Review Essay: The Museum of the Battle of Ideas, Cardenas, Cuba
Michelle Tisdel Flikke
The Museum of the Battle of Ideas (el Museo a la Batalla de Ideas) (Figure 1),
located in the town of Cardenas in the Cuban province of Matanzas, is a
state museum that documents Cuba’s campaign (1999-2000) for the
repatriation of Elián González. González, who was with his mother when
she attempted an illegal migration to the United States (U.S.), washed
ashore in Florida three days after their boat capsized. He was five
years old at the time. The museum relates the ensuing international
custody battle to several historical events that are significant for
Cuban nationalism. In an anthropological context, one could view the
museum as an expression of Cuban national sovereignty in the post-Cold
War era. Furthermore, the institution illustrates an important trend of
Cuban socialist heritage productionthe use of contemporary social life
as the inspiration for national heritage. The museum succeeds in its
goal to depict the mass mobilization and revitalization of national
unity that the Elián González case inspired among Cuban citizens.
Likewise, the museum successfully portrays parallels between this
moment and important historical events in the consolidation of Cuban
nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.
How Social Life Becomes Heritage
Museum of the Battle of Ideas documents the campaign for the
repatriation of Elián González (1999-2000). On November 22, 1999,
Elizabeth Brotóns, her son, Elián, and her husband (Elián’s stepfather)
left Cuba on a small boat. They were part of a group of 14 people
attempting an illegal migration from Cuba to the United States.
Three days later, the boat capsized at sea. There were only three
survivors—Elián and two adults. After receiving medical attention, the
U.S. authorities released the child to the custody of his paternal
great uncle, Lázaro González, who resided in Miami. According to some
accounts, when Lázaro took steps to file for custody of Elián, Juan
Miguel González, the boy’s father, still had no knowledge of his
departure. The González relatives in Miami claimed
custody of the boy, saying that by law he was entitled to asylum in the
U.S. because he had reached the U.S. mainland.
2000 the U.S. and Cuban governments engaged in a fierce battle of
words. The Cuban exile community in Miami called into question the
quality of life in Cuba and accused Fidel Castro’s government of
ongoing human rights abuses. The Cuban government responded to
criticisms by framing the conflict as part of an ideological “Batalla
de Ideas,” which relates to the defense of national sovereignty against
forms of neo-imperialism. For seven months, Cuban
society erupted in outrage, as people demonstrated across the island
but particularly in Havana in front of the U.S. Interest Section. On June 29, 2000, Elián returned to Cuba with his father and stepmother.
A few months later, crews began restoring a 19th century firehouse in
the municipality of Cardenas, the hometown of the González family.
The following account draws upon the museum tour and formal interview
that I conducted with Ernesto Álvarez Blanco, the museum’s director, on
February 20, 2002.
museum restoration project commenced under the direction of Cuban
architect Agusto Bueno on September 1, 2000. The plan was to restore
the building to its original 19th century style. This meant looking for
new architectural elements that resembled the old ones as much as
possible. They imported the floor and special cement from Italy and
reconstructed the original stairwell. Castro assigned the Union of
Young Communists (Union de Jovenes Comunistas), the Communist Party’s
youth organization, responsibility for financing the initial phases of
the project. According to the director, the government would finance
the museum’s budget until the museum became self-supporting through
revenues from admissions (5 Cuban pesos and 5 USD for foreigners), the
museum store, and restaurant.
July 14, 2001, in the presence of Elián González, his family, and
Elián’s classmates from Marcelo Salado Primary School, Castro
inaugurated the museum and addressed a crowd of some 2,000 onlookers in
the Parque José Antonio Echevarría in Cardenas. Castro’s personal
involvement with the project reflected its political importance. His
presence at the inauguration, approval of the resources to finance the
project, and the name that he chose for the museum, assured media
coverage. Castro considered several names for el Museo a la Batalla de
Ideas, such as the National Anti-Imperialism Museum and the Cuban
People’s Museum of Ideological Struggle. More
than six months after opening, visitor attendance had reached 33,000.
