The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Cuba and the Commodification of Political Narratives

red 3D origami hammer & sickle in a room with a price tag on it.

“In capitalist society individuals are controlled by a pitiless law usually beyond their comprehension. The alienated human specimen is tied to society as a whole by an invisible umbilical cord: the law of value.This law acts upon all aspects of one’s life, shaping its course and destiny.”

—Che Guevera, “Socialism and man in Cuba

To understand Cuba, you first have to understand the mythology built around Fidel Castro. On July 26th, 1953, Castro led a group of around 165 revolutionaries in an attack against the Moncada Barracks, a military stronghold located in the far east of the island. The goal was to steal their stockpiles of weapons and distribute them to spark an uprising against Cuba’s U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Early on in the attack, however, a group of Fidel’s rebels were spotted by Batista’s forces, giving up the assault’s element of surprise. The rest of the attack was disastrous: nine rebels were killed during combat, and over seventy were captured. Of the captured rebels, government forces executed forty-two men—many of them beaten and tortured before their deaths.

By all common sense accounts, Fidel’s January 26th attack was a massive failure. Castro, however, understood that the most important weapon in war was not soldiers or weapons or territory—it was control over the narrative. When facing trial for the attack, Castro used his platform to disparage the Batista government for their war crimes and political oppression. His speech was picked up by journalists and spread throughout every corner of the island. His most famous line in the speech was catchy enough to spread across America: “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”

After spending a few years in Cuban prison, Castro was exiled to Mexico. There, he met Che Guevera, another cigar-smoking Latin American revolutionary. The two men, along with Castro’s brother Raul, rallied together a new revolutionary group with other Cuban exiles. Castro named the group ‘The 26th of July Movement,’ framing his initial, failed revolt against the Cuban government as an act of martyrdom to draw inspiration from. 

Castro’s revolutionaries returned to Cuba in 1956 in early December—boarding eighty-two men on a yacht designed to hold twelve. Upon their arrival, they encountered Batista’s forces, who killed the majority of the men. A small group of survivors—including Che, Castro, and Castro’s brother Raul—fled to the nearby mountains where they set up camp.

Once again, they were desolated by superior forces—but Castro was able to capitalize off the failure as part of his revolutionary narrative. Over the next two years, the 26th of January Movement grew. They recruited members and rallied support through secret newspapers. They also connected with mainstream American outlets, such as The New York Times and Time Magazine, to bolster their cause. The movement grew to thousands of members, a ragtag army that Che Guevara led in a series of successful guerilla warfare attacks against Batista’s dictatorship. At the same time, due to mounting political pressure, the United States began pulling back its support for Batista. Eventually, the pressure became overwhelming, and Batista fled Cuba on January 1st, 1959; shortly after, Fidel’s forces seized the capital and declared Castro to be the new president of Cuba.

This is, more or less, the real, historical account of what actually happened during the Cuban Revolution. But, it’s also the account that Castro relentlessly pushed for and used in his propaganda. The ‘ragtag group of revolutionaries overthrowing a far more powerful regime’ is an endlessly appealing trope that consistently wins people over, ubiquitous in our country’s founding narrative, the most popular fictional franchises, and numerous religious doctrines. 

After seizing power, Castro began using this narrative to maintain his control. Students in Cuban schools learned about the revolution as much as they did about math and science. Castro would give charismatic speeches for hours upon hours—invigorating his cult of personality and spreading his vision for Cuba as a Marxist utopia. He took control of the state media, turning them into vehicles to continually cement his message. 

And thus, the same narrative used to rally people against an authoritarian regime became a tool for the next authoritarian regime. Everyone who was opposed to Castro’s rule, or who was considered to be opposed to Castro’s rule, was labeled as ‘counter-revolutionaries.’ After Castro ascended to power, hundreds of them were executed. In the decades to follow, the label of ‘counter-revolutionaries’ began to include religious minorities and gay people, who were forced into labor camps to be ‘re-educated.’ 

Castro did not just use Marxism as a mere rallying cry or manipulation tactic; in his time spent in prison, he read volumes of Marx, Lenin, and José Martí—a revolutionary Cuban folk hero that Castro integrated into his narrative. He and Che Guevera debated revolutionary political theory and wrote about the socialist vision with nuance and passion. 

The policies of Castro’s regime were aimed at bringing Cuba to a point where they could break free from capitalism’s hold on them. To Marxist doctrine, the commodification of all services, individuals, and organizations is the inevitable result of capitalism, and it requires an inner-spiritual shift from every individual for the collective to transcend. But, to get to that point, Castro still had to play by the rules of global politics. He began bringing in foreign investments and setting up trade relations with other countries sympathetic to their cause. 

