Monday, October 29, 2007

Cuba's Waning System of Block-Watchers

Washington Post

Cuba's Waning System of Block-Watchers
Raul Castro May Push to Revitalize a Legacy, and Enforcement Tool, of the Revolution

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 30, 2007; A10

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.

In 1961, after the U.S.-planned Bay of Pigs invasion, the CDRs delivered an awesome display of power. Within hours of the failed attack, thousands of suspected dissenters were arrested, many of them identified from CDR lists.

"The CDRs paralyzed the counterrevolution, and they did it quickly," Norberto Fuentes, an exiled Cuban author and onetime friend of the Castros, said in an interview from his Miami home.

In those days, the leadership ranks of the block committees were stacked with Castro loyalists. Over the years, many of Castro's former comrades died or fell out of favor, leaving more and more CDRs in the hands of the less zealous.

Even in their current state of decay, the CDRs remain one of the most enduring inventions of the Castro revolution, a one-of-a-kind system that serves as his eyes and ears on every block in Cuba. In a 1990 speech at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the CDRs, Fidel Castro called them a key to Cuba's future.

"We want to always have a proud and independent homeland instead of a Yankee colony," Castro said. "We must save the Revolution. We must save socialism. This is the task we urge the 7.5 million CDR members to undertake."

Every Cuban is expected to join the local CDR and participate in committee activities whether or not they are Communist Party members. Each CDR has a popularly elected president and separate secretaries of security, volunteerism and education.

Some Cubans don't join or don't participate, but at great risk of being labeled an "enemy of the Revolution." CDR presidents can organize "acts of repudiation," in which neighbors stand outside the homes of those suspected of illegal activity and scream insults -- sometimes for days.

When a Cuban wants a job in the lucrative tourism industry -- where a worker can earn three or four times the usual state salary -- the CDR president's imprimatur is essential. Applicants labeled "anti-social," code for transgressions such as dissident activity or lack of interest in volunteer projects, are almost assured of being turned down.

If a child is born, active CDR presidents pay a visit to the parents.

"We start to attend to the political development of a child, in a gradual way, from the time they are born," said DeLeon, a veteran of the Revolution who has a photograph of Fidel Castro in his living room.

As the child grows, DeLeon is watching. He stops by to make sure children are attending classes, especially the courses on Cuban history that recount Castro's triumph.

"We're creating something," DeLeon said, "Something called a 'political conscience.' "
Keeping Tabs on Dissidents

Fifteen minutes outside central Havana, in the Vibora neighborhood, Rafael Garc¿a lives in a home with a bucket for a shower.

When he became CDR president 12 years ago, his monthly meetings were jammed with as many as 75 people. Now he sometimes convenes meetings before an empty room. He has to walk his block, pounding on doors, to get anyone to attend.

"They're trying to rescue this system," said Garc¿a, a 50-year-old mechanic. "But I don't think there's a chance of it flourishing. Every year people hear the same thing -- they'll get more money, their lives will improve -- and nothing changes."

Garc¿a's CDR is just down the street from DeLeon's. DeLeon is strict; Garc¿a, lax. But they agree about the decline of CDRs. Still hopeful for a CDR renaissance, DeLeon is a hawk who misses nothing on his block.

"We know who the dissidents are, where they work, who they meet with -- we know everything that happens on this block," DeLeon said. "Anyone who is not a revolutionary is an enemy of the Revolution."

For years, he watched a dissident whom he identified only as Miguel. When Miguel moved in across the street, DeLeon said he told him he would not tolerate demonstrations or speeches.

"He wasn't a stupid person," DeLeon said. "He listened to me and didn't give me any trouble."

Because Miguel followed the rules, he was allowed to continue living there. Others -- including dissidents who had written anti-Castro materials or run illegal libraries or schools -- have been imprisoned for treason.

DeLeon wrote down who Miguel met with, who picked him up, virtually everything about him, expanding the government's database of party opponents. Eventually, though, there was no more information to collect. Miguel had disappeared into exile in Florida.

While DeLeon relishes the role of neighborhood enforcer as "fundamental to the Revolution," Garc¿a chafes at police pressure to gather tidbits about his neighbors.