The day that I visited in February 2002, approximately 500 people also
Exhibiting the Battle of Ideas
museum succeeds in its goal to depict the mass mobilization and
revitalization of national unity that the Elián González case inspired.
It began with only 200 objects and after six months had acquired more
than 2,000. The collection grew exponentially as Cubans, and people
around the world, donated objects. The public created a memorial for
Elián at the González home in Cardenas. In 1999 and 2000, local
residents left gifts for Elián, but according to newspaper accounts
they also left at the memorial different objects related to acts of
aggression targeting Cuba and objects that illustrated revolutionary
accomplishments (García Fernández and Álvarez Blanco 2001).
museum not only provides a convincing account of a Cuban society
actively engaged in the González case, but it also successfully
portrays parallels between the Elián González event and important
historical events in the consolidation of Cuban nationalism. The museum
display compares political and moral battles for national liberation
with Elián’s custody case between the Cuban and U.S. governments. At
one moment the museum text quotes General Antonio Maceo, the “Bronze
Titan,” who was second in command of the Independence Army in the
Independence War (1895-1898). One display celebrates national
liberation hero, José Martí, martyrs of the Cuban Revolution, including
Conrado Benítez (the young volunteer teacher murdered during the 1961
Literacy Campaign), and Juan Miguel González, Elián’s father. Another
display describes the “moment of the revolutionary triumph” in 1959
when Castro and rebel forces took power. According to the museum’s
narrative these important points of reference within Cuban
historiography are comparable to the triumph of Elián González’s
In the first of six rooms (Figure 2),
the museum tells the story of the nation’s battle for “Eliancito,” as
he was called in Cuba during the summer of 2000. In the entrance stands
a sculpture of José Martí holding a boy protectively while pointing
accusatively in the distance (Figure 3).
During the demonstrations in 2000, this object was part of the
“tribunal” stage that the government built in front of the U.S.
Interest Section in Havana. Another sculpture in the first exhibition
hall shows a little boy preparing to throw a Superman doll far into the
distance in a gesture of rejection or disapproval (Figure 4).
main exhibition is a chronological and thematic display of objects
related to the massive weekly demonstrations and daily television
discussion programs that began to inform the public and solicit their
active participation in the repatriation campaign. T-shirts with
slogans, posters, and photos of the demonstrations serve as evidence of
the public’s participation and support. Another display includes
international correspondence to the Cuban government—supportive emails,
faxes, and letters from around the world. Another set of objects
relates to the boy and his life in the U.S., while waiting to return to
Cuba. One object is a notebook (Figure 5)
that Elián used in Miami when his Cuban teacher and classmates traveled
there to hold classes with him. The notebook lies open, which allows
visitors to see Elián’s handwriting, observe the schoolwork, and
imagine how Elián spent his time while waiting to return to Cuba. An
interesting pair of items is the medal and certificate that the Cuban
Counsel of State awarded Juan Miguel González on July 5, 2000 (Figure 6).
The director called my attention to the large photo boards (Figure 7),
an extraordinary feature compared to most exhibitions that I have
visited in modest public museums in Cuba. The photographic display
captures the highlights of the national effort to free Elián, whom the
Cuban media described as “sequestered” in the U.S. One photograph shows
Elián, beaming with joy, reuniting with his father, stepmother, and
infant brother in Miami. A different photograph shows groups of primary
school children and massive crowds protesting in front of the U.S.
Interest Section during the summer of 2000.
An open courtyard (Figure 8),
which adjoins the two main galleries, contains busts of several Cuban
martyrs of anti-imperialism, including Ernesto “Ché” Guevara and José
Martí. When viewed from the second-floor balcony, the patio floor tiles
recreate the pattern of the Anti-Imperialist Tribunal in front of the
U.S. Interest Section, which was the site of the weekly demonstrations
in Havana in 1999 and 2000. Furthermore, the patio serves as a physical
and conceptual bridge between the Cuban past, present, and future,
represented respectively as the struggle for sovereignty, the
international custody battle, and the brighter future for Cuban youth,
which the content of the third exhibition hall addresses.
third room presents materials related to the education and cultural
programs that the government announced in 1999 and 2000 during the
height of the international custody battle (Tisdel Flikke 2005).
