This article studies the use of photography in the construction of solidarity between Cuba and Vietnam during the war years. It shows the way photography helped illustrate and articulate Cuba's evolving understanding of the Vietnam War as a conflict that was analogous to, and in some ways the culmination of, Cuba's own revolution. While Cuba enthusiastically embraced and disseminated photographs from Vietnam, the meanings attached to these photos were also modified to speak to domestic concerns. By focusing on the images used in two specific solidarity campaigns devoted to imprisoned activist Võ Thị Thắng and “martyr” Nguyễn Văn Trỗi, the article explores the way Cuban understandings of acceptable forms of revolutionary violence and its gendered expressions shaped the meanings attributed to these two figures.
In 1965, two Cuban journalists—Marta Rojas and Raúl Valdés Vivó—spent six weeks traveling with South Vietnam's National Liberation Front (NLF). It would prove to be a seminal journey: it inaugurated a decade of Cuban solidarity with war-torn Vietnam and turned Rojas and Valdés Vivó into something like informal ambassadors for the NLF in Cuba and beyond.1 Functioning as what we might now call “embedded” journalists, Rojas and Valdés Vivó toured NLF-held regions of South Vietnam, living and working in the same grueling conditions the NLF soldiers faced and following an itinerary the NLF leadership designed. When they returned to Cuba, the journalists brought back multiple objects and materials—weapons used by guerrillas, war trophies such as US pilots' helmets, letters sent by Vietnamese schoolchildren, and flags bearing inscriptions. Perhaps most important, they brought back photographs. These ranged from formal portraits of NLF leaders to photo albums documenting the activities of North Vietnamese mass organizations to the wedding photo of the recently executed leader Nguyễn Văn Trỗi. These photos thereafter enjoyed wide dissemination within Cuba. They were displayed on television, mounted in exhibits, and used to illustrate the detailed newspaper chronicles Rojas and Valdés Vivó published on their experiences in Vietnam. The 1965 trip offers a suggestive example of the way photos traveled out of the war zones and shaped Cuban contemporaries' understanding of the Vietnam War.2
Of course, photography shaped perceptions of the Vietnam War all around the globe. As Thy Phu writes, the Vietnam War is now seen as a “watershed in visual history” because of the immense impact certain photos had in shaping US public opinion—and thus the outcome—of the war.3 Yet Americans predominantly drew lessons about their own country and countrymen from photos of the Vietnam War, for example, by reading them for depictions of US soldiers' trauma or benevolence.4 Phu's recent book flips this script by focusing on how Vietnamese—in the North, South, and the diaspora—created, circulated, and ascribed meaning to photos for both Vietnamese and foreign viewers during the war. As she shows, Vietnamese news agencies and mass organizations deftly used photography to cultivate international sympathy, such as among the anti-war and feminist groups of the Global North. As Phu notes, our understanding of these transpacific circuits requires further complementary research on how images of the war circulated simultaneously throughout the socialist bloc and the Global South.5
To address such questions, this article offers a preliminary social history of the flow of photos from Vietnam to Cuba during the war years. By exploring connections between Vietnam and Cuba—perhaps the two most emblematic revolutionary countries of the Global South—this essay will add to emerging histories of visual culture and south–south relations during the Cold War. As historian Jessica Stites Mor has recently argued, visual culture was crucial for constructing revolutionary sensibilities and imagining solidarity across the Global South in the 1960s and '70s. Stites Mor refers to this creative practice as “rendering solidarity”—a phrase that simultaneously encompasses forging and representing solidarity—and identifies revolutionary Cuba as one of the most important sites for the production and global dissemination of these solidarity-oriented materials.6 Cuba's militant internationalism and support for revolutionary movements have long been recognized, but most scholarship has focused on the island's export of arms, military training, theories of guerrilla warfare, humanitarian aid, and occasionally soldiers.7 Stites Mor's work raises the importance of understanding Cuban cultural production in imagining and sustaining solidarity across the Global South.8
This article builds on Stites Mor's insights by closely examining Cuban solidarity with Vietnam during the war years, especially how solidarity was encouraged domestically through the importation and local dissemination of photographs of Vietnam. While other forms of visual culture were important in this campaign, photography played a particular role. This reflected the importance accorded to photography within both Vietnam and Cuba. As Phu notes, the state media of North Vietnam and the southern Vietnamese liberation forces both relied on photography to persuade and recruit locally and to garner sympathy globally. The communist press, she argues, “sought to project a vision of socialist revolution through photography.”9 And as scholars of revolutionary Cuba have argued, photography was a privileged medium on the island, especially in the 1960s. Cuba's uneven pre-revolutionary development had resulted in flourishing journalism, commercial photography, and advertising in Havana, while much of the impoverished rural population was scarcely literate. As Lillian Guerra argues, after the 1959 revolution, these trends combined to make photography—with its presumed authenticity and instant intelligibility—a key medium as revolutionary leaders relied on “images and image-making to crystalize revolutionary messages.”10 José Quiroga argues that Cuban leaders saw photography as more than just “reportage,” in the sense that it was malleable and could be intentionally crafted to convey certain political messages, but it was also “not ‘art’ in the bourgeois sense of the term. . . . The photograph had a duty to perform.” Quiroga writes: “It was a document and, as such, it contained a certain kind of knowledge that could be used to produce more knowledge in turn.”11 Thus Cuban revolutionary leaders viewed photography as being imbued with a special communicative, pedagogical power, untainted by the suspicion or stigma attached to “bourgeois” art forms.
