Wondering around Cuban cities, you occasionally come across murals in bright and warm Caribbean colours. Their ideological messages are reminders of Cuba’s revolutionary past and unique position in the present-day world. But what do they evoke – a past long gone or a possible socialist future?
You find them hidden in backstreets, between crumbling colonial mansions, isolated petrol stations, schools, local councils, party offices and other state institutions. They recall episodes of the Cuban revolution (1953-1959), remind us of core socialist values like justice and equality, and immortalise the words of heroes like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. They are tools of propaganda, implemented by a special state office that maintains both old murals and adds new ones announcing events of cultural and political significance, such as the recent release of five Cuban agents from the US.
“Sometimes you see them and you don’t care, at other times you see them and reflect on them”, says a young Cuban researcher from La Havana. As everywhere, reactions are diverse: “Sometimes you connect with the messages, sometimes you can be disappointed if you don’t agree. Especially the ones about Cuban historical facts, they are necessarily repetitive and … sometimes perceived as boring. There are those that draw attention to the US embargo, which is already habitual for Cubans, but the government wants to underline its impact and unfairness. There are some messages that are simply too optimistic, aimed at motivating people but this often has the opposite effect and just ends up putting them off. Nevertheless, I think they are generally accepted.”
For a Western tourist, being bombarded with ideological rhetoric rather than commercial advertising frames the experience of Cuba and helps to immerse oneself in its logic and mentality. But it also signals emerging tensions and, perhaps, contradictions: Do the murals still reflect a shared present-day political commitment to revolutionary ideals? Or are they traces of an ideology in dissolution? For the young Cuban academic, this is not a problem specific to Cuba but highlights a general difficulty of governments to reach its citizenry at a time when new technologies and online platforms challenge traditional communication strategies: “People don’t focus on the slogans as they are busy with their mobile phones. A worldwide problem.”
The fading appearance of some of the murals is symbolic of a country that tries to stick to its revolutionary foundation while slowly adapting to the realities of the 21st century. This is perhaps best summarised by regional experts Julia E. Sweig and Michael Bustamente in a 2013 article: “At first glance, Cuba’s basic political and economic structures appear as durable as the midcentury American cars still roaming its streets. The Communist Party remains in power, the state dominates the economy, and murals depicting the face of the long-dead revolutionary Che Guevara still appear on city walls. (…) But Cuba does look much different today than it did 10 or 20 years ago, or even as recently as 2006, when severe illness compelled Fidel Castro, the country’s longtime president, to step aside. Far from treading water, Cuba has entered a new era, the features of which defy easy classification or comparison to transitions elsewhere.”
Photography: Barbara Bravi
Text: Andrea Peinhopf and Barbara Bravi