The programs and the objects portray the intellectual commitment of the
Battle of Ideas—providing quality education and raising the cultural
level of the nation, goals that invoke the Cuban Literacy Campaign of
1961. The display includes a model of the solar panel that the
government installed in 1,944 schools in the fall of . The solar panels
were installed to power the new televisions, which the government
installed to provide each classroom with access to a new educational
displays that reflect the government’s investment in education are
uniforms and teaching aids for the Art Educators School (Figure 9),
which opened in 2001. Workbooks and study guides illustrate
“Universidad Para Todos” (University for All), a television program
that broadcasts courses on Cuban history and the history of art,
theatre, film, dance, nutrition, geography, English, and French, three
times daily. The museum also displays a dictionary, thesaurus, Cuba
history book, and a copy of El Diario del Che en Bolivia (1968) (Figure 10),
which the government features in a national library book program,
another example of the government’s commitment to improving the quality
of Cuban education. “Because of the blockade of your country,” said the
director, “these books were in high demand.” The shortage of affordable
paper and other primary materials was a result of the combined effects
of the U.S. sanctions and the demise of the communist trading bloc.
With these displays about the quality of life in Cuba, the museum draws
parallels between Elián’s dilemma as a national struggle and the Battle
of Ideas, which includes the “battle for education and culture” (García
Why Elián González?
Elián González case draws our attention to political and social issues
that affect the daily lives of millions of ordinary Cuban citizens. The
controversy was a family tragedy that quickly became a matter of public
interest and an international conflict. The issue of U.S.-Cuban
migration fueled a national discourse on U.S. sanctions, the hardships
of Cuban daily life, and the future of Cuban youth. Cuban citizens
talked about their quality of life and economic survival frequently in
1999 and 2000, which I believe was related to the ongoing national
focus on the international custody battle.
government mobilized Cuban society for “the Battle for Elián” by
holding the Tribuna Abierta, weekly demonstrations that began in Havana
but eventually traveled to different municipalities around the country.
Cubans were able to follow Elián’s activities in the U.S. every day,
thanks to the “Mesa Redonda Informativa” (The Informative Roundtable),
a daily television and radio program that featured commentary by Cuban
politicians, journalists, and analysts. The protests, demonstrations,
and television programs inspired national unity in Cuba, but they also
highlighted disagreement about what the González event symbolized for
individuals, however, did not air dissenting views publicly; instead
they criticized life in Cuba in secure private environments. In the
summer of 2000, in the privacy of their homes people debated whether
the quality of life in Cuba was worth returning to, especially given
the lingering effects of the economic crisis of the 1990s. “What is
there for him to come back to?” asked a 58 year-old, former economist,
María, when I solicited her opinion on the fate of Elián González.
For, Elsa, whom I also interviewed, the Museum of the Battle of Ideas
addresses the past 43 years of struggle and the question of
“patriotism” that has preoccupied the nation. “The museum says that we
have received hits and attacks and we cannot allow ourselves to
forget,” she said. “But, there is a breaking point,” she continued,
“something that one cannot bear longer.” “Necessarily, do we need to
live this way?” she asked.
people that I interviewed said that they understood why Elián’s mother
risked their lives to leave Cuba. The effects of the “special period”
(economic crisis) persisted in 1999 when Elizabeth Brotóns left Cuba
with Elián. Such details, however, are absent from the museum
narrative. The museum narrative omits the contested issue of illegal
migrations (and Elizabeth Brotóns) and, consistent with the state
media, portrays illegal migration as a moral and political rather than
the summer of 2000, the Cuban media focused the debate on the rights of
Elián’s father as an extension of a sovereign state and on Cuban
sovereignty vis-à-vis the United States and its provocative Cuban
immigration policy. Juan González became a metonym of Cuba, whereas
González’s Miami relatives came to represent a nebulous anti-Castro
community in Miami.
