One of the many, many things I found fascinating in Cuba is the use of language for political ends. Wherever you go, you are bound to end up reading political messages, all of them to the glory of the revolution. With huge boards by the roadside, small home-made placards nailed on trees, graffiti in towns (the only type of graffiti I saw), the political propaganda is absolutely inescapable.
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At first, I thought it seemed like a very naïve endeavour: who would start believing in an ideology just because they read the same message constantly? After a few days however, I started to wonder whether you ever question a statement if you’re constantly exposed to it from birth. It is presented in such a way that it is difficult to doubt it and it appeals to emotions and feelings rather than to the intellect. It is geared at encouraging rebellion and defiance towards the one common enemy (the "yanquis"), solidarity, cohesion and loyalty as well as national pride and allegiance to the country’s legendary leaders (Castro, Che Guevara and Jose Martí). The way some of the slogans are formulated, with verbs in the first person plural, is also very effective: when you read "Exigímos libertad" (we demand freedom), you’re made part of this statement. Read it a few times every day and you start wondering whether you’ve thought it or read it first. The government’s efforts in this respect are also relayed at the local level by the CDRs (Comité de Defensa de la Revolución), who customise their messages to the reality or concerns of their areas.
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Language is also very cleverly used through some very specific rhetoric to influence people’s thinking, such as for example with the expression "el triunfo de la revolución". Whenever we were told about the 1958 Cuban revolution, it was never called just "the revolution", always "the triumph of the revolution". Having these two words tightly bound together ensures that the word revolution stops being neutral and is unquestionably positive, glorious even. Another example is the use of proverb-like statements on signs: in Cuba, the unexciting "keep off the grass" becomes "a cultured people looks after its green spaces" or "well-tended green spaces benefit the health of everyone" (both seen in Havana). It seems that every written communication is a chance to educate or mould the population, underlining the consequences of the actions of individuals on the wider society through snippets of wisdom.
The importance of language within the government’s propaganda arsenal is made even more obvious by the fact that the national newspaper, Granma, is translated into several languages (French, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Turkish and German). Its objective seems to be to create an idealised version of Cuba for an international audience and is absolutely non-critical of the government. This is hardly surprising for the only Cuban newspaper, and interestingly the version for Cubans says on the front that it is the "Órgano Oficial del Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba". No need to translate. I particularly enjoyed the four-page article titled "15 of Fidel’s qualities"!
The question is, does it work? Are Cuban people actually brain-washed by this use of language, combined with powerful imagery (the famous Korda photo of Che is absolutely everywhere)?
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After just two weeks in the country I can’t pretend to know the answer or understand its impact on Cuban people. Although I spoke to a fair few Cubans once I got confident enough with my Spanish, it would have been odd to ask such personal questions to strangers. I felt more comfortable asking probing questions to our various local guides, but perhaps unsurprisingly, most of them were unwilling to talk about politics. Only one was very happy to, and his account of the situation in his country was anything but faithful to the dogma. One thing I wish I had asked him was whether the free education all Cubans get gives them the skills needed to critically analyse the messages given by the government, or whether schooling is another instrument in the political propaganda toolbox.
I’ll leave you with a few shots of Cuba.
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