The movement of photographs from Vietnam to Cuba relied on the early diplomacy and solidarity initiatives that emerged between the two countries in the early and mid-1960s. The delegations, embassies, and news agencies that connected Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), and the NLF all facilitated the transpacific encounters and exchanges through which photos subsequently circulated from the war zones. That early engagement with Vietnam also contributed to Cuban leaders' emergent understanding of the struggle in Vietnam as analogous to their own revolution, a foundational insight for the rise of Cuba's “Tricontinentalist” discourse of the period, which emphasized the interconnected nature of national liberation movements around the globe.12 This insight helped transform Cuba's gradual alienation from other Latin American states into a positive imagined alliance with Asia and Africa, which was especially important after Cuba's expulsion from the Organization of American States in 1964 and the resulting severance of diplomatic relations with almost every country in the Western Hemisphere.
Reflecting this Tricontinental perspective, Cuba's state-controlled media broadly emphasized the similarity or equivalency of the Cuban and Vietnamese struggles while also advancing more subtle ideas about the relationship between the two liberation struggles. For example, Cuban solidarity discourse posited the Cuban Revolution as a kind of precursor to Vietnam and suggested that Vietnam's ultimate defeat of US imperialism would culminate a struggle begun halfway around the globe in Cuba. Cuban solidarity campaigns also simultaneously portrayed Vietnam as something aspirational, regularly enjoining Cuban publics to rise to the levels of sacrifice and commitment displayed by their Vietnamese counterparts. These exhortations were important at a time when revolutionary enthusiasm within Cuba had begun to wane.13 Images of Vietnam thus had strong implications for Cuban political imaginaries of the late 1960s, sharpening both their understanding of global anti-imperialist alliances and expectations for the subjectivities of revolutionary citizens.
Emphasizing equivalency between the two struggles did not mean that the Cuban media and leaders of solidarity campaigns never tailored the messages of their Vietnamese counterparts. Like social movements in the Global North, Cuban solidarity efforts interpreted the Vietnam War in ways that furthered their own local agendas or reinforced their own conceptualizations of revolutionary struggle. We see this dynamic at work in two specific solidarity campaigns within Cuba that provide examples of how Cuba embraced but also modified materials from Vietnam: support for imprisoned activist Võ Thị Thắng, whose photograph was decorated and framed by 1.5 million Cuban schoolchildren on Mother's Day in 1969; and ongoing campaigns in homage of the “martyr” Nguyễn Văn Trỗi, whose portrait was circulated widely in posters and other graphics from 1965 onward. Analyzing how the images of these two emblematic figures mobilized certain ideas of the war—particularly about acceptable forms of revolutionary violence and its gendered expressions—illuminates the way their images were transformed as they traveled from Vietnam to Cuba.
Recovering the history of Cuban solidarity with Vietnam adds to existing scholarship on the global reverberations of the Vietnam War by pushing beyond the more common focus on how the war mobilized the New Left, feminist, antiwar, and Black Power movements of the Global North. The Cuban case compels us to consider how images of Vietnam acquired different meanings as they traveled along alternative circuits since Cuba was simultaneously part of both the socialist bloc and the Global South. These other transpacific circuits take us beyond the focus on counterculture, youth or student politics, and anti-war protests that have dominated studies of the Vietnam era in the Global North, where the dynamics of the war often sparked conflict between states and social movements. Recent scholarship on expressions of solidarity with Vietnam in the socialist bloc or revolutionary states of the Global South suggests that, in contrast, images of the war may have helped states consolidate their authority by stoking popular anti-imperialism.14 The Cuban case adds to these emerging patterns, suggesting that images of the Vietnam War were used locally to revive flagging revolutionary spirits and to spur Cubans to emulate their Vietnamese counterparts through greater dedication and sacrifice.
