Iván García, 29 September 2015 — When the bearded guerrilla Fidel Castro on the night of 28 September 1960 founded a system of collective surveillance in every neighborhood, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), civil society in Cuba was annulled until further notice.
Not even Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany, with its full record of social intrusions, had structured a system of neighborhood cooperatives with espionage services.
The most similar equivalent might be Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts, a paramilitary corps behind numerous episodes of physical or verbal violence and aggression against its political adversaries in Italy during the 1920s.
However, with the CDRs, Fidel Castro expanded the scope of action. Just as they might arrange the verbal lynching of a dissident or denounce a neighbor for suspicion of “illicit enrichment,” they might also volunteer in a children’s polio vaccination campaign or a collection of raw materials.
If the repressive action of State Security is the right hand of the regime, the CDRs comprise a legitimizing entity for government policies.
Be it out of double standards, irresponsibility, or routine, more than 7-million people in Cuba are in the CDRs. As of the age of 14, in an almost automatic fashion, the residents of a neighborhood all join the organization.
Two decades ago, besides collective vigilance, they would also have tedious political debates to dissect Castro’s latest speech, perform nighttime guard duty to protect State interests, and put on blood drives.
Every neighbor contributes a monthly quota of five Cuban pesos ($0.25 US) to the organization. In the sinister mechanism of social control devised by Castro, the CDRs are an effective weapon.
To obtain an important position at work, you must first go through the filter of your block Committee. Without a letter from your CDR or an approval following an investigation of you by the Party, the Young Communist League, or Special Services, it is impossible to climb up in the extravagant Cuban social fabric.
As of the 21st Century, the organization is in shambles. By now, the watchdog rounds are hardly ever carried out, and even the local parties, with neighbors sipping soup and dancing reggaeton, are few and far between.
But the CDRs continue to be the primary ears for the political police. Any government opponent or independent journalist is surveilled by one or more members of the Committee.
This amateur espionage includes noting the vehicle registrations of embassy cars and foreigners who visit your house. In addition, they find out your standard of living, expenses, vices and habits–even what you eat.
By now the autocratic system is in freefall, and the meddling by the CDRs in the private lives of citizens is much reduced. It is not uncommon for the president of a local organization to be close friends with a dissident and to notify him when he is being investigated by State Security, or for that president to earn a few extra pesos on the side selling tickets for the clandestine local lottery.
There are still a few old intransigents left, labeled as lunatics by many neighbors, who plead for participation in the parody of elections for the National Assembly of People’s Power, or in volunteer projects.
People pay them little mind. The CDRs’ other battle front is the census and inventory of all residents. For this, there is a book entitled the Registry of Addresses.
In this book, the names, surnames, ages and addresses of all neighbors are scrupulously noted. When a citizen moves to a new address, he is required to report to his new location’s CDR, to be inscribed in that neighborhood’s Registry. Any temporary visitor, be he Cuban or foreign, is supposed to be reported to the CDR.
Based on reports from the Committee, the police detain and return to their provinces of origin any persons from other regions who are residing in Havana illegally.
The CDRs are located on every block in the cities, and in every village of rural areas. The next organizational level up is the Zone Committee, after that the District, then the Municipal, the Provincial, and ultimately the National.
The director of the network of CDRs is known as the National Coordinator. His offices, replete with bureaucrats and fuel consumers, are funded by the State. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez instituted similar collectives–perhaps even more dangerous, being that those are armed.
The regime represents these quasi-fascist monstrosities as being NGOs. This is Fidel Castro’s great contribution to the scrutiny of individuals of divergent thinking.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison