U.S. defends program to fund anti-government hip-hop music in Cuba

MIAMI (Reuters) - The U.S. government financed a four-year effort to promote Cuba’s rap music scene as part of an effort to promote democracy on the communist-run island, federal officials confirmed on Thursday.

“It seemed like a good idea to support civil society,” said Matt Herrick, spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which financed the secretive program.

The four-year program which ended in 2012, was revealed by the Associated Press on Thursday, which described it as a largely unsuccessful, “covert” effort run by U.S. government contractors to undermine Cuba’s communist government.

Herrick defended the program which he said was legally funded by Congress to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba.

“It’s not something we are embarrassed about in any way,” he said.

The Cuban government did not respond to the report, though it was covered widely on state-run media.

USAID said in a statement it “supports civil society programs in Cuba and other restrictive environments as part of the U.S. government’s overall effort to promote resilient, democratic societies.”

Several of the people involved in the program, run by Creative Associates International, a Washington, D.C.-based development firm, were detained by Cuban authorities, AP reported.

Hip-hop artists who USAID contractors tried to promote left the country or stopped performing after pressure from the Cuban government, the report added.

USAID is currently examining its democracy programs in hostile countries following several revelations about the risky nature of its underground efforts.

Creative Associates also created a U.S. government financed social media network in Cuba, revealed by AP earlier this year.

Another USAID contractor, Alan Gross, was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for seeking to establish an online network for Jews in Havana.

USAID denies its Cuba hip-hop program was covert, noting that Congress was briefed on it.

Creative Associates used a Serbian public relations agent to contact artists in Cuba as well as Panama front company and a bank in Lichtenstein to try and hide official U.S. ties to the program, AP reported.

Creative Associates did not respond to messages seeking comment.

But U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the subcommittee which handles USAID’s budget, described the program in a statement as “misguided and mismanaged.”

“USAID never informed Congress about this and should never have been involved with anything so incompetent and reckless. It was appallingly stupid,” he added.

Reporting by David Adams