The Medium Is the Message: The Screen Life of the Cuban Revolution, 195961

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:20 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Jennifer Lambe, Brown University
For decades, our iconic image of the Cuban Revolution has been set in the Plaza de la Revolución, with thousands—perhaps a million—Cubans thronging to hear Fidel Castro speak. This portrait undergirds a primary assumption about the Revolution: that many Cubans came to embrace it, enthusiastically and even messianically, by basking in the euphoria ignited by Fidel’s live presence. This paper seeks to revise that notion, in both its content and its implications. For the crucial early period of 1959-1961 and beyond, I propose, we should reimagine this archetypal conversion experience, setting it not under Cuba’s hot sun in a mass rally, but rather in front of a television (and secondarily, radio) set. As I argue, most Cubans came to build and sustain their emotional and political relationship to the Cuban Revolution through its screen life.

In particular, this paper explores the convergence of two, highly congruous, media in the early Cuban Revolution: television, which quickly assumed a central place in the strategic calculus of the revolutionary government, and Fidel Castro, who mobilized it to innovative political ends. At every major crossroads of the early revolutionary period, Castro reached to TV not only to represent what was happening but, even more critically, to make things happen. At the center of Castro’s media strategy were his late-night TV appearances, in which, prodded by a panel of sometimes hostile interlocutors, he worked to mold popular understandings of events at hand. He thus conscripted television into his efforts to construct the Revolution as a historical fact and an affective and political reality. The key to “government by television,” in the famous words of Herbert Matthews, was the art—and drama—of persuasion.