Documentary unknowingly captured the cultural cost of USAID’s Cuban hip-hop funding scheme

When I first met Cuban filmmaker Diddier Santos, it was at a Miami
premier for a documentary that he helped produce in Cuba, documenting
the state takeover of what was once the island’s largest independently
organized counterculture festival. Unknown to anyone at the time, the
film he would show that night had actually captured the tremendous
cultural cost of a U.S. program aimed at co-opting the Cuban hip-hop
scene in order to foment political upheaval in the country, as
detailed in an exclusive AP report this week.

The Rotilla Festival, as it was called, started organically among a
group of friends in 1998, and had since grown into a certified
cultural force, drawing crowds in the tens of thousands at its peak in 2010. It even received thorough coverage from state media, a considerable feat
in a country where the government demands absolute control of
practically everything.

In 2011, however, organizers were informed by government officials
that they would have to relinquish control of the festival and hand it
over to the government. Though they didn’t know it, their festival had
been illegally receiving funds from the U.S. government, according to
the AP report— a fact which likely contributed to the government
takeover.

Santos, who was helping produce the festival with his company Matraka
Productions, was in shock. “It was at this moment that we decided to
make the documentary, to make sure that everybody knew what had
happened,” he told me in an interview last year.

“We were robbed,” he said.

This week’s AP report, however, made it clear what had happened — the Cubans got whiff of U.S. funding and moved in to take over the party.

“We were not complicit in this scandal, we artists are the victims of
it,” Santos told me after the report came out. “It’s the Cuban
government who comes out on top here, because now [the report] gives
them free reign to censor hip-hop like they have wanted to do for so
long. All they have to say is ‘you’re getting American money!’ and
that’s it.”

The turning point of the festival’s trajectory, as told in the film, comes
when “the Serbians” came onto the scene sometime after the festival
had finished a successful tour across the island in the mid-2000s. As
the AP report detailed, the USAID program was headed by a man named
Rajko Bozic, a Serbian national who played a large role in organizing
Serbia’s EXIT Festival in 2000.

That festival started as a series of student-led protest concerts, and
is credited as helping topple former Serbian President Slobodan
Milosevic.

“They came like other tourists, but they were part of the EXIT
Festival, and they liked what we were doing, because it reminded them
of what they had done,” said one-time Rotilla organizer Adrian Monzon
in the film. Monzon is described by the AP report as the “only Cuban
national who knew what was going on.” Monzon has not yet commented on the scandal and his involvement.

“We all got to know each other, and they took a few of us to Serbia to
show us how to really do a festival,” he continued. It was at this point
that the Serbs started offering funds to the Rotilla Festival, using
money that USAID had masked through through third-party contractors
and shell corporations.

“And that’s how the first BIG Rotilla festival started for real.
That’s where it started to organize, look far down the road, and where
it started to build a social-consciousness,” Monzon said.

Santos says that his company Matraka Productions had split ways with
Monzon over creative differences some time before the festival was
taken over by the government.

“Sticking the politics, the government into this festival is bullshit”

“In 2010, we had a record attendance for the festival. It was so big
that it awoke the authorities and the ‘institutions’ to the idea that
this could be an issue of national security,” said Rotilla founder
Michel Matos in the film.

That year’s festival was mired by controversy after Cuba’s largest
hip-hop group— Los Aldeanos— took to the stage and railed against
the government in front of a crowd of 15,000. The AP report draws
links to this occurrence and the fact that Los Aldeanos had been
primed to take a bolder stance against the government by USAID
handlers, even though they had long been publicly critical of the
government.

“[After that], the government started to signal to us that we were
possible victims of a foreign plot because of where the money was
coming from… principally the possibility that our funding was coming
from the U.S.,” said Matos in the film.

The next year, the government moved to take over the festival, a
struggle for which is thoroughly documented in the film.

Matos and Santos “categorically” deny that they ever knowingly
received funding from the U.S. “But with that said, who would you
rather get money from? The Cuban government who will only give you
money if you follow the party line, or another government who will
give you creative freedom to do what you want to do?” asks Santos in response to the AP report.

“We’ve gotten money from the government of Holland too, for example,
and no one ever had an issue with that. It all comes back to this mess
that we have between our countries, that [the U.S.] is the enemy,”
said Santos. “My conscience is clean, but if things were how they
should be this [scandal] would have been no big deal. But it’s not, so
it’s seen as a treason.”

“The thing is, as a creative in Cuba, you are not in the position to
ask where the money is coming from. If you need money, you will take
it if they are offering. That’s the bottom line,” he said.

Towards the end of the film, festival goers are upset by the
government takeover of the Rotilla Festival. Disappointed with what
they see as the co-opting of the island’s one real space for freedom
of expression, they confront government officials with their
grievances.

“We only want to be free, to feel a clean, liberating feeling.
Sticking the politics, the government into this festival is bullshit,”
one attendee says. “Where is Matraka?” he asks of the original
organizers.

“This was the only place left where we could get together and be
ourselves, with no taboos, no worries, no nothing,” says another,
seemingly close to tears.

“It was this. And now it doesn’t exist.”