russia, and indigenous Miskito people against Nicaragua are among many examples.
In recent years in Cuba, Washington’s regime change specialists have homed in on Afro-Cubans and marginalized youth, harnessing culture to turn social resentment into counter-revolutionary action.
Weaponizing “desocialized and marginalized youth” against Cuban socialism
A 2009 paper in the Journal of Democracy, the official organ of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), outlined an ambitious blueprint for cultivating Cuba’s post-Cold War underclass as an anti-government vanguard.
“Using the principles of democracy and human rights to unite and mobilize this vast, dispossessed majority in the face of a highly repressive regime is the key to peaceful change,” wrote Carl Gershman and Orlando Gutierrez.
Gershman and Gutierrez are influential figures in the world of overt regime change operators. The founding director of the NED, Gershman presided for four decades over US efforts to destabilize governments from Managua to Moscow. Gutierrez, for his part, is an outspoken advocate of a US military invasion of Cuba who serves as national secretary of the USAID and NED-funded Cuban Democratic Directorate.
Gershman and Gutierrez advised a strategy that encouraged “non-cooperation” with Cuba’s revolutionary institutions among those they described as “‘desocialized’ and marginal youth – the dropouts, the jobless young people who make up nearly three-quarters of Cuba’s unemployed, and those who are drawn to drugs, crime, and prostitution.”
The two regime change specialists pointed to music and online media as ideal vehicles for harnessing the frustrations of Cuban youth: “The alienation of the young reaches into the mainstream and expresses itself in the angry lyrics of rock musicians; the bloggers’ depictions of the frustrations and tawdriness of everyday life; the frequent evasion of agricultural work, voluntary service, and neighborhood committee meetings; and the general disengagement from politics that is the fruit of a half-century of coerced participation and force-fed political propaganda,” they wrote.
The year that Gershman and Gutierrez’s influential paper appeared, Washington enacted an audacious covert operation based on the strategy they outlined.
“Rap is War”: USAID covertly recruits Cuban hip-hop artists as regime change propagandists
In 2009, USAID initiated a program to spark a youth movement against Cuba’s government by cultivating and promoting local hip-hop artists.
Because of its long history as a CIA front, USAID outsourced the operation to Creative Associates International, a Washington DC-based firm with its own track record of covert actions.
Creative Associates found its point man in Rajko Bozic, a veteran of the CIA-backed Otpor! group that helped topple nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic, and whose members moved on to form an “‘export-a-revolution’ group that sowed the seeds for a number of color revolutions.”
Posing as a music promoter, Bozic approached a Cuban rap group called Los Aldeanos that was known for its ferociously anti-government anthem, “Rap is War.” The Serbian operative never told Los Aldeanos he was a US intelligence asset; instead, he claimed he was a marketing professional and promised to turn the group’s frontman into an international star.
To further the plan, Creative Associates rolled out ZunZuneo, a Twitter-style social media platform that blasted out thousands of automated messages promoting Los Aldeanos to Cuban youth without the rap group’s knowledge.
Within a year, as Los Aldeanos escalated its rhetoric, taunting Cuban police as mindless drones during a local indie music festival, Cuban intelligence discovered contracts linking Bozic to USAID and rolled up the operation.
Embarrassment ensued in Washington, with Sen. Patrick Leahy grumbling, “USAID never informed Congress about this and should never have been associated with anything so incompetent and reckless.”
Danny Shaw, an associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the City University of New York, encountered Los Aldeanos during several extended visits to Cuba. He also got to know Omni Zona Franca, a collective of poets and Rastafarian-oriented performance artists based in the Alamar neighborhood of Havana which formed the inspiration for the San Isidro Movement.
Shaw said the artists’ hostility towards Cuba’s socialist system was so intense that many of them denied the US blockade’s existence. “I tried to explain to them my understanding of the economic war, and they said, ‘You can come and go as you please, you don’t live here, so it’s easy for you to be a Marxist.’ And they had a point – if you completely decontextualized the situation,” he told The Grayzone.
According to Shaw, some Omni Zona Franca members began visiting the US and Europe for art festivals and interviews with corporate Spanish-language media. “When the stories about USAID supporting Cuban rappers and artists came out, then it all kind of made sense to me,” he reflected.
