CUBA, SI! LIFE AND DESIGN ON THE EMBARGOED ARCHIPELAGO

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

Part two 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.



Neighborhood bully
Cubans are acutely aware of their precarious position alongside their Goliath neighbor; they study history, and they see that the desire of the U.S. to colonize Cuba forms a longstanding pattern. U.S. "founding fathers" Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams both spoke of the need to incorporate Cuba into the nascent U.S. empire - Adams referred to Cuba as: "an object of transcendent importance to the commercial and political interests of our union," while Jefferson simply desired to "conquer and annex" the island nation - impossible at the time because of the strength of the British fleet.

After centuries of unwanted interference by the U.S., invasion and assassination attempts and a blockade of more than four decades, the polemics continue - the Bush administration's latest declaration of Cuba as "one of the few outposts of tyranny remaining in the world" is a continuation of a seemingly predetermined hostile stance. In my opinion, this is a real shame. As a high-ranking Cuban minister told me recently, "Cubans really admire the creativity and energy of American citizens, and we share many loves with the U.S., such as cinema, jazz, baseball. Our objection is with Washington's ongoing aggression against Cuba as a nation, and the ongoing hardships it has imposed on our people for nearly 50 years."

Unlike the U.S., Canada has enjoyed a long and close relationship with Cuba, and a history of amity and bilateral co-operation - witness the decades-long friendship between Castro and Canada's best-known prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, the ubiquitous yellow Canadian school buses on Havana streets, the quarter-million plus Cubans who now participate in the annual Terry Fox Run (to combat cancer), and the half-million sun-seeking Canadian tourists that populate Cuba's spectacular beaches each year. The U.S.'s Helms-Burton Act (aimed at punishing non-U.S. corporations and non-U.S. investors who have economic interests in Cuba) was discounted in Canada for its extraterritorial pretensions.

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 Hatuey, 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 Elian Gonzalez, 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. Although Castro discouraged the use of his own likeness for many years, his well-known bearded face now appears quite frequently, as does the smiling image of his guerilla compatriot Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-1959), along with the visages of a host of other social, literary and political leaders of Cuba's past 500 years. Even foreigners are lionized on occasion, such as Cuba's most famous writer-in-residence Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls while living in old Havana, and who appears on postcards with a smiling young Castro.

The iconic image of guerrillero Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928-1967) by photographer Alberto Korda has been called "the most famous photograph in the world," and following Che's "martyr death" in a CIA-backed Bolivian operation, it came to represent socialist revolutionary movements worldwide. Though Che's distinctive image is ubiquitous in Cuba, the country's most omnipresent likeness is that of Cuba's greatest hero, Jose Marti (1853-1895). A visionary, rebel, patriot and literary giant, Marti is recognized and studied as the leader of Cuba's first drive for independence, and a forwardthinking influence on the movement for Latin American self-determination.

Leitmotif: Revolution
Keeping the Revolution alive has proven to be a remarkably successful domestic strategy. "Fidel Castro and his revolution are inseparable," writes Tad Szulc (the New York Times reporter who also broke the Bay of Pigs story) in his book Fidel: A Critical Portrait. "Fidel Castro built his revolution primarily on the sentiments of Cuban history. He tapped the deep roots of mid-nineteenth century insurrections against Spanish colonialism and its themes of nationalism, radicalism and social-justice populism no modern revolutionary leader or chief of state has undertaken such astounding personal risks and has been so directly engaged in the rigors of conspiracy, rebellion and open warfare (his) bearded face may be one of the best-known physiognomies in the contemporary world."

Enigmatic and indefatigable, Castro seems to thrive on contradiction and paradox. The uncompromising 79-year-old has held power longer than any other important head of government living today, remains a highly active and influential player in international affairs, has endured in defiance of ten successive U.S. presidents, defeated an American-supported invasion attempt and has survived hundreds of assassination attempts, (many backed by the CIA). To much of the developing world he is a hero, in part because he thinks people in the so-called "Third World" deserve the same kind of dignity as nations and individuals that the Revolution granted to Cubans.

Creativity and cultural expression
After the Revolution, casas de cultura (state-run cultural centers) were established throughout the country, in recognition of the important role that culture plays in both national identity and creative wellbeing. The Cuban government has devoted considerable resources to artistic and cultural promotion ever since, in part through the comprehensive art education that is offered free of cost, and with its flagship Higher Institute of Art (ISA) in Havana, the influential national post-graduate art school that opened in 1976.

