Current Affairs

How To Sell A Revolution

A deep dive into the fascinating history of Cuban propaganda art.

Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, tourism companies used posters and other visual media to sell Cuba as an exotic playland. These advertisements prominently featured alluring women who enticed tourists to come to an island filled with casinos, luxurious hotels, and other sumptuous delights. But this all changed dramatically after 1959. The revolution categorically rejected the idea of Cuba as a fantasy island for rich and wealthy foreigners. Revolutionary Cuba was going to be for Cubans. New publishing houses quickly formed to produce visual media for this new Cuba: Designers, marketers, abstract expressionists, and other artists signed on to the revolution. No longer would sex be used to sell products, whether physical goods or services, or Cuba itself as a lush, available resort. Instead, visual artists sought to portray Cuba as the worker’s paradise where everyone worked for the collective good. Was this “propaganda?” Yes. But no more so than the sexy casino girls.

Smiling workers. AK-47s. Charlie Chaplin. These are only a few of the diverse array of images found in Cuban poster propaganda after 1959. Cuban revolutionary heroes like Che Guevara and Jose Martí, and international comrades like Angela Davis and Ho Chi Minh also feature prominently in posters, sometimes in bright bold colors, other times in black and white photo collages. The posters are a real contrast from the dreary hack work that people usually associate with the word “propaganda.” But despite their high artistic quality, these posters should not be mistaken for art for art’s sake: The artists had a mission, and that mission was to sell a particular image of the Cuban Revolution to the Cuban people as well as the rest of the world. The image they were promoting was Cuba, the brave new socialist utopia, striving towards a better life for Cubans and fighting against Western imperialist aggression. The United States had long been a menacing shadow over Cuba, starting with Cuba’s war for independence from Spain in the 19th century—which bloomed into the Spanish-American war—and the U.S.’s subsequent meddling in Cuban internal affairs.

Sandino Lives, OSPAAAL, Rafael Enríquez, 1984. Image courtesy Lincoln Cushing / Docs Populi.

Freed from U.S. influence, artists and creators took the charge to create a new visual culture for Cuba very seriously. As Cuban artist Felix Beltran wrote in his 1970 essay “The Poster as a Medium of Political Confrontation,” the poster art that had existed in pre-revolutionary Cuba arose from an exploitative, capitalist advertising world that used tropes like “scandalous violence and eroticism” to arrest the viewer’s attention, all in service of an “imperialist offensive that trie[d] to stop critical feeling” against the existing order. The Revolution, however, sought to re-purpose the poster and other forms of visual advertising in order to reflect, as Beltran put it, “revolutionary progress and the international reflection of our country with other peoples.” Beltran believed that it was important that the new posters “reflect graphically the aspirations of the public” by clearly expressing revolutionary ideals in visual form: “the most important aspect in poster design is to diffuse a message efficiently and clearly.” Similarly, in a discussion about Cuban posters for Cuba Internacional in 1969, poster artist Edmundo Desnoes spoke of the need to introduce “a new vision, new preoccupation without appealing nor exploiting the sensationalism, sex, sentimentalism, the illusion of aristocratic life.” The purpose of this new visual culture was to inform and educate the public, without falling into the old exploitive paradigms.

Creators gravitated enthusiastically towards this new vision. The Cuban artist Raul Martinez was originally an Abstract Expressionist, but changed his entire artistic philosophy and output after the Revolution. In a 1979 interview in Art in America with Eva Cockcroft, he explained that he was inspired by the Revolution’s emphasis on using art as a medium of communication with ordinary people: “now I had a need to have my message understood. I wanted my paintings to reflect the life that surrounded me.” Many early posters used a social realist style that the Cuban government dubbed “the people with strong arms”—you know the type—but over time, the aesthetic style of the posters diversified, and later posters showed the influence of psychedelic art, pop art, and other art movements.

In addition to smaller publishing houses, such as the Casa de las Americas, three principal publishing houses for posters were founded. The first was Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) that printed movie posters as well as cultural events posters. Then there was Editora Politica (EP) founded in 1962, which also went by several other names, including Commission of Revolutionary Orientation (COR) and the Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR). EP publicized public information and government campaigns, like posters on safety and sugar harvest goals. The Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL) also published Tricontinental Magazine from 1966 until 1990, which included folded-in posters. Cuban archivist Lincoln Cushing notes that the magazine was quite popular, with 30,000 subscribers at its peak in 1989.

