Cuba's Waning System of Block-Watchers

Over DeLeon, with his wife, Luisa Mar¿a, has been a block committee president in Havana for almost 40 years, using a strict approach.
Over DeLeon, with his wife, Luisa Mar¿a, has been a block committee president in Havana for almost 40 years, using a strict approach. (By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

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.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company