Renato’s family emigrated to the United States on October 3 but that did not stop them from having some weak communal soup, drinking cheap rum and dancing the timba on a block of Reparto Sevillano south of Havana on the night of the 27th, the eve of the anniversary of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR).*
There were photos of Renato with the president of the CDR and the person in charge of surveillance, a guy with connections to the special services. As a momento of the festivities, they were shown with their cell phones.
Thanks to a stereo on loan from a bookie of an illegal lottery known as the “bolito,” or ball, a round of boleros began after midnight and ended with “Lágrimas Negras,” (Black Tears) the anthem of Cuban emigres.
Have times changed? Yes. Are the Castro brother’s quasi-state institutions more tolerant? No. The ongoing twenty-five-year-old economic crisis has led to a political sleight of hand in the strategies used by the Communist autocrats.
Now the goal is to generate enemy greenbacks that Cubans living in the United States generously send to their poor relations in Cuba. The CDR, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Young Communist League (UJC) and other state institutions have thrown off their heavy ideological ballast in favor of the political pragmatism currently being practiced in Cuba.
It is not unusual for a successful Cuban prostitute living in Europe or someone who has risked his life crossing the treacherous Florida straights to return after a few years and take part in a celebration sponsored by the CDR in his or her old neighborhood.
It was not always this way. On the night of September 28, 1960 — amid the sound of firecrackers — Fidel Castro set a system of collective surveillance on every block. Democratic civil society was dissolved until further notice.
Cuba was divided into “revolutionaries” and “worms.” Institutions were militarized. Obsessive spying into citizens’ private lives became routine. Everything was of interest to the special services, from how you lived and what you ate to the marital infidelities of members of the party and armed forces.
Betrayals and anonymous phone calls denouncing neighbors flooded the switchboards of police precincts. Cuba had entered its worst phase in the Cold War.
The CDR was and still is one of the primary instruments of control and cooperation for the Department of State Security. Thanks to its informants it was able to detain thousands of Castro opponents in April 1961 in advance of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Though it still keeps an eye on dissidents, after fifty-four years the CDR is now an organization in obvious decline. Once upon a time its members organized scrap drives, were involved in public health campaigns, conducted nighttime neighborhood watch patrols, did volunteer work and taught political science courses.
It spite of its decline it remains the governmental institution with the largest membership in the country: around seven million people. Everyone is automatically enrolled at age fourteen.
The committee on each block maintains a book known as the “Directory of Addresses” in which the names of everyone who lives on the block are scrupulously recorded.
If you move, you are required to notify the the committee so that the new address can be registered in the book. Anyone visiting the home of a neighbor must also be reported to the CDR.
According to CDR reports the police detain and return to their provinces of origin Cubans from other areas who are living in Havana illegally.
Perhaps its most important current function is to exert civilian oversight on those suspected of illegal activities and corruption, but especially over activities by opponents and independent journalists.
Individual CDR committee heads provide data on all citizens residing their areas to the local police chief or investigators from the UJC or Cuban Communist Party (PCC), and regularly provide information to State Security.
On individual blocks there are other anonymous informers. They are responsible for checking and reporting on a dissident’s routine and visitors.
Generally, they are bored retirees or diehard Castro supporters. They take down license plate numbers of people visiting a dissident’s home and go through the trash cans of opponents looking for food containers, bottles of perfume and empty beverage bottles that might indicate “an expensive lifestyle.”
At a ceremony last year in Havana’s Convention Center, Raul Castro stated that the CDR must employ new tactics to combat dissident activity.
The general asserted that “the enemy will never stop working, will never change, so the organization must alter its strategies.” The regime is trying to carry out a bizarre course correction on a hybrid of the worst form of state capitalism combined with inefficient and authoritarian Marxist socialism.
He is trying to build bridges to the new breed of émigrés using any means possible. Though a large segment is unsympathetic to the regime, they also want nothing to do with political dissidents.
Not even megalomaniacal dictators like Mussolini or Hitler had groups of people in every vicinity who betrayed neighbors and mounted systematic acts of repudiation against opponents.
Though it has become something of a formality, the CDR remains an effective weapon for the regime. In terms of controlling those who opposed his revolution, its creation was one of Fidel Castro’s indisputable achievements.
Translator’s note: The CDR is a network of neighborhood committees across Cuba. Committee heads monitor the activities of every person on their respective blocks. Yearly neighborhood parties to commemorate the organization’s founding are centered around a “caldosa,” or communal soup, to which residents are expected to contribute.
22 November 2014