In Cuba, thousands of neighborhood cells set up as the eyes and ears of Fidel Castro’s communist revolution are trying to find ways to lure young people who have little interest in the cause.
It has been six decades since Castro created the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to keep watch for his then-shaky government, and the 138,000 committees remain an enduring symbol of communism on the island.
However, enthusiasm for the neighborhood associations has waned in the past few years, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, the boosting of US sanctions and a severe economic crisis that has eroded purchasing power.
“The new generation wants nothing to do with all that,” a female student said, asking not to be named.
Every citizen automatically becomes a member at 14, but getting them to engage is a challenge.
“Today, young people sleep with their phone in their pocket, and as soon as they turn it on, there is a media bombardment against our [socialist] process,” CDR national coordinator Gerardo Hernandez, 58, said.
He was one of the “Cuban Five” spies who were imprisoned in the US in 1998, and whose release helped pave the way for a 2014 thaw in ties between the Cold War foes.
A local hero, he has been given the tricky task of revitalizing the committees, at a time when the nation is undergoing a transformation, opening up to private small businesses, allowing citizens to buy and sell houses, and the arrival of Internet access.
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled the economic crisis.
“We are trying to reverse this situation and make young people understand that the CDRs offer them an extraordinary opportunity to develop their vocation and to have an influence on their community,” Hernandez said, as the CDR held its tenth annual congress last month, at which it held a debate on how to make the cells “attractive to young people.”
Initially set up as a surveillance network to denounce “counter-revolutionaries,” the CDRs organize community projects and coordinate services such as vaccination campaigns and blood drives.
The defense committees are particularly visible during elections, presiding over neighborhood meetings and scrupulously controlling citizens’ participation. Surveillance is still a key part of their work, and they keep a lookout for drug trafficking, tax evasion and other crimes.
Cells exist in every neighborhood and village, and the government counts about 8 million members — more than three-quarters of the nation’s population — including those who are not active.
Manuel Cuesta Morua is a dissident who faced “acts of repudiation” in the 2000s, when large groups of CDR members would verbally and physically abuse opponents.
“Young people today are much more pragmatic, much more transactional,” Cuesta Morua said. “They participate when it is to their advantage.”
“The youth are apolitical, they don’t identify with the government, which they associate with the CDR,” he added.
He said that no one in his family had taken over from his mother, who he described as a “CDR activist.”
Seated at a cafe in Old Havana, Lazaro, 43, who did not want to give his last name, criticized the association.
“The CDR has never helped me. I always had to get by on my own,” Lazaro said.
Every year, on the night of Sept. 27, CDR members get together in their neighborhood for a party around a stew cooked on an open fire. Everyone brings what they can.
Ernesto Lemus, 56, president of a CDR in Old Havana, said the party was an important “continuity” of the 1959 revolution, which saw a radical shift to communism, heightening tensions with the US during the Cold War.
“A few years ago, it was a party, but not anymore. Today there is nothing and everything is expensive, there is no more unity in this regard,” said gardener Rafael Caballero Lopez, 35, who is planning to emigrate to Colombia.
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