CDR: Citizen Representation or Political Control? / Yoani Sanchez
Translator: Unstated, Yoani Sanchez
The stew was cooked on firewood collected by some neighbors, the flags
hung in the middle of the block and the shouts of Viva! went on past
midnight. A ritual repeated with more or less enthusiasm every September
27 throughout the Island. The eve of the 52nd anniversary of the
founding of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), the
official media celebrate on its commemoration, a song intended to
energize those who are a part of the organization with the most members
in the entire country, and to dust off the old anecdotes of glory and power.
But beyond these formalities, which are repeated identically each year,
we can perceive that the influence of the CDR in Cuban life is in a
downward spiral. Gone are the days when we were all "CeDeRistas" and the
acronym — with the figure of a man brandishing a machete — still shone
brightly on the facades of some houses.
Amid the ongoing decline of its prominence, it's worth asking if the
committees have been a more of source of transmission of power to the
citizenry, than a representation of us to the government. The facts
leave little room for doubt. Since they were created in 1960, they have
had an eminently ideological base, marked by informers. Fidel himself
said it during the speech in which he announced their creation:
"We are going to implement, against imperialist campaigns of aggression,
a Revolutionary system of collective surveillance where everybody will
know who lives on their block and what relations they have with the
tyranny; and what they devote themselves to; who they meet with; what
activities they are involved in."
These words from the Maximum Leader are now difficult to find reproduced
in full on national websites and newspapers. In part because, despite
the unconditional support for the Commander in Chief, the current
editors of these spaces know very well that such language is totally out
of sync with the 21st century.
That is, what seemed like an exalted Revolutionary speech delivered from
the balcony of the Presidential Palace, in the light of today has all
the hallmarks of partisan despotism, of the grossest authoritarianism.
Big Brother announcing his plan. If those words excited exaltation at
the beginning of the sixties… they now provoke in many a mixture of
terror, disgust and embarrassment for the man who spoke them.
The "sweeter" side of the CDR is the one that's always related in
official reports, talk about a popular force dedicated to collecting raw
material, helping in the vaccination of infants, promoting blood
donations, and guarding neighborhoods against crime. Put like that it
appears to be an apolitical neighborhood group ready to solve community
Believe me, behind this facade of representation and solidarity is
hidden a mechanism of surveillance and control. And I'm not speaking
from the distance of my armchair or from the lack of knowledge of a
tourist who spends two weeks in Havana.
I was one of those millions of Cuban children who stockpiled empty jars
or cartons, cut the grass and handed out anti-mosquito products in the
CDRs all over the country. I was also vaccinated against polio and even
tasted some plate of stew or other during the fiestas of this organization.
In short, I grew up as a child of the CDR, although when I reached
adulthood I refused to become a militant among its ranks. I lived all
this and I don't regret it, because now I can conscientiously say from
the inside that all those beautiful moments are dwarfed by the abuse,
the injustices, the accusations and control that these so-called
committees have visited on me and millions of other Cubans.
I speak of the many young people who were not able to attend university
in the years of the greatest ideological extremism because of a bad
reference from the president of their CDR. It was enough during a
reference check from a school or workplace for some CDRista to say that
an individual was "not sufficiently combative" for them to not be
accepted for a better job or a university slot.
It was precisely these neighborhood organizations who most forcefully
organized the repudiation rallies carried out in 1980 against those
Cubans who decided to emigrate through the port of Mariel in what came
to be known on the other shore as the Mariel Boatlift. And today they
are also the principal cauldron of the repressive acts against the
Ladies in White and other dissidents.
They have never worked as a unifying or conciliatory force in society,
but rather as a fundamental ingredient in the exacerbation of
ideological polarization, social violence, and the creation of hatred.
I remember a young man who lived in my neighborhood of Cayo Hueso, who
had long hair and listened to rock music. The president of the CDR made
his life so difficult, accused him of so many atrocities simply for the
fact of wanting to appear as who he was, that he finally ended up in
prison for "pre-criminal dangerousness." Today this intransigent — this
one-time "Frikie" from my block — lives with his daughter in
Connecticut, after having his life and reputation dragged through the
mud like so many others.
I also know of several big traders in the black market who assumed some
post in the committees to use as a cover for their illegal activities.
So many who took on the role of "head of surveillance" and were
simultaneously the biggest resellers of tobacco, gas, and food in the
With few exceptions, I did not know ethically commendable people who led
a CDR. Rather they attracted those with the lowest human passions: envy
before those who prospered a little more; resentment of someone who
managed to create a harmonious family; grudges against those who
received remittances from family abroad; dislike for everyone who
honestly spoke their minds.
This deceitfulness, this absence of values and this accumulation of
grievances, have been been one of the fundamental causes for the CDRs'
fall into disgrace.
Because people are tired of hiding their bags so the informing neighbor
can't see it from their balcony. People are tired of the worn out sign
in front of their house with the figure with the threatening machete.
People are tired of paying a membership fee to an organization that when
you need it takes the side of the boss, the State, the Party.
People are tired of 52 anniversaries, one after another, like a stale
and nightmarish deja vu. People are tired. And the way to express this
exhaustion is with the lowest attendance at CDR meetings, failing to go
on night watch to "patrol" the blocks, even avoiding tasting the stew —
ever more bland — on the night of September 27.
If doubts remain about why people get tired, we have the words of Fidel
Castro himself on that day in 1960, when he revealed from the first
moment the objective of his grim creature: "We are going to establish a
system of collective surveillance. We are going to establish a system of
Revolutionary collective surveillance!"
27 September 2012
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