As revolutionary fervour spread across central and south America the USA had few reservations about encouraging dictatorial regimes which kept the people in their places. It’s now firmly understood that the CIA was directed to support counterrevolutionary activity in Latin America in the 1970s and 80s, although the exact nature of US involvement is likely not to be uncovered for some time.
The message of this poster ‘CIA CIA CIA’ is, however, unambiguous. The artist Paul Peter Piech (1920–96) made this print in 1983, responding to events that were unfolding in Nicaragua and, in particular, to the CIA’s involvement in the country. He raises his own hand – that’s his arm printed on the paper – directing attention to what was happening.
In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front toppled the regime of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Somoza family’s control of the country had been backed by the US for over forty years. Following the revolution commentators around the world weren’t really sure who had taken over the country – guerrillas? Leninist revolutionaries? Social radicals? Nationalists? Communists?
Amidst the confusion, the USA decided to intervene. By 1983 there’d been a huge escalation of US action in Nicaragua conducted by CIA-organised counterrevolutionaries, known as the contras. American intelligence was accused of placing bombs in public places, of plans to murder high level individuals and of plotting economic sabotage, all with the aim of destabilising the new, revolutionary government.
The US provided millions of dollars in support of the contras and the death and destruction that ensued has left a mark on Nicaragua’s relations with the successive administrations.
‘CIA CIA CIA’ doesn’t leave much to the imagination about the artist’s response to US involvement in Central and South America. This is art with a clear message.
Born in New York to Ukrainian parents, Piech initially trained as a graphic artist. After a posting to Britain during Second World War he studied printmaking at the Royal College of Art and settled in the UK. His work as a graphic designer saw him create schemes for BP, ICI and British Steel, but away from the corporate world he formed his own printworks where Piech was able explore his political beliefs and expand the art of typography. By the end of his career he was known as much as a humanitarian and campaigner as he was an artist, creating striking prints, posters, woodcuts and linocuts for the likes of the CND and Amnesty International.
The arm raised up here has ‘NICARAGUA?’ emblazoned across it.
In March 1983 Pope John Paul II visited the country and refused to condemn the contra terror. Piech takes the opportunity to move Nicaragua back into public perception.
He’s well aware of recent events in the region, hence the other arm featuring the word ‘CHILE!’
The CIA was suspected of creating propaganda and economic pressure ten years previously in Chile and there are claims the Nixon administration attempted affect the outcome of a general election there in 1973, by both hard and soft means.
Piech is taking a moment remind us that, despite warnings from history, some lessons are never learned. ‘Never again’ is a refrain we hear related to the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War – a message the world has clearly not heeded. His choice of iconography here and its suggest link to the CIA is clearly making a reference to unlearned lessons of the past.
By the time this print was made in 1983, Piech had moved beyond simply calling out something in the world he wanted to change. He’s highlighting an ongoing problem – that which he saw of American interference and imperialism.
It would be difficult to evaluate the specific impact this poster had on the US government’s multi-million dollar project to influence politics in Latin America. But Piech despised apathy and saw printmaking as part of his response to injustices and atrocities taking place around the world as part of the wider international peace movement.
Art can play a strong role in active protest. The artistic responses of the likes of Ai Weiwei, Grayson Perry and Banksy today provide us with alternative commentary on current events. Artists have sought to make us think differently about the world around us for generations. And in the case of this poster, they even seek to remind us of relevant historical events.
It’s important, therefore, that the pieces like this are allowed to make their way into collections. Artistic responses to events are evidence for the historians future to interpret how we respond to the world around today.
A selection of Piech’s posters, including this one, is on display at the People’s History Museum, Manchester. Dedicated to all Defenders of Human Freedoms, The Art of Paul Peter Piech is open until Sunday 17 February 2017.
Image: Collection of Jim Reed, with thanks.