A consideration of Cuban solidarity with Vietnam also invites us to expand our geographic framing of Cold War encounters by identifying the particular forms of inspiration and generative thinking sparked by Latin American engagements with Asia. Transpacific analysis, as elaborated by Asian/American studies scholars, has often been used to critically analyze the extension of the US military industrial complex across the Pacific during the Cold War, with important repercussions both for Asian decolonization and discourses of American exceptionalism.15 Adding Latin America to our understanding of “transpacific” engagements helps decenter the United States and illuminate the way horizontal South–South relations forged counterhegemonic circuits that disrupted and challenged the prevailing North–South or East–West emphasis of Cold War superpowers. And while historians of Latin America have recently explored the way regional actors took inspiration from revolutionary and anti-imperialist movements in Africa and the Middle East, the virtually unstudied history of Cuban–Vietnamese relations suggests that engagement with the more consolidated socialist states of Asia offered specific models of revolution, socialism, and postcolonial development that scholars have only begun to explore.16 Following the photographs that traveled from Vietnam to Cuba during the war provides us with insight into the alternative routes, encounters, and ideas that shaped the Global South during the Cold War.
Connecting National Liberation in Cuba and Vietnam
We have very few studies of relations between Cuba, the DRV, and the NLF. Most studies of the NLF's foreign outreach focus either on attempts to influence public opinion, policy makers, or social movements in the Global North or to court the rival superpowers of the socialist world, the Soviet Union and China.17 Meanwhile, most studies of revolutionary Cuba's internationalism focus on Cuba's involvement in supporting Latin American guerrilla movements, especially in the 1960s, or in African postcolonial conflicts, especially in Angola, where Cuba committed significant troops in the 1970s and '80s.18 But it seems clear that the NLF and Cuba valued relations with one another. The NLF likely appreciated Cuba's willingness to press the Soviet leadership for more support for third-world insurgencies. Cuba may also have seemed a valuable platform for influencing other countries of the Global South due to its activism within the Non-Aligned Movement and its unsurpassed prestige and influence within the Latin American Left.
For Cuba, Vietnam was symbolically important due to Cuban leaders' perceptions of Vietnam and Cuba as occupying similar positions as relatively impoverished countries of the Global South on the forefront of the struggle against US imperialism yet on the margins of the socialist bloc. The growing perception of these similarities helped Cuban leaders develop a so-called Tricontinentalist vision of anti-imperialist solidarity and shared struggle that moved beyond political projects based on formal decolonization, “third way” projects such as the Non-Aligned Movement, or geographic designations such as “Afro-Asia,” to articulate a more general theory of oppression and exploitation that conceptualized Latin America as part of the same wave of national liberation movements found in decolonizing Asia and Africa. Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara most famously articulated these interconnections. For example, in 1963 Guevara argued that Vietnam served as a “laboratory” for US imperialism's inevitable future assault on Latin America.19 By 1966 he developed this observation into his famous call for “two, three, many Vietnams”—that is, a call for multiple and simultaneous insurgent contestations of imperial power around the globe. At the Tricontinental Conference held in Havana in 1966, which was attended by representatives of hundreds of radical states and revolutionary movements from around the world, support for Vietnam dominated the agenda.20
Although Cuba never committed troops, matériel, or military advisers, Fidel Castro loudly and repeatedly proclaimed his willingness to deploy military units to Vietnam. And diplomatically, Cuba was a global pioneer in supporting Vietnam. In 1962 Cuba became the first country in the world to host a permanent diplomatic mission of the NLF, awarding it the status of a foreign embassy.21 In 1965 it became the first country to recognize the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam.22 In 1969 Cuba became the first and only country to appoint an ambassador (Raúl Valdés Vivó, the journalist mentioned earlier in the article) to the “liberated” zones of South Vietnam.23 And in September 1973, after the Paris Accords, Fidel Castro made a celebrated visit to the NLF-held areas of Quang Tri province despite ongoing bombing from US forces. He was the first and only foreign head of state to undertake such a trip. These diplomatic and solidarity initiatives provided the institutional infrastructure and concrete personal encounters through which photographs of the war were circulated.
