Interview with William Retureta on Propaganda and Advertising

William decided to flee Cuba as soon as he turned 20, leaving behind him the irreverent punk band “Porno para Ricardo”, in which he played the bass. After two years of living in Prague, he has gained a new perspective on the ideas and images that shaped his adolescence in Cuba and on the spirit of consumerism in a country where no advertising exists. For a boy like him, who was growing up in an environment where you can seldom get hold of a photo, a magazine or a disk, one picture was enough to make him decide to become a punk. He confesses that moving to a capitalist country hasn’t made him more consumerist.

A.K. : Sometimes all you need is a picture…

W. R. : That’s right. As a teenager, I knew I was against something but I didn’t know what it was. My mum was involved in the world of art and my daddy was keen on heavy metal. That was perhaps the reason why I had better access to photos and discs than other kids of my age, despite there were hardly any in Cuba. One day I saw a picture of The Clash and I was shocked; I told myself that I wanted to look like them. Since then I started to listen to as much punk music as I could, mostly Spanish bands.

A.K. : But it probably wasn’t very easy to get hold of photos of punk groups or clothes you could wear to look like a punk.

W. R. : Not a bit! There were very few magazines and getting Martens boots was almost impossible. Having a Ramones T-shirt was an absolute privilege. Getting to a concert given by a band that had music videos wasn’t feasible without God’s will and some help, not to mention the persecution of people who wore punk clothing. However, at the time when I started dressing that way, it was already a bit more tolerated. Still, punks are very rare in Cuba.

A.K. : Is the aesthetics in Cuba as uniform as it seems? Almost everyone seems to wear the same sort of clothes.

W. R. : The typical Cuban aesthetics, the one that is sold abroad, are vintage cars and mulatto girls in tight clothes. The government has managed to sell it even to the Cubans themselves. I admit that the aesthetics works well, but to me it seems rude and sexist.

 A.K. : But it had to absorb at least some influence from abroad…

W. R. : The only thing that truly influenced the Cuban aesthetics is football. When Cristiano Ronaldo became famous, all Cubans started to copy his hairstyle. I’ve never seen anything similar.

People adopt the aesthetics of what comes in and it’s the government that decides what does comes in; if it gives young people football and partying, they embrace it. As there’s nothing else for them to choose from, they soak it up.

A.K. : However, it seems clear that the absence of advertising makes people desire fewer things, have less material needs…

W. R. : No. The consumer desire devours you anyway; Cuba has been burning with consumer desire for many years now.

I grew up in Vedado, a neighborhood of rich people, where children went to school wearing trainers and I was laughed at because I had the typical boots pertaining to the school uniform given by the government, very ugly, which looked like orthopedic shoes. The only thing I longed for was a pair of trainers.

In a context like that of Cuba, the consumer desire is inevitable; when you see your cousins ​​from Spain wearing Nikes, all you want are Nikes and you want it beyond anything. I do agree that images boost consumption, but it’s not necessary to cover the whole city with advertisements to produce an effect. You know, lack of images is sometimes more powerful than their abundance. It doesn’t matter whether the information and products come in small doses, the desire to have them spreads like wildfire.

A.K. : So you say that living in a capitalist country hasn’t made you more consumerist…

W. R. : Not a single bit. Massive advertising in Europe hasn’t increased my craving for things. Just the opposite. It seems to me that the wider the offer and the more abundant the visual stimulus, the more confused people become, which makes them more moderate. I’ve lived under communism and now live in the middle of wild capitalism, so I know both these environments. Curiously enough, living in a capitalist country has helped me better understand the society and, on the other hand, place less importance to material things.

I mean, people in Cuba are equally blinded by the consumer desire and they even see consumerism as a criminalized goal that one should achieve, as a solution to their problems. As if material things could save them…

A.K. : You were kicked out of school for having defaced a photo of Che… It seems as if propaganda vexed you more than advertisements.

W. R. : It did, at that time. Political propaganda is exhausting, disgusting, desperate: I was dying to see an advertisement. Now, however, I find ads disgusting. In the end, it seems that they have the same effect as propaganda.

Agnes Koleman

Agnes Koleman has been traveling to Cuba since 1997. She is a big admirer of Cuban and Cuban people and hopes one day soon they will have a democratic government.