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The Imperial Branding of Simon Bolivar and the Cuban Revolution

by NELSON P. VALDÉS

“Many people in the world not only lack freedom of thought but also the capacity to think, because it has been destroyed. Billions of human beings, including a large percentage of those living in developed societies, are told what brand of soda they should drink, what cigarettes they should smoke, what clothes and shoes they should wear, what they should eat and what brand of food they should buy. Their political ideas are supplied in the same way.”

Fidel Castro, June 1, 2000

“… it is perhaps the greatest triumph of the market to have polluted our most cherished speech about ourselves with the vocabulary of marketing.”

Leon Wieseltier, March 12, 2008

In 2007, before leaving for Latin America, George W Bush spoke to a Spanish speaking audience of business people in New York City where he claimed he was a “Bolivariano” and a son of Simon Bolivar. [1] There are some people who just don’t understand the United States government and its foreign policy, so they were puzzled and asked “how can George call himself an ‘hijo de Bolivar’?

The answer is simple: branding. Branding has gone global, and it is the fundamental weapon of American marketing. In the old days tangible consumer goods were branded. Today branding knows no boundaries. Branding is now applied to people, institutions, political entities, right up to national governments. Nations are brands now, in the logic of 21st-century capitalism. You can buy or sell the nation as a brand. Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro are only incidentally historical figures involved in anti-colonial struggles. They now exist as brands, trademarks, logos — in other words, as ways to remember products. If these historical figures are emulated or despised is a function of marketing. Brands, we are told, sell identity, manufactured self knowledge. It is also a hollow shell that might use historical references devoid of historical content.

As early as 1883 Andres de la Morena, from Venezuela, patented a drink to enhance one’s appetite, it was called Bolivar. Ten years later a French entrepreneur copyrighted a perfume with the name “Agua del Libertador” [‘water of the Liberator’] But the brand name remained a minor phenomena among some cigar producers in South America. That has changed.

According to this marketing logic, if Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro sell their revolutionary products by successful invoking the name of historical figures in their political marketing, then American capitalism can appropriate the brand name and make a profit to boot. After all, it has been done already with Radio Marti, TV Marti. Marti is also the real “mojito licour” rum super premium which, with “natural lime & mint” becomes “libertador de Cuba” duly owned by GFY Beverages Company of New York. [2]

The Venezuelan liberator was a perfume, the Cuban one turned out to be a rum. In either case, both histories and symbols appropriated to make a profit.

At Foggy Bottom, Capitol Hill and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, foreign policy is merely a function of proper marketing and branding. And, if it is hip, much better.

On March 11, 2008 the Wall Street Journal published from Michael Casey, Dow Jones Newswires bureau chief in Buenos Aires, an article entitled “Brand Cuba.” In it the author wrote, “As Fidel Castro brings his reign in Cuba to a long overdue end, we are left to ponder how a leader with such a dismal economic record could retain power for a half-century.” [3]

The answer? The economic journalist turned postmodernist deconstructionist asserted, “if we view Castro’s political machine through the apolitical prism of the market, we can attribute its durability to a concept that’s alien to his socialist rhetoric, and deeply rooted in the American capitalist system he claims to despise: branding. Castro’s political “success” is a case study in managing the global information economy.”

But how is that possible? The answer: “This is, of course, a constructed “Cuba,” with little relation to the real Cuba, with its dysfunctional, increasingly inequitable social and economic structure. But savvy brand managers are rarely hindered by a divergence from reality.” You see, the entire globe is inhabited by dupes and idiots while the only people who comprehend the reality of the world are those who manipulate images. According to WSJ piece the revolutionary regime has survived because, “Castro has long been blessed with a great ability to manipulate information and images in the interest of self-promotion.”

There are numerous capitalist enterprises in the world today involved in the “branding of nation states.” In fact there is a journal dedicated to the “science” called Place Branding and Public Diplomacy.” The journal describes itself as follows: “Place Branding and Public Diplomacy is a new journal, and the first to concentrate on the practice of applying brand strategy and other marketing techniques and disciplines to the economic, social, political and cultural development of cities, regions and countries.” [4] A country’s foreign policy can be marketed as if it were a box of tortillas or corn flakes. All that is required is brand name recognition.[5] As of now, 35 countries have been ranked and the US under George W. is not at the top.

The ideological guru of branding nations, Simon Anholt, tells us that, “I have always held that the market-based view of the world, on which the theory of place branding is largely predicated, is an inherently peaceful and humanistic model for the relationships between nations. It is based on competition, consumer choice and consumer power; and these concepts are intimately linked to the freedom and power of the individual. For this reason, it seems far more likely to result in lasting world peace than a statecraft based on territory, economic power, ideologies, politics or religion.” [6]

The actual foreign policy of a country or its consequences do not matter to the branders, what counts is what people perceive and that is just a function of marketing. If Bolivar sells south of the border, then appropriate the memory/image, claim to be a Bolivariano and keep on collecting the profits. If United Fruit could just take over an entire Central American country, why not do the same to a country’s history? To paraphrase Earl Shorris in the Age of Information, the latter is “not the precursor to knowledge; it [is] the tool of salesmen.” [7]

That is what the colonialists and imperialists assume, believe and hope, to be true. But Latin Americans act on the basis of their own history and needs.

Caveat venditor [Seller beware].

NELSON P. VALDÉS is a Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico.

Notes.

[1] 03/06/078 – Washington Post – Bush Prepares for Trip to Latin America As Counter to Chavez, A11.

[2] http://www.findownersearch.com/brand/4207579/

[3] 03/11/08 – Wall Street Journal – Brand Cuba, A21.

[4] http://www.placebranding.com/

[5] http://www.nationsbrandindex.com

[6] “Is Place Branding A Capitalist Tool?,” Place Branding (2006) 2, 1-4]. By the same author: Competitive Identity: The New Brand Management for Nations, Cities and Regions, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. There are many others: Eugene D. Jaffe, National Image & Competitive Advantage: The Theory and Practice of Place Branding, Copenhagen Business School Press, 2006; Keith Dinnie, Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues, Practices, Butterworth Heinemann, 2007

[7] The quote is cited by Thomas Frank in “The New Gilded Age,” in Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland, The Business of Culture in the New Gilded Age: Commodify Your Dissent, New York, W. W. Norton, 1997, p. 23.

*I would like to express my appreciation to my friend Ned Sublette who provided me with very useful comments and suggestions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

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