In an exclusive interview with el Nuevo Herald, Cuban artist Adrian Monzon denied having worked for USAID in a project “to overthrow the Cuban government”.
Monzon, known as “Vj Cuba,” was named in an Associated Press report as the only Cuban who was aware that the money he received from Serbian promoter Rajko Bozic to take part in several cultural events came from Creative Associates International, a company gthat held a contract with the United States Agency of International Development (USAID).
“I have never participated in a project to overthrow the Cuban government. If anyone I worked with or that was doing the same work that I was had those intentions, it wasn’t my purpose,” said Monzon, who supports protest art.
“I think that working to overthrow the government is a way of distributing propaganda for them and those people should be multiplied by zero because all they are is one more obstacle in the process that is life.”
Monzon, has been living in Miami for a year and currently works delivering pizza. He defines himself as a visual artist and graduated from San Alejandro Art School in 2001.
Soon after, he became involved in digital art and started promoting the work of “Vj’s” on the island — Vj’s are artists who create images displayed by a projector on a screen.
After 2003, Monzon started collaborating with Matraka Productions, an independent cultural promoter who organized festivals and concerts and began producing events.
In 2005, he met Bozic, who first introduced himself as the producer of the EXIT music festival and later said he would support the Rotilla festival, organized by Matraka Productions. Monzon explains that he was the only one who knew about the Creative Associates company, when he started working on the TalentoCubano.net project in 2009.
“The relationship with Creative Associates has nothing to do with Matraka. That connection has to do with TalentoCubano.net, that’s the project that I started after working with Matraka,” he said.
He claims to have personally met Xavier Utset, who managed the program for Creative Associates from their offices in Costa Rica and says he introduced himself as “a donor that was working with the Serbians and was interested in the topic of Cuba.”
“It was enough for me that they said their intention was to develop the culture and help us, in the end it was about empowering people,” he said and added that social change was discussed but in terms of helping people “develop themselves which is not the same thing or is the opposite thing of a popular revolt which causes destruction.”
Monzon prefers the term “entrepreneur” instead of that of “opposition,” because he thinks “they are the ones who are opposed to us,” in reference to Cuban authorities.
“The conversation about where the money from Creative Associates came from was never had. I found out about USAID from state security. They talked to me about USAID and told me that the money came from the CIA,” explained the artist.
After the article about AP investigation was published, Monzon was criticized by his friends and former collaborators from Cuba’s alternative music scene, who questioned why he didn’t inform them about what he knew about the origin of the money.
“The only thing I did was get a grant that I thought was coming from Costa Rica and that I suspected came from a more dangerous place,” he said.
According to the AP report, the USAID project built a social network of “200 conscientious youth” and connected them with the site that the administrators hoped would unleash a “social movement.”
Monzon, on the other hand, insists that the original idea of TalentoCubano.net is his and didn’t stem from instructions given by a foreign entity. It was about building “a map of all the Cuban musicians in the world” and later connecting them with each other to spread their music within the website.
The map was “open” and didn’t only include artists who created protest music, according to what Monzon explained to the state security, who closely monitored all activities conducted by independent artists and promoters.
“It was definitely not them telling us what to do. It’s not a USAID initiative, it was a program of the Cuban people that is already extremely bored by the Cuban government and rebels in any way they can.”
He affirms that people from other countries came to propose other concerts and projects — for example, a musical talent show similar to shows like X Factor and The Voice —were rejected by Cuban artists because they considered that those proposals were far from serving the interests of the Cuban public.
“We’re not here to provide services for anyone,” he said. “We’re here to work for culture.”
Monzon says that the concerts organized by Matraka depended on donations from tourists and other foreigners in order to produce events. This included the purchase of necessary technology, payment for technicians, food, transportation and compensation for musicians and the production team, which Monzon assured worked for free on several occasions.
In his account, he mentions that the members of alternative culture scene that he associated with searched for financial backing at the embassies of European nations and at state institutions such as the Hermanos Saiz Association. But that trying to support these types of activities with state money “is a joke.”
