Cuban propaganda alive and well -- thanks to hurricanes


The newest tool in Cuba's 50-year old propaganda war seems inspired by Mother Nature.

The usual cast of characters in Cuba's prolific propaganda war -- Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos -- have recently welcomed a new roster of names: Gustav, Ike and Paloma. After 50 years of touting the success of the Cuban Revolution via street murals, public rallies and the state-run media, the three storms that pummeled the island earlier this year has provided a new platform for the government's propaganda campaign.

The estimated $10 billion path of destruction caused by the storms over the course of three months has provided ample fodder for television commercials and newscasts that play up the government's role in protecting people before and after the storms.

Television commercials flashing images of families being scooped up by emergency workers from flooded streets are paired with messages like ``now is the time to show our unity.''

Nightly newscasts aired after the storms remind viewers that government-enforced evacuations shielded the population from the hundreds of fatalities faced by other hurricane-torn countries. Seven storm-related fatalities were reported in Cuba compared to the nearly 400 casualties in Haiti over the course of four storms.

The storms have also given Raúl Castro his first majorcrisis since taking over duties from his brother Fidel in 2006.

Before then, he was not as visible. Even after the first two hurricanes struck the island, Raúl Castro's profile was more behind-the-scenes, with other top government officials commenting on television. That is a stark contrast to Fidel Castro, who would typically by the main voice on airwaves after a storm. His presence was felt again after these storms in the form of published essays.

But when Hurricane Paloma ripped through the southern coast of the central province of Camagüey in November -- Raúl Castro used the opportunity to elevate his public profile. His appearance before more than 900 families sheltered at the University of Camaguey was televised nationally, and dissected for days on local television programs. His mandates that coastal homes destroyed by the hurricane be rebuilt further inland were hailed by television commentators and residents interviewed on television.

''Fidel always eased our worries, and Raúl has done the same,'' said Renier, 42, a Havana bicycle taxi driver.

While the messages brought forth by the Cuban revolution might resonate with some, experts argue that the battle cries of ``Viva la Revolución'' continue to fade in relevence, as thousands of Cubans continue to flee the island each year.

''They have failed to capture a new generation,'' said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute on Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

''The younger generation doesn't want to listen to propaganda,'' Suchlicki said. ``They want more freedom, more opportunities. They would like to have access to the Internet; there is a huge curiosity of what life is like outside of the island.''

In Cuba, as people grapple with food and supply shortages, effects linger from the storms. TV commercials show men patching up torn roofs, women sweeping water out of flooded homes and government workers unloading trucks of food. A baritone voice over the images tells viewers that ``Unidos'' or together, the country can handle any hardships.

''The messages are there to give people hope during these hard times,'' said Rafael José, a Havana resident who makes a living as a tour guide in the historic Habana Vieja district. ``People would get sad if all they saw was destruction with no one there to tell them everything will get better one day.''

Still, some on the island have come to realize that restoring homes and food production after the storms will take more than slogans and commercials.

''The only message people really care about is whether there is going to be enough food, and how long they are going to have to wait for a home,'' said Francisco, a street peddler outside Havana's Capitolio building.

Richard R. Cole, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has traveled to Cuba 16 times to study the influence of the state-run media outlets. Cole said Cuban officials have not been quick enough to adapt their message to those not old enough to remember Fidel Castro's ascent to power.

''The messages they are playing now will only last so long, especially when Cubans go to the refrigerator and don't see much in there, and realize they won't find much more at the store either,'' said Cole, author of Communications in Latin America, which explores the issue of Cuban propaganda. ``The propaganda was effective when Castro first took over, but it seems as if they're running out of messages.''

''If the message was sticking, you wouldn't have all these people risking their lives to defect,'' Cole said. ``The Cuban government is functioning under the old Soviet-Communist model of media controlled by the party, but that model doesn't fit with the modern world anymore.''

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