In 2014, USAID was exposed again when it tapped Creative Associates to organize a series of phony HIV prevention workshops which were, in fact, political recruitment seminars.
An internal Creative Associates document leaked to the media in 2014 referred to the bogus HIV workshops as the “perfect excuse” to enlist youth into regime change activities on the island.
President Barack Obama introduced his plan to normalize relations with Cuba’s government just as USAID’s latest operation was exposed. As a condition of diplomatic recognition, Obama insisted that Cuba expand internet access.
Venezuelan investigative website Misión Verdad warned at the time, “We are witnessing an update in the mechanisms, methods and modes of intervention. All the harmony at this time is totally illusory. What is already being placed under the label ‘normalization’ in the Cuban sociopolitical environment provides the minimum operating conditions to facilitate the idea of a ‘Cuban spring,’ a test tube revolution…”
Internet expansion opens the door for US infiltration
The 3G internet network arrived in Cuba in 2018, enabling young Cubans to access social media on their phones. Now, instead of spinning out social media platform like ZunZuneo, US intelligence focused on developing technology like Psiphon so Cubans could access Facebook and YouTube despite internet blackouts.
The NED and USAID exploited the opening to build a potent online anti-government media apparatus. The new batch of US-backed outlets like CubaNet, Cibercuba and ADN Cuba represented an echo chamber of toxic insurrectionism, mocking President Miguel Diaz-Canel with insulting memes and calling for his prosecution for high crimes including genocide.
The Dutch Foreign Ministry has advanced the US efforts, helping to set up and fund the anti-government blog, El Toque, through an NGO called RNW Media.
Ted Henken, a US academic and author of “Cuba’s Digital Revolution,” remarked to Reuters that Cuba’s leadership “miscalculated in that they didn’t realize that [expanded internet access] would very quickly, in two and a half years, blow up in their face.”
“None of [protests] would have been possible without the nascent 3G network that has allowed millions of Cubans to access the internet via mobile devices since 2018,” the corporate online outlet Quartz declared.
As Cuban access to anti-government media grew, the Trump administration increased NED’s budget by 22% in 2018.
That year, NED’s Cuba budget earmarked close to $500,000 for the recruitment and training of anti-government journalists, and to establish new media outlets.
Another NED grant budgeted funds to “promote the inclusion of marginalized populations in Cuban society and to strengthen a network of on-island partners,” implying the targeting of Afro-Cubans.
The NED has placed a heavy emphasis on infiltrating Cuba’s hip-hop scene. In 2018, the US government entity contributed $80,000 to the Cuban Soul Foundation to “empower independent artists to produce, perform, and exhibit their work in uncensored community events,” and $70,000 to a Colombia-based NGO called Fundacion Cartel Urbano for “empowering Cuban hip-hop artists as leaders in society.”
NED’s 2018 grant to Cartel Urbano to train Cuban hip-hop artists to promote “social change”
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Cartel Urbano publishes an online magazine clearly modeled off of Vice, the premier vehicle for hipster imperialism. Besides keeping readers informed about the latest releases from anti-government Cuban rap artists, the US government-funded magazine dedicates entire sections on its website to drug use, trans culture, and the green vegan lifestyle.
In catering to the sensibilities of academically oriented, self-styled radicals, the outlet’s writers routinely deploy the letter “x” to erase gender distinctions, leading to passages like the following: “cuerpxs trans, marikonas, no binarixs, racializadxs, monstruosxs…”
The startling proliferation of online opposition media, vitriolic anti-government propaganda, and US infiltration of Cuba’s cultural scene that accompanied the expansion of the country’s internet services prompted an unprecedented crackdown by the country’s leadership.
“The years when we had the thawing of relations with the US, we had so much tolerance domestically,” Cristina Escobar, the Cuban journalist, reflected. “That’s because the government did not see itself as under siege. But then Trump won. And now the leadership feels like they should have never trusted Obama.”
Just hours after taking office in April 2018, President Diaz-Canel proposed Decree 349. The new measure would require that all artists, musicians and performers obtain prior approval from the Ministry of Culture before publicizing their work.
Put forward in direct response to the recruitment of rap artists and other cultural figures by US intelligence, Decree 349 explicitly forbade the dissemination of audiovisual materials containing “sexist, vulgar or obscene language.” Though the law would never be enforced on a formal basis, the provision was viewed by Cuba’s opposition as a direct attack on the subculture of reggaeton seeping into the country’s urban landscape.