As Stites Mor has recently argued, Cuban visual culture in the 1960s and '70s sought to establish a language of global revolutionary solidarity that “iconographically connected the ideological struggles of Latin American revolution with those of Vietnam, Palestine, the Congo, Yemen, and elsewhere, thus suggesting that individual causes should be seen as interconnected and transregional.”24 The Cuban solidarity campaigns with Vietnam that began in the mid-1960s reflected this emergent Tricontinentalist sensibility, attempting to visually convey a sense of equivalency between the Vietnam War and the Cuban Revolution. Cuban media and solidarity groups used photos and other visual materials to establish the Vietnam War in the Cuban political imaginary as a “sister” struggle in the shared global battle against imperialism. While state media stressed the broadly comparable nature of anti-imperialist struggles in Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere, Cuban leaders also portrayed the Cuban Revolution as a kind of precursor to the struggle in Vietnam. For example, a 1965 silk-screened poster showed Cuban and Vietnamese warriors stabbing an octopus labeled “Yankee Imperialism” with a caption that read: “Yesterday in Bay of Pigs . . . today in Indochina!”25
We find similar allusions to the connections between Cuba's successful defeat of the US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion and Vietnamese defense against US aggression in a 1966 photo published in the prominent weekly magazine Bohemia. The photo shows young militiawoman Đặng Thị Thanh, a member of the North Vietnamese delegation to the Tricontinental Conference of 1966, warmly greeting Bay of Pigs veteran Fausto Díaz (fig. 1). The caption posited the equivalency of the two struggles by describing it as an “emotional meeting of heroes.” Cuban readers would likely have known that Díaz was severely maimed during the invasion, having lost both legs and one arm. The photo can perhaps thus be optimistically read as implying that sacrifices made by Cubans like Díaz helped inspire their Vietnamese counterparts.26 The photo also implicitly accepts and even glorifies Vietnamese women's mobilization in the war, a common theme in Cuba.
One way of visually conveying the concepts of equivalency, interconnectedness, and perhaps also precedent was through photos of Vietnam that echoed Cuba's own revolutionary war. Cuban photographer Roberto Salas, whose iconic 1959 portraits of Cuban leaders Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara had helped define the revolution, was sent to Vietnam multiple times from 1966 to 1972.27 His 1972 photos were reproduced prominently in the flagship daily newspaper Granma, including one photo of NLF armed forces that echoed a famous image of the Cuban Rebel Army with weapons hoisted above their heads. That latter image, originally taken in 1957 by the US cameraman Wendell Hoffman, jubilantly prefigured the Cuban guerrillas' success. After 1959 it was reproduced innumerable times by the state media and would have been an immediate reference for any Cuban viewer. Salas's 1972 image of Vietnamese soldiers is shot from a low vantage point that emphasizes their militance and triumphant stature and nearly obscures their faces, creating an image that could be understood by contemporaries as referencing the similarity or interchangeability of anti-imperialist guerrilla struggles while perhaps also referencing the idea of Cuba's struggle as a precursor to Vietnam's. Salas's photo was printed in Granma to illustrate a story about Fidel Castro's demand for more support for Vietnam in multiple forums during his long trip in 1972 to Europe and North Africa (fig. 2). Framed in this way, the photo gestured to both the similarity of the two struggles and the practice of solidarity between the revolutionary states of the Global South. The example also highlights the utility of photography in creating images that were aesthetically appealing and able to convey layers of meaning while also enjoying the authority of documentary evidence.
Another strategy for conveying the interconnectedness of the two struggles was to pair portraits of anti-imperialist leaders. As Stites Mor notes, the influential Cuban magazine Tricontinental often emphasized the iconic status of revolutionary leaders around the globe, interspersing images and texts of figures such as Hồ Chí Minh, Patrice Lumumba, and Stokely Carmichael.28 By depicting global leaders in similar iconography and by showcasing them side by side, posters and photographs suggested parallels between leaders, guerrilla armies, and causes within the Global South. Tricontinental magazine, for example, routinely paired photos or paintings of iconic leaders, such as Guevara and Hồ Chí Minh on one 1969 cover. Other Cuban publications frequently paired images of Hồ Chí Minh and nineteenth-century Cuban independence leader Jose Marti. We see the same logic in the pairing of portraits of Hồ Chí Minh and Fidel Castro, held side by side in a performance by a Vietnamese dance troupe that visited Cuba during the Tricontinental Congress of January 1966 (fig. 3). The Cuban consciousness of the important symbolism of capturing revolutionary leaders together in photos is also revealed by the fact that Fidel Castro apparently always regretted not having had the opportunity to meet Hồ Chí Minh in person and to register their historic encounter with a photograph. At one point Fidel even sent Hồ Chí Minh his own photo so that he could take a picture with Fidel's photo, resulting in a photo of the two of them “together.”29
