- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

HAVANA - The eagle is angry — and ruthless. The sick child is lying in a hospital bed as the big, bad eagle tries to keep a lifesaving pill from the boy.

A throng of Cuban children intervene, dodging the swooping eagle on their way to the patient’s bed, pill in hand.

When the boy takes the medication, he instantly recovers, feeling well enough to stick out his tongue at the winged attacker, who wears a letter B, for [President] Bush, on his chest.

“Say no to the blockade,” a man’s voice says at the end of the short cartoon.

As Mr. Bush has stepped up his anti-Castro policies in recent months, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has escalated a barrage of anti-American messages in ads, billboards and cartoons in the island’s official newspapers.

Battle of ideas’

The propaganda onslaught serves its purpose, Cuba watchers say, deflecting blame from the communist government’s shortcomings and instilling fear in people that change in Cuba could open a window for a U.S. takeover. It has been a favorite tool of Cuba’s government since the 1959 overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Cuban government officials have long argued that their ad campaigns are necessary in their “battle of ideas” against an imperialist giant 90 miles away. A spokesman at the Cuban Interests Section did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Cuba’s three television stations began airing the eagle cartoon after the Bush administration tightened sanctions late last year. Often, all three stations run it at the same time.

It is Havana’s way of trying to turn the tables on Washington, exploiting the tighter sanctions and travel ban for their own benefit, said Hans de Salas, a researcher at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami.

Envoy woos dissidents

“They have used this very profitably to emphasize the blame is on the other end, that the U.S. has imperialist designs on the island, and that the chronic problems on the island are due to the embargo,” he said.

On billboards, fliers and even rock formations, the Cuban government has long perfected the art of delivering its message, making propaganda part of the island’s landscape.

But the Bush administration’s efforts to curb the amount of money entering the island has stirred the Castro government’s revolutionary fervor.

James Cason, the top American diplomat in Havana, has added fuel to the fire by meeting with dissidents, handing out shortwave radios and using his own propaganda.

Ridicule has a role

When Mr. Cason created a Christmas lights display featuring a neon “75” to call attention to 75 Cuban democracy activists jailed in March 2003, Havana countered with Nazi swastikas and pictures of Iraqi prisoner abuse in front of the U.S. Interests Section, which serves as an embassy because the United States and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations.

Mr. Cason has been the butt of jokes in Cuban cartoons that depict him as a winged fairy who wants to change the island with the flick of a magic wand.

In one, he comes out of the U.S. Interests Section determined to make Cuba’s education system be more like that of the United States. Cuban students suddenly are killing each other at school. The Cuban people turn against the American representative, pelting tomatoes as he scurries back to his office, morphing into a rat.

Billboard makes point

In the Havana tourist neighborhood of El Vedado, a prominent billboard faults the U.S. embargo. In it, a girl positions her hands as though she were playing a violin. Only the violin is gone.

The caption quotes her, head held high in defiance, proclaiming the triumph of Cuba’s spirit over the embargo: “But they can never take away my music,” it says.

The Cuban countryside is dotted with anti-U.S. signs. One in the eastern province of Holguin shows Uncle Sam running away from attacking Cuban flags. Its message reads: “Down with lies.”

Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. Mission in Havana during the Carter and Reagan administrations, said the Cuban government is stating the obvious. “They’re reporting what’s happening with the Bush policies, which make no sense at all,” said Mr. Smith, a critic of the U.S. embargo.

Propaganda is ignored

The propaganda campaigns seem to have scant results. Many Cubans say they pay little attention to the messages.

Jorge Luis, 22, a Havana resident who did not want to give his family name, said he has been hearing about the horrors of life in the United States since he was born but that nothing can be worse than Cuba.

“If I had a boat, I’d leave today” he said.

Others agree with their government about the embargo.

Iliana, 31, a Havana woman who also declined to disclose her family name, said she thinks the trade embargo is responsible for much of Cuba’s economic woes, but she would rather not pick sides.

She considers the long-standing struggle between Cuba and the United States to be a fight between neighbors who should mind their own business. Her philosophy is: “Try to live in your own house,” a viewpoint she said is difficult to live by on the island, whose land area is smaller than Pennsylvania’s.

Elian speech televised

Iliana remembers having to attend government rallies with co-workers in the middle of the day to demand the return of Elian Gonzalez. A tug of war with the United States erupted five years ago after the boy was rescued from the wreckage of a vessel of Cuban “boat people” en route to Florida. His mother died when the boat sank, and Elian was returned to the custody of his father in Cuba by the U.S. government in 2000.

Elian, now 11, read a speech at a televised event in Havana last month, thanking Cubans and Americans alike for helping him return to Cuba. His April 23 speech was the first open to the foreign press, though the lad has appeared in Cuban media with his father.

Critics say the Castro government used the boy’s situation to foster hatred for the United States in Cuba and intensify the nationalist sentiments of the Cuban people.

“It gets to the point where you become sick of it and think, ‘What good does it do for me to yell about this?’” asked Iliana, who no longer attends official rallies since quitting her government job.

Miami convictions hit

The torrent of political messages can become so vexing for Cubans that the messages themselves become a subject of ridicule.

Take the case of five Cuban agents convicted of espionage in Miami four years ago. Coming on the heels of the Elian Gonzalez saga, their case gave the Cuban government five fresh faces in the war against U.S. hostility.

Today, their images are everywhere. Their photos are shown on billboards and leaflets, their plight is mentioned almost daily in the Cuban press and thousands have marched for their return. The Cuban government calls them heroes and patriots and criticizes their trials in virulently anti-Castro Miami.

The fixation on these men has provoked jokes on the island and inspired a skit by humorist Roberto Riveron Rojas, better known as “Robertico,” who often gets away with poking fun at the government.

“It’s the year of the five,” he tells audiences. “Five pounds of rice, five pounds of beans and five cows in the U.S.” Still, anti-Castro activists say the frequent messages get inside people’s heads whether they scoff at them or not.

Castro remains upbeat

“They cannot convince people about what everyone knows — that there is no food, that there is a tourist upper caste,” said Janisset Rivero, one of the founders of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, which frequently works with dissidents on the island. “But I think the propaganda is used to remind them of where they are and to make them afraid to have an opinion.”

The Cuban government has responded to what it sees as stepped-up U.S. aggression in other ways.

In November, Mr. Castro announced he would take the U.S. dollar out of circulation. In recent weeks, he announced he would revalue Cuba’s currency, saying he felt renewed optimism for the island’s economy. A new government campaign reflects that sense of confidence.

Billboards showing a smiling Fidel Castro and the simple boast: “We are doing well.”

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