Cuba as a Spectacle for Foreign Activists

Union leader Christian Smalls, part of a U.S. solidarity delegation that visited Cuba recently.

For the visiting foreign delegations, Cuba is a theme park, a spectacle. As such, it requires a designed-to-order distorted gaze.

By Hilda Landrove (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – In a comment posted on April 26, Calla Walsh, a youth from the United States who defines herself as an anti-imperialist organizer and works as a writer and co-chair of the National Network on Cuba, wrote: “Excluding the pandemic years, this will be the first time since 1994 that Cuba won’t march on May First with a massive spectacle in the Plaza de la Revolucion. Because the United States is blockading fuel shipments to Cuba!”

Calla’s post refers to the suspension of the traditional march held in Cuba for International Workers’ Day, known in the official media as “March of the Combatant People.” The immediate cause was the fuel crisis (especially gasoline), which made it impossible to dispatch transport vehicles from the various municipalities of the capital to the Plaza.

In Walsh’s vision of events (which, more than her own, represents the vision of a sector of US activists and organizations that ally themselves with the Cuban government), the sole cause of the fuel crisis is the US economic embargo. However, she doesn’t consider the endogenous factors that have contributed to the paralysis and chronic crisis of the national energy system.

Attributing Cuba’s national problems to the set of US economic sanctions generally referred to as “the blockade,” is one face of the US group’s rhetoric. The other is unconditional support for the regime, which they normally describe as the “Cuban people,” in the typical assumption that, in Cuba, government and society are one and the same.

The most revealing thing about the conception that underlies the view of the activists and organizations is their reference to May Day as a “massive spectacle.” Although the parades that make up the Labor Day celebrations in Cuba could be classified as spectacles in terms of their massive participation (in decline in recent years) and the logistical deployment that usually accompanies them, the reference to “spectacle” can also be read in another way – as something whose primary purpose is to create an image, in disregard of the underlying reality.

This interpretation of “spectacle” is also in line with the overall view of the brigades and delegations which, particularly after the events of July 11 [on that date in 2021, spontaneous protests broke out in dozens of Cuban municipalities], frequently visit Cuba. Upon their return home, they offer testimony – in the style of the political pilgrims of the Revolution’s first years – about a country that is all too similar to their own ideal version of it.  A country that is, neither more nor less, a spectacle for those who need to validate the utopias born from their opposition to a social reality (in the United States) which they are radical critics of. Of course, a person’s right to be radically critical of their reality isn’t in question; however, it’s very problematic if they’re making use of an outside reality and transforming it into the idealized projection of their desires.

Cuban President Diez-Canel, meeting with the US delegations at the International Meeting of Solidarity with Cuba on May 1, 2023.


For activists like Calla, Cuba is a theme park, a spectacle. As such, it requires a distorted gaze, starting from the fundamental act of alienation that consists of seeing exactly what one wants to see and nothing more, and transforming their perception and critical judgement to an interminable chain of confirmation of the preconceptions and suppositions. However, it also requires an effort to create a scenario that avoids, in a consistent way, any possible dissonance between the perceived and what one wants to perceive.

Hence, when one of the delegations visits an agricultural camp, it’s not just any camp but an international one destined for such a program. (“Julio Antonio Mela” International Camp), When a neighborhood is visited, it’s a special one, where special programs are being developed; and when there are talks with “autonomous civil society organizations” you speak with representatives previously chosen by the Communist Party and Government leadership for their subordination to power.  The “spectacle” they expect and receive in exchange for the reinforcement of their ideals is directly translated into their reproduction of the narrative of a country that doesn’t exist.

The image of the theme park is the result of close collaboration: the Cuban government institutions prepare the scenario for visitors, who expect to see exactly what they are shown; a closed circle that produces over and over again “testimonies” on matters that many Cubans would find bizarre and absurd, but that the authoritarian-loving anti-imperialism public —the tankies— find true —and if not true by themselves, at least attractive enough to swallow without question.

The insistently imperial character of the “witnesses” is clearly revealed by their insistence on listening only to those who reinforce their vision of the world: the Cuban authorities. The same authorities who are responsible for the economic disaster and political repression that the people of the island suffer. These officials enchant the US brigades with phrases like “the Cuban people are the owners of the hotels.” Such is also made evident by their refusal to listen to voices that come from another place and could cause their preconceived certainties to wobble. The spectacle doesn’t admit deviations; “the show must go on.”

After completing a packaged tour of Cuba, the “witnesses” -whose reliability seems to derive precisely from their ideological affiliation with the Cuban Government, and whose declarations assume a space that rightly corresponds to lower-ranking Cuban voices – tell incredible stories from a non-existent country. The list of stories is long and painful, a theme park language with its own contents and syntax.