By the end of Castro’s rule, it was clear that the qualities needed to lead a successful revolution did not translate to the qualities needed to run a country. The economy was in shambles, had few strong international relations, and was widely known for its frequent human rights abuses. Still, within Cuba, Castro maintained control over the popular narrative. In 2006, after Fidel began encountering health issues, he transferred control to his brother, who eventually became the permanent president after Fidel died in 2008. The political and social allegiance to Castro’s narrative was so strong that it was unimaginable for power to transfer to someone of a different last name.

But, while maintaining his ideological allegiance to the communist cause, Raúl’s policies aimed to modernize the country. The second Castro expanded private markets and, through a visit from Obama, began to normalize the country’s relationship with the U.S. His successor further walked Cuba back from its socialist policies, putting additional investments into luxury hotels to attract cash from tourists.

Thus, the narrative crafted to pursue the Marxist revolution became completely swallowed by market forces. As critics commonly point out, the face Che Guevera, a call for revolution against capitalism, is now a brand—found on mass-produced shirts, mugs, and laptop stickers. Cuba’s revolutionary history is a prime selling point for the tourists which the country needs to maintain a strong economy. The photographs taken of Castro and Guevera smoking Cuban cigars became iconic in the 1950s. In the 1980s, the organization that produces them became commercialized—using its revolutionary legacy as part of its status as a luxury brand. 

After the pandemic and Trump’s anti-Cuban policies, Cuba lost a substantial amount of tourism, decimating its economy. In 2021, the government tried to peg their currency to the US dollar. Their initial rate was 25 Cuban Pesos to 1 US dollar; soon, black markets began to emerge, trading US currency for far more, and the government was forced to adjust their exchange rate to 125 Cuban Pesos per dollar. In my visit there last June, the black market rate was 190 Cuban Pesos per dollar, and Cuban currency continues to decline in value. 

Cuba is also in the midst of a legal battle against an investment fund based in the Cayman Islands attempting to buy off its debt. Cuban newspapers, acting just like a company’s public relations team, frame the lawsuit as an attempt from imperial vultures who seek to drive Cuba into ruin for their own benefit (which is, of course, not an untrue position.) This legal battle continues to compound on Cuba’s larger economic crisis, where citizens continually deal with shortages of necessities and an outdated infrastructure. 

For the purposes of this article, I wanted to use the country’s story to articulate an abstract and quite fascinating phenomenon: how quintessential revolutionary sentiments against capitalism are eventually grabbed at, desperately, as a last resort against the market forces that define the global economy. While I hope you found my analysis thought-provoking, I now feel obligated to stress that Cuba’s rise and fall is not merely a narrative to intellectualize over. Its economic decline comes with difficult issues that the Cuban citizens are now facing, such as shortages of food and medical supplies. I also cannot pretend to have an ounce of valuable insight into what productive U.S. policy looks like to address Cuba’s economic crisis. 

However, I do think we can draw some useful insight from Cuba as we make collective decisions about the future of our country. Whether we want to or not, we all adopt narratives about the world; it is the only way in which our mind knows how to connect historical events and make sense of history. The dominant narratives are what ultimately designate who is in power, what wars get funded, what political systems we use, what corporations have power, and what currencies maintain their influence. The competing ideologies around us are often the result of the natural movements of ideas, but they are also the result of deliberate actors with deep pockets and special interests.

The narratives that surround us are not discrete entities; any given political ideology, for instance, has dozens of schools and thousands of writers who each treat it with their own nuance, and each individual holds a personal interpretation of those doctrines. However, with a wide view, we see that those narratives often split into two camps: the mainstream narrative and the counter-narrative. The mainstream narrative has more authority; it is believed in by prestigious institutions in our society such as our academic institutions. The counter-narrative often has more lust: it seeks to question our status quo and advocate for ideas deemed politically incorrect.

As our culture deals with pandemics, elections, wars,  and complex social issues, we watch the dominant narrative face off against the counter-narrative. The sides of each debate endlessly seek territory, claiming our social media feeds, news stations, and sources of entertainment as their battleground. It is stressful to watch. Many see how easily people are manipulated by ill-intentioned forces to undermine our authoritative institutions, in science or government; others see how easily we are manipulated by our authoritative institutions to dogmatically trust those who routinely showcase greed and incompetence.

However, as Cuba shows, we should hope that those competing narratives continue to keep each other at bay. When orthodoxy becomes too rigid, or when skepticism against the orthodoxy becomes so steep that it becomes the new orthodoxy, then a narrative gains unilateral control. That is when doctrines become unquestioned, and decisions get made without checks and balances. We should strive to engage in our cultural debates with more honesty and to create systems where our different ideologies can compete against each other in more productive ways. But, first and foremost, we should hope that the battle between our competing narratives does not cease.

Bobby Becker is a senior at Tulane University studying computer science and philosophy, and the founder of The College Contemporary. The research for this article was based on an independent trip to Cuba with his associate Will Rodman, and draws upon insights from the Pulitzer prize-winning non-fiction book, ‘Cuba: An American History’ by Ada Ferrer.

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