Our Struggle is Your Struggle:
International Solidarity Posters

This page reflects an exhibition that was to be hosted by Poster House in New York April 25-November 3, 2024.
All text by Lincoln Cushing, images from Docs Populi archives

The following is the introductory text and pull quotes. Captions for sample posters above at bottom of page.

This exhibition displays posters supporting solidarity with anti-imperialism, national liberation, and other issues and movements frequently marginalized in Western media. Most were produced during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, when the increasingly successful U.S. civil rights and antiwar movements mirrored a post-war geopolitical turnover in which nations that were defined as part of the “underdeveloped third world” (today termed as the “Global South” or “developing nations”) shed their colonial legacies and sought new ones. Two of the three most powerful countries on earth—the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China—were socialist or communist, and a distinct sense of change filled the air. This was a time that saw the emergence of second-wave feminism, the environmental movement, and the struggle for gay rights. After two decades of dormancy, poster art as an expression of popular culture exploded in the mid-1960s. 

These posters are of the type generally described as “propaganda,” an often-derogatory term shaped by who produces them, the intended audience, and the messaging. These posters were designed, printed, and distributed by a hybrid of government agencies and nominally “independent” organizations with Cuban or Soviet Union government backing with similar goals, namely to act as a counterpoint to the politics of the West. The audience was largely young people, a swollen demographic bubble from the post-World War II baby boom. 

What makes these complex and special as propaganda artifacts is that despite being produced by governmental or affiliated agencies, their messages and style resonated strongly with those expressed by grassroots and independent organizations. Almost every country represented in these posters was once a part of a European or U.S. empire, and in many cases is still in internal conflict over that historical distortion. Posters about the United States touch on its long involvement in foreign wars (Viet Nam, Korea), invasions and punitive policies (Grenada, Cuba), and unresolved colonial legacy (Puerto Rico), as well as domestic struggles (Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party). Others highlight support for social justice and human rights in far-flung nations. Cuba no longer produces the robust body of graphic work it did dur­ing the “golden age” of the 1970s and 1980s, but it is hard to understate the profound influence of these posters on a whole generation of activist graphic artists. These issues and images remain profoundly relevant today.

The Publishers

For many years, the Cuban revolution and its struggle to develop a socialist nation under the heel of the U.S. government inspired people all over the world. The Cuban publishers here include OSPAAAL (the Organization in Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America) and OCLAE (Continental Organization of Latin American and Caribbean Students). One poster displayed in this exhibition was issued by Comité Organizador, the host committee for the 11th World Festival of Students in Cuba. Another was printed by the Cuban Committee for the Liberation of Angela Davis—both under the auspices of Editora Politica, the publishing arm of the Cuban Communist Party.

OSPAAAL was officially a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) recognized by the United Nations. Based in Havana, its mission was ideologically aligned with that of the Cuban government and was supported as a global extension of its internationalism led by four representatives from each of the three continents. Starting in 1967 it published Tricontinental magazine, with a circulation of 30,000 copies in four languages (English, Spanish, French, and Arabic) and mailed to 87 countries. Inserted into most issues were the posters on view here, establishing the world’s most effective international poster distribution system. Although some posters were limited edition screenprints, those mailed out were offset on thin paper. The powerful graphics and potent messaging in multiple languages made these posters instantly accessible to a wide audience. OSPAAAL closed in 2019.

OCLAE has been based in Cuba since its formation in 1966 and mobilizes student movement activities in 22 countries. While little is known about the distribution method of these posters, the lack of folds indicates that they were mailed in tubes or bundles. 

The non-Cuban publisher represented is the IUS (International Union of Students), an association of university student organizations in 112 countries. Based in Prague, Czechoslovakia, the IUS represented the Soviet Union’s interests in geopolitical struggles after World War II, until the last gasp of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union beginning in the late 1990s. Like Cuba, the Soviet Union positioned itself as defending those struggling against the crush of colonialism (despite itself having ulterior interests in global influence) and the excesses of capitalism. IUS influence on world youth was cause for alarm to the West—the United States National Student Association withdrew from the IUS in 1948, and, by 1952, the CIA subsidized the NSA. Britain’s secret propaganda unit also published at least one fake IUS poster with an altered, anti-China message. The distribution methods for these posters are undocumented. 

Although most of the IUS posters are by anonymous designers, almost all the Cuban posters are by known artists, reflecting a pride in authorship for “propaganda.” In many ways the production of these posters during this period is similar to the U.S. 1930’s Federal Arts Project and the Works Progress Administration—artists getting paid to make public art about causes in which they believed. Refreshingly, in terms of design, all but one of these posters avoid mimicking the socialist realism typical of Soviet and Chinese propaganda.