Cubans move with the lithe grace shared by many of their Latino counterparts in South and Central America, and dances such as the conga (popularized in the U.S. by Desi Arnaz in the 1930s), Afro-Cuban rhumba, and salsa are synonymous with Cuba - and Cubans love to dance. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba (co-founded by famous prima ballerina Alicia Alonso) is revered, and the repertoire of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba (founded in 1962 to promote Cuban culture) provides a veritable history of popular Cuban and traditional Afro-Cuban dance.

Cubans are also huge cinema buffs, and knowledgeable ones at that. At Havana's annual Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano ("Cannes without the ass-kissing," quips writer Conner Gorry), enthusiastic crowds take in movies, shorts, video and animation from across the hemisphere. Havana alone has over 200 cinemas, where crowds queue daily for constantly changing and affordable entertainment - attending the movie theatre costs two pesos (USD $0.08), as does attending a rap concert; a seat in the ballpark (where baseball passions run high) will set you back a single peso. Cuban television (with four commercial-free channels) is dominated by educational programming, including university-level courses on a vast range of subjects. In spite of the fact that the U.S. government spends over USD $25 million annually beaming its pro-American Miami-based Radio & Television Marti at Cuba's citizens, the signal rarely makes it past the Cuban government's effective propaganda jamming technology.

La Habana city of beautiful ruins
"Havana you bedazzle me and move me to pity, all at the same time," exclaims Jorge Perugorria, lead character and ex-pat Miami Cuban returning to the city of his youth in Humberto Solas' evocative film Miel Para Oshun. It's a sentiment shared by many when they encounter this "city of beautiful ruins" and "fading memory of pre-Revolutionary glamour." Sophisticated, bustling and steeped in mystique, Cuba's capital city has been described as "a temptress, inviting you to explore her charms, without ever revealing them all "

Established in the early 1500s and the stalwart survivor of subsequent wars, invasions (pirates, French privateers, the British army) and revolutions, the heavily-fortified harbor city (the Caribbean's largest) has suffered relatively little damage in the past few centuries. That said, tropical heat, pervasive humidity and the regular onslaught of hurricanes have taken their toll, and many of Havana's buildings are now worn and crumbling. Habana Vieja (Old Havana) was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, and is today recognized as the finest surviving colonial complex in the Americas.

Old Havana's historic city center is currently experiencing an influx of foreign capital and redevelopment as never before. Colonial-era houses convert into hostels, taverns and coffee shops; courtyards become concert venues; and pharmacies double as museums. The renovated buildings of Old Havana are only the most visible facet of a sustainable program that goes far beyond restoration work to rescue Cuba's historical heritage, while also preserving the social and cultural environment, and keeping in mind the people who live in the area. Unlike many other Latin American cities, you won't find rampant commercialization or slums in Havana.

McDonald's and the Gulag
Far from Havana, and located on the extreme eastern end of Cuba, is Guantanamo Bay, a 117 km2 (45 square mile) U.S. enclave surrounded by a no-man's land of barbed wire and landmines. The military base (and since 2001, detention camp for some 400 Taliban fighters, Afghanis and suspected members of al Qaeda described by Washington as "dangerous, unlawful combatants") today houses the only McDonald's fast-food outlet in Cuba, as well as the 9,500 Americans it serves. Guantanamo Bay has been in U.S. occupation since its troops first landed there during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Amnesty International describes the Guantanamo detention camp as "the gulag of our time," while billboards in Havana denounce the naval base-turned-detention center as a concentration camp, and decry the U.S. torture there and abuses at Abu Ghraib as the work of "fascists." Anti-torture activists around the world (such as the Catholic Worker movement) are protesting the illegal detention of Guantanamo prisoners (many have been held for more than three years without trial) and call for the prison camp to be closed.

No es facil!
Life in modern Cuba "is not easy" (as many will readily tell you) and it's an enigma. Ideals make thin soup. The economy is publicly owned and sluggish, and the population is poor, particularly when measured against international standards (for example, Cuba's GDP per capita is USD $3,300, compared to Mexico's $10,000, Spain's $25,100, or $41,800 in the U.S.). The average monthly salary of 350 to 500 pesos (including teachers, doctors and lawyers) converts to between USD $15 and $20. Only one in five thousand Cubans owns a cellular phone, most cannot afford a vehicle (or fuel for that matter, which sells at the same price as in North America), few homes have computers, Internet access is rare for the average person and "disposable income" is definitely an oxymoron - even if money was not a factor (which it certainly is), the consumer goods found elsewhere in the world (and largely taken for granted) are simply not available in Cuba. On top of that, the foreign goods and services, such as restaurants that tourists might visit, must be paid for in "convertible pesos" that convert at a rate of approximately 25:1.

