The Making of Fidel Castro: The International Mass Media and the Rebel Army

By Michelle Chase

In the early hours of January 1, 1959 Cubans were stunned by news that the revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro had toppled reigning dictator Fulgencio Batista. Cuban silkscreen artist Eladio Rivadulla, known for his movie posters, was woken by an early morning phone call from a friend. When he heard the news, “a sudden inspiration came to mind,” Rivadulla recalled: to rapidly design and print a commemorative poster. “I quickly used as a reference photos taken in the Sierra Maestra by Herb L. Matthews, published in the New York Times, that I had saved.” He got to work.

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Eladio Rivadulla’s poster, circa January 1, 1959, drew from the 1957 CBS documentary Rebels of the Sierra Maestra

That night Rivadulla held the first 100 posters in his hands. They were printed in the symbolic black and red of the 26th of July Movement led by Fidel Castro. Some of those posters were prominently displayed by his neighbors with the phrase “Fidel, this is your house,” when Fidel Castro and other Rebel Army members triumphantly rolled through the streets of Havana one week later. It has become one of the revolution’s most iconic posters.[1]

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The February 24, 1957 front-page New York Times story by Herb Matthews marked a propaganda coup for the young rebel army. 

Yet Rivadulla misremembered the source of the photo. The image is not from the celebrated visit of veteran Times reporter Herb Matthews to the Sierra in February 1957. Instead it came from the CBS News broadcast “Rebels of the Sierra Maestra: The Story of Cuba’s Jungle Fighters,” a roughly half-hour documentary film produced by young CBS reporter Robert Taber and cameraman Wendell Hoffman after a visit to the Rebel Army encampments in May of 1957.[2] A still from the footage, or a photo taken during the shooting, must have circulated in American newspapers, where Rivadulla would have clipped it and saved it. Matthews’ famous visit has enjoyed greater subsequent memorialization, but he was far from the only foreign journalist to report on the Rebel Army first hand.

The anecdote behind the revolution’s first official poster suggests the importance of photojournalism in constructing the iconic images of the Rebel Army and Fidel Castro. These were images that swept the globe throughout the 1960s, with enormous impact. Throughout Latin America, the New Left embarked on an age of rural guerrilla warfare, abandoning older forms of organizing in order to emulate the Cuban example. Provocative images like these – bolstered by the publications of Che Guevara, Regis Debray and others – also helped disseminate a new sense of warrior masculinity that challenged the forms of manhood hegemonic in the 1950s. For most of us, these images of the Rebel Army have come to define the triumphant Cuban revolutionaries, erasing the many other actors who helped defeat Batista from the collective historical imagination.

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Another still from Rebels of the Sierra Maestra has been used on many bonds, posters, and other revolutionary ephemera, including the 1969 poster by Félix René Mederos Pazos seen on the right

It is important to understand the historical context of this iconography’s rise, for in 1957 few Cubans viewed the Rebel Army as the preeminent force in the insurrection. At the time, the 26th of July Movement was one of several revolutionary groups, and it was far from clear that it would ultimately lead the pack. Furthermore, many Cubans in 1957 must have thought that, if revolutionaries did prevail, they might do so through some form of urban action, such as a general strike. Indeed, an attempt to directly assassinate Batista in Havana’s National Palace—led by a rival revolutionary group—had narrowly failed only two months before Taber and Hoffman’s visit to the Sierra. In fact, the growth of the Rebel Army was partly a response to the successful state repression of the urban undergrounds of Havana and Santiago throughout 1957 and early 1958. By mid 1958, Fidel Castro and other 26th of July leaders had abandoned hopes for an urban uprising, instead ordering all arms to the Sierra.[3]

The story behind Rivadulla’s poster also highlights the role of the international mainstream media in the insurrection. Historians have more often analyzed the impact these stories had on international audiences. For example, Historian Van Gosse argued that American viewers of Taber’s film “were fascinated by fidelismo as the revival of romantic rebellion, a throwback to an earlier age.”[4] Matthews’s New York Times features and Taber’s CBS documentary were Americans’ first exposures to “Third World guerrillas,” the national liberation fighters who would become touchstones of the New Left. Spanish photojournalist Enrique Meneses’s photos of the Rebel Army published in Paris Match in 1958 had a similar effect for European audiences.[5]