Pull quotes for display

“Solidarity is not charity, but mutual aid in pursuit of shared objectives.”
- Samora Machel, first president of Mozambique

“Unlike any other straight propaganda art I know of.”
- Dugald Stermer, art historian

“…the purpose of the political poster in Cuba is not simply to build morale. It is to raise and complicate consciousness.”
- Susan Sontag

“When you, Comrade Fidel, said that our cause is your cause, I know that that sentiment came from the bottom of your heart.”
- Nelson Mandela

“The Cuban posters influenced me…by their commitment to internationalism.”
- Malaquias Montoya, Chicano artist

“The Cuban posters…brought back by Venceremos Brigadistas from a tiny country in transition taught us profoundly about liberation efforts around the world.”
- Jane Norling

“These posters created a symbolic visual language that was immediately accessible.”
- Jessica Stites Mor, Latin American scholar

Poster captions:

Jornada Continental de Apoyo a Viet Nam, Cambodia y Laos, 1969
Jose Lamas (Dates Unknown),OCLAE

  • This poster announces support for Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. As the war in Viet Nam dragged on, the formerly neutral countries Laos and Cambodia were increasingly used by both sides in the conflict. The U.S. had been secretly bombing Laos since 1964, and new President Nixon approved secret bombings in Cambodia in 1969. 
  • OSPAAAL established commemorative “jornadas” for days or weeks of solidarity with groups and events, and often announced and celebrated them through posters. The dates were based on important historical moments; in this case, on October 15, 1965 massive “International Days of Protests” against the United States military presence in Viet Nam took place. The IUS also issued similar “day of solidarity” posters.
  • President Richard Nixon’s beady-eyed head filled with dead Vietnamese powerfully represented the genocidal depth of that conflict. The photograph was taken from the January 1963 issue of LIFE magazine in which Larry Burrows captured a gruesome image of Viet Cong soldiers.
  • Black Panther Party artist Emory Douglas immediately adapted the graphic for the Black Panther newspaper. He revisited the motif again in 2020 for Spike Lee’s film Da 5 Bloods

Foreign Debt, 1983
Rafael Enríquez Vega (b. 1947), OSPAAAL

  • The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a United Nations agency that handles loans to nations with struggling economies. The subsequent crush of financial debt to the IMF not only affects individuals and families, but determines the fates of entire countries. 
  • The IMF and the World Bank (WB) are committed to supporting countries that embrace free-market economic policies. In many cases their financial incentives and punishments have supported dictatorships at the expense of human rights and unprofitable but essential public sector social programs. Just among countries in this exhibition, the WB refused loans to Chile’s democratically elected Salvador Allende but provided ones for dictator Augusto Pinochet. It also gave large loans to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza but not to democratically elected Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. Finally, it loaned Zaire’s corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko almost 5 billion dollars.
  • This poster transforms the iconic Christian motif of the crucifixion by replacing the cross with a dollar sign, emphasizing the harsh reality felt by poor and working people when their countries have had sanctions imposed by the IMF.

Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of Palestine, 1978
Victor Manuel Navarrete (b. 1947), OSPAAAL

  • Palestine has been a highly-politicized state ever since the creation of Israel in 1948. It is currently recognized by 138 of the 193 United Nations member states, but its physical boundaries have been severely controlled after the 1967 Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. 
  • In 1988, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) established the State of Palestine. Governance of the two Palestinian territories, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, have been contested between the secular Palestinian nationalist party Fatah (and the PLO) and the fundamentalist Islamic organization Hamas.
  • Cuba was a long-time supporter of the PLO as an ally in the struggle against imperial and colonial powers. Cuba was instrumental in the UN’s recognition of Palestine as a “non-member observer state.”
  • This graphic shows the deep roots of the Palestinian people struggling to keep their homeland. This militant wears a keffiyeh, the black-and-white checkered scarf symbolizing Palestinian solidarity.

Libertad Para Angela Davis, 1971
Félix Alberto Beltrán Concepción (1938–2022)
Cuban Committee for the Liberation of Angela Davis

  • In 1971, political activist Angela Davis was jailed in the United States for over a year, charged with three felonies related to helping the perpetrators of a shootout at a California courthouse. She was exonerated of all charges the following year, and went to Cuba as part of an international speaking tour. 
  • Although Cuba supported the U.S. civil rights movement and Black liberation organizations, it was Davis’s impassioned and articulate advocacy for communist ideals that mobilized high-level Cuban endorsement in this campaign for her freedom. In 1969, Davis had visited Cuba with a “pre-Venceremos Brigade” group closely affiliated with the Communist Party U.S.A. tour. The Venceremos (“We Shall Overcome”) Brigade was created by Students for a Democratic Society activists to show solidarity with the Cuban Revolution by traveling to Cuba and working side by side with Cubans to rebuild their nation.
  • Her popularity was so great in Cuba that in 1970, OSPAAAL had also published a poster featuring Angela Davis.

Nelson Mandela/Symbol of the Anti-Apartheid Struggle, 1986
Alberto Blanco (1955–2023), OSPAAAL

  • The institution of apartheid in South Africa strictly enforced racial segregation between a non-white majority and a ruling white minority from 1948 until the early 1990s. Nelson Mandela was a major leader in the African National Congress (ANC) movement which fought to achieve racial equality and end that horrific, unjust system.
  • This somber portrait of Mandela in prison clothing is based on a 1964 photograph taken soon after he received a life sentence for committing sabotage against the apartheid government. After his imprisonment, it was illegal to photograph or republish his image in South Africa. The ANC tricolor flag is also shown in the upper right.
  • Mandela served 26 years in prison for his organizing and eventually rose to become the nation’s first democratically elected president. Unlike the United States, which supported the apartheid regime, Cuba was a strong supporter of the ANC.

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