I have seen propaganda before, and in particular, anti-American propaganda. We traveled through China, and visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. I am used to seeing a plethora of homages to Chairman Mao in China and Uncle Ho in Vietnam, and reverence to Che Gueverra all over the world. I am generally prepared for propaganda like that. Sometimes, though, the propaganda comes from surprising sources, in surprising places, and in surprising quantity. It is all I thought about when witnessing first hand the Cuba propaganda in Havana.
Surprising Sources of Cuba Propaganda
We knew heading to Cuba as Americans was a risk, a little bit of an unknown destination. But, we were willing to take the risk to learn about the country, to engage in exchanges with the people, and for me to report back on what we learned.
Approximately 99% of the people we met in Cuba were excited to meet us and excited to engage with us. As a result, we told people we were from America, and acted accordingly – answering the questions that came our way, but most importantly, responding to the wide smiles that greeted our nationality.
When visiting Vinales, Cuba, our guide took us to a cultural center, a fancy name for a bar that hosted music in the evenings. Eric and I had prime seats, in the front row. Cigar smoking Eric’s blonde hair and blue eyes were practically sitting on the dance floor. The singer kept dancing over to him, trying to interact. She put the microphone to him and asked him where we were from. Eric replied “Los Estados Unidos.” And, the evening continued.
While walking home that night, our guide warned us not to tell the public we were American. She suggested it was okay when we were having one-on-one discussions with people, but if we make public knowledge of it you don’t know what might happen. I asked whether it was a safety thing, but she denied that, only making inferences about the Secret Police listening in.
I think our guide was a little overly-cautious, even in the eyes of other Cubans. A driver we had during our trip made a comment to me that Washington, D.C. is the capital of the world. When doing so, he hid behind Eric so that our guide did not hear him.
I am unsure what our guide was told about Americans traveling in Cuba, or Americans in general, but this was the first time I heard anything along these lines anywhere, and for it to come from our tour guide, it was surprising.
Surprising Places for Cuba Propaganda
Propaganda generally has its place, billboards and government buildingins, for example. We saw plenty of it throughout Havana, including a bill board thanking Che for his good example. Unlike in Vietnam, which is littered with portraits of Uncle Ho, there are very few billboards with the Castros advertised – most are of Che and other revolutionaries.
On our return to Havana, the tour company arranged a walking tour of Old Havana. We welcomed it warmly as our tour guide was far from helpful with sharing any information about the country. Our walking guide, however, explained the history of the revolution, discussing rations, the Soviet Union, the growing influence of religion, and the recent lifting of travel restrictions for the Cuban people. We thought we were on a roll. Then came the propaganda.
It first started with the American “persecution” of the Cuban 5, a group of five Cubans who I had not heard of previously. According to our guide, the US government accused the 5 of espionage, but they weren’t spying. They were only Cuban nationals who were gathering information on American government activities and then reporting that information back to the Cuban government. Uh okay. He then proceeded to give a history of the legal proceedings that even made this former, trying not to be a lawyer, legal type, cringe. The guide also informed us that the American government has committed over 600 acts of terrorism against Cuba.
He did not know we were American.
A little while later he asked one member of our group where we were from. Gary replied, 2 Australians, 2 Swiss, and 2 Americans. The guide stopped, turned around and asked who were the Americans. We raised our hands. The guide was somewhat dumbfounded.
The tour started off right, sharing all sorts of historical information, but then, quickly, I felt uncomfortable standing in one of the many plazas of old town, finding myself off-kilter in a surprising place.
Surprising Quantity of Cuba Propaganda
But the mother load of Cuba propaganda came at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. I knew the propaganda would be free-flowing, but I was not expecting the quantity of propaganda or the breadth of it.
First, as we entered the museum, there were caricatures of several US Presidents, along with Bautista, the leader of Cuba before the revolution, who was thanked for making the revolution possible. Reagan was thanked for strengthening the revolution, George Bush for consolidating the revolution, and George W. for making socialism irrevocable. In this, I found humor.
Also, as expected, there was a great homage to Che, as there was throughout Cuba.
As we continued into the exhibit on the creation of socialism, the propaganda was laid on pretty thick – all of the wonderful things that the revolution brought to the people of Cuba in the areas of education, employment, social welfare, and healthcare – including wondrous feats of strength in the athletic arena. All of this I was okay with, although questioning all of the smiling faces in the photos of workers.
We learned about the CIA’s apparent sinking of a French freighter called La Coubre in 1960 in the harbor of Havana. But, as the displays continued through the decades of the revolution (ending conveniently before the “Special Period” of austerity and increased rations that occurred in Cuba subsequent to the fall of the Soviet Union), an increasingly large amount of anti-American propaganda filled the display cabinets.
Apparently the CIA was very busy in the 1970s-1980s in Cuba. They were responsible for introducing Dengue Fever and Break-bone fever to the population. They were responsible for introducing a blue moss fungus to destroy the tobacco group, another type of fungus to destroy the sugar cane industry, and a third set of disease to destroy the pig population. When all of these claims are shown in one display cabinet you tend to question the veracity of the claims.
From Cuba Propaganda to Patriotism?
It is not news that Eric and I do not 100% love American society. There are certain things about the US that just make me cringe – like exporting McDonald’s, gun violence, and certain TV stations that call themselves “news” stations. But, if there was one thing that turned both of us patriotic real quick, it was the walking tour of Old Havana, followed by the Museum of the Revolution, and all of the propaganda in Cuba.
I am not naive enough to think that the US government was a sweet and innocent observer in all international activities over the last 50 years. But, there were certain acts that were described to us in Cuba that just did not seem probable. I am often not one of the most patriotic people in a room, but by the end of our trip in Cuba I found myself unbelievably patriotic.
For the first time in all of our travels we actually pretended to be from another country. A toothless history teacher approached us outside of the Museum of the Revolution. He started talking and would not stop. I assumed he wanted us to hire him as a guide. But, I was suspicious, particularly outside of the museum. There was a strong military presence surrounding the area. When he asked where we were from, I instinctively replied “Canada.” When he asked where in Canada, I replied Vancouver. We could not well pass for residents of Montreal.
We met so many wonderful people in Cuba, and truly had a wonderful time, but there were days or situations when we felt very at ease. The Cuba propaganda did not help the situation.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.