Almost overnight, a collective of artists and musicians mobilized to protest the decree. Named for the hardscrabble San Isidro neighborhood in Old Havana where several of its members lived, the new movement appealed directly to cultural influencers in the Global North, marketing itself as a diverse collection of visual creators and independent rappers struggling for nothing more than artistic freedom.
For perhaps the first time, Cuba’s right-wing opposition had a vehicle for making inroads into progressive circles abroad.
With US flags in hand, confronting the state and courting celebrity
On November 6, 2020, a police officer appeared in the home of Denis Solis, an outspoken anti-government rapper affiliated with the San Isidro Movement. Solis quickly turned his cellphone camera on the cop and livestreamed his defiant encounter on Facebook.
After taunting the officer with anti-gay slurs, Solis proclaimed, “Trump 2020! Trump is my president!”
The police visit was triggered by the excited coverage Solis received from Diario de Cuba, a NED-funded publication, and other anti-government outlets, for a tattoo emblazoned across his chest that read, “Change; Cuba Libre.” He had also taken to Facebook to boast, “Communists, now they’re going to have to tear the skin from my chest.”
The 8 month prison sentence Solis received for “contempt” – a punishment clearly inspired by the spectacle he generated with his livestream – provided the spark for the November 2020 hunger strike that vaulted the San Isidro Movement onto the global stage.
The strike was held inside inside the Old Havana home of the San Isidro Movement’s coordinator, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. An Afro-Cuban performance artist, Otero has courted the ire of the government by defiling the Cuban flag, wrapping it around his naked torso on the toilet and while brushing his teeth, or by sprawling out on it while clad in underwear bearing the US flag.
In another provocative display, Otero gathered children to run through his neighborhood waving a giant American flag, triggering an immediate police response and his own detention for four days.
The week-long hunger strike at Otero’s home generated an unprecedented international media spectacle, and generated supportive statements from Jake Sullivan, the Biden administration’s incoming National Security Advisor, and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
A cleverly staged visit to the site of the hunger strike by Carlos Manuel Álvarez, a high-profile Mexico-based Cuban journalist and literary figure, had helped galvanize international media interest.
Clad in a black turtleneck and hailing from the ranks of Cuba’s educated elite, the bespectacled Álvarez presented a stark contrast to Otero and his rugged wingman, the anti-government rapper Maykel Osorbo. For governing officials tempted to dismiss the protest leaders as a bunch of vulgar street urchins, the figure of the genteel scribe presented serious complications.
Álvarez soon found space in the New York Times opinion section to market San Isidro to a liberal US audience while rattling off literary metaphors about walking over cobblestone in high-heeled shoes to denigrate Cuba’s communist bureaucracy.
“The [San Isidro] movement has become the most representative group of national civil society, bringing together Cubans of different social classes, races, ideological beliefs and generations, both from the exile community and on the island,” the writer claimed.
On November 27, 2020, as the confrontation between Cuban artists and the state deepened, a group of artists initiated a sit-in outside Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. The original demonstrators consisted largely of artists whose work had been sponsored by the Cuban state. And unlike San Isidro, many of them rejected regime change rhetoric, opting instead for a dialogue with the culture minister to resolve the conflict over freedom of expression.
As sociologist Rafael Hernandez explained in a detailed study of the sit-in, the dialogue collapsed when the San Isidro Movement and other US-backed elements imposed their maximalist agenda on the organizing body, which came to be known as N27. The New York Times and other other Anglo outlets focused their coverage squarely on the anti-communist rabble rousers of San Isidro, while leftist Cuban artists “remained invisible to the foreign press, which does not consider them news, as it does the veteran and youth dissidents,” Hernandez observed.
The intensive media coverage of the sit-in vaulted the San Isidro Movement onto the international stage, earning them the attention of celebrity artists and writers in the US and Europe. In May 2021, after Otero was again detained by Cuban security, an open letter to President Diaz-Canel appeared in the New York Review of Books, a leading journal of the liberal US literati, demanding his release.
Signed by a cast of prominent Black and Afro-Latin cultural figures, including Henry Louis-Gates, Edwidge Danticat, and Junot Diaz, the missive illustrated the success San Isidro was enjoying in eroding the support of Black American intelligensia for Cuba’s revolution.
