With recent news of Obama’s decision to lift restrictions on Cuba, let’s take a closer look at the image of this enigmatic little country.
Cuba has been suffering from US trade sanctions for a long time. The embargo was first introduced in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro seized power, and has been extended at various times since then. Nevertheless, tourism has developed on the island, but catering mainly to European, Canadian and British audiences, among others. Many Cubans still live in poverty.
Despite these hardships, Cuba has developed strong capabilities in literacy and healthcare, which it exports around the world in the form of outreach programmes in needy countries. This has helped build a positive angle into the country’s image, despite its shortcomings in various social and political freedoms.
As a traveller there’s something about Cuba that greatly appeals. It’s based on the vaguest and most indefinable elements, perhaps a sense of an ‘untouched’ nation, forever stuck in a 1950s time-warp, with a faint air of cool emanating from legendary figures of revolution. Or perhaps part of Cuba’s appeal comes from the capital Havana, with its various exotic associations of chunky cigars, Mojitos and streets lined with pastel-coloured retro cars.
To many, Cuba is the land of eternal revolution. Its leader, the iconic Fidel Castro, was recently replaced in his duties (but not in his influence) by his younger brother Raul. The elder Castro came to power as a revolutionary ousting the established government in 1959 and has been the main driving force behind ‘Brand Cuba’ ever since.
But for all its revolutionary glory Cuba remains poor, isolated and stifled. So why does its national brand remain so strong? Perhaps some of it comes from the image Cuba has developed over many years as a brave underdog struggling defiantly against a powerful oppressor?
In a 2009 documentary commemorating the 50th anniversary of Castro’s Cuba, the BBC describes the country as ‘the champion and defender of oppressed peoples everywhere.’ This is the image Cuba has created, at least in much of the developing world.
Cuba gained additional positive recognition recently in the Guardian, which told the story of the country’s impressive medical outreach programme, focusing on the response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone (which won Cuba global praise) but also acknowledging the work of Cuban medics in many other disaster zones, including the 2005 Kashmir earthquake.
In the aftermath of the latter, Cuba was the country that sent the most doctors. They travelled to the most dangerous areas of the earthquake zone to rescue victims, some of whom were flown back to Cuba for medical attention.
‘Brand Cuba’ is unusually enduring. Not only does the country’s situation capture people’s imaginations, but its national image is based on a combination of deeply rooted elements: the land of revolution, the brave underdog, and the champion of the poor.
Despite Cuba’s issues back home, it can teach the world a few lessons in how to build an image. It will be interesting to watch what unfolds over the next few years after the thaw in relations between the US and Cuba.
Will the country finally succumb to American consumerism and lose its individuality in a slew of holiday resorts, Starbucks and McDonalds? Let’s hope not.