Accounts of diplomatic interactions also suggest that the formal exchange of leaders' portraits was an important political ritual in diplomatic meetings and solidarity delegations—a practice that was likely common throughout the socialist world. In 1969, journalist-turned-diplomat Valdés Vivó was sent to the “liberated” zones of the South to open a Cuban embassy—a modest, one-man affair housed in an open-walled thatched-roof hut. In his memoirs Valdés Vivó described in detail the exchange of leaders' portraits—both photos and paintings—that accompanied the diplomatic formalities of his arrival. He himself brought a portrait of Fidel Castro for NLF leader Nguyễn Hữu Thọ. In turn, NLF leaders gave Valdés Vivó a portrait of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi for Haydée Santamaría, director of Cuban cultural center and publishing house Casa de las Americas, with the request that she disseminate the portrait throughout Latin America. They also sent a photo of the imprisoned young Vietnamese revolutionary Võ Thị Thắng (fig. 4) for FMC leader Vilma Espín and gifted Valdés Vivó a painting of Võ Thị Thắng based on the photo (fig. 5). The careful selection of certain photos for various Cuban leaders shows NLF sensitivity to how each photo might best be disseminated within Cuba and beyond.30
We have much less information about the informal circulation of photos beyond the leadership and diplomatic circles. But an anecdote Valdés Vivó recounted from his early days as ambassador is suggestive. A group of NLF soldiers fleeing from a bombing were suddenly forced to seek shelter nearby. Upon meeting with them, Valdés Vivó was moved to find that one of these soldiers carried a photo of Guevara, torn from a newspaper or magazine, in his backpack. The photo was meaningful to this Vietnamese soldier, Valdés Vivó assumed, because of Guevara's character as a global revolutionary, the “Cuban who was born in Argentina and who died in Bolivia fighting for Vietnam. For all peoples.”31 These encounters, both formal and spontaneous, among political leaders and common soldiers suggest the importance of portraits to articulating solidarity and commensurability between the two struggles. Valdés Vivó's anecdote also offers evidence of how photos of revolutionary Cuba and its leaders circulated within Vietnam. While the reciprocal flow of photos between the two countries deserves further study, we can also surmise that Vietnam's extraordinary visibility and symbolism in this period, as well as Cuba's unvarnished expressions of admiration and desire to emulate the struggle, guaranteed the special importance of the outward flow of photos from Vietnam.
Photos also lent themselves to didactic readings that were meant to educate Cuban viewers about events in Vietnam. For example, after Rojas and Valdés Vivó returned from their trip, they appeared on television to describe their experiences. They showed photos that the NLF had presumably provided them, including portraits of NLF leaders. These photos were intended to promote feelings of familiarity, identification, and solidarity with the Vietnamese cause. Modeling for Cuban viewers how to interpret the photos, the television program's host remarked that they displayed “a message of optimism.” The photos were also used to explain how the NLF was organized and what social groups supported it. And a photo of the widow of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi, Phan Thị Quyên, standing alongside members of an NLF brigade named in honor of the Bay of Pigs invasion (also printed in the newspaper Granma), allowed the journalists to introduce the legacy of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi and the role of women in the struggle—two important NLF talking points—as well as evidence of Vietnamese solidarity with Cuba. The program ended by screening two newsreels “taken right in the battlefield by NLF cameramen,” whom the journalists praised as “participating in all the activities of the war.”32
Photos brought back by Cuban delegates to Vietnam also served to provide documentary evidence of the wartime participation of ordinary Vietnamese—women, the elderly—which were meant to serve as aspirational examples. These Cuban delegates also reiterated specific messages about the war generated by their host institutions, including the NLF, DRV, or the Vietnam Women's Union (VWU). For example, after a delegation of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) traveled to North Vietnam in 1970, invited by the VWU, the delegates gave a lively and detailed account of their journey on Cuban television. They repeatedly mentioned the photos they received on their visit and displayed them for the television audience. These included a photo of two elderly men who shot down a US plane; a photo of “heroine Suot,” an elderly woman who was killed while helping the wounded; and a young woman in a boat with a weapon.33
These photos, provided by Vietnamese organizations to Cuban delegates and then circulated within Cuba through television and the printed press, offered multiple messages simultaneously. In their depiction of brave and committed men and women, they enjoined Cubans to aspire to the same heroism and dedication shown by their Vietnamese counterparts. Photos Cuban delegates received from the VWU also provide an example of the overlap between Vietnamese and Cuban interpretations of the war. For example, the emphasis on the role of Vietnamese women reflected the VWU's official commitment to women as wartime protagonists, while also contributing to the FMC's ongoing glorification of “heroic” Vietnamese women as examples for Cuban women to follow.34 The praise of the elderly also validated the Cuban government's description of the Vietnamese war as pitting the invading US army against the “whole people” of Vietnam, an interpretation that helped explain the heroic involvement of civilians, children, the elderly, and to some extent, women.
Gender and Revolutionary Violence
One way in which Cubans were exhorted to identify with Vietnam was through the praise of select individuals who served as models of heroism. Analyzing Cuban solidarity campaigns with two such figures—Võ Thị Thắng and Nguyễn Văn Trỗi—gives us insight into how each mobilized certain ideas of the war and how the meanings attached to their images were transformed as they traveled from Vietnam to Cuba. Specifically, they give us insight into Cuban understandings of acceptable revolutionary violence and its gendered expressions and the predominantly masculine character of global anti-imperialist leadership. The case of Võ Thị Thắng also provides an interesting point of comparison between the ways images of revolutionary Vietnamese women were negotiated in Cuba and among feminist or maternalist groups of the Global North.