The posters produced by these publishing houses were not only popular, they were ubiquitous. In Revolución! Cuban Poster Art, Cushing notes that posters were in “halls, community centers, schools, private residences and beyond.”  Film posters were specifically sized for special kiosks found across the country. They were deliberately intended to be a part of the everyday fabric of Cuban culture. As Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier describes in Cuba en la gráfica: “Every commemoration, every event, every contingency of our collective life is accomplished by posters, creating a living account through their images of the contemporary history of our Revolutionary process.”

That “living account” meant a constant reminder to the public of the successes and aspirations of the Cuban Revolution. Posters were used to enfold Cuba’s longer history into a revolutionary narrative, encouraging the public perception that the 1959 Revolution was not a self-contained, ahistorical event, but rather an event that had been in the making for decades. Notably, both film posters and political posters constantly depicted the Cuban writer and liberation martyr, Jose Martí (1853-1895), who was killed in battle in Cuba’s war of independence to free itself of Spanish rule. Many posters also commemorated the 1953 Moncada barracks attack, a failed assault by Castro and other revolutionaries against a military barracks during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Sometimes the posters brought the two themes together, as in the 1983 OSPAAAL poster “Cuba and Martí Present at the Moncada” by Rafael Morante, clearly emphasizing the connection between the nationalist, anti-colonial hero of Cuba and the heroes of the Revolution. Perhaps the most frequently-recurring hero depicted in the posters was Che Guevara, most notably in Elena Serrano’s 1968 “Day of the Heroic Guerrilla October 8th” showing a map of South America with Che’s face in the center. Another frequent theme was Cuba’s victory over the United States in Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) in 1961, emphasizing the belief that the moral superiority of the Cuban Revolution and the passion of its people led to the defeat of a better-resourced imperial power.

Other posters sought to energize the public around the government’s goals. For example, one of the first government efforts was a massive literacy campaign that sent 100,000 literacy teachers, 56,000 of whom were young women, to the countryside. Nevertheless, the poster campaign around the issue failed to highlight women’s central contribution to the effort—Mario Masvidal’s 1961“Against the Yankee Imperialism, Become Literate!” shows a young male scout stabbing an eagle with a pencil, with the accompanying text reading, “Every Cuban that learns to read and write is a smack we give to Imperialism.”

Another notable poster campaign was for the 10 Million Sugar Harvest, or “Zafras de los Diez Millones.” Sugar had been one of the most important crops in Cuba for centuries, and in 1970, the government set a target to produce 10 million tons of sugar. This initiative was incredibly ambitious, requiring the effort of the entire island. A massive propaganda program for the harvest was launched across Cuba. The Artistic Director for the initiative—Olivio Martínez Viera—created 10 posters using colorful and creative typography which were to be rolled out to announce each time a million tons of sugar had been harvested. The posters were pasted onto road signs throughout the country, celebrating the campaign’s progress and egging people on to achieve their massive goal. (The Sugar Campaign ultimately failed: Only eight of Martínez’s posters were ever displayed, until the remaining two were published in 2002.)

The posters, however, weren’t intended for a Cuban audience exclusively: OSPAAAL—whose magazine was circulated in 87 countries and was published in English, Spanish, French, and Arabic—also created over 300 posters that supported and celebrated revolutionary movements across the world. OSPAAAL posters sometimes focused on specific leaders, such as Nelson Mandela—featured in one poster as “the symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle”—or Patrice Lumumba, whose profile is incorporated into the shape of Africa, alluding to his Pan-African goals. Others depicted the liberation struggles of specific countries. Vietnam, for example, held a special place in the Cuban imagination and featured in many posters at OSPAAAL, as well as other Cuban publishing houses. One OSPAAAL poster about Vietnam, Ernesto Padrón’s 1971 “Together with Vietnam,” shows five rows of conical hats from above, charging forward with guns. These international posters were both outward- and inward-facing: They situated the Cuban communist project within a landscape of worldwide struggle, and emphasized the enduring success of the Cuban Revolution, by showing that Cuba was now in a strong enough position to offer support—ideological and moral support, as well as material and military support—to other nations fighting for freedom.

El Salvador. We make war to conquer the peace, OSPAAAL, Rafael Enríquez Vega, 1984. Image courtesy Lincoln Cushing / Docs Populi.