"They tell me, 'You have to be doing this,' " he said as he slowly wiped oil from his calloused hands with a red rag. "They say, 'You have to be watching.' "

More often than not, though, Garc¿a has nothing for the police dossiers.

"If someone is making duros fr¿os and selling them," he said, describing homemade fruit popsicles, "what am I going to do, turn them in? They can't buy those at the state store because the state store doesn't sell them. It's hot. Why not have a popsicle?"
Under the Radar, for a While

Several months ago, a thickset man with a wide smile thought he had found urban nirvana.

The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he runs an illegal business, had moved to Havana because of a medical condition that required frequent visits to the capital's big hospitals. The government must approve address changes and some people find it impossible to navigate the bureaucracy. (Cubans can own homes, but cannot legally sell them commercially or rent out rooms.)

For a long time, the man recalled, he and his wife bounced from one illegally rented apartment to another. Once, they returned from a trip and found a new renter sleeping on their sheets and using their things.

Then they got lucky, finding a reasonably priced apartment in a nice neighborhood. They thought they were set. Yet each night when he came home, the man noticed the local CDR president stealing glances at him.

The man was unnerved, but conflicted. He had benefited greatly from the CDR system. The CDRs kept his neighborhood safe and made sure he got vaccinations as a child.

In a loose CDR, the couple might have been able to deal with the problem. A small bribe -- a bottle of rum or a bag of rice -- would have done it. But not here. The president was a stickler.

After several weeks, a policeman knocked. He told them they had to go.

Monday, October 08, 2007

How a Western changed the way Cubans speak.

the good word
3:10 to Yuma in Cuba
How a Western changed the way Cubans speak.
By Brett Sokol
Posted Monday, Oct. 8, 2007, at 12:21 PM ET

For most American fans of classic Western cinema, Delmer Davies' 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is simply a cult favorite, one recently rescued from obscurity by the $55 million remake that is packing multiplexes from coast to coast. In Cuba, however, the original 3:10 to Yuma has had a major impact on everyday conversation. Take a walk down any of Havana's main thoroughfares and you'll hear American visitors hailed as yumas, while the United States itself is affectionately dubbed La Yuma. You won't find those phrases in any state-issued dictionary, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro stubbornly opts for the more derisive yanqui in his own public speeches, but outside of bureaucratic circles it's yuma that holds sway.

How on earth did this happen?

During the late 1950s, American-owned "United" firms such as the United Fruit Company maintained high-profile holdings in Cuba. Since the word united doesn't exactly roll off the tongue in Spanish, Cubans adopted the moniker La Yunay. Likewise, when referring to their neighbor across the Florida Straits, Cubans sometimes opted for a Spanglish version of United States—Yunay Estey—rather than the formal Estados Unidos. When the original 3:10 to Yuma hit Cuban cinemas, it inspired a spin on the already extant yunay, and the new slang term quickly took off.

Yuma held a prominent place in the popular lexicon until shortly after the 1959 revolution, but then it hit a rough patch. As tensions with the U.S. government built to a boil, American pop culture came to be seen by Castro as just another weapon in Uncle Sam's arsenal. Westerns received a particularly harsh drubbing from el presidente: With their often less-than-enlightened portrayal of Native Americans, and genre standard-bearer John Wayne's staunch public support of the U.S. troops in Vietnam, these films were dismissed as imperialism writ large—10-gallon cowboy hats and all. The Cuban government, which controlled (and indeed still controls) all film distribution on the island, eventually pulled most American movies from theaters. And with Communist officials frowning at its social implications, the word yuma fell out of use.

Yet while once-beloved films like 3:10 to Yuma may have been banned, they were anything but forgotten. By the late '70s, with audiences weary of a steady diet of didactic Soviet-bloc and Western European art flicks, a powerful nostalgia had developed for classic U.S. cinema. Even new generations of Cuban hipsters, raised without ever seeing an old-school celluloid cowboy, were pining for a glimpse of the censored Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. "We were so fed up with those bad Soviet films," recalled Alejandro Ríos, then a twenty-something Havana movie critic, now a scholar in Miami. "And they weren't the worst of it! You haven't experienced boredom until you've tried to sit through a North Korean film."

Fortunately, by 1978 an ideological thaw inside Cuba's national film institute, ICAIC, permitted the exhibition of once politically incorrect movies. And Westerns, that most forbidden of aesthetic fruits, became the hottest ticket of all.

