CUBA, SI! LIFE AND DESIGN ON THE EMBARGOED ARCHIPELAGO

13 November 2006
Robert L. Peters, FGDC (part one of three)
Robert L. Peters, FGDC

Part one of three

In October 2007, La Habana, Cuba will host the 2007 Icograda World Design Congress. Prografica, Icograda's professional Member, and the Consejo National de las Artes Plasticas (CNAP) are partners with Icograda in organsing this event.


Above: A collage of images illustrates the diversity of contemporary life and design in Cuba today.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 was a watershed event that bestowed on Cubans extraordinary gifts of social justice and equality, dramatic advances in public health and education, and an equitable distribution of the national wealth. It also brought unprecedented attention to the Caribbean, placed Cuba in opposition to the U.S. in the midst of the Cold War, and has unalterably changed the course of history and politics throughout the Americas.

"Limited means beget new forms, invite creation..." wrote Georges Braques, the famous French painter. His thesis that progress lies not in extension, but in a deeper knowledge of limitations oVers an apt depiction for the lot and creative life of modern Cuba just as necessity gives birth to invention, post-Revolutionary Cubans have had to exercise ingenuity, inventiveness and resiliency through more than four decades of ensuing marginalization and economic hardship.

Land of eternal spring
Cuba is the largest and most populous island nation in the Caribbean, with a crocodile-shaped landmass of 110,860 km2 (42,800 square miles, slightly smaller than Pennsylvania), and a population of 11.3 million Spanish-speaking citizens. Situated just 150 km (90 miles) from the coast of Florida, and stretching 1,250 km (780 miles) eastward, Cuba is actually an archipelago of two large islands and 4,195 keys, islands and islets. Its coastline, natural beaches and vibrant coral reef provide a marine wonderland lying between the Atlantic to Cuba's north, the calmer Caribbean Sea to the south and the Gulf of Mexico to the west.

When Columbus landed in Cuba in 1492 (thinking that he had found Asia) he described it as "the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen," a view still shared by the millions of (non-U.S.) tourists who visit annually to savor the island's languid tropical climate, remarkably varied flora and fauna, historical heritage and, of course, exquisite beach resorts and all things aquatic. Although Cuba trades with almost every nation on earth (except the U.S.) and is famous the world over for its Revolutionary and egalitarian ideals (it has been sending medical, educational and nutritional aid to under-privileged nations in Latin America, Africa and Asia since the 1960s); its venerable export of sugar, rum, coffee, cocoa and cigars (aboriginals in Cuba were already growing tobacco when Columbus arrived); its mining of copper, magnesium and nickel (Cuba has the world's largest nickel deposits, some 34% of global reserves); its advanced biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry (monoclonal antibodies, therapeutic vaccines); its rich musical legacy (Habanera, Guajira, Samba, Timba, Latin Jazz, Son think Buena Vista Social Club for the latter); its vibrant arts culture; its ex-patriot baseball superstars; as well as today's hedonic-health-and-eco tourism; the country is little known to the average citizen of the United States, a result of the sustained embargo that Washington has imposed since 1962.

Beleaguered history
Cuba's Amerindian population came under control of the Spanish Crown following the imperialist expedition of Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, who sailed over from nearby Hispaniola in 1512. The Spanish conquistadors brought "the heathens" a brutal system of forced indigenous labor, Christianity (with its promise of salvation) and widespread disease a combination that effectively exterminated the Natives by the middle of the sixteenth century. As elsewhere in the Americas, thousands of African slaves were then "imported" as a work force for the extraction of gold and minerals, and for labor to run the massive sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations. From the mid-sixteenth through mid-eighteenth century, Cuba was the focus of an ongoing power-struggle between Spanish traders, European monarchs and ransacking pirates.

Britain invaded Cuba in 1762 (while Spain was battling Britain and France in the Seven Years War), but traded it back to Spain in exchange for Florida the following year in the Peace of Paris treaty. By the 1820s, Cuba was the world's largest sugar producer (making the U.S. very sweet on it), a position supported by the import of ever more slaves by 1840, there were more than 400,000 Africans on the island.

The colony's struggle for independence from Spain began in 1868, and continued through uprisings by criollo landowners and several failed wars. In 1892, poet, patriot and independence leader Jos Marti headed a successful revolution that led to the weakening of Spanish control (though he himself was killed in 1895, attaining the status of heroic martyr). In 1898 the battleship Maine (sent to Cuba to "protect U.S. citizens") exploded in Havana's harbor, killing 266 U.S. sailors and triggering the "Spanish-American" war (fueled by sensationalized war fever stoked by William Randolph Hearst and the U.S. tabloid press). The Spanish claimed that the Maine's demise was an accident, the Americans blamed the Spanish and some Cubans accused the U.S., claiming the incident provided a "convenient pretext for intervention." The war was over within the year, the Teller Resolution committed the U.S. to respect Cuban self-determination and the Platt Amendment (among other things) allowed the U.S. to intervene militarily in Cuba whenever they saw it.