Recent problems include high oil prices, recessions in key export markets such as sugar and nickel, and repeated damage from hurricanes. A severe housing shortage often results in three or four generations living under the same roof, many goods are unavailable, public infrastructure everywhere seems to be crumbling, power outages are the norm - the list of hardships goes on and on. In this challenging milieu, many Cubans find themselves living "dual lives" in what is essentially a double economy: they have jobs and purchase goods legally, but also buy and sell through a thriving, yet embattled, black market (meat, eggs, tools, etc.). Life in the countryside is even more difficult than in the cities and resorts, with less access to the affluent and fast-growing tourism industry.

Yet, Cubans are survivors, have developed a remarkable resilience in the face of numerous difficulties, have a great (if somewhat ironic) sense of humor and are among the most generous and gracious people I've ever met. The quality of life of the average Cuban has increased dramatically since the Revolution - Cubans can now boast the best education in Latin America (totally free, including technical schools and universities, and with an adult literacy rate of 96.7% the highest in the Western hemisphere), they have free universal health care, free housing, free daycare and each Cuban is allotted a basic monthly 30-product food basket by means of a libreta, or ration card. Cubans have an amazingly integrated society, and women make up a full two-thirds of the professional and technical workforce (doubling the percentage of most so-called "developed" countries).

With few of the consumerist distractions that saturate modern life in other Western countries (and with admittedly few advancement opportunities or incentives), most Cubans are rich in time, talkative, affable and seem to truly enjoy a simple everyday life and whatever niceties happen to come their way.

Youthful passion, world culture
In 1961, Castro defined the relationship between art and the Cuban regime: "Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing." In 1976, the Cuban constitution incorporated the following statement: "Artistic creation is free as long as its content does not oppose the Revolution. Forms of expression are free..." (though the open question of "what opposing the Revolution" means might explain the seemingly inconsistent vacillation of Cuban artistic policies since - wavering between liberalism and dogmatism). Over the ensuing decades, an ever-changing dynamic between art and state has created a challenging quest for Cuban artists and designers in their search for creative space and critical validity, particularly for the younger generation. As art historian Antonio Eligio (Tonel) explains, "From the end of the 1960s until the early 1980s, bureaucracy and dogmatic ideology defined the cultural arena. Revolutionary fervor encouraged the ascent of young artists and the marginalization and withdrawal of the major older figures."

Resourceful, creative
When the Soviet subsidies ended in 1990 (worth USD $4 to $6 billion annually) with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the COMECON economic block, Cuba found itself in a deep recession. During the so-called "Special Period" that ensued (1990 1995), serious food shortages resulted in nationwide weight-loss, with the average Cuban adult losing between five to twenty pounds. The tourism industry was rapidly developed in compensation, with the country's exquisite beaches, rich historic sites and Old Havana providing attractive destinations for Europeans and Canadians in particular. The best food in Cuba is now found in the numerous paladares (private restaurants in homes, allowed up to twelve seats) that saw their advent in 1995. Although not allowed to serve beef, lobster or shrimp (these are reserved for state-run restaurants) Cuban cooks are extraordinarily creative in working with a relatively scarce palette.

Cuba's answer to the withdrawal of Soviet agricultural chemical imports led to a total restructuring of the country's formerly large-scale, mechanized, chemical-dependent agricultural model - a massive initiative has converted the entire country to strictly organic production - by law, only organic farming is now permitted. In response to the chronic shortage of prescription medicines (largely due to the U.S. embargo), Cubans have reverted to the use of medicinal plants, traditional medicines and tinctures, a movement that holds future promise in a world in search of more holistic solutions. One of the more visible effects of the embargo is the low number of modern cars on the streets of Cuba. By necessity, Cubans have made a virtue of keeping pre-1960 American automobiles in running order, and it is now a haven for 1950s vintage American cars. Cuba's slow economy has also fostered many artists and artisans (as opposed to industrialists), further boosting centuries old traditions and a culture of musicians, artists and poets that are now respected around the world.




About the article

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

Next week:

Poster power = Cuban style
In the July 1969 issue of Cuba Internacional, graphic designer Felix Beltran eloquently explained Cuban design ideals: "We must bear in mind that a new society is being established in Cuba and graphic art plays an important role in communicating the message to this society...If I were asked what the most important thing in Cuban graphic art is, I would reply that it is the transmission of its content to the people; for it is through Cuban graphic art that we can perceive our social objectives, our ideology, our political and economic perspectives."