Closing its doors after over half a century of promoting internationalism from Havana, the Organization in Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America leaves a historical and artistic record of unprecedented Third World solidarity.
By Fernando Camacho Padilla and Eugenia Palieraki
Published on tandfonline, Jan 16, 2020
As Eva Duménigo catalogued and packed up posters, Santiago Feliú took book boxes out of his office, and Patricia Reyes selected the magazines to be sent elsewhere, their faces showed resignation, a strong sense of sadness, and nervousness. They faced uncertainty about the future of their jobs and about where the graphic and documentary material at the heart of their work would end up. “We must hurry,” Eva told us on June 6, when she shared the news that the Cuban government would make public just days later. On June 11, the government announced its decision to close the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (OSPAAAL), stating: “The organization has fulfilled its foundational mission of standing in solidarity with the struggles of Third World countries in their battles for decolonization and of promoting unity around the just causes of their peoples.” Thus ended 53 years of history of the main international organization that advocated for revolution in these three regions of the world.
OSPAAAL was born at the First Tricontinental Conference held in Havana in 1966, where delegates from national liberation movements and political parties from Africa, Asia, and Latin America met for the first time. The common identity they shared was their firm position against colonialism. In Latin America, movements saw the need to combat new forms of domination, namely U.S. neocolonialism, to achieve the creation of autonomous socialist governments that would also be independent of the Soviet Union. As a result of the Tricontinental Conference, OSPAAAL’s initial main objective was to coordinate revolutionary organizations worldwide. It defined various strategies to carry out political solidarity and justify insurrectional paths of struggle, in which the development and design of promotional materials became essential.
The organization’s main communication tools were the Tricontinental magazine, published in Spanish, English, French, and Arabic, as well as posters that were folded inside the publication. The magazine had great political and theoretical importance since it published alternative information not reported in large press agencies. In turn, the posters quickly became iconic. The reasons are many, but a few stand out. On the one hand, the publication collaborated with well-trained and highly creative artists with a strong political commitment to the project. On the other, the organization made an effort to promote a global cause that the majority of society could easily identify with—the so-called liberation of the Third World—despite the many differences between the various countries that made up OSPAAAL. Thanks to ingenious images and succinct slogans in four languages, Tricontinental’s posters managed to easily cross all kinds of borders.
Our visit to Havana, which we made to compile documentation on Cuba’s relations with countries of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, coincided with the closure of OSPAAAL. This allowed us to directly witness the process of dismantling its beautiful headquarters, located in the historic neighborhood of Vedado, an area full of stately, neocolonial-style houses, just a few blocks from the Plaza de la Revolución.
Within a short time, the office transformed completely. During the first days of our stay, the space and its daily routine remained intact, as the staff completed their tasks and received visitors with enthusiasm. Virtually in the blink of an eye, the organization removed computers, created an inventory of the archives and materials in storage—there were still hundreds of copies of the Tricontinental magazine and posters, and dozens of books, DVDs, and other objects—dismantled the library, and donated a good part of the graphic archives to several embassies of allied governments, especially of countries that were part of the solidarity cause at some point. Officials went from one place to another to be able to complete everything needed for the closure on time. The telephone calls were constant, as were the visits of political figures and public employees from other state agencies.
Given the importance of the history we were witnessing, we decided to create a record of what was happening. We took photographs and conducted interviews—possibly the last ones before OSPAAAL’s closure. These visual and oral testimonies help to reflect on the historical, political, and cultural legacy of the organization. In addition, the political reach and worldwide diffusion of its communications—posters, archives, magazines, and other publications—demonstrate the documentary value of its work. Taken together, the work of OSPAAAL complicates the predominant, simplistic narrative of Cuban political strategy that has prevailed abroad for years.
Cuba and the Cold War, Beyond Washington and Moscow
Both in university courses and textbooks on contemporary world history, Cuba is usually associated with three events: the revolution’s 1959 overthrow of Fulgencio Batista, which led to the establishment of a socialist regime aligned with the Soviet Union; the invasion of the Bay of Pigs by a group of Cuban exiles, organized and financed by the CIA; and the October 1962 missile crisis. With this simple story, Cuba’s recent history would seem to be little more than a footnote to the Cold War and the confrontation between the United States and the USSR. However, entering the 21st century, historians including Tanya Harmer, Vanni Pettinà, Christine Hatzky, Piero Gleijeses, and Blanca Mar León Rosabal, among others, have begun to offer new reflections on Cuban post-revolutionary history, emphasizing the country’s autonomy and capacity for action. These analyses have shown that during the 1960s and 1970s, Cuban foreign policy was extremely complex. The revolution sought its own identity, which manifested in diverse international alliances that were not limited exclusively to the USSR or other socialist countries. Cuba directed its efforts more specifically at establishing its own dynamics through links with the Non-Aligned Movement, created in Belgrade in 1961, and countries that made up what was then called the Third World.