A Republic is born
Cuba finally became an "independent" republic in 1902, though with a series of weak, corrupt, governments highly dependent upon the U.S. (who intervened militarily in 1906, 1912 and 1917). At the turn of the century, Cuba s mono-crop sugar-economy was basically a U.S. monopoly by the 1920s, American companies owned two-thirds of Cuba's farmland and most of its mines. Between 1919 and 1933 (Prohibition in the U.S.), tourism based on drinking, gambling and prostitution flourished in Cuba, though the following Great Depression brought plummeting commodity prices, plunged Cuba into chaos and led to devastating general strikes. In the ensuing power vacuum, sergeant Fulgencio Batista stepped in first as the army's chief of staff, then as elected president for a term, and following two additional corrupt and ineYcient "neocolonial" governments, by means of a coup as military dictator. (Batista's regime enjoyed a 50,000-man army with cannon and armor, an air force and a navy, a "murderously efficient" uniformed and secret police, and full U.S. backing, including access to American arms, tanks and artillery.)

Tropical chic (or not)
From 1910 to the late 1950s, Cuba became a playground for the rich and privileged while at the same time, peasants and the voiceless working classes suffered under ever-worsening conditions of poverty and degradation. A playground for vice, mobsters and the American mafia (Lucky Luciano moved to Havana in 1946, the notorious Meyer Lansky operated the Riveria hotel and casino), Havana had been turned into a popular destination for prostitution and gambling.

Billed as an "anything-goes tropical paradise, and land of romance," and vigorously promoted around the world by the travel industry, Cuba was portrayed as "The Paris of the Caribbean" by means of "the unique graphic style of Cubanos graphistos," as documented in the recent book Cuba Style: Graphics from the Golden Age of Design by Vicki Gold Levi and Steven Heller. The book compiles "hundreds of vintage graphics of Cuba" combining elements of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Bauhaus, Modernism and "Vegas-style kitsch in a distinctly Cuban sensibility" in what Heller defines as the "Golden Age of Cuban Design."

Pepe Menendez, great-nephew of Enrique Garcia Cabrera (one of that era's most famous painters and illustrators), and now the creative director at the famed cultural publishing house Casa des las Am ricas, disagrees strongly with Heller's celebration of Cuba's "merry capitalist style," stating: "The 'Golden Age of Cuban Design' was certainly not the pre-revolutionary period, but rather the mid-'60s through the mid-'70s this really represented a unique freshness and a distinctive change of visual vocabulary in Cuba."

Patria y Libertad
By the 1950s, Cuba was ripe for dramatic change. Batista's cronies were enriching themselves with bribes, and his thugs were bullying the country's citizens (and suppressing the increasingly-frequent spontaneous public strikes with police-state brutality). In the countryside, three-quarters of farmable land was owned by foreigners "Patria y Libertad" (homeland and liberty) was clearly just a nascent dream. Following Batista's second coup, a revolutionary circle formed in Havana in 1953, leading to a (failed) assault on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Among the handful of survivors was the young lawyer and activist Fidel Castro, sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment though he was released two years later (as part of a general amnesty granted to political prisoners following Batista s fraudulent election win in 1955) and went to Mexico to prepare an ex-patriot revolutionary force.

On December 2, 1956, Castro and 81 rebel companieros navigated a small yacht (the Granma, now the name of the Cuban Communist Party's official newspaper) across the Gulf of Mexico and landed at Las Coloradas Beach in eastern Cuba to begin what would become the Cuban Revolution. Though the rebels were decimated in early fighting, a dozen stalwarts (Castro, his brother Raul, the Argentine doctor Che Guevara and future commandante Camilo Cienfuegos among them) managed to escape to the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains, where they set up a command post from which to extend their Revolutionary activities. A series of attacks against Batista's forces, aided by growing support of the populace, led to an overthrow of the government in the last days of 1958 Batista led to the Dominican Republic on January 1, 1959, workers across the country responded to the call for a general strike and Castro was named prime minister two weeks later.

Among the new government's first acts were rent and electricity cost reductions, followed by the abolition of racial discrimination. Next, the First Agrarian Reform nationalized all land holdings over 400 hectares (988 acres), infuriating Cuba's largest landowners, primarily U.S. companies. A purge of the judicial system triggered the exodus of many judges and lawyers, followed by professionals, managers and technicians who did not share Castro s vision. Nationalization of Cuba s oil refineries, banks and hundreds of the largest Cuban firms continued to raise the ire of the formerly privileged in Cuba, as well as the U.S. between 1959 and 1970, a half-million Cubans left the country, most of them headed for Miami.