Yet the international media also informed Cuban national opinion. This was no accident: the revolutionary movement intentionally harnessed the power of the international press to craft and disseminate an image of a large, professional, disciplined fighting force – a force capable of defeating the regular army. Members of the 26th of July Movement went to great lengths to liaise with international reporters, transport them to the Sierra without police detection, and drag their heavy equipment up to the mountains.[6] Fidel Castro and other leaders carefully managed the journalists’ visits, bragging of their military exploits, exaggerating their numbers, and brandishing their weapons.[7]

The Cuban revolutionary movement also pioneered many forms of clandestine communications. Radio Rebelde was broadcast from the Sierra Maestra. Pro-revolutionary bonds and clandestine periodicals circulated widely throughout urban centers by 1958. These were all ways for government opponents to circumvent national news blackouts, as Fulgencio Batista imposed increasingly frequent periods of censorship on the national media as conflict escalated.

Yet the 26th of July Movement clearly understood the vastly greater impact that outlets such as the New York Times and CBS would have. This sophisticated understanding and manipulation of publicity reflected Havana’s preeminence in the 1950s as a cosmopolitan capital with a well-developed media industry. They knew the vibrancy and immediacy of television footage in particular would have the most impact, and the mountain rebels were in a position to perform romanticized rural rebellion in a way their urban counterparts could not. Indeed, for international journalists, the appeal of the Sierra-based rebels must have been at least partly visual, for they could flaunt their new beards, uniforms, armbands, and long rifles in ways impossible for urban underground militants to match.

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Photo card printed by Studios Naranjo, photographer unknown. 

Finally, these images helped propagate a new identity for Fidel Castro, who in 1957 was known to most Cubans as a student activist, a progressive lawyer, and an Ortodoxo Party member. As late as mid-1958, opposition pamphlets were still illustrated with photos of a clean-shaven, tie-wearing “Dr. Fidel Castro.”

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This commemorative album of the Granma expedition, probably printed in 1960 or 1961, is unusual for depicting Fidel and Che as they looked just prior to the formation of the Rebel Army. A similar album was printed for the failed Corinthia expedition.

However, those older images were soon displaced by the imagery of the Rebel Army, which helped catapult Fidel the rebel leader to national and international stardom. In retrospect, it is striking how much the images that circulated for decades afterward and still circulate today are based on those seminal 1957 forays of international journalists into the Sierra. Those early media excursions provided a font of foundational imagery that quickly made their way into the national collective consciousness, and have persisted as the defining images of the Rebel Army ever since.

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Historians have not yet traced all the ways photos were utilized during the Cuban insurrection, but they clearly contributed to rebel mystique. Here Aida Pelayo, leader of an all-women’s anti-Batista group, gives a speech circa 1958. Behind her is a poster based on a photo printed by a commercial photography studio in Havana. Image from the documentary film Doctrinas del Corazón (Dir. Delia Cruz, 2012).

Michelle Chase is an assistant professor of history at Pace University and the author of Revolution within the Revolution: Women and Gender Politics in Cuba, 1952-1962.

Title image: A still from the CBS documentary Rebels of the Sierra Maestra, showing Fidel Castro and journalist Bob Taber.

Endnotes:

[1] “Entrevista con el premio nacional de diseño, Diseñarte Rivadulla,” La Jiribilla, October 10-16, 2009, consulted at http://epoca2.lajiribilla.cu/2009/n440_10/440_03.html. See also Jesus Vega, Un fundador,” La Jiribilla, May 2002, consulted at http://www.lajiribilla.co.cu/2002/n54_mayo/1355_55.html

[2] See Nancy Stout, One Day in December: Célia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013), 173-180.

[3] The most detailed account of relations between the Rebel Army and the urban underground is Julia Sweig, Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002).

[4] Van Gosse, Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America, and the Making of the New Left (New York: Verso, 1993): 83.

[5] See http://www.elconfidencial.com/cultura/2016-11-27/fidel-castro-muerte-enrique-meneses-korda-sierra-maestra_1295818/

[6] See Nancy Stout, One Day in December: Célia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013), 173-180.

[7] For example, in one well-known anecdote, Fidel Castro told a group of his men to march past Herbert Matthews periodically. Matthews assumed these were groups of different men, and thus estimated that the rebel ranks were much higher than their actual numbers. For the most detailed study of Matthew’s visit, see Anthony DePalma, The Man Who Invented Fidel: Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times (New York: Public Affairs, 2006).

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