Cuba: Communism and Culture in the Banana Republic Frozen in Time
By Sean McClelland
Ninety miles across the Caribbean from the Florida Keys lies an island. Most United States citizens cannot trade (with this island). On this island, there are no television commercials, newspaper ads or billboards plastered with pictures of food or cars. It is as if this little republic completely rejects the very principles that American consumer culture is based o. After fifty years of trade-less relations with its behemoth neighbor to the North, it is as if the country has become frozen in time.
Of course, I’m talking about Cuba, which increasing numbers of Americans have been visiting, despite a decades-old embargo that prevents most types of travel to the island. What was once a country largely dominated by American commercial interests has, in the course of a half-century, gone from being an idealistic revolutionary state to soviet puppet, finally transitioning into a bankrupt nation that tries (and largely fails) to keep its people in check through paranoia and propaganda.
Interestingly, each phase of Cuba’s history is almost perfectly enshrined in the architecture, cars and decor of Havana and other Cuban cities. Ornately detailed post-colonial buildings stand adjacent to streets crowded with wonderfully streamlined American automobiles from the 50s, all in the shadow of monolithic Soviet-style concrete office buildings. Of course, years of disrepair and neglect have given the cityscapes a distinct post-apocalyptic hue; paint has long since peeled from most buildings, many of the cars are rusted (though just as many have been kept in pristine condition) and just about every other wall is plastered with a sun-bleached, decades-old revolutionary slogan.
Indeed, one of Cuba’s most shocking facets is the complete and utter lack of advertising. Most Americans will interpret that as meaning that there are no billboards, no television commercials and no newspaper ads. This perception is only partially true. There are many billboards—it’s just that all of them are covered in propaganda del Socialismo. Driving across the country, you’ll see dozens of free standing billboards every mile, alternatively attempting to motivate the people (“It is ideas that drive history!”) or reinforcing the irreversibility of the Revolution—an event that is, in the Cuban imagination, ongoing and currently in its 54th year. These read more like: “Socialism or death!” In fact, even in casual conversation, La Revolución has become shorthand for the Castro regime; the people are supposed to be mesmerized by the constant action of the revolutionary government, despite its actual operation.
Television programs and the single approved newspaper are slightly subtler in their approach, but equally predictable in formula. On TV, what is loosely called the news is, in reality, extraordinarily rehearsed in format; every night of news is composed roughly of thirty minutes of criticizing the United States (with inordinate attention given to the “ongoing” police brutality against the Occupy movement) and thirty minutes of praising the remarkable productivity of a given Cuban industrial sector. This is the only news program broadcast on the only news channel in the country (there are only four channels in total).
The nightly news is preceded by a very interesting program titled Mesa Redonda (“Round Table” in English), which, at first glance, is formatted exactly like an American political commentary program. A moderator and commentators are arranged around a table much in the same way as would be expected from a show from CNN. Once the show actually starts, however, it becomes very clear how the program differs from those in the United States; instead of heated debate, discussion and disagreement, Mesa Redonda is composed entirely of consecutive fifteen-minute monologues wherein every commentator agrees with everyone else. As with most Cuban cultural institutions, it is almost as if an American explained to a Cuban who had never before seen American news how to format a talk show and, like a game of telephone, the concept had become warped and reconstructed in accordance to the demands of La Revolución.
The newspaper is similarly organized; of the six or so pages in El Granma—the only newspaper in the country—roughly half are devoted to analyzing the failures of the United States while the other half are feel-good pieces about Cuban production. In every news outlet, actions of the United States are invariably interpreted in the worst possible light. Notably, the NATO interventions in Libya (which were largely performed by British and French forces) produced the following headline in El Granma: “U.S. Invasion of Libya Continues to Produce Civilian Casualties”. On the up-side, the Cuban people avoid indoctrination by capitalist advertisements—the paper and the news are completely void of any commercials.
One story that transcends every advertising and propaganda medium is the story of Los Cinco Héroes (“The Five Heroes”). As much as can be surmised by any inquisitive visitor, the Héroes were, simply, Communist Cuban informants who had infiltrated anti-Communist Cuban-American terrorist organizations and were imprisoned (for crimes that they had likely actually committed) after Fidel Castro had provided information gathered from the informants to the FBI to assist with capturing actual anti-Communist terrorists. The story is really very complex; each actor in the story plugs into a web of terrorist activity (some of which is, within Cuban propaganda regime, sponsored by the CIA) that dates back decades to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Whatever happened in truth actually becomes much more interesting as a myth of La Revolución. Billboards everywhere inform the public that the Héroes must return, the television updates the people every night about the fate of their informant-heroes and the newspaper responds with bitter cynicism at every step the U.S. judicial system takes in their prosecution, imprisonment and parole. Most interesting of this whole ordeal is the length of time the story has been perpetrated on the Cuban people; the Five Heroes were arrested during the Clinton Administration.
At this point, the legend of the Five Heroes has come to embody everything about the Cuban cultural regime—it, like the Revolución itself, has tried to remain relevant by transcending time, creating a system of paranoia and establishing a David & Goliath story. In the end, the regime in Cuba has survived in recent years by setting itself as the underdog, persecuted by the Goliath of the North. Ultimately, the U.S. embargo has only helped sustain this cultural mythology.