Revolution by Design

It’s a funny place, Cuba. It’s very, very Soviet. You can’t ask the wrong questions, you can’t talk to people about politics. That’s a big faux pas in Cuba. If you say to anyone, “What do you think of the revolution,” they’ll all say, “Oh, it’s great, it’s been fantastic, it’s been really interesting, who wouldn’t want a revolution,” that sort of thing. And then you hear from other people there’s this thing called the CDR, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. It’s basically a spy on every block, a woman or a man who lives in a small apartment who has been awarded the title of CDR representative for that block. And it’s his or her job to snitch if you’re up to no good. So I was at Alfredo Rostgaard’s house and I said, “Are you a supporter of the revolution?” and he smiled and said, “Yeah, I love the revolution,” and that was that.

I met him a few years before he died, and I have to say he was a bit of a crazy old man. I’d asked the taxi driver — I had a taxi driver who seemed to know things, he was like my fixer — “Can you take me somewhere where I can buy Cuban posters?” Because there are no shops in Cuba; you just have to ask around. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “I can take you somewhere.” So we bang on this door and it opens and there’s Alfredo Rostgaard. I was like, “Oh my God, I recognize this guy from photos, it’s Alfredo Rostgaard.” And he’s one of these sort of smiley, mischievous, cheeky old men who you just knew had been a bit of trouble in the past, good-looking, sort of a bit of a flirt. He told me a joke. He said in Spanish, “You know, I don’t speak English. But I do know a joke in English.” And he told me a joke — I don’t remember it, unfortunately, something about a small boy at school asking his teacher something about sex. He was a very amusing old geezer.

After I bought some posters and we chatted for a while in our broken Spanish and English, I said, “Shall we go for a drink?” So we went to the local bar and got really drunk. And the next day the guy who had taken me over there phoned me and said, “You didn’t take Alfredo out for a drink, did you? Oh God, he’s not supposed to be drinking.” So he was someone who I would describe as anti-establishment. Very anti-establishment. And antie-stablishment in a funny way. I would say that if he was the art director of Tricontinental for all those years, he would be constantly trying to get away with stuff that he thought was a little bit wacky and slightly not quite what his bosses wanted from him. You know what I mean?

— Charles Moseley, proprietor,

One of the oddest chapters in the annals of the Cold War was its proxy war by magazine, and the oddest Cold War magazine was undoubtedly Tricontinental. Based in Havana and art-directed by legendary poster designer Alfredo Rostgaard, Tricontinental was the official publication of OSPAAAL, one of the many revolutionary acronyms liberated by Fidel’s triumph in 1959. OSPAAAL stood for Organization in Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and its magazine was available in each of the New World’s great colonial languages: English, French, and Spanish. Some issues were even available in Arabic and Italian.

The magazine did its share of party-line thumping: inspiring tales of 100 percent literacy rates and vaulting social and technological progress, with occasional missives from communist luminaries like North Korea’s Kim Il-sung. But the bulk of Tricontinental’s editorial content was aimed at Third World militants, practicing or potential, for whom it served as bulletin board, guidebook, and lifestyle magazine.

Reems of paper were devoted to the rambling self-criticisms of counterrevolutionary coup plotters in Guinea, describing the exact make and model of the Mercedes they accepted from the imperialists in exchange for betraying the intractable destiny of the people. There were unreadably long lists of tiny victories by innumerable guerrilla organizations: trucks full of ammunition or wheat or concentrated fruit juice liberated from the imperialists; city squares and government buildings gloriously defaced by revolutionary slogans; hopelessly obscure silos, checkpoints, bridges, pipelines, roads, radio towers, and police stations, exploding forgettably in the subtropical night. There were first-person accounts of police corruption and genuinely tender evocations of fallen comrades. In March 1970, a special issue presented the full text of Brazilian Marxist Carlos Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, a pragmatic and hair-raisingly detailed program for revolution in the cities of the industrialized world. (The chapter on “The Bank Assault as Popular Mission” detailed “important innovations in the tactics of assaulting banks,” including “the shooting of tires of cars to prevent pursuit, locking people in the bank bathroom, forcing someone to open the safe or the strong box, and using disguises.”)

What made all of this truly strange, however, was Tricontinental’s design. Compared to dismally drab Soviet attempts at cultural propaganda — or the comically guileless efforts of the Chinese — the Cubans had something uncontrivable going for them: it looked like they were having fun. Tricontinental resembled an underground zine from San Francisco more than an information vehicle for Third World liberation, and that juxtaposition had an effect comparable to that moment in Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil when a gang of black nationalists in a municipal junkyard read from a stilted manifesto while necking with white women in abandoned cars. Tricontinental’s covers were deliriously poppy, with bright, eyecatching graphics, making it just the sort of thing Marighella’s urban guerrillas should never be seen carrying in public.