A central event in this history that is generally ignored by those who are not truly immersed in the subject was the Tricontinental Conference held in Havana in January 1966, as well as the subsequent creation of OSPAAAL. Broadly speaking, this marked an attempt to expand the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization (AAPSO) to Latin America. Made up of national liberation movements of Africa and Asia, AAPSO had been founded at a peoples’ solidarity conference held in Cairo from December 1957 to January 1958.
Alignment or Autonomy? The Cuban Revolution Beyond Borders
In the West, the idea that Cuba rapidly aligned with the Soviet Union after 1959 is widely accepted, but a closer look at those early years calls this impression into question. It was not until December 1961— almost three years after dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba and more than six months after the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation—that Fidel Castro dubbed the revolution “Marxist-Leninist,” making public its affinity to Soviet socialism, in response to the demands of the era.
At that time, Cuba’s diplomatic isolation in Latin America was increasing, and simultaneously, the United States constantly targeted the island with direct and indirect military and economic assaults. The leadership in Havana concluded that the revolutionary government’s political and economic survival would depend in large part on its international alliances. Because of its insular status in the Caribbean—a transitive territory between Europe, Africa, and America—Cuba has a lengthy historical experience embedded in transnational, regional, and global dynamics. After the revolution, the political leadership realized that this characteristic would be the solution to imposed isolationism and decided to make use of it by adapting it to new political needs. Meanwhile, developing a relationship with Moscow responded to a political survival strategy. However, in the 1960s, the Cuban political leadership, especially the officials who participated in the July 26 Movement most closely linked to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, wanted to maintain an autonomous line. Two objectives drove Cuba’s active involvement in the Non-Aligned Movement and the Afro-Asian solidarity movement: extending the tendency of Cuban politics toward internationalization and advancing Cuba’s search for international allies that would allow it to preserve its internal and external autonomy while also defending itself from the United States. Tricontinental solidarity seemed to be the ideal place to achieve both objectives at the same time, which is why Cuba needed to be present in the key global anti-colonial forums of the Non-Aligned Movement and AAPSO. It quickly established its presence in these spaces.
1969 OSPAAAL poster by Alfredo Rostgaard
Before and After the Tricontinental Conference
A Cuban representative proposed expanding AAPSO to include Latin America in 1961, and the organization finally approved the move in 1963. But that was a tense moment between Havana and Moscow, as well as between the USSR and China. Given this situation, the USSR felt that Mexico was a more appropriate place to hold the Tricontinental Conference, but China supported Cuba’s candidacy. Despite the relative closeness at that time between Havana and the Chinese leadership, the Cuban government viewed Chairman Mao’s eagerness to lead the Afro-Asian solidarity movement with reservations, because it enabled him to prioritize his own interests, and, in turn, accentuate the conflict with the USSR. Once again, Cuba aimed its alliances at preserving the island’s autonomy, collaborating with countries with like-minded governments or revolutionary leaders to whom Cuba was sympathetic, such as Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, Mehdi Ben Barka of Morocco, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Amílcar Lopes Cabral of Portuguese Guinea, Sukarno of Indonesia, and, initially, Youssef el Sebai of Egypt, who was secretary general of AAPSO for two decades from its founding until his assassination in 1978.
These leaders were considered at the time the radical leaders of Afro-Asian solidarity, with more affinity to socialist countries than to Washington, although they also resisted explicit alignment with Moscow or Beijing. The majority of these leaders participated in the planning committee for the Tricontinental Conference. On the Cuban side, Osmany Cienfuegos took the lead. Cienfuegos, who would later head OSPAAAL as secretary general in 1966, was a trusted companion of Che Guevara in his travels to China and the Congo. But there were no shortage of obstacles to organizing the conference. The most serious was the assassination of Morocco’s Ben Barka, a key ideologue and driving force of tricontinental solidarity. He was killed in October 1965 in a joint operation of the French and Moroccan secret services, though agent Rafi Eitan confessed in 2015 that the Israeli intelligence service, the MOSSAD, disposed of the body.
The political importance of the conference, which coincided with the seventh anniversary of the revolution, was immense for Cuba. First, in a period of extreme isolation of the island within the American hemisphere, an event that brought together more than 500 delegates from 82 countries served as a reminder of the exceptional global reach of this small country with limited resources. Furthermore, it emphasized Havana’s objective of preserving its autonomy from the Soviet Union, in part thanks to its extensive network of alliances with several Third World countries, which were increasingly consolidating. Numerous national liberation movements from around the globe that would eventually join OSPAAAL were also among the representatives, giving them greater international visibility. Governments and organizations of the Middle East were highly represented, which offered a positive experience in strengthening ties, not only with Cuba but also with other Latin American organizations. A total of 14 delegations from the Middle East attended with a total of 44 commissioners, who were joined by four journalists from the region and two special guests from the United Arab Republic.
