25 November 2009

Graphically Generating Revolution

Cuban billboards feature a wide variety of political, social, economic and cultural subjects. They range from the mundane of mosquito extermination to maintaining political unity, and from geopolitical nuances such as exporting healthcare providers to conserving energy.

I have chosen to focus on outdoor messages about the future targeted at younger generations. These messages are especially important because the continuation of the Revolution upon the exit of the aging historical leaders depends on maintaining the ideological allegiance and active participation of the younger generations. Furthermore, the code of "generation" has been perennially salient in the discourse of Cuban political culture since long before the Revolution of 1959. Implicit in this choice of thematic inquiry is the question: Is a 20th century medium an adequate means to reach the generations of the 21st century? However, this study limits its focus to the manifest appearance of these signs—not intended meaning of their designers or forms of perception and message reception at the level of the audience.

Having chosen messages about generations of the future, I find that they are often communicated in terms of History.  While that sounds ironic on its face, it makes sense that a regime concerned with continuity would appeal to the population of Cuba's future in terms of an allegiance to the past.

Within the overall category of the Future in terms of History, this paper focuses on two tactical means by which authorities target youth. First, is the notion of Cultura—broadly interpreted as education, enlightened cultivation, the social goods and ideals that the Revolution has provided. Cultura is both a key nationalist antecedent to the Revolution and a product of the Revolution. This dialectical depiction of the past and future history of the Revolution suggests that the 19th & early 20th century political and cultural contributions to the success of the Revolution serve as a model for how the Revolution contributes to future generations, that is, to the Revolutions very continuance.

The second tactical means of representing history as a map for the future is what I am calling Incarnation. This concept refers to the graphic device of depicting historic leaders as embodying the nation—or future generations embodying past national heroes. Again, a dialectical process is at work: leaders of the Revolution, above all Fidel Castro (FC) embody the actions and ideals of figures from Cuba's history such as José Martí; and young people are depicted as personifying the revolutionary leadership as they continue the historic path and deepen the Revolution.


Below is a graphic representation of the general model of the strategic narrative conveyed by Cuban propaganda. At the broadest level, these messages draw from the nation's history to provide ideological direction for the future.

As propaganda relates to or addresses the younger generations, a dialectical relationship is put forth: the Revolution provided the means and ideas for young people to continue to advance the Revolution. This current transition from one generation to the next is just the latest in a sequence of torch passing. The revolutionary generation of 1959 inherited their ideas of national independence and Latin American unity from previous revolutionary and independence movements. Thus the messages to today's crop of young people is that they have a duty rooted in history to continue the path begun by their antecedents.

As seen in the visual diagram, the revolutionary leadership is just one of two interacting components of the model. Besides the personalities involved in this narrative, there are the conditions and creations of Revolution, that is, both the political environments and cultural ingredients that produced the Revolution, and the political and social products of the Revolution. If a steadfast belief in sovereignty and strains of socialism characterized the situation from which the Revolution arose, then the fruits of the Revolution include education, cultural elevation, and dogged independence in the face of imperial aggression.

It might be helpful to conceive of this dynamic double helix as an interaction between Structure and Agency. The past heralds the future via figures acting in a conditioned environment that is only partially of their making. The Marxist overtones of this interpretation may not be coincidental.

    If other posters show that FC embodies all Cubans, then this supergráfrica shows that each Cuban—including, first among equals, FC—contains an entire revolutionary armed force within. Each and every Cuban carries on the preparedness for struggle first displayed by the rebels in the 1950s. Indeed, this photograph of the elderly FC recreates physiognomically the iconic arms-raised photograph of the young rebels celebrating victory that appears every morning along the banner of the daily newspaper, Granma.

The modern color photograph semiotically resurrects a younger FC, while placing the responsibility of combat on each Cuban. Certainly this message could also allude to the defensive/ideological strategy known as guerra de todo el pueblo, in which the nation's plans for repelling a foreign invasion or occupation entail mobilizing all citizens, either as conscripts or civilian guerrillas.

This supergráfica was coded as pertaining to youth because it contains the word "hijo" from a famous José Martí quote. The three gentlemen featured are the independence leaders José Martí, Simon Bolivar and José de San Martín, who led the movements to free Cuba, northern and southern South America respectively. Behind them are the flags of all the nations of the Americas.

The young Martí's 1881 quote of being "a child of America" is superimposed onto the 21st century. Contemporary Cubans are the offspring of these founding fathers, and as such they are "indebted" to the actions and ideals of that past.