ICAIC officials dug into their archives and began dusting off copies of films that had arrived before 1959 and, after the revolution, had never been returned to American distributors. 3:10 to Yuma enjoyed the biggest buzz, perhaps because its story line struck a chord with Cuban audiences. Based on a 1953 short story by crime novelist Elmore Leonard, the film is less a conventional shoot 'em-up than a tense psychological drama, focused on a beleaguered cattle rancher (Van Heflin's Dan Evans) and his effort to save his failing farm. Desperate for cash, Evans swears he'll deliver a notorious stagecoach robber (Glenn Ford's Ben Wade) to the 3:10 train bound for the federal prison in Yuma, Ariz., in exchange for a generous bounty.

With Wade's vicious gang at his heels, Evans quickly loses the support of his neighbors—who scurry for cover at the first sign of trouble—as well as his wife, who pleads with him to be sensible and let Wade escape. But Evans turns resolute, and his trek to Yuma becomes a fight for personal honor. "The town drunk gave his life because he believed that people should be able to live in decency and peace together," Evans tells his wife. "Do you think I can do less?" It's not hard to see how Cuban viewers, faced with their own dilemmas of whether to stay or to go—to make their peace with the compromises of life under communism, or to risk everything in leaving for the United States—would read fresh meaning into Evans' principled stand.

With 3:10's return to Cuban theaters, yuma suddenly sprung back into daily usage, and it came loaded with all the implications that a journey north entailed. Legend has it that in 1980, when a desperate Havana bus driver crashed through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy seeking asylum—subsequently sparking the Mariel boatlift that saw over 125,000 Cubans migrate to Miami—his anguished cry was, "I want to go to La Yuma!"

These days Havana's movie theaters are still filled with crowds for the latest Hollywood blockbusters, all projected off imported DVDs with little regard for the U.S. trade embargo. Accordingly, when the remade James Mangold-helmed 3:10 to Yuma arrives there (if precedent is any guide, it'll be the week after the DVD appears in Miami shops), expect younger Cubans—most of whom have continued using yuma even if they're unclear where the word originated—to ponder the term's implications anew.

For his part, Leonard says he's amazed at the legs his 1953 short story has taken on. During a phone interview, he told me he'd just recently become aware of his historic role in shaping Cuba's slang. He'd settled upon the title Three-Ten to Yuma simply because Yuma was the most notorious prison back in the days of the Old West. Then a struggling writer, he received a whopping $90 for the story from Dime Western magazine (their two-cents-a-word rate was on the high end for pulp fiction), $4,000 for the 1957 screen rights, and the promise of another $2,000 if the picture was ever remade. As for the new 3:10 to Yuma's success, he quipped, "My agent is working on getting me that two grand."

Still, Leonard does intend to return Cuba's linguistic tip of the hat. In his next book, he'll bring back from an earlier novel a Cuban character who left the island in the Mariel boatlift. Speaking over the phone from his Detroit home, Leonard assumed the voice of this Marielito and read me a line from his new manuscript: "When Fidel opened the prisons and sent all the bad dudes to La Yuma for their vacation … "

Thanks to Erik Camayd-Freixas and John Jensen of Florida International University, Tony Kapcia of the University of Nottingham and the University of Havana, Elmore Leonard, Tom Miller of the University of Arizona, Lionel Ruiz Miyares of Cuba's Center of Applied Linguistics, Alejandro Ríos of Miami-Dade College's Cuban Cinema Series, Richard Slotkin of Wesleyan University, and Beatriz Varela of the University of New Orleans.
Brett Sokol is a journalist in Miami Beach, where he writes for the Miami Herald and Ocean Drive magazine. He is currently working on a book about hip-hop in Cuba. You can reach him at

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Cuban band battles censorship

Cuban band battles censorship
Posted: Friday, October 05, 2007 12:59 PM
Categories: Havana, Cuba
By Mary Murray, NBC News Producer

A top Cuban rock band – "Moneda Dura" – is in trouble with government censors. Someone decided their newest song is too controversial. Presumably it’s been perceived as too unfavorable to the Cuban government – so it’s been banned on all state-run airwaves.

