In 1940, Fulgencio Batista had won the Cuban presidency after he and others led a coup against the legitimate Cuban government in 1933, called the "Sergeants' Revolt." Batista orchestrated a string of puppet presidents until he took full control from 1940 to 1944. In 1952, after living in Florida for eight years, he again ran for president of Cuba. Realizing his imminent defeat, he again orchestrated a coup, supported by the American government. Between American economic control over the sugar industry and the relationship with the American mafia, Batista right-wing government became oppressive, repressing all media and carrying out violence and executions against any who spoke out against him. These acts led to the guerrilla uprising against Batista and the emergence of Fidel Castro.
In 1959, as Fidel Castro’s Revolutionary victory over the dictator Batista was finally at hand, the planning of a new nationalistic government became paramount. The new socialistic cultural identity had to be enacted swiftly and cemented in the minds of the Cuban populace. Media needed to be used to mobilize the masses. This was not only radio and television, but print as well, including the realm of comics. Castro in his famous speech, ‘Palabras a los intelectuales,’ or ‘Words to the Intellectuals,’ acknowledged the importance of mass media with respect to the education of the people:
Castro understood that media and graphic art could guide ideology and could be used as an educational tool because he knew that it had already being used before in Cuba.
Among manifestations of an intellectual or artistic type, there are some which are more important with respect to the education of the people or the ideological instruction of the people than other kinds of artistic manifestations. I do not believe that anyone would dispute the fact that the cinema and television are one of these basic and very important media.
Graphic art has been a substantial part of Cuban culture for over a century. The first use of use of graphic subversive caricature humor in Cuba can be traced back to as far as 1848 when Cirilio Villaverde lambasted the count of Pozos Dulces in a widely distributed handbill. Newspapers published comic strips and political cartoons and trading cards included with a plethora of products including tobacco and food were and are quite popular. Foreign comics, leading into the mid-20th century, became part of this tradition.
Comics and Culture
In the United States, the comic book medium first became popular in the 1930s after the iconic Superman exploded onto the scene in Action Comics in 1938. In the 1940s, after World War II, the American superhero became a mainstay in popular art and culture and has been so ever since. The popularity of the comic book genre in Cuba occurred later than in the U.S., becoming popular in Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s. Most of their exposure to the Cuban people came from these same American comics, translated into Spanish. In the 1960s, during the same period that the revolution remade the country of Cuba, comics were already mainstream.
While admired and enjoyed, the suspicion that American comics were tools meant to indoctrinate children toward imperialistic viewpoints, including Cuban children who consumed North American comics, was widespread. This idea was not lost on the new Cuban government which increasingly utilized comics as a means to educate the populous about the principles of the new Castro revolution and against American ideals. Cuban comics immediately replaced American ones on the shelves and exclusively promoted Cuban cultural identity. They were uniquely created by Cubans for Cubans and appealed to the populous youth with a mix of adventure and comedy that solidified the socialistic views of the government while lambasting capitalistic principles. Initiatives such as the literacy brigades, led by Che Guevara, reduced the Cuban illiteracy rate from 60% during Batista’s tenure as president, to 2% by the end of 1961, when Cuba has been declared an illiteracy-free territory. This led to even more widespread dissemination of Cuban comics and therefore the ideological tenets of the new Cuban government.
Heroes and Citizens
New and exciting characters were introduced that supplanted the now maligned American produced characters such as Superman and Dick Tracy and replaced them with more Socialistic and anti-imperialist ones. The immensely popular Colonel Elpidio Valdés fought against Spain for a peasant army. Yarí struggled against the brutal Spanish conquistadores who relentlessly attacked his people. Capitán Plín fought against lazy pirates that would steal rather than work. Revolution was portrayed as both necessary and exciting, especially for the country's youth.
While the new government supported Cuban-produced comics included heroic characters and exciting plots, a palpable difference from the American superhero comics came in the form of the ordinary citizen who could be a part of the fighting revolution or simply being part of the community fabric. Comics were not just about how to be extraordinary but how to live an ordinary life as a model socialist. This could be done by upholding the tenets of Socialism. Production benefits workers and their community. One must work against Imperialism and Capitalistic tendencies. All people must be held as equal in terms of ownership and value. Moral character made citizens heroes.