While Martí, Bolivar and San Martín delivered independence, the unrequited dimension of their political project was the unification of the continents peoples into a grand cause called "Our America". This regional integration is once again on the agenda in alliances such as ALBA, an alternative to US-led free trade models, which Cuba and eight other countries hope will be a new and cooperative dawn for Latin America.

Thus, the message can be summarized as: These great heroes bestowed to today's generations both a vision and the independence from colonialism needed to fulfill that vision; now today's youth are duty bound to pursue the ideals of regional integration.

Another iteration of this message occurs with Martí appearing in the silhouette (in the mind) of FC, and Bolivar, the liberator of Venezuela, appearing in the silhouette of Hugo Chávez. As the revolutionary leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries follow in the footsteps of the 19th century Latin American independence heroes—the "children" of the 21st century inherit the debt to the ideal of America.

    Marking FC's 80th birthday (which coincided with his near death experience and temporary transfer of authority—and thus a moment of uncertainty), this poster patriotically exclaims that FC should live 80 more years. Obviously, for biological reasons this is not a literal appeal—rather an urging that Cubans follow the path blazed by FC for another eight decades.

    This is the same photograph as above but cropped here so that FC's face does not appear. The imagery is consonant with the verbal message: in the wake of the revolutionary leader march scores of flag waving followers.

According to famous Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén's line, Che is pure like a child—in which case youth are deemed to have the revolutionary potential necessary to "be like Che".

This billboard notes that the federation of high school students has been with FC and the Revolution, making a future. Past allegiance serves as the motor for the future. Unwavering adherence to the Revolution is underscored by playing with the acronym for the federation, coloring the first two letters so that it reads "faith".

    "Faith" is what Che "inculcated" in Cubans.

    Not only does this billboard—which honors Che's fall in revolutionary combat in Bolivia—complete the cycle of a revolutionary legacy being passed on to those who will "always carry it"; but it also falls into the category of embodiment. Che's face doubles as the map of South America—his Argentine homeland and Bolivian place of death. Che embodied Latin America, and instilled faith in the continent that lasts on.



    Here the Revolution is the daughter of Culture, Knowledge and Ideas. A national symbol of a palm tree turns into a pencil which serves as a flagpole for the proud revered flag.  Nationalism abounds.

Nebulous oceanic forms run into the pencil-palm-flagpole, converting into well defined sheets of paper--more symbols of learning—and more abstractly representing the institutionalization of an organic and spontaneous sociopolitical process.  If the revolution is the child of culture and ideas, then culture and ideas are also the products of revolution.  The revolution/education dynamic is portrayed as a dialectical process. It feeds back into the very forces that created it, providing more education and culture to the young.

The Revolution "must continue to the task of fostering healthy, educational, and useful recreation for our youth," said FC. This reminder of the provision of health and schooling is paired with the logos of the chain of state-run campgrounds and the Union of Young Comunists. This construction completes the dialogical circuit from Culture to Revolution to Culture. The next logical step is that "our youth" continue the Revolution.

    But FC has warned that the state alone cannot be responsible for society's job of educating young people. He has called on parents to take seriously their part of developing their children into good citizens. "We must multiply our battle in a multifaceted way, if we want to advance."

    Although this phrase has been used in provincial production campaigns, FC most notably employed it in reference to raising young people properly. Multiplying efforts means all homes share in the task of educating; but it also means, that through that very process of parental rearing, society will multiply its number of upstanding revolutionaries. Pursuing the sequence, increased numbers of prepared young people equates to multiplying battles (i.e. social development).

16 November 2009


Thus far I have noted the affinity between messages about the future and appeals to history. Within this thematic set, I have discussed the code of education—specifically the prevailing dialectical model that posits that the Revolution has provided education, which in turn lays the groundwork for more revolution.

Now I need to identify another categorical cluster within the future/history thematic set.

Upon further coding and sorting, I have come up with the notion of Incarnation. This code applies to messages that depict the younger generation embodying revolutionary leadership.

One billboard reads: “Fidel es un pais”; and features six smiling young boys and the famed rebel vessel, the Granma. The message contains at least three distinct yet related meanings: (1) The country is loyal (to its revolutionary history, particularly Fidel Castro) (2) Fidel Castro is a country (that monumentally important, and containing multitudes); (3) The entire country (including these boys) is like Fidel Castro.

