Cuba's Waning System of Block-Watchers
Cuba's Waning System of Block-Watchers
Raul Castro May Push to Revitalize a Legacy, and Enforcement Tool, of
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 30, 2007; A10
CAMAGUEY, Cuba — Children swarmed the table outside Blanca Peleaz's
concrete home in this central Cuban city. There were cakes and cookies,
gooey frosting and candy speckles, rare abundance in a place where food
shortages are the norm.
The sweets came with a history lesson on a recent muggy evening during a
celebration of the Cuban Revolution. Peleaz and other neighborhood
adults told the youngsters about the Moncada Barracks raid that started
it all. They told the little ones that the Communist Party would lead
the nation to glory.
Then they sang.
"Marching, we move toward an ideal," the grown-ups blared, urging the
youngsters to join in. "Onward, Cubans. Cuba will reward our heroism."
For decades, Peleaz and her mother before her have been keepers of Fidel
Castro's communist message, using their position as the head of the
neighborhood's Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDR, as
an ideological wedge into the minds of their neighbors. Now, in the
twilight of Castro's reign, the fate of the CDRs could provide a clue
about Cuba's future.
Once, in a bygone era when revolutionary fervor was at its apex, they
were muscular entities, dominating street life and cementing Castro's
hold on power. But over the years they have atrophied, becoming more
creaking relic than shining showpiece, victim of the waning enthusiasms
of a population weary of economic deprivation.
As Castro's brother, interim President Raul Castro, prepares to take
full control after his brother's death, party officials take visiting
dignitaries on tours of the committees, and there are signs that the
younger Castro is trying to inject new life into a system that could be
crucial to solidifying his hold on power.
Police call block leaders more often, pressing aggressively for
information, according to interviews with current and former CDR
leaders. Earlier this year, Cuba's state-run television network
broadcast an exposé shaming several committees for failing to post
obligatory round-the-clock sentries.
"We're working to lift up the committees," said Over DeLeon, a veteran
of the Cuban Revolution who has been a block committee president in
Havana for most of the past four decades. "People have not been
demonstrating the same spirit, faith and enthusiasm. The population is
tired. It has been battling for many years. But we must be vigilant."
Restoring the CDRs to their former glory might be a monumental task. For
every unabashed enthusiast such as DeLeon, it seems, there are other CDR
leaders whose passion for the system has tapered off.
Putting Peer Pressure to Work
Cuba's block committees were born in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro's
revolutionary forces toppled the corrupt, U.S.-friendly government of
Fulgencio Batista. Concerned about a U.S. invasion, Castro's government
adopted a motto, still present on Cuban billboards: "In a fortress under
siege, all dissent is treason."
The concept behind the CDRs was to create a citizen force that would
reinforce the dictates of Cuba's government, establishing a kind of
omnipresent peer pressure network among next-door neighbors. Leaders of
CDRs could put Castro's every public thought directly and rapidly into
the hands of every Cuban, so the government would not have to rely
solely on mass media.
In 1961, after the U.S.-planned Bay of Pigs invasion, the CDRs delivered
an awesome display of power. Within hours of the failed attack,
thousands of suspected dissenters were arrested, many of them identified
from CDR lists.
"The CDRs paralyzed the counterrevolution, and they did it quickly,"
Norberto Fuentes, an exiled Cuban author and onetime friend of the
Castros, said in an interview from his Miami home.
In those days, the leadership ranks of the block committees were stacked
with Castro loyalists. Over the years, many of Castro's former comrades
died or fell out of favor, leaving more and more CDRs in the hands of
the less zealous.
Even in their current state of decay, the CDRs remain one of the most
enduring inventions of the Castro revolution, a one-of-a-kind system
that serves as his eyes and ears on every block in Cuba. In a 1990
speech at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana to celebrate the 30th
anniversary of the CDRs, Fidel Castro called them a key to Cuba's future.
"We want to always have a proud and independent homeland instead of a
Yankee colony," Castro said. "We must save the Revolution. We must save
socialism. This is the task we urge the 7.5 million CDR members to
Every Cuban is expected to join the local CDR and participate in
committee activities whether or not they are Communist Party members.
Each CDR has a popularly elected president and separate secretaries of
security, volunteerism and education.