Võ Thị Thắng had been part of a youth group and militia fighting in South Vietnam. She was captured in July 1968 after assassinating a police chief. At her trial she was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Yet as she was led away by guards after her sentencing, a Japanese photographer captured her smiling, purportedly exuding confidence in the NLF's eventual victory. The photo was quickly circulated by the VWU and NLF. For example, the magazine Women of Viet Nam, published by the VWU in English and French for distribution abroad, included the photo in a late 1968 edition accompanied by a poem in her honor.35 In 1969, NLF leader Nguyễn Hữu Thọ asked the Cuban ambassador to the NLF-held areas of the South, Valdés Vivó, to bring a photo of Võ Thị Thắng to FMC president Vilma Espín. Espín was clearly enthusiastic about the photo that captured the young woman's story. Since 1966, the FMC had taken an increasing interest in the Vietnam War and had sought to portray women's liberation in Cuba and Vietnam in analogous terms, as part and parcel of a broader movement of national liberation.36
The FMC decided to distribute a copy of this photo to all Cuban schoolchildren to celebrate Mother's Day in May 1969. In Cuba Võ Thị Thắng was dubbed “the girl with the victory smile,” celebrated for her message of fearlessness and undying optimism in eventual revolutionary victory.37 In coordination with the Ministry of Education, the FMC printed 1.5 million copies of the photo and sent it to all of Cuba's primary school students, who decorated it with a handmade cardboard frame and were enjoined to give it to their mothers for Mother's Day.38 The FMC's stated purpose with this campaign was to pay “homage to the Vietnamese woman who has known how to be a mother profoundly.”39 By giving their own mothers a portrait of Võ Thị Thắng, Cuban children would also simultaneously pay homage to and show solidarity with South Vietnamese mothers.40
Comparing how Võ Thị Thắng's photo and story were explained by the VWU and the FMC is instructive. The VWU'S publication Women of Viet Nam praised Võ Thị Thắng for having “executed [a violent police chief] with her own hands.” While the poem devoted to her in Women of Viet Nam certainly indulged in gendered and sentimental references to female beauty and women's connections to nature and the landscape, it also unequivocally praised her willingness to use violence if necessary: “Oh your ink-stained hands / ready to hold guns / Whatever the fatherland requires! / . . . The smile on your lips is like a lotus flower. . . . / How moving those trips up the river / When into the city you took ammunition / and out brought letters.”41 In contrast, Cuban newspaper coverage of the project did not explain the charges against her. The FMC's solidarity campaign for Võ Thị Thắng suggests a certain discomfort with this aspect of her story, which was softened by omitting reference to the police chief and somewhat incongruously framing her as an example of “motherhood,” despite the fact that she had no children. Thus, we can argue that the FMC “softened” Võ Thị Thắng's use of violence by connecting her to maternalism and, to a lesser extent, radical youth activism.42
However, this is not to say that the FMC necessarily disapproved of women's participation in combat. On the contrary, the FMC sanctioned and even celebrated Vietnamese women's participation in defensive battalions. FMC leaders who led delegations to Vietnam were taken by UVW representatives to meet with groups of young women engaged in anti-aerial and coastal defense battalions. Once back in Cuba, FMC leaders praised their bravery and determination, depicting the women's participation in battle not as a necessary evil but as a positive, empowering, even coming-of-age experience.43 Cuban media outlets such as the newspaper Granma, the magazine Bohemia, and the FMC's publication Mujeres also published many photos of Vietnamese women with rifles strapped to their backs or placed within reach as they worked. Cuban photographer Roberto Salas captured a similar image during his 1972 visit. Cuban periodicals also published glowing coverage of the militiawomen who visited Cuba as part of Vietnamese delegations, matter-of-factly praising some for having shot down US planes and killing US pilots.
This was one notable difference between the solidarity efforts within Cuba versus that of feminist or anti-war activists of the Global North: the careful negotiation NLF and VWU leaders employed on the topic of women's perpetration of violence was less necessary in the Cuban context,44 provided the targets of such violence were US troops and provided that military duty did not seem to compromise women's maternal or feminine characteristics. Therefore, the uncomfortable aspect of Võ Thị Thắng's image for the FMC leadership was not related to women's use of violence per se. Rather, it likely reflected discomfort with the target of violence, namely South Vietnamese police rather than “yankee” invaders. It also suggests a clear Cuban preference for certain types of revolutionary violence, namely formal, collective defense or guerrilla warfare over extrajudicial execution.