In other international posters, artists creatively adapted indigenous and historic imagery to create a visual language for modern liberation struggles. A 1969 poster “Guatemala” by Olivio Martínez shows a figure in the ancient Mayan style, but holding a modern gun. In Berta Abelenda’s 1968 “Day of Solidarity with the Arab Peoples,” a man drawn in the ancient Egyptian pictorial style is shown with a gun on his back and hieroglyphs of grenades and bullets next to him. Faustino Pérez’s 1970 “Day of Solidarity with Zimbabwe” shows a pith helmet with an arrow sticking through it, with the pith helmet symbolizing European colonization, while the arrow symbolizes the people of Zimbabwe and their coming victory over their Western colonizers.

Day of Solidarity with Zimbabwe, OSPAAAL, Faustino Pérez, offset, 1970. Image courtesy Lincoln Cushing / Docs Populi.

These internationally-circulated posters also proved to be an excellent medium for criticizing the United States, particularly its treatment of black radicals. For instance, Angela Davis appeared in at least two OSPAAAL posters, one by Felix Beltran, showing her face in profile with the words “Liberty for Angela Davis” on the top, and another by Alberto Rostgaard, showing her with four sets of arms—two in handcuffs in front of her and two above her head breaking the handcuffs—reminiscent of Hindu iconography. George Jackson, who was killed during an alleged prison escape, is also featured in one of OSPAAAL’s more striking posters, which depicts Jackson’s body arched in pain, bleeding the American flag. 

Angela Davis, OSPAAAL, Alberto Rostgaard, 1970. Image courtesy Lincoln Cushing / Docs Populi.

These posters served as a reminder to Cuban people (and the rest of the world) of the hypocrisy and racism of the United States. This fit into a broader pattern of political messaging: Castro and other revolutionaries focused on U.S. racism as evidence of the corruption and immorality of Western imperialism. The Cuban government had itself proclaimed an “end to racism” in 1960 and projected a self-image of harmonious racial integration that contrasted with the violent racial oppression of the United States.

But this self-image wasn’t a complete picture, and the fault lines in Cuba’s own relationship to race is also evident in the posters. Notably, while artists were attempting to solve the problem of communicating across different cultural contexts and languages, these OSPAAAL posters relied on stereotypes of countries to represent them, often relying on historical and ancient iconography. Posters reflecting Africa frequently used images of tribes, while Middle Eastern posters relied on images of sheiks and other stereotypes. Solidarity posters for countries in Asia used Buddhist statues, Vietnamese conical hats, and other images that reinforced notions of exoticism and orientalism. While the government self-promoted Cuba as an enlightened racial paradise—Fidel Castro famously pronounced that racism had been “eliminated” in Cuba just two years after the revolution—significant racial inequalities persisted

Cuban posters may have had a singular mission, and abound in artistic diversity—from the childlike figures of Eduardo Muñoz Bachs, to the flat color images of Mederos, to the black and white photorealism of René Azcuy Cardenas, to the typographical experimentation of Olivio Martínez—but the posters are also mired in their own contradictions about race, gender, and sexual orientation. As propaganda, they reflect political aims, but also casual, hypocritical bigotry. Their rich visuals can be seen as a testament to the health and bounty of the Cuban Revolution, showing that artistic creativity can flourish freely when artists were freed from the corruption and poverty of capitalism and imperialism. But contradictions, censorship, and oppression were also an indelible part of the Cuban Revolution. A propaganda effort, no matter how talented the artists and visually impressive the results, must always maintain message discipline. The posters are remarkable not only for what they depict, but also for what they were not permitted to show.

Nixon tearing the Heart out of Indochina, OSPAAAL, René Mederos, 1971. Image courtesy Lincoln Cushing / Docs Populi.

There’s no question that the government limited the types of messages that poster artists could illustrate. Most of the publishing houses were government-owned; EP published posters for the Cuban Communist party and other branches of the government, and OSPAAAL, although less closely tied to the state, was likely also subject to government influence. The Cuban government controlled other art in Cuba, too: As Linda Howe writes in Transgression and Conformity: Cuban Writers and Artists after the Revolution, the Cuban government’s “official standardization of cultural norms” meant that artists had to follow the party line or they lost their jobs or ability to publish. Worse, they could even be arrested and imprisoned, like the writer Heberto Padilla.