According to the activists’ stories, in Cuba there are “democratic unions that negotiate with the government”; “In fact, the Cuban people are the government.” They speak of autonomous communities, (?), especially one where a group of children repeat along with a US union organizer: “Cuba, yes, blockade no!” And urban gardens, where a brigade from the National Network on Cuba can do two months of work in one morning, together with the “revolutionary Cuban people.”

One of the brigades that are currently in Havana, part of the thousand-plus foreigners invited to the May Day 2023 celebrations, was organized in March by the National Network on Cuba in collaboration with the Cuban Institute of Friendship with other Peoples (ICAP). The activity could be called political tourism since the explicit objective is for political activists in their countries of origin to visit the island as a form of support for the Cuban government.

For example, the International People’s Assembly posted on April 24 that 156 youth leaders would travel to Cuba in opposition to the US blockade, and that in the following days they’d meet with different sectors of Cuban society (artists, scientists, youth, union organizations, LGBTQI+, and anti-racist community activists). In that way they’d have “the opportunity to hear first-hand about the impact of six decades of illegal blockade, and how – despite this – the Cuban people are resisting and continuing to develop their nation.”

US delegates to Cuba, May 2023.

The post (which talks about meetings that had not occurred at the time of publication) anticipates the content of what will be heard in the meetings, thus revealing that it’s a pre-established agenda and allowing us to infer what’s common knowledge: that the participating Cuban actors do not represent autonomous sectors of Cuban society. Instead, they are subordinated to the government agenda. Listening – which would presuppose the possibility of unexpected contents arising – is thus evidenced as an empty ritual, a staged session in which the expectation and the result correspond completely.

The role that the brigades, organizations, and foreign activists play in reproducing the narratives that best serve the power structure in Cuba indirectly testifies to the loss of credibility these narratives have inside Cuba. As the Revolution and socialism’s promises have dissolved, giving way to an undisguised repression; as the achievements of years past have given way to a reality of extreme precariousness in everyday life; as the government plutocracy tightens its grip on power with a rapacious economic policy that can’t satisfy the basic needs of the population; as all these realities converge, sustaining the official narratives requires ever more the participation of outside actors.

These visitors base their defense of a collapsed regime not on the lived experience of those within it (their contact is never more than that of a tourist that comes for a short visit, with favorable conditions for their stay) but on the projection of a fantasy they can utilize to sustain political agendas in their countries of origin. From there come recurring declarations that the United States has a lot to learn from Cuba, and the assertions of a supposed cover-up and distortion of the Cuban reality on the part of the hegemonic media, for which they then constitute the alternative source of information.

The Cuban spectacle seeks to impose itself over the lived Cuba. The idealized foreign gaze, a willing accomplice to the Cuban government, seeks to impose itself over the Cuban view of itself. But in the end, reality will always prevail, despite these efforts to materialize and perpetuate a theme park for the particular consumption of alienated idealists and accomplices of those creating propaganda. 

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times

12 thoughts on “Cuba as a Spectacle for Foreign Activists

  • May 13, 2023 at 12:03 am

    Perhaps Manny you may care to describe where and by whom, there is confirmation that “in Cuba the largest attempt has been made on the globe, to decouple from this agricultural system which has put so many farmers into debt…….”? It is self evident that your knowledge of the agricultural industry is extremely limited. If Cuba has an agricultural policy, what is it? As one who with a group of internationally recognized agricultural producers, studied Cuban agriculture, we could not detect one. That Manny was over fifteen years ago, and no change can be perceived. As for your suggestion that I suffer from a “mental block”, no such luck, just knowledge about agriculture, that far exceeds your own.

  • May 9, 2023 at 4:12 pm

    Carlyle Macduff, what I’ve said can be confirmed if you were only willing to learn something new, but I’m sure even outsider research with no connection to the Cuban government would be unacceptable to your sentiments if it had anything positive to say! Sorry to hear about your mental block.

  • May 8, 2023 at 8:08 pm

    Manny makes false assumptions. Cuba does not have a declared agricultural policy, only a history of ever declining production. It’s failure to introduce efficient management within agriculture, is reflected in the hundreds of thousands of acres of good formerly productive land, being allowed to revert to bush.

    Were it not for the serious consequences of the self evident inefficiency running rampant across Cuba, the comment by Manny, that Cuba “has made the largest attempt in the globe to decouple from this industrial agricultural system which has put so many farmers into debt”, would be hilarious in the extreme.

    As for his comment about British agriculture, it displays enormous ignorance of fact!

    Yes Nick, glad you got a laugh!

