Sometimes, political publications are journals with expressive covers; sometimes, they are only the covers (i.e. posters). The Havana-based Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America used to be good at making both, as Josh MacPhee shows us in this text.
Whether adorning the dorm room walls of Maoist film students in Paris, the huts of guerrillas in the jungles of Guinea-Bissau, or the newstands of Beirut in the midst of civil war, the posters of the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (OSPAAAL) played a significant role in creating the imaginary of a liberated Third World throughout the late 1960s and into the early 1980s. Today these Cuban design objects command upwards of $1,500 on eBay, but 50 years ago they were distributed as a free insert in the Tricontinental magazine, one of the publications of OSPAAAL.
Okay, let’s back up a little. With the onset of the Cold War and the beginning of decolonization, the nations and national liberation movements outside of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. power block began to organize together. Different constellations of states and groups used different names, and the decade of 1955-1965 saw the Afro-Asian Conference, the Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries (otherwise known as the Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM), the Casablanca Group, and the Organization for Solidarity for the People of Africa and Asia (OSPAA). One of attendants of OSPAA was the Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka. He was then a member of the Istiqlal Party and in 1959 would go on to found Union Nationale des Forces Populaires, eventually going into exile in Algeria, where he would support Ahmed Ben Bella and the FLN in their anti-colonial armed struggle against the French. Barka was a charismatic figure, and helped convince the rest of OSPAA that Latin American movements should be included in their activities, leading to the announcement of 1966’s inaugural Tricontinental Conference, where over 500 delegates from 82 countries descended on Havana. Unfortunately Barka would not make it to the conference he convened, disappearing in October 1965 — it wasn’t until 2018 that information was released showing that the Israelis had assassinated him with the help of the French and Moroccan intelligence services.
At the tail end of the Tricontinental Conference, a crew of representatives from eight communist and socialist organizations and four leftist states founded OSPAAAL, as an extension of OSPAA and a solidification of the idea of cooperation and coordination amongst leftist liberation movements and socialist states. Although China and the Soviet Union were not actual members of the organization, they ultimately funded much of its operation through their aid to OSPAAAL members. The organization would maintain a permanent office in Havana, nominally independent but ultimately staffed by employees of the Cuban government, it became a Cuban project. With Cuba acting as a way-station for exiled and travelling members of militant groups from around the globe, the OSPAAAL offices functioned partly as a production space for their publications, and partly a community and knowledge center, where political militants and theorists from around the Third World would drop by for impromptu lectures and discussions.
The new organization’s initial foray into propaganda was the Tricontinental Bulletin (hereafter simply referred to as the Bulletin), a modest 50ish-page publication launched in April 1966, and printed in black and white on amazingly thin, almost onionskin, newsprint, with a small splash of color on the cover. The Bulletin, with the tagline “Published by the Executive Secretariat of the Tricontinental,” was a newsletter of sorts for the burgeoning OSPAAAL, a collection of updates about global struggles, appeals and resolutions by OSPAAAL to support various national liberation movements, and occasional correspondence and documents from movement leaders such as Ho Chi Minh. It was initially published in three different language editions: Spanish, French, and English. While subscriptions to the Bulletin were sold, I believe it was largely used as an internal document, sent out every month to representatives of all the states and organizations and political parties affiliated with OSPAAAL. The Bulletin would bulk up a little to 64 pages, and eventually get full color wraps, but it was basically published monthly in the same format for about a decade, at least into the late 1970s. The design was largely staid, text heavy with only a small number of illustrations here and there. But a monthly publication allowed for creative cover experimentation. Some of the covers are simply reworkings of designs originally published as posters, but others are accomplished graphics in their own right, many successfully using both the front and back of the publication to complete the design idea. For example, the front cover of issue 30 features a highly stylized and simplified photo of a small cluster of Vietnamese guerrillas with a mortar in the jungle, and the back cover shows a U.S. fighter jet shot down and about to crash. Issue 48 is another, the front showing a cluster of Puerto Rican molotov cocktails being thrown at a building constructed of bricks made up of U.S. corporate entities, the back has the building as a pile of smoldering ashes.
