The Cuban Revolution is a highly visual one. Images of El Che, for example, are everywhere on the island, from market stalls to billboards and t-shirts. The power of images – especially faces – is something that the Castro government clearly understands and has made ample use of in its half-century of rule. A visit to Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, for example, will have confront you with the previously mentioned Che and his brother-in-arms Camilo Cienfuegos, their massive portraits covering the entire façade of two different government buildings.
The state, however, has not limited itself to only glorifying leaders from the 1959 revolution but has also chosen a select group of others to elevate as national heroes. One of these has been Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan president who was in power from 1999 until his death in 2013. A proponent of what he called “21st century socialism,” Chavez quickly became close with the Castro brothers. Seeing Fidel as a mentor and ally, Venezuela gave Cuba millions in oil subsidies and brought Cuba into his leftist ALBA alliance, which fought U.S. interests in Latin America.
Now, one can clearly see the impacts of this regional partnership. Banners of Chavez’s face adorn the ICAP (The Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples), a government institution that is meant to teach foreign visitors about Cuban perspectives on its foreign relations. Heralding him as a visionary and praising his leadership of what the Cuban government terms “Our America,” the ICAP makes the South American leader seem like a Cuban folk hero.
Even in the street, it is hard to miss this Venezuelan influence. In Santa Clara, a provincial capital on the island’s northern coast, several patrons at a local café sat drinking beers and chatting, all of them wore red shirts with the words, “#YoSoyChavez” written on them. In a local community center in the same city, a man wearing a baseball cap of the Venezuelan flag sat sipping a cocktail as he watched a Saturday night drag show. From the state down, it seems that Chavez’s influence has not subsided in the four years since his death.
This is all the more interesting considering the current situation in Venezuela, where Chavez’s legacy is hugely contested. Food and medical shortages have made Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, hugely unpopular, and in order to hold onto power, the Socialist Party of Venezuela has had to resort to undemocratic practices. None of that can be seen in Havana however, where the late leader is still described as “the truest and most faithful friend of the Cuban people.”
Written by Nicolas Montano