Examining the circulation of the image of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi in Cuban solidarity efforts also raises questions about gender and revolutionary violence. The Cuban celebration of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi provides another example of how directly NLF messages might be adopted. Cuba even imported the slogan “[To] Live Like Him,” which journalist Marta Rojas first recounted hearing during her 1965 trip, virtually verbatim.45 Yet as in the case of Võ Thị Thắng, the Cuban media seemed to exhibit a certain discomfort with Nguyễn Văn Trỗi's imprisonment and execution. This discomfort likely reflected several issues. First, his tragic end may have been perceived as somehow emasculating. Cuban revolutionary culture deeply prized militant masculinity. And while the concept of political martyrdom was well established in Cuba, Cuban political culture had a clear preference for death in battle. Second, like Võ Thị Thắng, Nguyễn Văn Trỗi had been a member of the urban resistance of the NLF, not a guerrilla warrior—a discomfiting aspect of his biography at a time when Cuban leaders dogmatically insisted on rural guerrilla warfare as the only acceptable revolutionary strategy.46 Finally, Nguyễn Văn Trỗi's tragic execution did not easily align with Cuban attempts to portray the Vietnamese struggle as inspirational and as the next step in the global triumph over US imperialism that Cuba claimed to have inaugurated.
Thus, while Cuban solidarity activities made frequent reference to Nguyễn Văn Trỗi and organized yearly activities to mark his death anniversary, the Cuban media also studiously avoided reproducing the potentially demoralizing photos of his execution although Cuban newspapers and magazines routinely printed many other photos depicting atrocities committed in Vietnam. Speeches praising him also remained vague about his contribution and ultimate demise.47 Cuban solidarity initiatives circumvented this problem visually by disembodying him. Nguyễn Văn Trỗi's image was circulated widely in painted portraits and on posters but always in a tightly cropped image of his face, likely derived from the Associated Press photo taken at his arrest. Another visual strategy was to superimpose his face on another image that implied he had died in battle. For example, in a call to all schools to join the first annual day of homage to Nguyễn Văn Trỗi on his death anniversary in 1965, printed in Granma, an illustration shows Nguyễn Văn Trỗi's face in the foreground while in the background Vietnamese anti-aerial gunners successfully down a US plane (fig. 6). A 1967 poster commemorating his death anniversary used a similar tactic: while the poster's caption clearly refers to Nguyễn Văn Trỗi's assassination, the image alludes to a heroic death in battle by superimposing his face on a photo of NLF soldiers posing triumphantly with guns held aloft (fig. 7). These depictions resolved any potential discomfort by restoring Nguyễn Văn Trỗi's militant masculinity, suggesting he had fought and died as a guerrilla warrior. These visual strategies transformed his death from a defeat into a victory, part of Vietnam's triumphant defense against Yankee aggression.
Finally, while Cuba celebrated both women and men as wartime heroes, comparing the Cuban dissemination of images of Võ Thị Thắng and Nguyễn Văn Trỗi is also revealing. Nguyễn Văn Trỗi was elevated into Cuba's pantheon of global revolutionaries, suggesting he be seen as a leader of global anti-imperialist revolution alongside other martyred leaders. For example, in the January 1966 Tricontinental Conference, which hundreds of delegates from revolutionary states and movements around the world attended, an enormous reproduction of Văn Trỗi's portrait was hung alongside portraits of Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, Nicaraguan anti-imperialist guerrilla leader Augusto César Sandino, and Cuban “martyrs” of the wars of independence and the 1959 revolution, José Martí, Antonio Maceo, and Camilo Cienfuegos (fig. 8). Võ Thị Thắng, while also praised, was held up primarily as a role model for revolutionary women and youth within Cuba. The differential positioning of these figures suggests the way gender normativity influenced understandings of the Vietnam War, in which heroic women were raised to national prominence, while heroic men were elevated to global leadership.
These examples invite us to consider how photographs of Vietnam were interpreted and assigned various meanings as they traveled to Cuba. Images of the Vietnam War reinforced and nourished state discourses of anti-imperialist struggle. By presenting the Vietnamese struggle as simultaneously analogous and aspirational, Cuban leaders used images of Vietnam to call for more anti-imperialist commitment and sacrifice from local publics at a time when revolutionary enthusiasm on the island was flagging. And while photos of Vietnam often seemed to easily validate certain Cuban revolutionary messages, such as the need for self-sacrifice or the heroism of revolutionary women, the “translation” of images from Vietnam to Cuba was not completely seamless, occasionally requiring some navigation of how Vietnamese “heroism” should be understood, including its gendered ramifications. A social history of the flow of photographs from Vietnam to Cuba thus provides new insights into revolutionary subjectivity, internationalist sentiment, and the construction of transpacific solidarity during the war years.
I would like to thank Thy Phu for her encouragement in writing this article. I would also like to thank Jessica Stites Mor and two anonymous peer reviewers for Trans Asia Photography for their insightful feedback on an earlier draft.