In the end, the conference resulted in the creation of OSPAAAL, in which Cuba would play a leading role. During its golden age, OSPAAAL’s headquarters was located at No. 514 11th Street in Havana, where the Translation and Interpreting Services Team now operates. Initially, being based on the island was going to be temporary, because the creators had considered rotating the general secretariat among the member countries. In this regard, OSPAAAL also had the task of preparing for the Second Tricontinental Conference, scheduled to be held in Cairo in 1968. However, once that year rolled around, the international political scene had shifted, leading Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to cancel the conference. For that reason—along with numerous other factors such as the significant political instability of most member countries and pressure from both Washington and other Latin American foreign ministries to try to contain it—OSPAAAL had no choice but to stay in Havana permanently.
Until at least the mid-1970s, this institution played an important role in promoting Cuban foreign policy in Africa and Asia. OSPAAAL was organized into two sections coordinated by the secretary general: the political department, in charge of the organization’s external relations with national liberation movements worldwide, and the propaganda department, which created outreach materials such as posters, magazines, newsletters, and other resources. OSPAAAL’s budget was mainly funded by the Cuban government, though occasionally political organizations from other countries, as well as allied governments, made some contributions to specific causes or projects. Between 1966 and the first years of the 1970s, the organization boasted an international team, though mostly made up of Cubans, who later ended up filling all administrative positions. The only foreigners were the representatives of the general secretariat, who normally served as diplomats of their respective embassies to Cuba.
Over the years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) assumed a good part of OSPAAAL’s tasks. This reduced the first department, while the second kept up constant production until 1990, when the crisis that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union paused the publication of the magazine until 1995, when it resumed.
This situation was the most difficult for the organization, and the Cuban government considered closing the headquarters. In response, the general secretariat devised a commercial strategy to seek resources to keep OSPAAAL alive. It began to market a whole line of products—including posters, records, documentaries, books, magazines in digital format, and other materials—which recovered the spirit and graphic tradition of the early years. From that time on, OSPAAAL attended various cultural activities, above all book fairs in different Latin American countries. Combined with the wise decision to open its archives to domestic and foreign researchers, this enabled the organization to regain significant international visibility from the mid-1990s until its closure in June 2019. OSPAAAL’s institutional memory and graphic tradition served as a reminder of both the global reach of Cuban foreign policy and its complex history, which was far from a simple alignment with Moscow.
Throughout its 53-year history, OSPAAAL had a total of nine secretaries general appointed by the Cuban Communist Party, most of whom evidently remained in office for a long period of time: Osmany Cienfuegos Gorriarán (1966-1980), Melba Hernández Rodríguez del Rey (1980-1983), René Anillo Capote (1984-1994), Ramón Pez Ferro (1994-2000), Juan Carretero Ibáñez (2000-2003), Humberto Hernández Reinoso (2003-2005), Alfredo León Álvarez (2005-2006), Alfonso Fraga Pérez (2006-2012), and Lourdes Cervantes Vázquez (2013-2019). These were mostly recognized names in the struggle against the Batista dictatorship who later took on political, cultural, or diplomatic roles. Juan Carretero, who accompanied Che on several of his adventures across Africa and laid the groundwork in Bolivia together with Tamara “Tania” Bunke, was one of the most active members. However, the most visible face of OSPAAAL was Osmany Cienfuegos, a central figure in the organization’s early work and the Tricontinental Conference. Between 1974 and 1980, two other people were responsible for the daily administrative issues: Iraida Montalvo (1974-1978) and Miriam Almánzar (1978-1980).
The Last Voices of OSPAAAL
Ahead of its imminent closure, we interviewed OSPAAAL’s last employees—who the Communist Party ultimately transferred to other jobs—and asked them to offer their final assessments of the organization’s internationalist political commitment. Secretary general Lourdes Cervantes Vázquez, born in Havana in 1961, offered a positive reflection that recalled the tone of Fidel Castro’s speeches:
The greatest legacy is that unity, solidarity, and internationalism must be kept alive. Because those principles and those values are today and will always be indispensable from the point of view of the people, those who defend themselves in conditions of absolute inequality against a power structure where we could never buy the justice, reason, and national rights that we demand.
The director of Tricontinental magazine, Santiago Rony Feliú, born in Havana in 1952, recalled that many young people from the Middle East have studied at OSPAAAL over the years. Stressing that “sustained work” has maintained the Cuban revolution, he also pointed out Arab youths’ reclamation of armed struggle as a strategy of change:
They are probably the most politicized youth in the world today because they are seeing the barbarities that Zionism and the Americans commit there. It inevitably politicizes them. And they do believe in armed struggle, they do believe, because all avenues are being closed to them … I tell you, from all areas, from Africa, from Latin America, from Sub-Saharan Africa, from Asia, the Middle East, because of the level of conflagration, of confrontation, of disregard for all rights, it is perhaps where young people are most prepared and ideologized—a little word that is no longer used.
