I love experiencing and observing the differences in cultures and try to understand the way that individuals in each culture view the world. I’d like to think that I am a rational individual and that my world view is the result of truth, study, reason and careful thought. However, I realize that my world view is formed by the sum of my experiences, background, culture and the information that I have received throughout the course of my life.
I chose to use the word “propaganda” for this post because of its provocative nature and to illustrate that much of what I observed and label as propaganda is likely viewed and believed as “truth” by those who published it. Even in the USA I have learned that the words we choose to use to describe events reflects our personal views, upbringing and beliefs. We spent our last 14 months in the United States in Nashville, TN and I found that the views of many in the South are different than those in other parts of the country. For example, “The War of Northern Aggression,” is still talked about in the South. I had always heard this called, “The Civil War.” My point here is that I am going to describe things that my background and world view cause me to view differently, perhaps, than the average Cuban citizen.
Visiting Cuba was a fascinating experience for me. It is probably the country that has felt the most different to me of all the countries I have visited so far. Let me tell you about my background and world view heading into Cuba. I was born in 1962, just a few years after Fidel Castro led the revolution that formed the current regime in Cuba. As a resident of the USA since 1989 and a naturalized US citizen, the 50 plus year old USA trade embargo with Cuba has made it difficult to visit Cuba and get a first-hand view of life there.
One of the first things I noticed about Cuba is the complete lack of advertising. Everywhere else in the world I have visited advertising of all sorts is prevalent, whether it is a billboard, a street sign, pieces of paper stapled to telephone poles, signs on the inside or outside of a bus or subway. In tourist areas across the USA and Canada you will find stands in hotels, restaurants and even on the street with brochures trying to entice you to try their attraction, restaurant or shop. All of this is non-existent in Cuba. I tried to get a brochure or some sort of printed schedule that describes the double decker bus that runs throughout Havana on three different routes to find out which bus goes where, what the operating hours are, where it stops, etc. There was nothing to be found.
So here are examples of what I would term propaganda.
Fidel and Che – there are lots of images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara all over. Some of them are simply pictures or outlines of them on the sides of buildings. Others have slogans written underneath them. I didn’t do an exhaustive survey, but any of the references I heard from everyday Cubans to Fidel were negative or purposely ambiguous. I got the sense that people are waiting for Fidel to die. He is almost 90 in fairly poor health, or so I was told. For those of you who don’t know, Fidel Castro was the leader of the Cuban revolution that gained control of the island in 1959. Fidel is still alive today, but his brother Raul is the leader of the country. Che Guevara was an Argentine doctor who joined the revolutionary cause in Cuba and led the revolution alongside Castro. After the Cuban revolution, Che joined other revolutionary forces in the world and died young at 39. I think his early death has led to the mystique and has him frozen in time as a brave revolutionary.
Signs in the state run stores I began to be able to recognize the stores that sold the staples that are covered under the ration book program. Inside these stores you can find posters and slogans. The ration program was implemented shortly after the revolution in 1959 and remains in place today. The fundamentals of the program allow Cubans to buy staples such as rice, beans, oil, sugar, etc. at highly discounted prices – 10% of market value or so. Each person is allotted a certain amount of each commodity per month. You keep track of your rations in a ration book. For each person the days of the month that they can claim their rations are stipulated. I have been told that the rations will not feed you for an entire month and you must purchase further rations at market price.
Museum exhibits – this was most evident in the Museum of the Revolution. Many, but not all of the exhibits and descriptions were in Spanish and English. The most noticeable aspect of this were the references to the “October Crisis,” or as someone from the USA would know it, “The Cuban Missile Crisis.” Kind of a “War of Northern Aggression,” versus, “Civil War.” What I had always heard referred to as the Cuban Missile Crisis was called the October Crisis. The verbiage explaining this crisis depicted the Imperialist USA and CIA interfering with the independent country of Cuba. In the stuff I read I never once saw the fact that the view of the USA was that the USSR was placing missiles aimed at the USA in Cuba. Only on one plaque outside did I see a reference to the, “So called Missile Crisis.”
A series of caricatures of the Cuban dictator Batista and a few past USA presidents was quite interesting and humorous to me.
The title of the display was “Rincon de los cretinos” – “Corner of the Cretins”
First in line was a caricature of Fulgencio Batista, the dictator of Cuba before the revolution. The plaque beside him reads, “Thanks you cretin for helped us TO MAKE THE REVOLUTION.”
Next is Ronald Reagan dressed as a western sheriff, not sure if that is a reference to his past as a movie star or that he is perceived to be trying to be the ‘Sheriff of the World.” His plaque read, “Thanks you cretin for helped us TO STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION.”
Reagan is followed by George H.W. Bush dressed as a roman emperor. My guess is that this is referring to Bush trying to conquer the world just like ancient Rome. The plaque says, “Thanks you cretin for helped us TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION.”
Lastly, is George W. Bush with a Nazi storm trooper helmet holding a book upside-down. The title of the book is “Report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba” His plaque says, “Thanks you cretin for helped us TO MAKE SOCIALISM IRREVOCABLE.”
At the museum of art they had an exhibit of art done by school students of various ages. In retrospect, I wish I had taken some pictures of these. Some of them were pretty cute. There was one board with pictures drawn by third graders. The theme was, “When I grow up I want to be…….” My favorite one was, “When I grow up I want to be a Cuban pirate.” It showed a pirate figure on a ship with a Cuban flag as a shirt. It was interesting to me that it was specific that this little guy wanted to grow up not only to be a pirate, but to be a Cuban pirate.
The board that I found most interesting was one done by, I think, 7th graders on “Basic Human Rights.” So let me start this by saying that if I walked into an 8th grade classroom in the USA and gave an assignment to the students to draw a picture describing human rights I would get something like: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Right to due process and a fair trial, Equal Rights regardless of gender, race, religion, etc. When I think about human rights abuses and nations that have poor human rights records, I think of countries that suppress political expression, places that jail or execute political opposition, areas that employ slave labor, places that practice torture, etc.
Well, none of the subjects in the previous paragraph were depicted in the display of “Basic Human Rights” by these Cuban school children. The two main subjects were, “The right to an education,” and “The right to healthcare.” The pictures drawn by these students depicted people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and skin color all having the right to healthcare. People in wheelchairs, blind, or otherwise disabled in some manner in school getting their education. People in the city, country, seaside, etc. all having access to healthcare.
So, if you asked the average Cuban school child, “Who has a better Human Rights record, Cuba or the USA?” I am sure the answer would be, “Cuba, of course.” After all, in the USA you have to pay for education beyond grade 12 so only the rich can be educated. Healthcare is not provided to everyone, only the rich people can afford good health care.
Other signs of propaganda and influence – There is a market for many of the items of propaganda, especially those published in the 1960s. Street-side sellers and shops offer posters and pamphlets for sale, most of them are reproductions. We bought a comic book and a playing card collecting book on the revolution as gifts for our son.
The young communists party is still active and we saw some children dressed in their uniforms in the Parque Central for some sort of memorial or celebration.
The uniforms of the military haven’t changed much since the revolution. I spied this group of soldiers taking a break along the main street. This time, they weren’t fighting against the Imperialists, they were instead at war with the zika virus and were spraying areas with insecticide to help prevent the spread of zika in Cuba.
Indeed, propaganda is alive and well in Cuba. As relations thaw between the USA and Cuba it will be interesting to see if this will continue, accelerate or decline.