With access to the leading liberal organs of US media and support in Latin American studies departments across the country, the cultural collective was breaking Cuba’s anti-communist opposition out of its traditional right-wing Miami base.
But its success was hardly an organic phenomenon. Indeed, San Isidro had been propelled onto the international stage thanks to substantial support from the US State Department, its regime change subsidiaries and right-wing corporate lobbyists eager to see Cuba open up for business.
“Viva la anexión”: the State Department, OAS and corporate lobbyists partner with San Isidro
Each day at the El Estornudo magazine he founded, Carlos Manuel Álvarez and his colleagues present the bad news from Cuba. While painting the country as a catastrophically-run communist hellscape overrun with Covid-19 casualties, he markets his outlet as “independent.”
In reality, El Estornudo appears to be one of the many media projects incubated by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
“The collaborators who make the magazine are paid per work produced, with a fixed salary of 400 CUC. Until I left, El Estornudo was financed by the NED and Open Society [Foundations],” said Abraham Jiménez Enoa, a former writer for the magazine, referring respectively to the US government’s regime change arm and the foundation of George Soros.
El Estornudo is among a constellation of outlets delegated to criticize Cuba’s Covid response by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), an NGO that received $145,230 from the NED in 2020 to “strengthen collaboration among Cuban independent journalists” and train them in social media.
The anti-government outlets operating under the auspices of IWPR also include Tremenda Nota, an LGBTQ-themed site that routinely accuses the Cuban government of homophobia and transphobia, even as the Diaz-Canel administration has moved to legalize gay marriage, opened the army to gay soldiers, and initiated official pride events.
IWPR’s board is comprised of former NATO officials and corporate media figures, including the former chair of the Financial Times. Though the NGO has since scrubbed its list of patrons from its website, an archived page reveals partnerships with the NED and its US government subsidiaries, as well as confirmed British intelligence contractors like Albany Associates and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Carlos Manuel Álvarez is far from the only San Isidro member close to US regime change entities. Besides him, there is Yaima Pardo, a Cuban filmmaker and tech specialist whose 2015 documentary, “Offline,” emphasized the need for internet expansion to foment dissent.
San Isidro’s Esteban Rodríguez, a reporter for ADN Cuba, has celebrated the economically debilitating ban Trump imposed family remittances to Cuba as “perfect.” “If I was in the US, I’d have voted Trump,” Rodríguez told The Guardian.
When San Isidro launched its international campaign against Decree 349, it chose to do so at the Organization of American States (OAS) – the Washington DC-based regional organization derided by former Cuban Foreign Minister Raúl Roa as “the Yankee ministry of the colonies.”
There, San Isidro co-founder Amaury Pacheco was received by Luis Almagro, the OAS Secretary-General who would help orchestrate the right-wing military coup in Bolivia later that year. Also on hand to welcome the Cuban artists were State Department officials and Carlos Trujillo, a right-wing Trump loyalist serving as the US representative to the OAS.
“Art in Cuba is more necessary than ever,” Almagro proclaimed. “It is necessary to expose the challenges of repression” by the Cuban state.
As the Venezuela-based Instituto Samuel Robinson reported, San Isidro has deepened its ties with the international right-wing through the CADAL foundation, which nominated it for the NATO state-sponsored Freemuse Prize for Artistic Expression. CADAL is at the heart of a network of libertarian organizations that leverage corporate money to push free market fundamentalism across Latin America.
Among CADAL’s closest partners is the Atlas Network, a corporate lobbying front established with help from the Koch Brothers to advance libertarian economics and undermine socialist governments across the globe.
The think tank is also sponsored by the US State Department, the NED, and its subsidiaries, including the Center for International Private Enterprise, which devotes itself to “strengthening democracy around the globe through private enterprise and market-oriented reform.”
In January 2021, leading members of San Isidro including Otero and Pardo participated in a webinar hosted by another corporate-backed, right-wing think tank. This time, they were guests of the Latin American Center of Federalism and the Freedom Foundation.
Sponsored by multi-national corporations determined to transform Cuba into a free-market haven, and inspired by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, the Argentina-based foundation is also directly affiliated with the Atlas Network.