Oliviero Toscani: from Benetton to bikes for Castro

Article published on April 6, 2007
Article published on April 6, 2007

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

'There was something magic about him. But it's all over now,' says the veteran Milanese photographer on Cuba's ailing leader maximus

There's a row of mega-photographs with the faces of the more than 70 ‘political prisoners’ who were arrested in Cuba in 2003. Condemned to heavy sentences, they were accused of crimes such as 'betrayal of the homeland' or 'political conspiracy.'

This, and much more, is the premise of a new exhibition by Italian photographer and advertising guru Oliviero Toscani, 65. It's called No thinking: the Face of Repression in Cuba, and debuts in April at the European Parliament in Brussels. A good excuse to chat with the maestro from Milan about the Havana regime, and about the unusual week he once spent at the home of the Cuban president back in 1993. 'I set off with Luciano Benetton, chairman of the Benetton Group, having convinced him to open a clothing outlet on the island - Castro had been thinking about it.'

What was your first impression upon meeting Castro?

There was something magic about him, in the literal sense of the term. He has something which clearly sets him apart from the mediocre masses that inhabit this planet, a charisma which is superior. That’s why he has managed to lead this dictatorship for so long. I remember I gave him a mountain bike to thank him for his hospitality.

Rather an unusual gift?

I figured owning a bike would make him concentrate less on the revolution. Biking needs attention, dedication. He would have spent more time in the mountains and less time in the Caribbean being a revolutionary. And then I advised him to open a beautiful shop for mountain equipment. I also invited him to Venice, but Castro is not known to be a great traveller. Benetton and I would have accompanied him on the plane-ride. I might even have taken him into the mountains. It was a pretty intense meeting. He seemed to like the Italians, even though he didn’t manage a word of our language.

How do you see Cuba's future? And what do you think of Fidel’s successor, his brother Raúl - also Defence Minister and since last July, the 'temporarily' official stand-in for the leader maximus?

The Americans will arrive and open McDonalds everywhere. They will ruin the island, like they have already done in Florida. That’s about it. And all that’s special about Cuba and the Cuban culture will be bulldozed by US multinationals. The Cuban experiment has been interesting, but it’s over now.

You like to provoke as a photographer; can the same be said of Fidel Castro?

That he’s a provoker? What are you talking about?! Castro was just a generous guy. Artists are the provokers.

And politicians, what are they?

Castro was not a politician. He was a revolutionary. But, like I said, it's all over now.

Tell us about your picture exhibition which is also based on your past themes, such as the death penalty. It's provoked varying reactions in Europe's capitals.

I was on the backend of a load of insults. Even in Rome, some so-called Communist told me I’d sold my soul to the CIA. I told him, 'if only!' I wouldn’t have minded! I did the exhibition because in Cuba the rights to free speech and freedom of information are persecuted. Well that’s got nothing to do with it. There are a load of journalists who even deserve to be persecuted for the way that they distort reality and present information. But that's the whole point - the right to expression should be given to everyone.

What's your hope for a Cuba after Castro?

Cuba is a country of culture. It would be fantastic if an international university for revolutionary studies were established on the island. A kind of political sciences faculty for the Revolution, and a meeting place for all the top universities of the world: Harvard, the Sorbonne, the Bocconi, Yale and so forth.

In-text photos: Oliverio Toscani (Photo: LorZ/Flickr) Castro in 2006 (Uzon/Flickr)