Eva Duménigo Sánchez, archivist and commercial agent of Tricontinental magazine born in Placetas in 1956, said that she had “fallen in love with OSPAAAL’s cultural and documentary heritage” and stressed the importance of artistic production throughout its history:
Here I met designers who are the glory of this country, and here there are works and posters that are cultural heritage. Moreover, I dare to tell you that this is a world heritage site. I give it that classification because here lies a true graphic treasure. And in the magazine [Tricontinental], Ho Chi Ming, Gabriel García Márquez, and the Comandante have written. It is also a treasure. Also Che, Salvador Allende … many!
Rafael Enríquez Vega, born in Havana in 1947, the last of OSPAAAL’s historical designers who was still active, said that OSPAAAL posters “mark a milestone that differs from other political posters” in the second half of the 20th century, which achieved an international impact:
We had no experience of how to craft one message that would be mass produced for all three continents at the same time. That is to say, to use the same iconic image that would work for people with different religions, social systems, and languages, since within each of these continents there are countries with huge cultural differences. The same poster had to work for all these purposes. It was a real challenge that we managed to overcome. That is why our posters had a tremendous impact. I think it came to change the tastes of or influence the general public in the world … The OSPAAAL posters will be unrepeatable. When a poster does not have good quality art, it dies a short time later—a few months, a few days after it is released. We can be proud that … our posters are still preserved today, not only in history but also in memory, and they are worthy of galleries—not only of museums, but of living galleries, of exhibitions … and I think they can say many things to the new generations.
Patricia Reyes Filgueira, born in Havana in 1994, who joined the organization a few months before its closure and worked mainly on cataloging books and materials, regretted the closure but also shared words of hope:
It is a shame and a pity it will close. We hope that all the work that has been produced thanks to Lourdes and the other colleagues will not be lost. Ever since I joined, several foreign researchers have come. I hope other people follow the work of OSPAAAL.
All of them noted that, despite the organization’s closure, the causes forwhich it was created will remain relevant in today’s world. They maintained that colonial territories still exist in the Americas and that imperial and interventionist policies continue to be central characteristics of 21st century international relations. However, OSPAAAL’s allies do not have the same strength they had in the past. The decision to close the organization is due, on the one hand, to the reorientation of Cuba’s foreign policy under President Miguel Díaz-Canel, and on the other, to the government’s need to rationalize resources in the face of the current poor economic situation.
Today, almost 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the logic of international relations is not the same as it once was. OSPAAAL ceased to be the great model of resistance and of the struggle for the freedom and dignity of the people as early as the decade following the Tricontinental Conference. Nevertheless, its graphic quality, its creativity, as well as its enormous sensitivity to the problems of the contemporary world, made it a true artistic landmark of the Cold War and decolonization processes.
However, we should also recall that, although its images are now aesthetically pleasing, they were banned and censored in several countries during OSPAAAL’s golden years. And not only during the military dictatorships in Latin America, but also in Europe, where France banned some of its contents. The memory of OSPAAAL, as Rafael Enríquez pointed out, is fundamentally visual; its posters are its most valued materials. The organization produced 308 posters between 1967 and 2002, with 42 dedicated to the causes of the Muslim world, about 13 percent of the total. A similar proportion of magazine covers, newsletters, and published articles also focused on this region. In the fall of 2019, large exhibitions in the House of Illustration in London and the James Gallery in New York City paid tribute to OSPAAAL’s posters and magazines.
OSPAAAL was a privileged place of cultural exchange, learning, and discovery of an often forgotten yet central tenet of Cuban Third World internationalism from the 1960s onwards. Posters, magazines, newsletters, archival documents, and other materials stored in its facilities hold enormous artistic and cultural value, not only as an important part of the recent history of Cuba, but also of Asia and Africa, chronicling the internationalist efforts to expand the revolution throughout the world in a coordinated and well-planned manner.
Now is the time to reclaim this institutional memory in order to understand OSPAAAL’s authentic role in the political context of the time. This includes delving into its different aspects, such as the delegations the organization sent to other continents throughout its history—though with greatest frequency during the 1960s—to seek new alliances and to understand first hand the problems of the Third World and the various national liberation movements. Preserving OSPAAAL’s memory also calls for recognizing its evolution and transformation over time, as well as the impact and reactions it generated on a global scale. Its historical archive, for those of us who had the privilege of exploring it, is a treasure trove that will aid in understanding the true logic of the Cold War political scene. We hope that it will soon be accessible again to researchers and that the institution responsible for its maintenance will have sufficient resources for its protection, restoration, and proper preservation.
Translated from Spanish by Vaclav Masek