Some Cubans don't join or don't participate, but at great risk of being
labeled an "enemy of the Revolution." CDR presidents can organize "acts
of repudiation," in which neighbors stand outside the homes of those
suspected of illegal activity and scream insults — sometimes for days.
When a Cuban wants a job in the lucrative tourism industry — where a
worker can earn three or four times the usual state salary — the CDR
president's imprimatur is essential. Applicants labeled "anti-social,"
code for transgressions such as dissident activity or lack of interest
in volunteer projects, are almost assured of being turned down.
If a child is born, active CDR presidents pay a visit to the parents.
"We start to attend to the political development of a child, in a
gradual way, from the time they are born," said DeLeon, a veteran of the
Revolution who has a photograph of Fidel Castro in his living room.
As the child grows, DeLeon is watching. He stops by to make sure
children are attending classes, especially the courses on Cuban history
that recount Castro's triumph.
"We're creating something," DeLeon said, "Something called a 'political
Keeping Tabs on Dissidents
Fifteen minutes outside central Havana, in the Vibora neighborhood,
Rafael Garc¿a lives in a home with a bucket for a shower.
When he became CDR president 12 years ago, his monthly meetings were
jammed with as many as 75 people. Now he sometimes convenes meetings
before an empty room. He has to walk his block, pounding on doors, to
get anyone to attend.
"They're trying to rescue this system," said Garc¿a, a 50-year-old
mechanic. "But I don't think there's a chance of it flourishing. Every
year people hear the same thing — they'll get more money, their lives
will improve — and nothing changes."
Garc¿a's CDR is just down the street from DeLeon's. DeLeon is strict;
Garc¿a, lax. But they agree about the decline of CDRs. Still hopeful for
a CDR renaissance, DeLeon is a hawk who misses nothing on his block.
"We know who the dissidents are, where they work, who they meet with —
we know everything that happens on this block," DeLeon said. "Anyone who
is not a revolutionary is an enemy of the Revolution."
For years, he watched a dissident whom he identified only as Miguel.
When Miguel moved in across the str
eet, DeLeon said he told him he would
not tolerate demonstrations or speeches.
"He wasn't a stupid person," DeLeon said. "He listened to me and didn't
give me any trouble."
Because Miguel followed the rules, he was allowed to continue living
there. Others — including dissidents who had written anti-Castro
materials or run illegal libraries or schools — have been imprisoned
DeLeon wrote down who Miguel met with, who picked him up, virtually
everything about him, expanding the government's database of party
opponents. Eventually, though, there was no more information to collect.
Miguel had disappeared into exile in Florida.
While DeLeon relishes the role of neighborhood enforcer as "fundamental
to the Revolution," Garc¿a chafes at police pressure to gather tidbits
about his neighbors.
"They tell me, 'You have to be doing this,' " he said as he slowly wiped
oil from his calloused hands with a red rag. "They say, 'You have to be
More often than not, though, Garc¿a has nothing for the police dossiers.
"If someone is making duros fr¿os and selling them," he said, describing
homemade fruit popsicles, "what am I going to do, turn them in? They
can't buy those at the state store because the state store doesn't sell
them. It's hot. Why not have a popsicle?"
Under the Radar, for a While
Several months ago, a thickset man with a wide smile thought he had
found urban nirvana.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he runs an illegal
business, had moved to Havana because of a medical condition that
required frequent visits to the capital's big hospitals. The government
must approve address changes and some people find it impossible to
navigate the bureaucracy. (Cubans can own homes, but cannot legally sell
them commercially or rent out rooms.)
For a long time, the man recalled, he and his wife bounced from one
illegally rented apartment to another. Once, they returned from a trip
and found a new renter sleeping on their sheets and using their things.
Then they got lucky, finding a reasonably priced apartment in a nice
neighborhood. They thought they were set. Yet each night when he came
home, the man noticed the local CDR president stealing glances at him.
The man was unnerved, but conflicted. He had benefited greatly from the
CDR system. The CDRs kept his neighborhood safe and made sure he got
vaccinations as a child.
In a loose CDR, the couple might have been able to deal with the
problem. A small bribe — a bottle of rum or a bag of rice — would have
done it. But not here. The president was a stickler.
After several weeks, a policeman knocked. He told them they had to go.