A poster has the silhouetted profile of Fidel Castro superimposed over the flag. Within the positive space of the silhouette is a crowd of young Cubans marching in a demonstration. It reads “Somos Uno.” This also has several interconnected meanings: (1) We are all part of Fidel; (2) We are united as one; (3) Fidel represents all of us.

The theme of incarnation becomes very literal in another poster that shows an army of young Cubans, each with the face and rifle of a young Fidel Castro. It reads “The Youth, We Will Not Fail.”

The clear message is two-fold: that the revolutionary leadership is a role model to emulate; and that the younger generation has a responsibility to follow the historicos’ example.

The notion of historic role models for the future appears in a billboard with Che Guevara that reads “Con tu ejemplo comunista”; and in a mural with the youthful faces of the by-gone Che, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Julio Mella, which reads “De estos hombres se hace un pueblo”—from these men makes a people.

So within the future/history thematic set, the two subsets are Education and Incarnation. A stylized model functions along these lines:

• Revolution provided education, which instills the abilities and values to further the Revolution.

• Historic leaders made the Revolution, setting an example for the Youth to follow.

From Billboards

From Billboards

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From Billboards

From Billboards

From ¡Que País!

07 November 2009

Bambinazos Cuadrangulares!!

Santiago outfielder Alexei Bell hit two grand slams in the first inning of opening day in the national baseball series. He ended up going 4 for 4 with 12 runs batted in. That ranks as one of the all-time top performances in the worldwide history of baseball.

Homeland is Made from the Worth of its Sons

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From a cursory coding of the data (yet years of familiarity with the subject matter), it appears to me that my main thematic category of The Future is often communicated in terms of History. While that sounds ironic on its face, it makes sense that a regime concerned with continuity would appeal to the population of Cuba's future in terms of an allegiance to the past.

A case in point is a billboard that appeared for the "ANIVERSARIO 113 DEL REINICIO DE LA GUERRA DE INDEPENDENCIA". It features a quote from José Martí: "La patria está hecha del mérito de sus hijos". This claims that the nation depends on its offspring, that Cuba's fate is in the hands of youth--yet the dictum about the future ironically hails from over a century prior. The context for Martí's quote was in the 1893 run-up to the "reinitiation" of the failed 10-year independence war (1868-78). The analogy of continuity cannot be missed: the Martí-masterminded War of Independence (1895-98) is to the previous 10-Year War as Cuba's near future is to Cuba's revolutionary history (which entails--at least according to the state--the entire period of struggle from 1868 to 1959). To sum up: 1868 is to 1898, as 1959 is to 2009.

The rest of the quote (which does not appear on the billboard, but may be familiar to many Cubans and thus implicit) says that 'the wealth of a nation derives from a child that beats the same path as his predecessors, leading to a more useful and complete result'. Just as the second generation of independence fighters followed triumphantly in the steps of the first unsuccessful generation, this billboard suggests that today's youth continue the revolutionary path to greater national goals.

It is important to note that the nation does not produce its offspring. Rather, "a nation is made" from the valuable contributions of "sus hijos". Just as Martí and Maceo and Gomez generated the independent nation of Cuba, the current crop of children will make their historic homeland by way of "merit".

Finally, I take a look at the visual graphics of this billboard. It is the figure of a late 19th century Cuban independence fighter on horseback, sword raised. There are three iterations of this image. The smallest and faintest one appears in the bottom left corner. Ascending is a larger and bolder iteration. Then finally the boldest and grandest rendition occupies the central space of the billboard. This image is the graphic representation of early precursors in struggle begetting later generations that ride along the same route, growing stronger and bolder.

From this single example we see how a simple quote and minimalist graphics can conjure history towards impelling the future.

(Of course, it remains to be seen how an outdated screen print of an old quote on an outdated mass medium can reach a 21st century audience. Maybe it could have better "connected" to today's youth by playing with the multiple meanings of the word "reinicio", so as to express something technologically updated while retaining the earlier historical significance--maybe meaning something along the lines of "Reboot the Revolution".)

06 November 2009

The Wall Has Eyes

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Back to the Future


This not subtle symbolism is a take on the very first poster of the Cuban Revolution.
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Neighborhood Watch

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The seventh congress of the neighborhood-level organization that keeps an eye out for counterrevolutionary activity and engages in recycling and blood drives. One of the many cross-cutting modes of sociopolitical organization that check and balance each other.