There are two things that you’ll notice after arriving in Cuba. First, there isn’t any advertising. Second, there is government propaganda on nearly every street.
Since the early days of the Revolution, Castro’s government propaganda machine has been a powerful force in Cuba. During the fight against Batista, radio broadcasts on Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) sought to sway public opinion towards Castro’s cause. The radio was broadcast around Cuba and even to other countries, including Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. Fidel arranged for interviews, some of which were done with a New York Times journalist and were hugely helpful in pushing forward the rebel movement.
In his diaries, Che Guevara wrote the following: “A foreign reporter – preferably American – was much more valuable for us at that time than any military victory. Much more valuable than rural recruits for our guerilla force, were American media recruits to export our propaganda.”
The propaganda structure that Castro developed during the Revolution continued after the ousting of Batista. After coming into power, he focused his attention on media outlets, including newspapers, magazines, and radio stations. He often visited the newspapers to make statements, write editorials, or comment on breaking news.
Castro’s daily newspaper, the Granma, was created after the Revolution and continues to publish articles to this day. It has articles of national and international significance, and offers the government a convenient outlet for its propaganda. Because the entire operation is state-run, you’ll never find an article critical of the Castro brothers or the Cuban government. It’s easy to find this newspaper throughout all of Cuba.
Prensa Latina is Cuba’s official state news agency. Fidel has always been very critical of U.S. media, and created the agency in 1959 as a way to disseminate government propaganda throughout Cuba, Latin America, and the rest of the world. To this day, all of the mass media in Cuba receives their information from Prensa Latina. Speeches by the Castro brothers and other government officials are relayed to the people via this agency, as is other information concerning economic, commercial, and cultural news. The agency has 40 international offices, most of which are found in Latin America.
Driving around Cuba, you’ll constantly see signs, billboards, and posters dedicated to the Castro brothers, Che, and other important figures in the Revolution. Common phrases on these signs include “Viva Fidel,” “Patria o Muerte” (Patriotism or Death), “Socialismo o Muerte” (Socialism or Death), “Fidel Estamos Contigo” (Fidel, We Are With You), “Luchar Contra Lo Imposible y Vencer” (Fighting Against the Impossible and Overcoming), and “Queremos Que Sean Como Che” (We Want Them To Be Like Che). Coming from a capitalist country where you’re used to advertising but not government slogans, all of this comes as quite a shock.
Fidel has done a good job consecrating the ground of the Revolution—these days, there are historic sites related to the fight against Batista most everywhere on the island. These sites have been preserved as national parks and monuments, and visitors are often ushered to them by tour agencies and guidebooks. As such, Cuba’s historic sites offer additional insight into the complex propaganda machine that is the Cuban government. There are dozens of these sites, but we’ll just touch on a few of them here.
During the early years of the Revolution, Fidel commanded the rebel army from a hidden location deep in the Sierra Maestra. The headquarters, known as La Comandancia de la Plata, is preserved much as it was during Fidel’s time. The 16 wooden buildings are scattered across a forested hillside in the mountains of eastern Cuba. During the rebels’ time here, the buildings were covered with branches to keep them hidden from planes. Castro’s house has been preserved with his bed, refrigerator, and table all in place. You can also visit the small hut that Che Guevara used as a clinic. A visit to La Comandancia de la Plata will give travelers a better idea of how the Revolutionary movement was organized.
In eastern Cuba, you’ll also find the place where Fidel and his band of revolutionaries came ashore in Cuba after exile in Mexico—this site is contained within the Desembarco del Granma National Park. On December 2, 1956, Fidel’s ship, the Granma, landed at Playa las Coloradas. After landing, the group battled their way through thick mangroves for 5 hours before reaching solid land. Today, you can walk along a boardwalk through the mangroves to see the spot where the boat landed. Honestly, it’s a boring and uneventful walk, and not worth the time unless you’re a diehard history fan. The park also has a small museum dedicated to the landing and the revolutionaries. A replica of the Granma is being repaired, and will eventually be stationed here as well.
On July 26, 1953, Fidel and his small rebel army stormed the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The ensuing battle ignited a series of events that eventually led to the Revolution. After Fidel took power, the barracks were turned into a school and museum. Near the entrance to the museum, you can see bullet holes riddling the exterior of the building — these aren’t the original holes (those were filled in by Batista’s troops), but are replicas that were redone in the same places where the bullets struck the building. Inside the museum, you can see photos and objects related to the fateful, bloody day at Moncada. As with other museums in Cuba, the government has done a good job casting Fidel and his followers in a sympathetic light.
There are all kinds of other historic sites scattered around Cuba. In these places, there are often statues or plaques marking the importance of the place and event. Nearly every town also has a central park named after an important Cuban figure – for example, José Martí or Carlos Manuel de Céspedes.
The Revolution is kept alive not only through signs and statues, but also through the Cuban people. Older Cubans, especially those who were alive before the Revolution, may still speak fondly of Fidel and the revolutionary cause. They might tell you about how they were a poor campesino prior to the Revolution, but after Fidel came to power, they were given a job and better access to food, education, and health care. Such people often speak passionately and repeatedly express their devotion to the Revolution.
This is less so the case with younger Cubans, many of whom have only been alive during Raúl’s term as president. Younger Cubans are quick to tell you about their love for America – its pop music and baseball and movies – and dissatisfaction with the economic model that exists in Cuba. In general, this demographic group is less in touch with the goals and ideology of the Revolution than older Cubans.
Cuban nationalism, however, is still embraced by nearly everyone on the island. Cubans love their country and continue to support many of the revolutionary ideals that were espoused by Fidel during the 1950s and ’60s. They speak with pride about their free health care and education systems, and tend to believe in the equality of all people and the sovereignty of Cuba. However, nowadays Cubans are less likely to vilify the United States. Many Cubans have family in the U.S. or at least know someone who does. The concept of isolation and ongoing conflict with America is simply not as justifiable or popular as it once was. In fact, it’s quite the opposite these days—the majority of Cubans are excited about the increased relations with the United States, and many believe that it will help them economically, culturally, and politically.