A year later, Tricontinental magazine was founded, a much more lavish and public facing publication. Called the “theoretical organ” of OSPAAAL, it was published bimonthly and ran from 150-200 pages per issue. It not only featured the updates contained in the Bulletin, but also extensive long-format historical, political, and philosophical essays by revolutionaries from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as pieces by European Marxist thinkers seen as relevant to Third World struggle. For example, issue 10 (January/February 1969), features a long format piece by Castro reflecting back on a decade since the Cuban Revolution, shorter pieces by Puchalapalli Sundarayya on the eighth Congress of the Communist Party of India, and by Carlos Núñez on Uruguay’s Tupamaros, as well as a think piece by Irwin Silbor on alienation within U.S. cultural output. Organized much more like a traditional magazine, an average issue would include three or four long-format articles, along with an interview, book reviews, and manifestos and documents from liberation groups. Expanding on the multilingualism of the Bulletin, at its peak the magazine was published in four languages: English, French, Italian, and Spanish. The covers and inside covers were full color, which afforded a lot more creative and artistic vision. While the Bulletin is striking for its stark graphic qualities, Tricontinental has a much more complex aesthetic, with many of the covers featuring photographs of highly developed cut outs and maquettes, mixing collage and photographs. Issue 18 features a pair of paper rickshaw drivers refusing to pull Nixon’s car. Issue 29/30 has a rainbow of cardboard guerrillas propped-up and marching, photographed in an actual field.
Each issue of both Tricontinental and the Bulletin featured a statement on the title page, “Tricontinental authorizes the total or partial reproduction of its articles and information.” And that’s exactly what happened, text and images from the magazines were directly lifted and reproduced in newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and flyers the world over.
In an amazing presaging of Creative Commons, OSPAAAL decided that further distribution of the information it trafficked in was far more important than controlling the flow. The publications became an anti-imperialist Associated Press, with publications and publishers across the globe cutting out articles and imagery and placing them directly into their own publications. This even extended to the posters, and there are a number of examples of print shops in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East creating entire runs of OSPAAAL posters on their own presses, sometimes with changes made, other times not. The flow of inspiration went both ways, with OSPAAAL artists also being influenced by the artwork coming out of struggles in other parts of the world. Black Panther Party artist Emory Douglas had his work and aesthetic lifted and used one a number of pieces of OSPAAAL agitprop, North Korean socialist realist graphics were cribbed for some posters, and popular Western advertising aesthetics were regularly mined for more politicized uses.
From its start, the magazine was seen not just as an organ of the organization, but as a vehicle for the propaganda posters. The initial posters were offset printed and folded into Tricontinental in 1967 and 1968. These early posters were printed in three separate language editions, to go along with the separate editions of the publication (25,000 in Spanish, 15,000 in English, and 10,000 in French). In mid-1968 Arabic was introduced, and it was decided to consolidate all the languages onto a single poster. Throughout the 1970s, 50,000 copies of each poster were printed at Havana’s Frederick Engels print shop, originally all a standard size of 33 x 55 cm, with the size eventually becoming more flexible, with some posters reaching double the original format. For some posters, a small screen printed edition would also be produced, likely to be displayed in Cuba similar to the film and civic posters so popular during this period. In the 1980s, with the slowing down and eventual collapse of support from the Eastern Bloc, and the growing pressure from the U.S. blockade, OSPAAAL was afforded less and less resources, and both publication and poster production had to be seriously curtailed. 1981-1990 saw about 60 posters produced, as compared to about 130 between 1971-1980.
From 1966 through 1975, the artistic director of all of OSPAAAL’s printed output was Alfredo Rostgaard. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rostgaard had not gone to art school in the U.S. or Europe, but instead in Santiago de Cuba. He got his start in political design and art as the artistic director of Melle, the magazine of the Union de Jovenes Comunistas. Once OSPAAAL was founded in 1966, he moved to Havana and immediately became the architect of its visual culture. Rostgaard’s design vision for OSPAAAL can only be described as filmic. While his colleagues at ICAIC (the Cuban Film Institute) were designing posters for the nascent Cuban film industry, Rostgaard was using still photography, illustrations, and design to give the posters and articles in Tricontinental a propulsive, cinematic quality. I’ve rarely seen political publications dedicate such a large proportion to imagery — a 15-page article in Tricontinental might contain six to eight pages of images. Rostgaard had a number of tricks he used to turn the design of an essay into film strip. He would take a wide shot photograph and then reproduce it over and over again, each time enlarging the image and in effect drawing the readers eye to a specific focus point within the photo, often a detail that would have been easily missed in the larger image. For other pieces he would commission a series of consecutive illustrations that when put in order would become something resembling a flip book. The first illustration would be a clean-cut student walking with his school books, and then with each consecutive image, the student’s stride widens, the books become a bottle, and the final image has the figure in full motion, tossing a lit molotov right at the reader.
