By Isabel Sanchez (AFP) – Sep 27, 2010
HAVANA — Pituca is 68, a frail wisp of a woman dressed in a housecoat whose looks may be deceiving: the ex-armed forces captain is a founder of Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, neighborhood watch groups marking their 50th anniversary Tuesday.
She cannot walk too far for too long any more.
But Francisca Diaz, nicknamed Pituca (Twiggy), still stands overnight guard to protect communist Cuba from the perceived threat of "the Enemy," the United States, just like she has since Fidel Castro launched the CDRs -- as they as known in Spanish -- five decades ago, though now she is technically retired.
CDRs, often described as a pillar of the communist regime itself, are the self-styled "eyes and ears of the Revolution" in Cuba.
Critics say the watch groups are a repressive tool, giving the government a heads-up on dissident activities on the micro-local level, sometimes tattling on the non-compliant.
Indeed, 8.4 million Cubans over 14 of the national population of 11.2 million register as CDR members; some critics claim Cubans fear potential reprisals if they do not toe the party line.
The political model has been exported to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador to considerably more criticism in countries with multiparty political systems.
In the Americas' only one-party communist regime, Fidel Castro, 84 -- who stepped aside from the presidency during a 2006 health crisis but remains head of the Cuban Communist Party -- was to make an address at 1200 GMT to mark the occasion Tuesday.
Castro was to make his speech in front of the Museum of the Revolution. It was there, at the former presidential palace, that on September 28, 1960 he announced the creation of CDRs as Cuba faced a wave of violent attacks after he rose to power January 1, 1959.
Though she has spent years fending off the Enemy, Diaz's latest job is explaining to neighbors President Raul Castro's recent massive state employee firing plan, a source of great local concern.
"Over there is the Enemy," she told AFP referring to the United States.
"My legs really are too tired for marching, but I do still have my heart, and my tongue, to defend the Revolution with," Diaz said as she dusted off old pictures of Fidel Castro in the dining room of her humble home ahead of the anniversary party.
"But we do a wide range of work," mentioning vaccination campaigns, blood banks, recycling, practicing evacuations for hurricanes, and backing up the government in its fight against corruption.
On her list of 110 neighbors, she knows everyone personally, and has their names, addresses and occupation data.
Her husband, Lazaro Sanchez, 68, agreed that there was critical work to do "orienting people" about government policy because "the Enemy as well as (Cuban) sellouts take advantage of confusion to sow doubts."
The CDR's emblem is a man with a machete raised high in the air, a symbol reminiscent of Cuba's sugar workers. But the machete might as well be a threat, for some critics.
The CDRs really "are a tool for the systematic and mass violation of human rights, for ideological and repressive discrimination. They assist the police and the secret service," said dissident Elizardo Sanchez. He noted that CDRs even held rallies against people who chose to emigrate in the 1980 Mariel boat lift to the United States. Some 125,000 Cubans left the country in that episode alone.
Celia, a 51-year-old teacher, said she was bothered by having to have to offer her personal information when someone questions her conduct or "political reliability."
"They know everything. And the worst thing is that sometimes they start gossip because someone is jealous about something," she said.
Diaz insists the only thing CDRs might report on is someone stealing from the state, a massive problem in a country where the government controls more than 90 percent of the economy, and salaries average under 20 dollars a month.
But for Lazaro Sanchez, the CDRs work can indeed be political and not just to help the police.
"If we have to act, we are going to act. Our streets cannot belong to criminals, or to counterrevolutionaries. The (US) Empire has the FBI; the Revolution has its CDRs," Lazaro Sanchez argued.
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