Whenever I think about my childhood I’m overcome by an emotional ambivalence: the remembrances of a happy past along with the certainty that many of the mistakes of the present originated back then. Because my childhood —having reached the age of reason and attained affective memory— was in the 70s, a decade that, I would later know, was characterized by the assumption of a bureaucratizing model of socialism, which established ideological conditionings and steamrolled everything that didn’t agree with its norms: from economic law to critical thinking.
Among the fond memories are the activities of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). Staunch critics will deny any sort of value in that organization and will exaggerate its coercive component of surveillance. Young people today, as a general rule, only hear about it once a year, when they come around asking for the members’ contribution, or in case they need a reference or a check in order to apply for certain jobs. And it’s because the CDR, like other organizations, have suffered the same erosion as the revolutionary process.
However, they were about a lot more that just surveillance and contributions. The CDR involved people with sincere enthusiasm in activities related to the decoration and hygiene of neighborhoods, to civic campaigns for the common good, like the collection of recyclable materials and blood donations, and to the support of neighbors in need and the organization of joyful festivities.
My father was a sincere cederista, and in my block in Jovellanos anything that came from the organization was taken very seriously. And it wasn’t because someone came to harangue or demand; enthusiasm cannot be imposed by decree, despite what our leaders might think.
I’m listening to the song dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the CDR. As it’s been the case in the last few years, it’s by Arnaldo y su Talismán, so it also seems to be continuity. The tune is very similar to previous ones —also continuity?— and the lyrics incite to ‘sow a little piece of faith’. I’m listening to it and I remember the time when revolutionaries had confidence and enthusiasm, when the word faith was more often associated with religious beliefs, which weren’t popular back then.
Even though you became a member of the CDR when you turned fourteen, the neighborhood kids considered it our thing. I haven’t forgotten the small benches and chairs neighbors brought to be able to sit, because the monthly meetings were really crowded. In them they checked neighborhood watch schedules, which were regularly kept. Few burglars took their chances; they knew that they’d have to deal with a couple of neighbors watching over each block.
It was a time in which the emerging Organizations of People’s Power (PP) —created as an experiment in the province of Matanzas in 1974— were strongly interweaved with the neighborhood institution, which was older. The PP delegates received requests from the CDR, collective agreements from the neighbors in order to carry out works for the improvement of the local communities. That guaranteed construction materials, while the workforce was provided by the voluntary effort of cederistas. In that way I saw sidewalks being made and a dusty patch of terrain being cemented, under a huge mamey tree, which served as a children’s playground and a locale for celebrations, especially the anticipated festivity on the night of September 27, the eve of the 28th, when the organization was founded in 1960.
Those who didn’t live in that period, which includes the 1980s, will think that the caldosa of the CDR is the traditional dish of September 28. This was a collective hot pot that appeared 30 years ago and to which neighbors contributed an increasingly smaller number of ingredients as the crisis of the special period became endemic and more acute due to the erroneous strategies of the country’s leadership.
It didn’t use to be like that. Before, each CDR in this island got an amount of beer and soft drink cases, a huge cake and enough ingredients so that everyone in the neighborhood could have a box the typical rice and beans, yucca and roasted pork. That was paid for with the funds gathered through the members’ contribution. In spite of that, the neighbors would contribute spices and other seasonings.
Since the day before we would be supplied with newspapers and colored paper, scissors and glue. And that way, sharing laughter and stories, and under the supervision of the adults, children and young people would produce meters and meters of paper chains, fans and other decorations. Along with the little flags, they filled the porches and sidewalks, and the block would welcome the day looking all beautified. It was a competition with other neighborhoods everyone wanted to win.
Roasting the meat while the music played, handing out recognitions —my father was always named the best at blood donations—, organizing competitions to entertain the huge amount of children in the neighborhood (let’s remember the baby boom of the 1960s, which kept us from thinking about today’s possibility of extinction)… they’re all images I treasure.
It was a community in which nice-looking houses coexisted with other, more humble-looking ones, and even with an enormous tenement block, which still exists; and in which there were, as usual, disagreements between neighbors. These customs were maintained even during the 1980s, when the CDR were used to carry out acts of repudiation against people who left the country through Mariel port. In my block we never had to go through that.
Perhaps that’s why the memories I treasure are positive, and perhaps that’s also why the organization doesn’t compare well to its current situation. The CDR have been, for some time now, a formal structure, one of many that still exist, far removed from the confidence and optimism that prevailed back then. I don’t believe that’s their fault; it’s part of the deterioration of a model of socialism in which power ceased to belong to the people —if it ever did— and became openly bureaucratic.
We went from confidence to faith.