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.
The CIA also secretly funded exhibitions of abstract expressionist art by painters such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. According to former case officer Donald Jameson, the CIA believed "abstract expressionism was the kind of art that made socialist realism look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some exhibitions."
It was also a CIA front group, known as the Farfield Foundation, that provided seed money for what would become the Iowa Writer's Workshop. The workshop is now renowned as one of the premier creative writing programs in the world. Its faculty has, at various points, included such luminaries as Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, and John Cheever. But according to English Professor Eric Bennett, the workshop also placed a heavy emphasis on producing fiction that emphasized individualism in contrast to the collectivist sweep of socialist realism.
"Raymond Carver, trained by writers steeped in anti-Communist formulations, probably didn't realize his short stories were doing ideological combat with a dead Soviet dictator," wrote Bennett of one famous Iowa Workshop attendee, referring to Joseph Stalin.
These are just a sample of U.S. cultural propaganda efforts. Although not all campaigns have come to ends as ignominious as that of the Cuban hip-hop program, the impact of even the most successful initiatives can be difficult to gauge. It's hard to quantify what, if any, affect Radio Free Europe had on the Cold War. Similarly, by founding the Iowa Writer's Workshop, the CIA may have inadvertently shaped U.S. culture in unpredictable ways that have persisted long after the collapse of the Soviet Union.