Different commentators have held varying views on the extent of Cuban censorship in various fields and across different time periods. In his scathing review of Cuba’s treatment of intellectuals in 1985 Harnessing the Intellectuals: Censoring Writers and Artists in Today’s Cuba, Carlos Ripoll points out that the Penal Code punished people for “false, oppositional” propaganda with a sentence between seven to 15 years. Like Howe, he points out the attacks on various Cuban writers for “immoral” and oppositional actions in Cuba. By contrast, in Art of the Revolution, Susan Sontag sees a less stringent Cuban policy about expression, writing that Cuba had “not…come to any particular solution, not to put great pressure on the artist… The Cuban government was pragmatic and largely respectful.”  She acknowledges that other arts, such as literature, failed to enjoy such a relationship with the government, but believes that posters were “special” in part because of their “adaptability.” Openness about artistic freedom varied throughout the decades, as Linda Howe notes. The 1970s and 1980s were marked by erratic censorship and condemnations of artists. Despite the varying levels of repression, this active uncertainty probably caused some artists to engage in self-censorship to avoid consequences.

Censorship also wasn’t just about the content: Artists were also sometimes punished for their identities. Raul Martínez, one of the best known poster artists, was dismissed from his post as a teacher of design at the University of Havana in 1965 for being gay. Another poster artist, Reboiro, went into exile in France in 1982 because he was persecuted for being gay by the government.

The tension between the ideal Cuba that the posters sought to present and the real Cuba persisted up through the Special Period—the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, whose subsidies had accounted for 80 percent of Cuba’s International Trade, which essentially led to a war economy in peacetime. Rationing went into place throughout Cuba. Paper, ink, and other supplies were in short supply, and poster printing came to a standstill. ICAIC went from publishing one poster a week in the 1970s-1980s to two posters a year in the Special Period. Adapting to the times, a new group of students from the Higher Institute of Industrial Design (ISDI) began creating new posters, focusing largely on movies and cultural events. Poster artist Pepe Menéndez calls the 1991-2000 a period of “clandestineness” due to the precarious nature of publishing; the print runs were very small. When the situation improved from 2001 to the present, artists continued to make lively posters—for example, Michelle Miyares Hollands created Las Reinas del Trópico in 2009 to commemorate a week of Mexican movies, cleverly configuring the bared legs of the rumbera dancers into the shape of a giant pineapple—but most poster books and exhibitions following this period don’t include new “solidarity” propaganda posters of the kind that flourished in earlier decades.

While poster art struggled to keep a foothold, tourism reemerged as a dominant industry. The Special Period and resulting economic downturn made tourism a financial necessity, and as a result Cuba’s tourist industry has thrived, despite the U.S.’s trade embargo and limited tourist travel. In February 2019, Forbes reported that Cuba hoped to have 5 million tourists visit the island; moreover, tourist dollars were projected to exceed $3 billion in revenue last year. With this renewed focus on tourism, the advertisements have reverted back to displaying Cuba as a tropical paradise. For instance, a 2007 poster found in Buenos Aires, Argentina shows a couple clad in swimsuits relaxing in the water. Other images depict brightly colored buildings and classic cars, once again marketing Cuba as an exotic destination, enhanced from being cut off from the rest of the world for so many decades. It remains to be seen whether Cuba’s self-presentation through advertising will revert to something more closely resembling its pre-revolutionary form.

Visit Grenada / A climate of freedom, A friendly solidary [sic] people, master of its own destiny / Beautiful and revolutionary, Grenada is nobody’s backyard, and of course it’s not for sale! OSPAAAL, Rafael Morante, 1982. Image courtesy Lincoln Cushing / Docs Populi.

 But the question also remains: What will be the future of Cuba’s poster art? Will it return to a purely commodified form, a tourist trinket that people can photograph or bring home, devoid of meaning beyond a memory of a paradise island? Or will artists have to continue to produce politically relevant art that only tells part of the story of the Cuban experience at the behest of a repressive government? One hopes that Cuban poster art can find a middle ground, making lively, truth-telling work that is nonetheless free of both repression and commercialization. A kind of art that can explore the full range of experiences of Cuban life, whether it’s the struggle for democracy, or women’s rights, or just the depiction of everyday experience.

This kind of honest art is hard to come by in every country. Americans might sneer at the kind of obvious, government-supporting propaganda found in something like the 10 Million Sugar Harvest, but then blithely turn on their televisions for the Super Bowl and watch high-budget advertisements for products they don’t need, bookending a sporting event that increasingly functions as a right-wing pro-military parade. Whether propaganda is open or subtle, based on open repression or implicit encouragement, it inhabits art much more than we think. Cuban poster art, with its history of “strong arms” and lively visual experimentation is simply a more vivid example than most.

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