An elderly man sits at the edge of a mangrove riverbank. Dressed in white, as if to match the color of his hair and long beard, he stands out against the vivid colors around him. He is reading a newspaper, his bare feet outstretched and books and sandals piled next to him. The water catches his reflection, and catches him in the act of reflection. But this is no luncheon in the park. This is a scene in a painting about war and resistance.
“He looks like grandmother’s Chinese neighbor,” then six-year-old Raysa Mederos commented, after seeing another portrait of the same man. “Is he from the Soviet Union?”
Her father, the Cuban graphic artist, and painter of this portrait, René Mederos, responded, “No, he’s from Vietnam.”
The man in the painting is the Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. In 1969, the Communist Party of Cuba sent Mederos to document the war in Vietnam. There, he marched for months alongside the liberation forces in order to paint portraits of imperialism. This image of Uncle Ho, as he was often called, by the riverbank, entitled “Viet Nam Will Win” (1971), is one of the 24 paintings the artist produced from that trip, later mass printed as posters and postage stamps, bringing the struggle of the Vietnamese people into popular Cuban life.
“Viet Nam Will Win” became the inspiration for the cover art I was invited to make for the new Selected Hồ Chí Minh, edited by Vijay Prashad and published by LeftWord Books. I reached out to the Mederos family to get their blessings and to learn more about this work. In October 2021, I had a video conversation with René’s daughter, Raysa, and his grandson, Marcelo Brociner.
Born on November 20, 1933, in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, René Mederos was a self-taught graphic artist, rum lover, domino player, and, purportedly, horrible dancer. This trip to Vietnam, and a subsequent visit in 1972, marked an important moment in his life as an artist, socialist, and internationalist. At the time, Raysa and her sister were very young.
“I do remember my father coming back from Vietnam,” Raysa recalled. “He started painting all this vegetation and faces that had been unknown to me before. He didn’t speak about the war, but talked about the many things that people there carried on their bicycles.” Instead of documenting the brutality of an imperialist war, he painted colorful portraits of everyday life: buffalos bathing, soldiers resting, children going to school. Raysa remembers how the colors were so vivid that they were hard for printmakers to reproduce. Our imaginations too are limited by the material conditions that can bring them to life. These limitations were all the more acute on an island where access to essential supplies, from food and medicine to paper and ink, have been limited by a six-decade blockade.
“Weren’t you scared?” Raysa remembers asking her father when she was a child.
“Of course I was,” Mederos told her. “I had never known what fear felt like before. But I saw children go to school every day despite the bombing. Nothing stopped them from learning to read and write …. Nothing stopped them from going on with their lives in the middle of war.”
They insisted on living. But this insistence is not an individualized experience. It is a collective one, felt and practiced by a class, a nation, and peoples across the colonized world. Ho Chi Minh’s act of reading by the riverbank, unfazed by the vulnerability of being unarmed and alone, is this insistence. The grand narratives of history — revolution, national liberation, human emancipation — are composed of these moments of stillness. As Ho Chi Minh reads and reflects, his sandals come off.
These iconic sandals are a symbol of anti-colonial resistance. The desire for rubber was responsible for some of the worst brutalities of French colonialism in Vietnam. The largest plantations — including Michelin’s, now known for its international restaurant guide and friendly white mascot selling car tires — saw death rates of up to 47% for their indentured workers in the 1920s. Ho Chi Minh wore these rubber sandals not only in the jungles, but throughout his presidency of North Vietnam from 1945 until his death in 1969. Each step he took was thus a meditation on the demise of colonialism.
Anti-colonial theorist and psychiatrist from Martinique, Frantz Fanon, helped us understand how essential culture is to the struggle against colonialism and for national liberation, praising Fodéba Keïta’s poem “Aube africaine” (African Dawn) as an example of such a culture, “a true invitation to thought, to de-mystification, and to battle.” Mederos’s portrait is such an invitation, calling us to that moment when Ho Chi Minh sat by the riverbank, theorizing and analyzing a world he wanted to change. Rather than a nostalgia for the past, what can the works and lives of Mederos and Ho Chi Minh teach us today? As Fanon said, we “ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis of hope.”
Ho Chi Minh died after a long illness, the same year that Mederos went to Vietnam. He was 79 years old. He saw 79 springs, but didn’t live to see his country united and his people liberated. “79 Primaveras” is the title of an experimental film by Cuban filmmaker Santiago Álvarez made that same year. The 24-minute black and white film is composed of montages. An invitation to thought: in the middle of a jungle, Ho Chi Minh works at a typewriter and scratches his head. To de-mystification: He tidies the bed in his straw hut. To battle: He greets a huge crowd of soldiers and civilians. And yes, he wears his sandals.