—Riding the bus from my neighborhood on the outskirts of the city to the central neighborhood of Vedado, I noticed a billboard concealed by small trees. Located where the municipalities of 10 de Octubre and Centro Habana meet, the sign has remained unaltered since my childhood, except for a bit of wear. On it, the looming face of a chubby woman invites us all to work together.
Traveling around the city of Havana there are many large billboards to discover. They do not advertise Pepsodent or Nike, nor do they announce the promises of the country’s presidential candidates. Our billboards tell of conquests and accomplishments realized through great and honorable sacrifice. They carry slogans of glory and slogans of hatred for the oppressor. They announce events of national importance- events enriched by victories, sure triumph, and optimism on a grand scale.
For years, beginning with the inception of the Cuban revolution in 1959, our billboards were in red and black (the colors of the group that set the revolution in motion, the Movimiento 26 de Julio) and were a permanent display of the ideology behind our struggles. Today they are the silent presence that ricochets from head to head and from voice to voice while the days drag along filled with joyless complaints of common people.
The billboards deserve a place in Cuba history. You don’t have to read the newspaper, watch the television, listen to the radio, or chat with a neighbor to know the line of thought to follow. Without having to slow down or refuse their words, the billboards’ huge dimensions and synthetic discourse install it in your mind from every corner. They are the overseers that do not impose by force but by perseverance. In this way they have been an invaluable resource for maintaining the discourse of the Revolution.
Continuing on the bus I eavesdrop on the conversations around me. An older man complained that life in Cuba keeps getting worse. It didn’t surprise me when a middle-aged woman, offended by his words, snapped at him using nearly the same words that were on a billboard we had just passed minutes before. The result: the majority of passengers dismissed the old man as crazy, the others showed indifference, and nobody contradicted the woman’s discourse, inflamed and full of praise for the Revolution. Shortly the ambiance recovered its tone of small complaints about the heat and the uncertainty of when the monthly quota of eggs designated by the government would be reached. It was apparent to any observer that after the minor altercation we all returned to being Cubans and revolutionary patriots.
When we accept the discourse of noble words raised high on grand billboards without being exposed to an abundance of other noble or fleeting discourses spoken in our own voice and explaining our own lives, we run the risk of the printed words, already accepted due to their elevated status, substituting the indispensable exercise of questioning and revising the discourse to fit the ever-changing human condition and quest.
The result: without assessment and revision, a society, any society, could end up divided into crazies, people filled with hate, and people who, without feeling any need of self-sacrifice, believe themselves free of frivolity and disinterest and repeat like parrots the discourse that guarantees them glory.
Without even changing the tone and focus of our billboards, one day I would like to see words like, “The world is full of right-wingers and leftists, who without getting their hands dirty, declare themselves freedom lovers.”
If those on the right are going to talk of country, justice, respect and other noble words, they should first drown themselves in the sweat of work. Those on the left should at least touch the blood of selfless sacrifice in order to stain themselves.
Although the tone also needs revamping, more importantly the inspiration of this new discourse must be found. What society should be reflected in the enormous letters?
From the billboard where 10 de Octubre and Centro Habana meet, the chubby woman, who never brushed her teeth with Pepsodent, peacefully awaits the day her image is replaced by a new one that is more radiant or at least more current.