The Battle of Playa Giron
In the U.S., the Eisenhower administration decided to overthrow Cuba (documented in the National Security Council's approval of a resolution mandating an overthrow of the Cuban regime, yet stipulating that this must be done so as not to implicate the U.S., and thereby threaten its credibility among other Latin American states). Championed by Richard Nixon (then vice president), the CIA secured government funding and began recruiting and training Cuban exiles in 1960, months before diplomatic relations were severed with Cuba (January 1961). Throughout the year, growing ranks of "Brigade 2506" mercenaries trained at locations in southern Florida and Guatemala for a planned Cuban invasion, entailing a beach landing and possible mountain retreat. Based on previous successes in "assisting the removal of foreign governments" (such as those of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, and Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz Guzm n in 1954), the CIA was confident that it could overthrow Castro and spark a popular uprising this in turn was meant to lead to a request (from Cuban soil) for U.S. military support, the only "politically defensible" option for formal intervention that would not spark undesired geopolitical reactions.

On the morning of April 15, 1961, lights of U.S. light bomber aircraft displaying Cuban Fuerza Aerea Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Air Force) markings left bases in Nicaragua for bombing raids on Cuban air fields, aiming to secure air superiority over the island in advance of troop landings. Two days later, some 1,500 armed exiles disembarked from U.S. warships on the Giron and Larga beaches of Bahia de Cochinos (the Bay of Pigs, on Cuba s southern coast), where they hoped to find support from the local population before advancing to Havana.

The resulting "heroic battle" of the Bay of Pigs that ensued over the next 72 hours (a victory that Cubans still celebrate, though they call it the "Battle of Playa Giron"), saw outnumbered civil defense militiamen chase the disorganized would-be invaders into the Zapata marshes, before they were eventually captured, and later traded back to the U.S. for a substantial financial ransom. The attempted invasion had failed miserably, the fiasco proved to be a major international embarrassment for the Kennedy administration, and the directors of the CIA were forced to resign. The incident also greatly fueled Castro's popularity, added nationalistic support to his socialist policies and made Cubans justifiably wary of future U.S. interventions. Immediately following the invasion attempt, Cuba turned to the Soviet Union for support against further aggression from its giant neighbor, helping pave the way for the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis that would follow eighteen
months later.

Crisis and embargo
To this day, Cuba carries the dubious distinction of having been the scene of humankind s closest brush with annihilation, as the Cold War teetered on the brink of becoming full-blown nuclear war. For thirteen tense and momentous days in October 1962, the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced each other down over nuclear missile installations in Cuba and a fullscale naval blockade, in what Cubans refer to as the "October Crisis," Russians the "Caribbean Crisis" and Americans the "Cuban Missile Crisis." Though history shows Cuba to have been a largely unwitting pawn of the two super-powers' brinksmanship (the U.S. possessed the strategic fire-power of nuclear submarines, and in 1961 had deployed Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles aimed at Russia from Izmir, Turkey this in turn had prompted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed at Washington and other U.S. cities within a 2,000 km (1,250 miles) range), the tropical island nation has seemingly been saddled with the doomsday moniker. The showdown ended dramatically with Khrushchev offering to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba in return for President Kennedy's guarantee not to invade Cuba, not to support any future invasion and for the U.S. to withdraw its missiles from Turkey.

Following the failed invasion attempt and missile fiasco, the U.S. began an economic, commercial and financial embargo on February 7, 1962, a sustained impediment on Cuba that (as of 2006) is still in effect. This ongoing attempt at economic strangulation, cultural quarantine and intimidation of anyone who might attempt to break Cuba s isolation is widely seen as bullying and punishment, a factor that has polarized much of Latin America (and socialist sentiment around the world) in favor of the Cuban "underdog." Some critics argue that the embargo actually helps Castro more than it hurts him, by providing a scapegoat to blame for Cuba's problems (which he does). Free market advocates argue that, as long as the embargo continues, non-U.S. foreign businesses in Cuba don t have to compete with U.S. businesses and thus will gain a head-start advantage if and when the embargo is ended. The United Nations General Assembly has condemned el bloqueo (the blockade) against Cuba for the last fifteen years running. The widely supported U.N. resolution has become an annual event students and countless workers across the island stop their regular activities to watch the special one-hour feature on Cuba's state-run television and then follow the voting at the U.N.'s General Assembly session.




About the article

This is the first of three parts of an article that originally appeared in Communications Arts (May/June 2006). It is reprinted with permission.

Next week
Patriots, martyrs, icons: Cuba is a land that reveres its history, and that celebrates its heroes almost as deities from its legendary first freedom fighter Huey, a sixteenth-century Taino chief who led uprisings against the Spanish (and was burned at the stake for his efforts), to the thirteen-year old Eli n Gonz lez, now living with his father in Cardenas (the six-year-old survivor of a failed Florida Straits crossing made world news in 2002, at the center of a dramatic international custody battle), and the much-publicized "Five Cuban Heroes" currently being held in U.S. jails.