  • May 8, 2023 at 12:59 pm

    The anti-imperialist, for soviet era policies i absolutely agree with you, a series of failed symbolic actions by Fidel which made no attempt to address food sovereignty and relied on being spoiled by soviet credits. After 91 however, I do not think it is so easy to sum up the answer as you do. The enormous food supply in the world today is owed to cereal GMOs and the required secondary input of industrial fertilizers. Few other countries on Earth have had to go without these inputs, whether through imports or local production, like Cuba since 1991. And in Cuba the largest attempt on the globe has been made to decouple from this industrial agriculture system which has put so many farmers into debt, and has led to a farmer suicide crisis from USA to Australia. This organic system in Cuba is environmentally friendly but can never achieve the yields seen with GMOs, not even getting into how inconsistent transport and refrigeration means a large amount of food will spoil before it even reaches market, a challenge that requires constant r&d even in the developed nations! Many countries today are not food self sufficient, even the UK often imports up to 60% of its food annually. I hope you are thinking of this global context and the interdependency of countries when talking about the Cuban context. I accept mismanagement as a general factor, but frankly no article to date from Havana Times has given me a satisfying explanation of how it plays out in Cuba.

  • May 8, 2023 at 12:18 pm

    Manny, if you keep up with Havana Times you will see like I many of the reasons you are asking about. For starters here is one BIG one that comes to mind. With plenty of water, sun, land and skilled professionals and farmers, Cuba under the Castros and the Communist Party for over 60 years has not been able to produce anywhere near the food the population needs. If the embargo is actually harmful and not just a catch-all excuse, all the more reason for policies that promote national food production. Instead, they have gone the opposite direction, preferring to depend on imports, some from “the enemy” until the money mostly ran out and that brings us to May 2023 and the mass shortages. In two words “mismanagement” and “corruption” have been the mainstay.

  • May 8, 2023 at 12:00 pm

    This article lambasts Walsh for pinning the fuel shortages on the blockade but then completely fails to give any concrete example of the “endogenous factors” that are argued as the real reasons for shortages. I’d love to know what the factors are, it would certainly give your arguments more weight.

  • May 8, 2023 at 8:45 am

    Hi to you too Mr McD……
    Your self stated temptation to agree with me causes me to chuckle.
    Hope you and your family are well.

  • May 8, 2023 at 2:10 am

    Some nostalgic socialists date aged ppl go to Cuba and va have some attention and exchange for a meal and some Rags. And think the suffering of the Cuban ppl is the fall of the pharaoh embargo. They want to keep Cubans in this situation for them to be important. Or I hope theirs utopia.

  • May 8, 2023 at 12:03 am

    How nice to say “hi” to Nick again.

    I am almost – but only almost – tempted to agree with his final sentence. It however is a confession by Fidel Castro himself, that prevents doing so. Fidel said in his later years, that he had always been a communist and would remain one until his death.

    If indeed he was telling the truth on that occasion, then he had lied not only to the world at large, but in particular to his fellow revolutionaries about his supposedly “worthy intentions”.

  • May 7, 2023 at 12:35 pm

    There is clearly a lot of discontent in the USA. This manifests itself in many different and often abhorrent ways. Sadly the internal arms race promoted by those who profit from it gave rise to a tragic mall shooting in Texas just recently. Apparently this was the 199th masa shooting in the USA so far this year and we are only just entering May.
    So many unnecessary deaths. An entirely avoidable but constantly repeated tragedy.

    A more benign manifestation of the discontent in the USA is the way in which perfectly decent people look desperately for preferable alternatives .
    There are those who seek to find a preferable alternative in Cuba.
    Although they may be right to oppose the irrational embargo also opposed by the overwhelming majority of countries in the world, they are fools if they swallow Cuban Government propaganda.
    It is similar to those Cubans who oppose their current Government believing that rogues such as the anti democratic trump offer them some kind of salvation.

    As I’ve said many times here:
    The USA and Cuba…..
    Two Revolutions stemming from worthy intentions that have both had very mixed results so far.

  • May 5, 2023 at 7:32 pm

    When can we expect a tattoo’d Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez? What will he choose as “body art”? Perhaps $ signs, perhaps camels, perhaps even ostriches, but most certainly, the bearded ones – Marx, Guevara and Fidel Castro! Will he then adopt earrings and nose hoops? Discarded multi-coloured T-shirts donated by admirers!

    Go for it Miguel!

    You will fit right in!

  • May 5, 2023 at 2:35 pm

    So why do the Cuban people ( insert Castro dictatorship) continue to facilitate this charade? I mean, it could be argued that at first, the purpose of the ‘spectacle’ was to elicit foreign political and financial support. Did it work in the past. Probably a little bit. But is it working today? Doesn’t seem so. The gas lines in Havana aren’t any shorter because a video made by a Norwegian Castrista is viral among European progressives. The only thing I can figure is that these spectacles are for local Cuban consumption. After all, if a Norwegian says things are great in Cuba, then they must be. Who should I believe? The Norwegian who spent a week in the Havana Libre or my ‘lying eyes’? The Castros are running out of tricks. Surely, their B.S. must be coming to an end soon.

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