HAVANA TIMES — It’s been nearly a week since the congress of Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) ended, but Fidel Castro continues to stare at us from the red and green banners designed for the occasion.
With the look of a petulant father to him, he appears to scold us, challenge us with his long finger, the one we’ve seen on Cuba’s Round Table program so often, vigorously tapping the table to emphasize a given point.
Cuban flags still hang, forsaken, from clotheslines and balconies, washed by the rains of the season.
Another CDR congress and anniversary came to an end this past 28th of September.
Havana’s neighborhoods filled with bonfire smoke, blaring raeggeton music and thick, dark stews flavored with pig-head meat prepared in sooty cauldrons.
Every CDR set up its small, miserable table-altar, sarcastic altars with stale cakes placed in the boxes used to sell the more expensive, hard-currency pastries, watered-down rum, cheap wine and a horribly sweet syrup-like drink. The assignation of State products did not improve this year.
I liked our 28th of September celebrations when I was a kid. The times in which CDR members threw eggs and tomatoes at doors and neighbors (as reprisals against those who chose to leave the country) were behind us. It was the 90s, and there wasn’t enough of anything to throw at people.
In the morning of CDR Day, the kids from the block would get together and split into two groups to go out and gather recyclable materials and vegetables. We would go around the Soviet-styled apartment buildings carrying bunches of plantains and crushed aluminum toothpaste tubes.
At noon, we would begin to “dress up” the neighborhood: we would cover up fences with fleshy palm leaves, make chains out of newspaper pages and hang up the bits of aluminum paper that people threw out after making lids for one-liter milk bottles.
The most thrilling time for us was when night fell, when we had to stand “guard”, something we translated into a game of hide-and-seek “with our uniforms on.”
We would stay awake until someone handed us a piece of paper we were supposed to take to school the next day, as proof of our “revolutionary vigilance and combativeness.”
I couldn’t say when the lively atmosphere that characterized these occasions began to fade away.
The fact of the matter is that people stopped going outside for a breath of fresh air and to converse with their neighbors on benches and sidewalks.
CDR meetings became less and less frequent. People stopped doing volunteer work on Sundays and the gardens in the neighborhood common areas were swallowed up by weeds.
This last 28th of September festivity was as lively as a funeral, a gathering that came to an end when the soap opera’s theme music began to be heard at 9.
The Congress was a desperate attempt at resurrecting an institution that is very much dead.
The toughness of everyday life in Cuba, governed by the maxim of “everyone to himself”, robs people of the energy needed to be “combative” or to undertake collective initiatives.
Government leaders speak of reducing social indiscipline and combating the proliferation of drugs. They call on people to donate blood and participate in sanitation and clean-up campaigns.
In the meantime, people listen to raeggeton music, watch unemployment rates go up and salaries remain frozen.
Something, however, has changed: now, the neighborhood watch formerly entrusted to CDR members is in the hands of those who look after Cuba’s new private businesses.