In reference to the HSA and the Ministry of Culture, he notes that those institutions have a limited budget in Cuban pesos. “What they have is for their campaigns and for the people they already have commitments with,” he said.
He also mentions that event organizers for the Rotilla electronic musical festival,which takes place on a beach in the Mayabeque province and hosted a crowd of 15,000, made a proposal to authorities to charge 5 CUC ($5.50) for a three-day entrance ticket to the event. But the authorities refused this payment because they said that “the beaches belong to the people.”
“To make this pile of dreams that we had come true we needed money and the money I saw with my short sight was the one I took and since I understood that it could be dangerous legally for people, I decided to not tell anybody that the money wasn’t from Serbia,” Monzon said.
At the same time, Monzon justifies his decision saying that “there’s no option” and that “not taking money from the United States is a demon that was invented by the Castros because the U.S. is their personal archrival, which I don’t think is a real enemy of Cuba,” he said.
Previously, Didier Santos, a member of the Matraka group, had given a similar opinion to Fusion. “From where would you obtain money more effectively? From the Cuban government, which only gives you money if you follow the guidelines of their party or from another government that gives you the creative freedom to do whatever you want to do?
“I’ve heard that USAID has a lot of money and that Creative Associates had a contract involving a lot of money with them but for us, let me tell you….TalentoCubano.net cost $30,0000,” he said.
That amount covered the two months of work put in a by a team of 10 people, who traveled around the island filming musicians in different provinces and who set up and designed the website. No salaries were paid, only money to cover daily expenses or per diem when they traveled outside Havana and that didn’t surpass the 50 CUC a week, an equivalent of $55 a week.
“A rapper asked me two days ago where all that money went. The transportation, the gasoline, the food, the fliers, the per diem, the stages and the sets, all of that cost money,” he said. “A concert can cost $2,000 and that’s because no one charges a single peso. All of that money goes into the production of a project, not into anyone’s pocket, that’s what I think most offends others.”
Monzon adds that if he had kept any money, he wouldn’t be working at Papa John’s.
Despite the producer’s belief that the current programs that financially back civic society and culture in Cuba should continue to operate, he warns that there’s “a lot of corruption” in the way that they are run.
“If every time an agency publishes an article about these programs they cease to operate, the people that are in Cuba and who depend on that money to do their projects will feel as if their wings are being cut,” he said. “But these programs have many amends to make and many things to fix because they generate millions of dollars and a big portion of that money goes to salaries and personal expenses for the people who travel to Cuba.”
Monzon questions how the Associated Press reported the story.
“The same worries that Rolando [the security agent from the Cuban state security who monitored his activities] had are the ones that are in the article and that’s why I feel that they are in some type of agreement with each other,” he said and warns the article instills “fear in people and fear of falling from grace” like the people in the article.
He also makes note of possible prejudices that were were caused by the mention of his name in the AP report, especially the impossibility of his return to Cuba. Almost all of his family remain there.
“I can’t return to Cuba, which I was thinking of doing after obtaining my residency, but now I’m convinced that I’m the number one scape goat,” he said. “If I want to see my mom I have to bring her here.”
In regards to the repercussions for rappers, artists and musicians involved in the alternative culture scene on the island, Monzon thinks that the AP investigation gave the authorities “the arguments” necessary to call them “mercenaries.”
“They don’t have legal justification to take anybody to jail. I was the only one that knew and that’s why I hid it from everyone,” said Monzon.
He believes that what Cuban artists achieved with the money coming from USAID was positive and that they “inspired” many others to perform protest arts.
“I think we ran the limits of liberty of expression,” he said. “When we held the first hip-hop concert with 43 protest rappers, who performed all together as part of a project, I had the sound systems and my heart beat was at 1,000 or more beats per second. We knew we were going to get in trouble or be busted but now if I did the same concert I wouldn’t be scared anymore,” he said.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter @ngameztorres