defining a link between the Elián González case and historical events
is a reasonable goal for this national museum, which is located in the
hometown of the González family, the museum narrative masks the
contested nature of Elián González as a national symbol of Cuban
sovereignty/identity. Furthermore the museum under-communicates wider
social and political issues that shaped the events that constituted the
Elián González case. These issues include growing economic vulnerability, social demoralization, and illegal migration.
the museum narrative is celebratory and uncritical of these issues
(Elián González’s mother is hardly mentioned in the museum narrative),
the museum has become an important lieu de mémoire for many Cubans. For
some Cubans the museum is a symbol of national sovereignty, but for
others it calls attention to museums as part of the state’s production
of “silences” (cf. Trouillot 1995) as well as
heritage. In an anthropological context, the Museum of the Battle of
Ideas illustrates how Cuban heritage production works, rather than what
Cuban heritage is.
1. In this essay, I follow the editorial style of Museum Anthropology
in giving proper names in full on first occurrence and then using last
names in later discussions, except in situations where confusion would
result from the discussion of multiple individuals with the same last
name. The key exception to this strategy concerns references to Elián
González, who will sometimes, following world-wide usage, be referred
to by his first name alone. This approach is intended to conform with
established practice in discussions of the Elián González episode and
will hopefully minimize confusion among readers.
The phases of U.S.-Cuban migration appear as six or seven different
stages. José Cobas and Jorge Duany suggest that “the Balseros” stage
ended in 1994. For more on Cuban-U.S. Migration see their study (1997).
For the Cuban government’s official account of Elián’s case, consult
the Cuban website “¡Elián, Cuba te reclama! Cronología de una Infamia.”
See: http://www.elian.cu/elian0.htm, accessed March 24, 2007.
Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, the U.S. government has the
executive authority to parole Cuban entrants who arrive in the U.S.
without proper documentation. Paroling allows the immigrant to bypass
the application and review process, which applies to entrants from
other countries. Since 1994 the U.S. has granted asylum to Cubans who
enter the U.S. via a land port. Entrants arriving by sea are paroled
provided that their vessel is not intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast
Guard. This practice is known as the “wet feet, dry feet” policy. The
Cuban government interprets this policy as provocative and part of a
larger strategy to lure Cubans away from socialism and Cuba. Find the
Cuban Adjustment Act Fact Sheet here: http://www.state.gov/www/regions/wha/cuba/cuba_adjustment_act.html, accessed April 13, 2007.
The Battle of Ideas incorporates five political objectives: (1) the
liberation of the five Cuban men incarcerated in Miami for espionage;
(2) the end of the Helms-Burton Law, Torricelli Act, and other forms of
the U.S. blockade; (3) the end of the world economic crisis that
threatens humanity and particularly the Third World; (4) world peace;
and (5) education and culture (García 2001:3).
When I visited Cuba (1999-2002), the phrase “Battle of Ideas” was a
prominent slogan on state television, in the print media, and on
billboards. The national media and political figures commonly used it
in public forums to contextualize the international conflict
surrounding Elián González.
6. The United States Interest Section is the government’s diplomatic entity in Cuba. According to its website:
functions of USINT are similar to those of any U.S. government presence
abroad: Consular Services, a Political and Economic Section, a Public
Diplomacy Program, and Refugee Processing unique to Cuba. Cuba and the U.S. have limited bilateral relations. For more information see: http://havana.usinterestsection.gov/history.html and http://havana.usinterestsection.gov/, both accessed March 24, 2007.
objectives of USINT in Cuba is to promote a peaceful transition to a
democratic system based on respect for rule of law, individual human
rights and open economic and communication systems.
Federal agents raided the Miami house where Elián resided with
relatives and after a short while in federal protection, authorities
released Elián to his father, who had come to Miami to retrieve him.
8. This is a summary of an audio recording of the interview.
According to the director, few museums in Cuba, except maybe the Museo
de Bellas Artes, Museo de la Ciudad, and Museo de la Revolución, have
the attendance revenues to make auto-financing a feasible option.
10. In Spanish, the names were el Museo Nacional Anti-Imperialista and el Museo de la Lucha Ideológica del Pueblo Cubano.