But, the songwriter feels his work is misunderstood. "We did something important, that mattered to the people who listen," said Nassiry Lugo, the band leader.

VIDEO: Cuba censors hit song

The song is entitled "Mala Leche" – Cuban slang for "evil intentions." It’s the title track on their latest CD, released this summer on the island’s Egrem label.

Despite the official ban – or maybe helped by it – Mala Leche is gaining fame.

Local fans are downloading the contraband from YouTube – and then, sending it straight to the Cuban underground.

Proof that in today’s high-tech world, censorship is no match for a good song.

VIDEO: "Mala Leche" music video

And here is a translation of the "Mala Leche" lyrics:

Evil Intentions

It’s 4 o’clock, the bus is still not here

People around me won’t stop talking

and they drive you nuts

Sweat rolls down my ears

I’m talking about just another typical day

It’s 6.45, I get on the crowded bus

Nauseated by the bad smell of the guy beside me

People pushing all the time

People with evil intentions

Others who hammer my ears

We’re a mixture of grease and iron

We’re like cows hurrying to the slaughter-house

We’re like ants going into a hole

We’re a ball of fire

I find people who live to make things worse for me

People who don’t talk, only bark

People who spit words

If I don’t hurt you, don’t pick on me

If I don’t hurt you, why your evil intentions?

Ah! Tell me what I did to you to make you target me

Relax and cooperate,

Can't operate on the fat in your brain

Don’t take it so hard, your shouting unnerves me

Ah! But tell me, tell me

Why your evil intentions?

7 o’clock in the morning, I slowly eat breakfast

As if I lived in a palace

(Instead of) this tenement and its noise

The lights are still not on

Without a doubt, today will be fun

I spend 15 minutes spying on my neighbour

I get turned on and she doesn’t even look at me

The electricity bill is killing me

But what can I do, if living is also killing me

Now my brain is in a coma

Now my life is a car without tires

Now I was so happy with my vices

All is well when I'm immoveable

I don’t bring solutions, I don’t give surprises

Why am I to be blamed because of your headaches

If we're doing the same, don’t obsess on me

Give your brain a chance to relax

We come from a unique lineage

If we're the heat that burns deeply,

Why don’t we treat each other as brothers

My heart beats when they call me Cuban


Las 4 de la tarde, la guagua que no llega

La gente que no para de hablar y que se desespera

Gotas de sudor que caen por mis ojeras

Te cuento de otro día normal

Las 6:45 me subo apretado

Revuelto por el mal olor que trae el tipo de al lado

La gente que te empuja todo el tiempo

Gente sin pena, otros que taladran fuerte en las orejas.

Somos una masa de grasa y acero

Somos como vacas que se apuran hasta el matadero

Somos las hormigas que van al agujero

Somos una braza de fuego

Y todavía me encuentro con gente que vive

Para ponérmela más mala

Gente que no habla, solo que te ladra

Gente que escupe las palabras

Si yo no te hago daño, no es pa’ que te despeches

Si yo no te hago daño

¿Cuál es tu mala leche?

Ay! Pero dime qué te hice para que me toques las narices

Relájate y coopera la grasa en el cerebro no se opera

Oye no es para tanto, tus gritos ya me vienen estresando

Ay! Pero dime, dime, dime

¿Cuál es tu mala leche?

7 de la mañana desayuno despacio

Como si estuviera en un palacio

El barrio con su bulla

La luz que no ha venido

Hoy va a ser, sin duda, un día entretenido

Paso 15 minutos espiando a mi vecina

Yo que me enveneno y la muy zorra no me mira

La cuenta de la electricidad me está acabando

Pero qué voy a hacer si es que vivir me está matando

Ahora que tengo mi cerebro en coma

Ahora que el carro de mi vida está sin gomas

Ahora que estaba tan tranquilo con mis vicios

Ahora que todo sale cuando me encapricho

No traigo soluciones, no regalo sorpresas

Qué culpa tengo yo de tus dolores de cabeza

Si estamos en lo mismo, no te ofendas no te reprendas

Dale un chance a tu cerebro pa’ que se distienda

Venimos de una estirpe única en el mundo

Si somos el calor que quema desde lo más profundo

Dime por qué no nos tratamos como hermanos

Me late el corazón cuando me dicen cubano.