Cuban billboards offer propaganda, not advertising

Monday, August 13, 2007

HAVANA -- Most Cubans simply call him "Fidel," but the island's 81-year-old "Maximum Leader" has never lacked nicknames: "The Man," "The Boss," "The One." Some even call Fidel Castro "The Horse," an obscure reference to zodiac symbols in the Chinese gaming parlors he closed after seizing power nearly 50 years ago.

When Castro fell gravely ill last July, Cuba's propaganda machine came up with yet another moniker: "Country."

"Fidel Is A Country" showed up on billboards that seemingly appeared overnight and have remained since then, suggesting that an entire nation of Fidel faithful will carry on his revolution after he's gone.

Communist Cuba is almost completely devoid of advertising. Instead, there is propaganda.

Billboards blanket parks, public squares, intersections and highways all over the island, rising above apartment buildings in the city and sugar and coffee fields outside it. Many lionize Castro and revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, urge energy conservation or use cartoons to promote communism and nationalist fervor.

Many also reflect hatred toward the U.S. government, its 45-year-old trade embargo and President Bush.

Just outside Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, a billboard shows a poker hand with Bush caught between a smirk and a frown as the ace of spades. Adolf Hitler is the ace of hearts. Two more aces feature Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, anti-communist militants whom authorities here accuse of masterminding the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976. A play on the Spanish word for "aces" spells out "Full of Murderers."

"It's easy to say, 'I'm good and you're bad,"' said Gloria Mendez, a retiree who lives near the Bush billboard. "The political propaganda, it has its effect on people. They see it and they get mad at the United States maybe."

Catchphrases include "Fatherland or Death," "We will always have Socialism" and "We Shall Overcome."

Billboards also implore Cubans to be ready to take up arms and defend their way of life. "Revolution in Every Neighborhood" is a common refrain.

Paint is often hard to come by in Cuba. Some billboard messages are cracked and faded. Those featuring Castro's picture or quotes are usually better-maintained.

"Fidel is a country," which appears on billboards alongside pictures of grinning young military recruits, comes from a 1960s poem Argentine Juan Gelman wrote in Castro's honor.

"He IS a country," said a state employee cutting grass under one such billboard. "His ideas, his perspectives they are for all of Cuba."

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