Both Rojas and Valdés Vivó became some of Cuba's foremost experts on Vietnam. Rojas traveled to Vietnam perhaps a dozen more times as a journalist and covered the fall of Saigon in 1975. She and Valdés Vivó both testified in the Russell Tribunal in 1967. Valdés Vivó was appointed Cuban ambassador to the NLF-held regions of Vietnam in 1969 and subsequently became a Cuban diplomat in Laos.
The chronicles of Rojas and Valdés Vivó were published in Cuba's main daily newspaper, Granma, in November and December 1965. Most of the essays were later reprinted in Valdés Vivó and Rojas, Relatos de guerra de Vietnam heróico.
On the circulation of photos from Vietnam in the socialist bloc, among Black radicals, and in the revolutionary states of the Middle East, see Phu, Warring Visions, 112–14. Lê Espiritu Gandhi, “Cold War Entanglements, Third World Solidarities,” examines mutual expressions of solidarity between the Vietnamese and Palestinian liberation movements. On socialist bloc solidarity with Vietnam, see Mark et al., “We Are with You, Vietnam.”
Stites Mor, South-South Solidarity; on the concept of “rendering” solidarity, see esp. 19–20.
Stites Mor and Camacho Padilla are currently directing a new multischolar research project devoted to studying “how Cuba's campaigns to promote a particular interpretation of the Cold War were coded into photographs and visual aspects of journalism” and “how the spirit of Cuba's interpretation of anti-colonialism, anti-racism, and liberation were captured in images.” See Oddleifson, “Joint Fellows Jessica Stites Mor and Fernando Camacho Padilla.”
On the rise of “Tricontinentalist” discourse in Cuba and beyond, see Anne Mahler, From the Tricontinental and Parrott and Lawrence, Tricontinental Revolution. Stites Mor discusses the role of visual culture in the elaboration of the Tricontinentalist imaginary in South-South Solidarity. On interpretations of the Vietnam War in Cuba, see Kapcia, “Revolutionary Soulmates?” On Cuban leaders' development of a global theory of revolution, see Paranzino, “Two, Three, Many Vietnams.”
Bustamante's work has shown how Cuba's effervescent 1960s gave way to a more staid and nostalgic 1970s. See especially “Anniversary Overload?”
Important interventions in this regard include Yoneyama, “Toward a Decolonial Genealogy” and Le Espiritu, Lowe, and Yoneyama, “Transpacific Entanglements.”
New work on the region's transpacific encounters has often focused on China's influence on the Latin American left. A pioneering work in the field was Rothwell, Transpacific Revolutionaries.
Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions;Hatzky, Cubans in Angola.
“Entrevista con Hoang Bich Son, jefe de la Misión del FLN en Cuba,” Granma, December 19, 1965.
Reproduced in Menéndez with Trapaga Brito, Protest Posters, 37.
The same issue also featured a longer profile of her. “Manos hechas de cielo tornanse de acero y fuego,” Bohemia, January 21, 1966, 75.
His EcuRed biography describes him as a war correspondent in Vietnam in 1966–67 and 1972–73. See “Roberto Salas.”
“Cuando se habla de Viet Nam, está presente en todo momento Ho Chi Minh,” Granma, May 28, 1970.
“En Vietnam todo el pueblo pelea con todas las armas,” Granma, November 21, 1965.
“Cuando se habla de Viet Nam, está presente en todo momento Ho Chi Minh,” Granma, May 28, 1970.
I discuss this issue in more detail in “Heroic Example of the Vietnamese Woman.”
“Victory: A Poem from the South,” Women of Viet Nam, no. 4 (1968): 24–25.
In Spanish, “la joven de la sonrisa de la victoria.”
Flor López, “Dedicaran los escolares cubanos este Dia de las Madres, también, a las madres sudvietnamitas,” Granma, May 9, 1969; “Homenaje solidario a las madres cubanas y vietnamitas,” Granma, May 9, 1969.
In Spanish, “que ha sabido ser profundamente madre.” “La sonrisa de la victoria,” Granma, May 10, 1969.
“Homenaje solidario a las madres cubanas y vietnamitas.”
“Victory: A Poem from the South.”
Võ Thị Thắng represented Vietnam in the 1979 World Festival of Youth and Students, held in Havana.
See, for example, Ferrer, “Mujeres del Viet Nam Heroico,” Mujeres, October 1967, 56–58; and “Cuando se habla de Viet Nam, está presente en todo momento Ho Chi Minh.”
Rendered in Spanish variously as “Vive como él,” “Vivir como él,” and “Vivamos como él.”
This stance provoked conflict and debate throughout Latin America's New Left. See Marchesi, Latin America's Radical Left.
See, for example, “Cada comunsita debe ser un titán indoblegable como Van Troi.-Sunol,” Granma, October 16, 1966.