Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Night With the CDRs

Photo: Dusk through the windows of my bedroom in Havana.

“Tonight you’ll see what it means to live in Cuba. Tonight you’ll understand what it is to live in fear.”

As night fell, Havana’s oppressive heat gave way to a gentle, sweet-smelling Caribbean breeze. The power had gone out midway through my shower and I found myself using a 5-gallon bucket and soup ladle to rinse the soap off my body. As the last remnants of the Irish Spring I’d brought with me to Cuba for my family rolled off my body, I rested my chin on the tiny square window sill that looked out onto the side lawn of the house from the shower. I have a mind that tends to wander and meander through the oddest of topics. Had my great grandfather rested his chin on these very same tiles at some point during La Revolucion? How had this very same bathroom changed over the past 40-plus years – what types of colognes and liniments lined the medicine cabinet the day Fidel marched into town. How did it smell the day night fell on Havana?

Suddenly, my cousin Emilio began to rap on the door; “Oye, let’s go,” he whined, “we’re going to be late,” he added as he tapped on the face of his watch. I tossed on an old tee shirt, took off my watch and exchanged my new sneakers for a pair of ratty flip-flops. I’d need to pass as an islander if I wished to be easily accepted at the party. We hopped into Emilio’s Muskovitch and rumbled on down the road.

Earlier that afternoon, Emilio had set the agenda for the evening during a dinner of yucca and rice. My visit happened to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Committees for Defense of the Revolution (CDR), the government’s nationwide system of neighborhood eyes. Bad-mouth the government within earshot of these folks and you can expect trouble. Ours was a house divided by the CDRs, as Emilio’s sister was the neighborhood CDR chief, something her mother – my aunt Cuca – found so repulsive, she made it a point to listen to Radio Marti broadcasts from Miami whenever her daughter was within earshot. Tonight was to be a learning experience.

Driving through the streets of small town Cuba at night is a strangely eerie experience. The streetlights were shut off long ago, leaving the only available light to see by, that emanating from passing cars. As we made several tight turns in a cluttered residential neighborhood, we’d catch little snippets of life in Fidel’s Cuba, frozen in time for brief moments by the yellowish haze of our headlights; a boy walking his mangy dog on a frayed rope lead, a young woman perched atop the hood of a Lada, passionately kissing her boyfriend, and on every block, impromptu barbecues held street side, complete with 55-gallon drums loaded with homemade charcoal on which cooking chicken emitted a scent that mixed with the smell of the ocean and thick exhaust fumes trailing out of the tail pipes of any number of 50’s-era American cars. All of this, in celebration of the CDRs. These were the old guard celebrating, the ones who had staked everything in the revolution when it triumphed back in ’59. Nary a young face was to be seen street side. Only wiggly chins and aging jowls.

“Look at these people,” snapped Emilio. “They only continue to support him because that’s all they have left. The memory of what they thought they were fighting for.”


Photo: Emilio at the wheel of his sister's car.


Within a few minutes, Emilio pumped the brakes and brought us to a halt in front of a Soviet-.style apartment building. As the engine sputtered to a halt I slipped a small tape recorder into my pocket.

Inside the courtyard of the apartment complex, a decrepit structure blighted by peeling paint and crumbling stairwells, salsa music mixed with cheap government rum made for quite a raucous-sounding party. As Emilio and I made our way through the crowd of mostly young people, an older woman handed me a plastic glass of something that smelled more like kerosene than rum and I was introduced as a cousin visiting from a neighboring province. Toasts were made, cigarettes were lit and I began to let my guard down just a little bit.

Over the course of the next half hour, I was introduced to a dozen or so locals. Emilio told those he trusted the real story – that I was in Cuba for the first time, on a mission to unearth my roots and get to know my family for the first time. Snickers began to emanate from the faces of those around me as an older woman who served as the president of the local CDR began to speak with some of the old guard in attendance about the glories of the revolution. Most were there simply for the salsa music and free rum. “Nobody gives a shit about Fidel,” whispered the woman next to me as she grabbed my arm.

Finally, at midnight, the old CDR president asked for silence.

“Well my friends, its already midnight. The 40th anniversary of the CDRs is upon us. Long live Fidel! Long live our commander in chief. Fatherland or death, we will succeed!”

Photo: Fidel Castro appears on the weekly television roundtable, "Mesa Redonda."

At first I sat silently through her recitations until I felt a tug at my right arm. “Oye, you’ve got to say it, you’ve got to pump your fist,” whispered Emilio. I thought for a few very brief moments. If I were to pump my fist in the air and give out a “long live Fidel” chant, it would feel like spitting on my own family. Forgoing the fist-pump however would most surely result in trouble. Too many people at the event knew my cousin and his association with an overt “anti-revolutionary” would garner attention. I crossed the fingers of my left hand, took a gulp of air and exclaimed “Venceremos!” (We will win!) in response to the customary statement, posed as a sort of timid question “Patria o meurte?,” Fatherland or death?

Fatherland or death. My aunt Cuca had brought up that very topic earlier in the day, railing on about the way Cuban school children were indoctrinated into party policy by repeating those very same statements at the compulsory rallies their parents often attended in downtown Havana. Is “Patria o Muerte” so different from the pledge of allegiance I myself had grown up with during grade school in rural Pennsylvania? The difference lay in the fact that American statements of patriotism don’t often involve the topic of death unless you live in New Hampshire (Live Free or Die). “What does a 12-year-old know of politics?” said tia Cuca. “Why does my child need to sing of the glories of Fidel every morning in the schoolyard?” “The only thing Fidel ever brought us was misery.”

Over the course of the evening, glasses of rum continued to be foisted upon me until the alcohol began to assist in the pulling of my heart strings. Visions of what had happened to my family began to play in my head. This, combined with my earlier fist pumping caused the tears to begin to well up in my eyes until finally, I asked Emilio to take me home. Guilt had indeed set in. We left the sweaty smell of revolutionary indoctrination at 1:30 in the morning. Not a word was uttered between us on the ride home. I got the point, primo. I got the point.

1 comment:

Marijke said...

People should read this.

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