Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cuba's neighborhood watches: 50 years of eyes, ears

Cuba's neighborhood watches: 50 years of eyes, ears
By Isabel Sanchez (AFP)

HAVANA — Pituca is 68, a frail wisp of a woman dressed in a housecoat
whose looks may be deceiving: the ex-armed forces captain is a founder
of Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, neighborhood
watch groups marking their 50th anniversary Tuesday.

She cannot walk too far for too long any more.

But Francisca Diaz, nicknamed Pituca (Twiggy), still stands overnight
guard to protect communist Cuba from the perceived threat of "the
Enemy," the United States, just like she has since Fidel Castro launched
the CDRs -- as they as known in Spanish -- five decades ago, though now
she is technically retired.

CDRs, often described as a pillar of the communist regime itself, are
the self-styled "eyes and ears of the Revolution" in Cuba.

Critics say the watch groups are a repressive tool, giving the
government a heads-up on dissident activities on the micro-local level,
sometimes tattling on the non-compliant.

Indeed, 8.4 million Cubans over 14 of the national population of 11.2
million register as CDR members; some critics claim Cubans fear
potential reprisals if they do not toe the party line.

The political model has been exported to Venezuela, Nicaragua and
Ecuador to considerably more criticism in countries with multiparty
political systems.

In the Americas' only one-party communist regime, Fidel Castro, 84 --
who stepped aside from the presidency during a 2006 health crisis but
remains head of the Cuban Communist Party -- was to make an address at
1200 GMT to mark the occasion Tuesday.

Castro was to make his speech in front of the Museum of the Revolution.
It was there, at the former presidential palace, that on September 28,
1960 he announced the creation of CDRs as Cuba faced a wave of violent
attacks after he rose to power January 1, 1959.

Though she has spent years fending off the Enemy, Diaz's latest job is
explaining to neighbors President Raul Castro's recent massive state
employee firing plan, a source of great local concern.

"Over there is the Enemy," she told AFP referring to the United States.

"My legs really are too tired for marching, but I do still have my
heart, and my tongue, to defend the Revolution with," Diaz said as she
dusted off old pictures of Fidel Castro in the dining room of her humble
home ahead of the anniversary party.

"But we do a wide range of work," mentioning vaccination campaigns,
blood banks, recycling, practicing evacuations for hurricanes, and
backing up the government in its fight against corruption.

On her list of 110 neighbors, she knows everyone personally, and has
their names, addresses and occupation data.

Her husband, Lazaro Sanchez, 68, agreed that there was critical work to
do "orienting people" about government policy because "the Enemy as well
as (Cuban) sellouts take advantage of confusion to sow doubts."

The CDR's emblem is a man with a machete raised high in the air, a
symbol reminiscent of Cuba's sugar workers. But the machete might as
well be a threat, for some critics.

The CDRs really "are a tool for the systematic and mass violation of
human rights, for ideological and repressive discrimination. They assist
the police and the secret service," said dissident Elizardo Sanchez. He
noted that CDRs even held rallies against people who chose to emigrate
in the 1980 Mariel boat lift to the United States. Some 125,000 Cubans
left the country in that episode alone.

Celia, a 51-year-old teacher, said she was bothered by having to have to
offer her personal information when someone questions her conduct or
"political reliability."

"They know everything. And the worst thing is that sometimes they start
gossip because someone is jealous about something," she said.

Diaz insists the only thing CDRs might report on is someone stealing
from the state, a massive problem in a country where the government
controls more than 90 percent of the economy, and salaries average under
20 dollars a month.

But for Lazaro Sanchez, the CDRs work can indeed be political and not
just to help the police.

"If we have to act, we are going to act. Our streets cannot belong to
criminals, or to counterrevolutionaries. The (US) Empire has the FBI;
the Revolution has its CDRs," Lazaro Sanchez argued.


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