These numbers also reflect tourists traveling on the commercial tour
buses between the Varadero beach resorts and the City of Havana. During
my field research, rumors circulated that a government entity had
directed all tourist buses to stop at the museum.
The government implemented numerous cultural programs during this
period. I address them in more detail in a larger work (Tisdel Flikke 2005).
This quotation draws upon an informal interview with María, a retired
economist who supported herself by working informally as a hairdresser
out of her home (June 2000). In August of the same year, she went to
the U.S. on a temporary visa to visit her daughter and did not return
to Cuba. Several months later, María’s daughter in Cuba moved into
María’s vacant home in a Havana suburb. Even some Cubans who took part
in the organized protests and other activities grew weary of the Elián
issue at times. Despite the public’s participation in the government
campaign for the return of Elián, many people that I interviewed, such
as María, questioned the repatriation of Elián and the socio-economic
conditions to which he would return.
14. “¿Necesariamente, necesitamos vivir así?”
A display on the Special Period at Havana’s Museo de la Revolución
evidences a similar treatment or “gloss-over” with respect to Cuba’s
social and economic problems. When I commented on the lack of personal
stories in the treatment at the Museo de la Revolución, it was
suggested to me that, in the museum, one will only see “causes,
consequences, and percents” (causas, consecuencias, y porcientos).
Cobas, José A and Jorge Duany
1997 Cubans in Puerto Rico: Ethnic Economy and Cultural Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
2001 La Batalla de Ideas No se Perderá. Juventud Rebelde, July 15:7.
García Fernández, H., and E. Álvarez Blanco
2001 Aquí Nació la Idea. Juventud Rebelde, July 15:8-9.
Tisdel Flikke, Michelle
Museums and Heritage, Citizenship and Survival: Fragments and
Incomplete Transitions in Contemporary Cuba. Ph.D. dissertation,
Department of Anthropology, Harvard University.
1995 Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Tisdel Flikke is associate professor of development studies at Oslo
University College. Her doctoral dissertation, a study of Cuban
heritage policy and social development in socialist Cuba, examined the
emergence of Afro-Cuban religions in state museums. The work considers
the changing significance of heritage following the dismantling of
global communism in the early 1990s and the tourism age in Cuba. Her
interests include heritage and development, as well as the interface
between heritage and social life.
Figure 1: Museum of the Battle of Ideas, Cardenas, Cuba. February 20, 2002. Photograph by Michelle Tisdel Flikke.
Figure 2: The first gallery at the Museum of the Battle of Ideas. February 20, 2002. Photograph by Michelle Tisdel Flikke.
Figure 3: Sculpture (by Andrés González) of José Martí holding a child. February 20, 2002. Photograph by Michelle Tisdel Flikke.
Figure 4: Sculpture of a child throwing a doll into the distance. February 20, 2002. Photograph by Michelle Tisdel Flikke.
5: On July 5, 2000, Cuba’s Counsel of State awarded this medal of honor
and certificate to Juan González in recognition of his patriotism.
February 20, 2002. Photograph by Michelle Tisdel Flikke.
6: Elián used this notebook during his stay in Miami. The notebook is
on display at the Museum of the Battle of Ideas. February 20, 2002.
Photograph by Michelle Tisdel Flikke.
Figure 7: A photograph display board at the museum. February 20, 2002. Photograph by Michelle Tisdel Flikke.
Figure 8: The patio and the “martyrs of imperialism.” February 20, 2002. Photograph by Michelle Tisdel Flikke.
9: These are the uniforms issued to students at Cuba’s 15 Art
Instructors Schools, which the government approved in 2000, in the
midst of the González custody case. The purpose of the schools, which
opened their doors in September 2000, was to produce 30,000 art
instructors over a period of ten years and make art instruction
available to children in each Cuban municipality. February 20, 2002.
Photograph by Michelle Tisdel Flikke.
10: This book display illustrates the Freedom Publishing Program
(Programa Editorial Libertad), which provides dictionaries,
encyclopedias, and history books for use in public libraries and
schools. February 20, 2002. Photograph by Michelle Tisdel Flikke.