Fidel Castro swept to power in Cuba after a long and bloody war against the corrupt and repressive US-backed Batista government, entering Havana at the head of a triumphal parade on January 8, 1959. This was only the opening act of the revolution, however, as over the next five decades, Castro would implement lasting – if controversial – social and economic measures that continue to shape life in the country today.
Taking power by military force and with bold pronouncements against US influence in Cuba, Castro was divisive among Cubans even before he began nationalizing the economy and limiting free speech. If he wanted to last in power, Castro needed to manage his public image. Those adults who live through a revolution will always remember a time before it, but children who know nothing else are far more impressionable. As Fidel Castro himself once said, “A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past.”
Writing for Cuba Counterpoints, Cuban American scholar Alan West-Durán describes one such effort to influence the youth of Cuba – Album de la Revolución Cubana – a set of trading cards complete with a collector’s display book issued in Cuba in 1959-1960:
….underwritten by the company Felices, maker of candy and preserves. They had traditionally made their candies offering postalitas (baseball cards), but now they were taking the postalita concept and applying it to an album-length narrative of the Cuban revolution that begins with Batista’s coup on March 10, 1952 and ends with the triumphant arrival of Fidel to Havana on January 8, 1959 (and, interestingly enough, with the execution of prominent batistianos involved in war crimes in the last three closing images). Through 268 card-images, a colorful, if somewhat ideology-laden story unfolds, even if the facts are pretty accurate. There is one ad for Guava Marmalade, on the back cover, from Felices with a little girl in blonde pigtails saying “Thank you, mom, for today’s dessert!”
Pure fifties imagery of what is supposed to be the typical middle class Cuban family, which if not in Spanish could be an ad from any U.S. magazine of the time. The front cover has an explosion of color to match the one depicted of a battle. On top are the Cuban and the July 26th flags, below which, in bold yellow lettering are the words Revolución Cubana in full caps. Next to that lettering stands Fidel himself holding a rifle. He looms large over the landscape and to his right is both the Sierra Maestra (the mountain range that harbored the incipient guerrilla movement), and above the mountains is a kind of spirit-cloud with the face of José Martí, Cuba’s “imaginary monarch” (Rafael Rojas’s words), the political and moral inspiration of the Cuban revolutionary movement. At ground level are scenes of battle (with soldiers, planes, tanks and an explosion with billowing red smoke), as well as a depiction of the Granma, the boat used by the July 26th rebels to go from Mexico to Cuba (now prominently displayed in the Museum of the Revolution). To say the cover is over the top would be an understatement, but it does have an appeal for those who enjoy an action comic aesthetic with clear heroes and villains. The difference between the covers is striking: revolutionary propaganda (Fidel, Martí, July 26th Movement) on the front; capitalist propaganda (Guava marmalade) on the back. Blood and heroism on the cover, sweetness and pleasure on the back: good old Cuban dialectics at work.
Surprisingly, for an object for young collectors, the album depicts many scenes of violence, be it acts of repression of the Batista government to battle scenes with bodies strewn about, to attempts on the life of Batista, to the assassination of underground leader Frank País, or the blowing up of trains in Santa Clara. Indeed, it is a graphic and bloody depiction of an insurrectionary war and those who died in the revolutionary struggle are shown as heroes and spoken about in the language of Christian martyrdom.
“The Album of the Cuban Revolution” is high drama, true to Hitchcock’s dictum that “Drama is life with all the dull bits cut out.” Of course, when you are writing an epic there is no room for the dull parts; it is a heady mix of heroism, determination, sacrifice, bravery, selflessness, and, presumably, good aim. Once in power, this is usually followed by the usual monuments, statues, museums, commemorative plaques, grave sites, mausoleums, anniversaries, and other historical markers.
Today these trading cards, the vanguard of the socialist revolution in Cuba, have become capitalist collector’s items, with complete original sets fetching hundreds of dollars online, a signifier of Communist kitsch. The album has also been reprinted, and is a popular item for sale to tourists in the streets of Havana. As of 2017, these reprint copies were selling for about $8-10 near the very active cruise ship port just off the Malecon – that’s where I got my hands on a copy.
The heroic figures depicted on these faded trading cards – as well as the rhetoric of anti-American imperialism that is at the heart of the revolutionary narrative – are central to grander pieces of official propaganda still seen throughout modern day Cuba. Fidel, Che, and Camilo have become icons that stand as tall as buildings. Even after the actors have died, the larger-than-life characters that they played live on.
English translations of the 1959 card set – as well as high quality scans of the complete album – are available on an external website – Album de la Revolución Cubana. These cards offer a fascinating insight into how Castro’s government told its own story, and the accompanying translations may be helpful when answering the following questions.
The Bottom Line
- Define “propaganda.”
- What messages are young Cubans supposed to take from these trading cards? Who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys? What qualities should good Cuban children admire and model?What images and cues are used to convey these message?
- In theory, this set of cards was issued by a private company, not the Cuban government. How do private companies attempt to shape the values and behaviors of young people in your country? In what ways does the government do this? Your school? Are their messages different from each other, or similar?
- The faces and names certainly differ, but are the messages communicated by your national propaganda dramatically different from those found in this Cuban propaganda?
- How might certain kinds of propaganda be helpful to a society? How might it be dangerous? What kind of safeguards might a society put in place to guard against these dangers?