David Friggieri | Sunday, 23 August 2009
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Letter from Cuba: Propaganda

An odd conspiracy of factors meant that I started writing this article on the back of an invoice issued by the Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba. I had hoped that the dodgy internet connection in the Hotel Inglaterra next door would have held out long enough for me to get it typed into google mail and sent off on time. It wasn’t to be.
Several things don’t function in Cuba and the guys who write in to local newspapers to complain that tourists avoid Malta because it is so “shabby” will be amazed to know that tourist magnet Havana takes shabby to a whole new level.
I won’t be boring you with descriptions of Cuban cigars, rum and salsa (actually the explicit lyrics of reggaeton are all the rage here at the moment). Instead, I’d like to ponder awhile on the beneficial effect of spending time in a place where adverts are non-existent. Strolling around the streets of Havana and driving along the highway from Cayo Coco to Camaguey without coming across one single billboard of David Beckham in Calvin Klein underwear, or your local starlet urging you (with trademark wink) to “go mobile”, is extremely soothing. All you see is the road ahead, landscape, people, a couple of oxen and sky. Besides, of course, the infinitely more poetic form of advertising commemorating “50 años de la Revolución” and the massive hand-painted murals of the Che looking into the distance with the words “Patria o Muerte” inscribed underneath.
Given a choice between Victoria Beckham pouting in Armani and the Cuban billboard which reads “La libertad no tiene precio”, my brain seems to have developed a marked preference for the latter.
Before some New Snazzy Labourite accuses me of turning into a romantic communist, I would like to point out that I am well aware that there is more than an indirect relationship between the crumbling buildings of Havana and the absence of a free market economy. Nonetheless, Cuba is the type of place where it’s natural to stop to think of the effect that a constant bombardment of advertising is having on our general well-being. Just like a few months without bombi tal-gelatina reminds you how noisy Maltese summers are, so it is with a complete absence of advertising hoardings. The lack of fabricated images and messages urging you to choose and buy is very peaceful.
My trave companion informs me, for example, that he has seriously contemplated hurling a brick at the two City Gate electronic monsters which have metamorphosed from flashing political party propaganda billboards to gaudy commercial hoardings which continue to pollute the quiet Valletta night. Make that two bricks, for both your houses.
If we can talk of noise pollution (unsolicited, displeasing sound which disrupts human balance and life), I’d say that a reasonably solid case can be made for curbing the more invasive type of advertising pollution. In the meantime, it’s worth reflecting what kind of society churns out a dozen glossy magazines (3/4 riklami, 1/4 text) whose sole purpose appears to be to rake in advertising revenue and not one single serious publication dedicated to literature, art, music and cinema.
There’s no market for the latter, right?

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