Before President Bush gives another speech about how confident he is about how things are going in Iraq, he might want to consider what Cubans learned when you have not a communications problem but a reality problem.
Amidst a summer of electrical blackouts and supply shortages, billboards went up in Havana, Cuba with a picture of President Fidel Castro and the phrase in Spanish: "Vamos Bien," meaning things were "going well."
The billboards caused a stir in Cuba. Castro's image is rarely depicted publicly. That is an honor normally reserved for Cuban heroes like Che who have long passed the scene, or for the five Cuban prisoners locked up in the United States for spying on the Miami exile community. But it was something else that caused a noticeable reaction among Cubans I spoke with during one of my periodic trips to the island.
For the first time since coming to power, Cubans of all political stripes thought the message showed Castro as being out of touch with his people and the conditions in which they were actually living. The blackouts were particularly concerning; food, often hard to come by, rotted in still refrigerators. Air conditioning, an essential for the Cuban summer, ran only occasionally and at inconvenient hours. Times were hard in Cuba, and "vamos bien" seemed a far from apt description of how Cubans were living their daily lives.
Since then, Cuba has been making capital investments to try and improve living conditions in the country. The government has purchased 4,000 electrical generators produced overseas in an effort to repair, renovate and decentralize the island's electrical grid. It has purchased 800 buses from China, recently ordered more, and is procuring new locomotives in an effort to modernize its transportation system.
Actions, as ever, speak louder than words. Things are really going well, when you have somewhere to go, something to go in, and lights along the way. Much more needs to be done, economically and politically, to set Cuba right, but President Castro now appears a lot more in touch with reality than he did when those billboards were first erected.
Which brings us to President Bush.
Does he have a strategy for Iraq that goes beyond "vamos bien"? I am not sure. His words, and those of others in the administration, seem completely disconnected from the reality on the ground.
The President seems to know that he has a problem. Look at what he said on Monday at the City Club of Cleveland, as reported by The Associated Press:
"In the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken. Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't."
And yet, the administration's communications strategy seems almost aimed at undermining his own credibility.
During his Saturday radio address last week, he said he was "optimistic because, slowly but surely, our strategy is getting results." The Vice President, on network television the next day, said: ""We are implementing a strategy that will lead to victory in Iraq."
Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, goes even further: "I would say they're going very, very well from everything you look at." And the President says in Cleveland: "The strategy is working." Vamos bien? Incredible!
The Pollyanna approach won't work any better for W than it did for Fidel. We need a plan, not a new billboard, because things are not "going well" in Iraq.
The only way to begin to increase confidence and credibility among voters is to show they have learned from their mistakes and have come up with a better way to move forward.
More optimistic sounding speeches will only underscore the growing belief that he is out of touch and utterly unable to control events. The US needs action, not a new program of spin to get out of the quagmire.
Even the communications advisors in Havana were able to see that a propaganda campaign based on ungrounded optimism is doomed to failure. For Democrats sake, let's hope the White House communications staff aren't the Cuban's equals.