At the height of its fame, the magazine boasted more than 30,000 subscribers in some eighty-seven countries. Most issues featured a poster insert demonstrating Cuban solidarity with one or another righteous global political struggle. Those posters found their way to college dorm rooms and kiosks across the globe, with young people from Berkeley to Beirut lining up to join OSPAAAL’s solidarity-of-the-month club.

The spare, colorful style of the OSPAAAL poster — like those of the ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute) and a number of other revolutionary cultural ministries — became the unofficial design language of graphic agitation the world over. That language was largely dictated by necessity; the posters, like the earliest covers of the magazine, were printed by hand on a silkscreen press. The inside of the magazine displayed a similar economy. In a technique Rostgaard called “Origami,” a single photo could be used to accompany any number of pages of text. Over the course of a six-page article, an image of Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier appeared, only to be torn into four neat pieces and tossed into a garbage can.

But it was the introduction of four-color printing for the front and inside covers that occasioned Tricontinental’s signature graphic development, the “Cartel Maqueta,” or model poster. Cartel Maqueta is an allegorical and highly composed style of photography in which objects and people are graphically arranged to tell a story or illustrate an idea. (A similar style was popular in record album art of the late 1960s and is currently enjoying something of a revival.) What made Tricontinental’s photography unique was that it operated under the same constraints that had led to Origami. The third dimension was attacked with characteristic gusto, using an idiom Rostgaard called “the anti-ad” — similar to the Situationist strategy of détournement, in which the modes and methods of the spectacle are used against it. In Tricontinental’s case, this meant ironically adopting the language of capitalist publicity to further revolutionary ideals. But photography carried its own problems, particularly in regard to costs.

The solution developed by the Cubans that proved so elusive to the propagandists of the rest of the Red world was a sense of humor. The photographic medium occasioned a sort of self-conscious humor to lighten the hand of ideological imperative and steer the ridiculous toward the satirical. Hence an image meant to evoke solidarity with Palestine features a Palestinian youth (an unshaved and fatigued Cuban with a sheet wrapped around his head) with his foot planted on the head of an Israeli soldier (a mannequin head wearing an army helmet bearing a freshly painted Star of David), buried up to his neck in the sand of the desert he had stolen (a white sand beach — the whole scene was shot from a ladder to keep the sparkling blue Caribbean out of the frame).

In another singularly hilarious image, this one meant to expose the contradictions of American domestic priorities, an astronaut (a man in a white cotton one-piece, with a futuristic-looking pilot’s helmet) reaches for the moon (a cardboard crescent wrapped in tinfoil) while standing on the backs of three rather confused-looking black children (three confused-looking black children).

Although their quality varies considerably, all the images in Tricontinental succeed in giving concrete expression to a means of production that was itself political, analogous to guerrilla warfare — making the most of limited technology and/or arms by dint of manpower, charisma, and ingenuity. This ethos of finding opportunity in necessity also defined the American counterculture and the peace movement, which also shared the Cuban affection for the silkscreen, and for radical politics (up to a point).

While the young Cuban artists at OSPAAAL were ambivalent about the aesthetic influence of their enormous neighbor to the north — Rostgaard was purportedly bemused to learn from an American magazine that he was practicing “pop art.” But the remarkable thing is that their publication never looked as if it were co-opting trippy Yanqui graphics and far-out motifs to repurpose them for the party line. On the contrary, in the pages of Tricontinental, communist revolution through armed struggle emerged as the farthest-out trip of all.

It’s worth remembering that the magazine took its name from the Tricontinental Congress of January 1966, a convocation of revolutionary states and organizations at the Chaplin Theatre in Havana, chaired by Castro. If you spend enough time reading neoconservative Web sites, you will eventually find the contention that the congress was the primal scene of late-twentieth-century terrorism, as Soviet agents and their Cuban henchlings began cultivating a network of operatives who would go on to sow decades of terror across the globe, culminating in 9/11. That’s quite a stretch, even if the attendees at the conference did, in fact, include a seventeen-year-old named Illich Ramirez Sanchez, later known for his “work” with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine as Carlos the Jackal.

In 1975 Alfredo Rostgaard left the magazine to work for UNIAC, the Union of Cuban Artists. But the magazine continued to be published, even as the prospects for the inevitable triumph of the revolution came to seem more and more remote. Tricontinental only stopped printing around the turn of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Cuba literally ran out of ink. Whatever one thinks of the Cuban revolution and its contradictions and failures, Tricontinental’s demise seems like the noblest conclusion that any magazine could aspire to. This one included.