Much of the poster output is also taut with motion, or impending action frozen by the flat page. So many of the posters are successful because of this tension between the even calm of the paper and the demand of the imagery for movement. Arrows are popular, text is regularly decentered, cracked, and collapsing, bonds are breaking, and imagery folds and unfolds upon itself. Rostgaard was particularly skilled at using the folding of the poster itself as a tool for communication. He designed multiple two-sided posters whose meaning could only be fully grasped when a Tricontinental reader pulled the poster out of the magazine and unfolded it. The most celebrated example of this being his 1972 poster of Richard Nixon, which begins as a pretty straight forward graphic portrait of the president with his mouth closed, then he opens his mouth, and when fully unfolded he becomes a psychedelic vampire, pulling the viewer into a vision of U.S. imperialism as a very bad trip.
Part of what makes the design of OSPAAAL continually interesting and compelling is the restraint that the designers were often able to use. Rather than simply tell us how bad the U.S. is, or how righteous a liberation struggle is, they used design to try to show us instead. At their best, the posters and graphics in the publications ask something of the viewer, to fill in blanks, draw conclusions, to do some intellectual work and become invested in the struggle. Faustino Pérez’ 1968 poster design for Palestine is a good example, where we are faced with the face of a man in the desert wearing a headscarf.
Only upon further examination do we unpack the image, and see that the eye is the end of a rifle, and the beard is the sea — the image becoming a visualization of the Palestinian slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Another impressively simple yet powerful poster by Pérez is his 1970 poster in Solidarity with the People of Zimbabwe. At the time Zimbabwe was still known as Rhodesia and ruled by a brutal white minority. The poster features just two visual elements, a white hat and a green arrow on a black field. It takes a moment to process the hat is the type worn by British colonists, and the arrow goes straight through it.
In hindsight, there are clearly some design decisions that reveal political folly. Four decades later, at a time where the armed struggles for national liberation have too often been replaced by brutal and seemingly endless cycles of civil war and interstate conflict, it is hard to stomach OSPAAAL’s fetish of the gun. Not only are firearms present in the vast majority of posters, but one of the most popular pieces of visual-political shorthand in the early posters is the lionization of pre-colonial artifacts toting post-colonial automatic weapons. This is a smart design trick, using statues, sculptures, and glyphs as representatives of the actual peoples of Guatemala, Angola, or Cambodia, as well as contemporary weapons as illustration of armed struggle as the path to liberation. But given that none of these designers had ever been to these countries, the veracity and fetishization of the pre-contact artifact and its relationship to the contemporary struggle is questionable at best. In a country like Mozambique, where the Mozambique Liberation Front’s (FRELIMO) success was dependent on pulling together peoples from over a dozen different linguistic and cultural groups, it seems dubious that a single artifact could stand in for the essence of all those involved in struggle. This problem is even more acute in posters like the one for Egypt, where hieroglyphs are peeled off pyramids and hand grenades. This completely erases the nature of class society in Egypt before European colonialism and U.S. imperialism, and the fact that the hieroglyphs of the ruling class are certainly not be the best representation of the pre-colonial slave populations.
Some of these limitations of the project are products of the tension between the internationalism of the organizational vision and the intense nationalism of the design component. While the content of the Tricontinental publications is drawn from the vast array of countries and struggles that OSPAAAL supported, the imagery is entirely the product of a small crew of Cuban designers working in an studio in Havana. This friction had its pros and cons. Having never been to Laos or Guinea-Bissau liberated Rafael Morante from having to hue too closely to any specific imagery or politics, completely opening up the visual field to explosive graphic possibilities, but it also meant there were real limits to the actual information that would be communicated in the designs. By limiting themselves to broad gestures of solidarity, the OSPAAAL designers were able to smartly play to their strengths as outsiders to all of the struggles represented, continually thinking of new ways to represent people in motion that could be read and celebrated by a wide audience. The freedom afforded these artists allowed them to craft one of the most powerful imaginaries of the Third World, one that still has huge impact on the ways the left looks at, and from, the Global South today. ■
Interference Archive’s immense collection of original OSPAAAL publications and posters was indispensable for writing this article, as are the work of my comrades who helped organize the 2018 Armed by Design exhibition of OSPAAAL design (Lani Hanna, Jen Hoyer, Vero Ordaz, and Sarah Seidman). Josh MacPhee is a designer, artist, and archivist. He is a founding member of the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, the co-author of Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now (2010), as well as a co-editor of Signal: A Journal of International Political Graphics and Culture. He also co-founded and helps run Interference Archive, a public and online collection of cultural materials produced by social movements.