Cuba: celebrating 53 years of the “battle of ideas”
Welcome to Cuba’s special brand of socialism. Equality, harmony, self-sacrifice….and a wonderful lack of advertising. After months of a daily bombardment of roadside advertising boards, flashing neon signs and people generally just trying to sell us stuff, Cuba certainly came as a breath of capitalism-free fresh air.
Instead, Cubans go about their daily business against the backdrop of socialist “thoughts for the day” from Fidel or Raul, the stern revolutionary gaze of Che Guevara and reminders to beware the imperialist Yankee aggressor to the North.
It was fascinating to see how using public space in this way remains such an important part of Cuba’s propaganda machine; a means of constantly re-asserting the spirit of independence and defiance which has somehow carried it through over 50 years in a state of “permanent Revolution”.
Even more interesting would be to know what Cubans really think about this endless backdrop of austere propaganda. In a country where there is little option but to tow the party line, it’s hard to crack the surface and know – especially for us, operating as we do in the strange parallel world of Cuban tourism, carefully screened from the realities of Cuban life.
Maybe Cubans do roll their eyes as they pass under Fidel’s wagging finger on the way to work each day? Or maybe this resurrection of past glories does still inspire them to sacrifice themselves even harder for the revolutionary cause?
Or maybe – like so many other elements of “Cuban-ness” which are so surprising and baffling to our capitalist eyes – they don’t even notice it anymore.
The now frail but ever-combative Fidel still took pride of place on many of the billboards we saw…
…although his brother Raul, who took on the role of President after Fidel became ill in 2006 was also much in evidence. Raul’s call for unity here: “By working together we move forwards”.
Every available space is used to promote the revolution and its ideals – here a roadside oil tank proclaims “In every neighbourhood, Revolution!”
Central to the grass-roots spread of the Revolution within each neighbourhood were the CDRs, or “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution”. In time they became took on a more sinister reputation as community spies (think Neighbourhood Watch but even more sinister) – but were still evident in every town and village we travelled through.
Some propaganda was more spontaneous – like this “Long live Fidel and Raul” scrawled by hand onto a concrete post in the middle of nowhere, along the old coast road back to Santiago.
“Without culture there is no life” – one of a series of slogans sprayed onto rocks on the road up to La Plata, the wartime guerilla camp in the Sierra Maestra.
Unsurprisingly, the USA – Fidel’s eternal nemesis – remains the target of much Cuban propoganda. This billboard celebrates the Cuban victory at Playa Girón, where Cuban forces defeated a disastrous CIA-sponsored attempt to overthrow Castro’s new government in 1961.
In Santa Clara, a series of murals declare “Guerra a la Guerra” (“War on War”) and take a more humorous approach – here Uncle Sam lures the dove of peace…
…while the troops struggle with their new weapons – “I warned you they were intelligent missiles!”
The US “Special Interests” building in Havana has been the site of some of the most comical propaganda battles between the two countries. In 2006, the US erected a scrolling electronic billboard in their top floor windows, delivering anti-Castro messages such as: “How sad that all the people that would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair”. In response, Fidel erected this “wall” of 138, 20 metre high flags to block out the billboard, along with their own board for a fake US blockbuster called “The Assasin”, starring George W. Bush as an axe murderer. Global politics meets primary school playground…
Almost every town in Cuba bears the date 26th July in some form or another – the date in 1953 when Fidel launched his first attack against the Batista regime in Santiago de Cuba, and the name of his fledgling revolutionary movement.
As the birthplace of the Revolution, Santiago province remains vocally loyal to its ideals – here the perimeter wall of a city baseball field proclaims: “Santiago is Santiago, with everyone’s effort we will be victorious!”
“You do not need wings to make a dream, just hands, just heart, just legs, and commitment.” Detail from a wall mural in Santa Clara featuring a verse from the Cuban “trova” singer Silvio Rodriguez.
“The best form of saying is doing”…
…a sentiment that this man, Che Guevara, would no doubt endorse. Che’s face, as embodiment of the “Cuban revolutionary spirit” is everywhere in Cuba.
By far the most interesting homage to Che was this understated statue of “Che y el nino” (“Che and child”) outside a government office in Santa Clara.
A closer look revealed that the statue included lots of tiny details of Che’s life: in his belt, his comrades from his last, fatal revolutionary expedition to Bolivia in 1967…
…a woman sheltering in the folds of his shirt…
…and of course, a Cuban cigar in hand.
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