Thousands of posters were commissioned by the Cuban government to promote Fidel Castro's vision of a socialist society.
Show up to work. Learn to read and write. Harvest more sugar. In the years after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, thousands of posters were commissioned by the government to communicate his vision of a socialist society. Some came to be regarded as works of art.
The Young Revolutionary
When he was 26, Mr. Castro led a “crazy attempt against the armed forces” of Cuba’s military dictator, Fulgencio Batista, at the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Many in his ragtag group of guerrillas were killed, and Mr. Castro and his brother, Raúl, were captured. Fresh out of law school, Mr. Castro delivered his own defense, which would become famous as his“History Will Absolve Me” speech.
The caption on the poster above of a young, beardless Castro – by the Cuban artist Felix René Mederos Pazos – invoked the speech on the 20th anniversary of the uprising:
On the other hand, except for the .22 caliber rifles, for which there were plenty of bullets, our side was very short of ammunition. Had we had hand grenades, the army would not have been able to resist us for 15 minutes.
Mr. Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but Mr. Batista released him as a show of good faith.
The attack on July 26, 1953, came to be known as the birth of the Cuban revolutionary movement and inspired many posters like this one.
On Jan. 8, 1959, after two years of fighting, Mr. Castro rode into Havana in a jeep to a “delirious welcome” from Cubans as their new leader. The 32-year-old looked “exhausted but happy” alongside 5,000 exuberant rebels who had forced Mr. Batista to flee the country.
Images of Mr. Castro donning a peaked fatigue cap, rifle slung over his shoulder, became a symbol of revolution worldwide.
This poster was commissioned by the government to mark the 10th anniversary of the rebellion. It reminds Cubans that “we’re rebuilding a country,” said Lincoln Cushing, a Havana-born political art archivist and author of “Revolución!: Cuban Poster Art.”
His father helped coordinate the interview in 1957 between Mr. Castro andHerbert L. Matthew, the New York Times correspondent and editorial writer whose articles helped introduce the world to Mr. Castro. Shortly after, a CBS News team traveled to Cuba to film “Rebels of the Sierra Maestra: The Story of Cuba’s Jungle Fighters.” The image of Castro depicted in the poster above is from a photograph taken during its trip.
By now, many hopes that the revolution would lead to democratic reforms were dashed. The free elections that were promised never occurred.
Yet Mr. Castro remained popular, affectionately referred to as Fidel. That spirit was captured in this rare poster by the Cuban painter Raúl Martínez, an artist who influenced the Havana art scene with his abstract work and his own version of Pop Art. The star from the Cuban flag represents national identity, and the number 26 commemorates the attack on the Moncada barracks.
Sandra Levinson, executive director of the Center for Cuban Studies, who has collected such posters for decades, argued that Mr. Castro himself did not like the idea of his image depicted on statues, idols, walls and billboards, unless it was used to make a more substantive point.
Many of the images were works of art, Ms. Levinson said, “but they were treated as posters and they were literally slapped up across the city.”
After diplomatic relations with the United States were broken off in 1961 and Cuba allied itself with the Soviet Union, Mr. Castro and the United States sometimes seemed to become obsessed with each other’s downfalls. Through the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, assassination plots and the decades-long economic embargo, Mr. Castro endured and continued to antagonize the West.
An unknown conservative group commissioned this poster around 1980, depicting Mr. Castro as a fanged bogeyman.
Bringing in the Harvest
“One more arroba [25 pounds] per man every day. Nothing and no one can ever hold us back again,” reads a 1969 poster of Mr. Castro encouraging the nation in a failed effort to reach a record 10 million ton sugar harvest by the following year.
After President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s economic and diplomatic retaliation nearly a decade earlier, Cuba had become solely dependent on sugar and its only major buyer, Russia. Mr. Castro personally set the goals for sugar harvests.
Posters encouraged Cubans to get cutting with milestones along the way, recalled Ms. Levinson, who said she was taught to cut sugar cane by Mr. Castro himself. (She said he even drove her to the hospital after she was injured.) But the harvest never got beyond 8.5 million tons.
“That kind of visual imagery was employed for every major push of the revolution,” Ms. Levinson said.
‘History Will Absolve Me’
“Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” The title of this colorful, energetic limited-edition print from 1973 is another reference to Mr. Castro’s famous four-hour speech at his trial 20 years earlier. Here, at the Plaza de Mayo in Havana against a backdrop featuring revolutionary figures like Che Guevara, he is depicted more as a leader than a revolutionary.
“As portraits get more contemporary, there are less about his fatigues and carrying a pistol and it moves to him being more of a statesman,” Mr. Cushing said.
Support From San Francisco
“We celebrate the 26th of July – In solidarity with the struggle of the Nicaraguan people, and in favor of ending the blockade against Cuba,” this poster reads.
The print was produced in the San Francisco Bay area by the American-born Chicano poster artist Malaquías Montoya, for an event marking the Cuban revolution held by a consortium of Latin American solidarity organizations.
Mr. Castro extended his support to other Latin American revolutionary movements, including the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which overthrew the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and fought for years with the American-backed rebels who become known as the contras.
This poster commissioned by the Cuban government shows, from left to right, Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua; Maurice Bishop, who became leader of Grenada in a coup in 1979; and Mr. Castro.
Mr. Castro’s bushy beard, long Cuban cigar and green fatigues became a global symbol of rebellion. This oil pencil sketch by the graphic artist Rafael Enríquez was intended for distribution all over the world. It was commissioned by a Havana-based group, the Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America, and published in its Tricontinental magazine.
This officially sanctioned poster shows the odd pairing of an aging Communist leader meeting an aging anti-Communist pope, John Paul II, during his visit to Havana in early 1998. It was meant to present Mr. Castro, who abandoned his military uniform for the occasion, as a dignified world leader.