Language and propaganda

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.
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.
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)?
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.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:07+00:00 January 12th, 2007|Language|8 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Stephen Gobin January 12, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Great photographs, Celine. Your comments remind me of how I thought about the German Democratic Republic. A dictatorship (be it left or right-wing) infiltrates and influences every area of life to the extent that the population end up becoming experts at “reading between the lines”. The use of the Spanish language is no different to what the East Germans did either, including the overblown sub-heading “official organ of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany” for the erstwhile State newspaper “Neues Deutschland”. Everything is a kind of game, a dance where the partners know the steps they need to take.

  2. céline January 12, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    I like your dance analogy. The contrast between the ideals (socialism, solidarity) and the reality (everyone making whatever money they can, in all ways possible, in order to survive) was striking.

  3. Liz January 12, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Nice piece. Cool photos. Do you reckon the fact that all the propaganda is so emotional makes it easier to hold such contradictory thoughts. For the Cubans it would be easy to love Cuba, Che, Fidel, the Revolution, socialism and not live by its tenets at all as they are a bit too abstract and so not easily recognised as opposites to what they do day to day.

  4. céline January 12, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    Yes, I think the revolution, and Fidel and Che’s utopia, have been turned into such myths that they are completely removed from reality and hence not applied. This explains how Cubans can celebrate their history and ideals in their daily existence while constantly violating those same ideals by embracing illegal private enterprise (because the State does not provide and they have to eat).

  5. Nathalie Reis January 12, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    At a different level, but also to illustrate the use of language in the reinforcement of a political message is the singing of emotional and powerful songs. I’m from Corsica, and I challenge anyone not to feel nationalistic when they listen to the Corsican polyphony.
    Thank you for a lovely text and gorgeous photos. Did you take them Céline?

  6. céline January 12, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    I know exactly what you mean Nathalie, I feel exactly the same when I hear Basque singing! And it’s only when I hear the Marseillaise that I actually feel French. I didn’t take the photos, I’m absolutely useless with a camera, but I’ll pass on the compliments to the “artiste”.

  7. Amanda January 13, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    Welcome back Céline!
    We should remember that the power of words used as “propaganda” is not limited to “rogue” or communist states. A look at the language used to describe what is going on in Iraq is proof of this…
    As regards the environment, there is an interesting study into the words used in the British press to talk about climate change.

  8. pKp January 13, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Another interesting aspect af this is that the intensive use of WRITTEN language is made possible by the efficient education system…Cuba has one of the highest literacy rate in the world.
    Education leading to propaganda…that’s a funny thought :p

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