Rapid Response

By Irina Echarry

On Thursday afternoon, my mother-in-law returned home disconcerted.

I found her on the porch and asked, “Are you OK?”

She replied, “No, I came running back here. In front of the Havana seawall are a bunch of boats… I don’t know what’s going on.”

I tried to remind her that our neighborhood, Alamar, is far from the seawall, but she didn’t pay me any attention.

“I left work before they began mobilizing the Rapid Response Brigades,” she commented, as she went into her house.

I walked away thinking about what she had just said. I’ve never been in one of those brigades, though I know many people who have, in fact, committed themselves to “spring into action” if there are any public disturbances, demonstrations or protests.

As soon as I found out what had happened, I went to inform her. The boat of some balseros(rafters) had broken down at sea, and they had to turn back. Seemingly by sheer chance they ended up in front of the United States Interests Office, which overlooks the seawall.

“The larger ships you saw were Cuban Coast Guard patrol boats, but nothing happened,” I later remarked.

“Still, something can happen here at any moment.  Things are going to get ugly… I wouldn’t want to have to bash anybody upside the head,” she insisted.

My mother-in-law is 65 and has dedicated her life to the Revolution: through voluntary work, the literacy campaign, collecting coffee, marches…  She has done everything willingly and ungrudgingly, knowing that these tasks fulfill her revolutionary duty; however, she has never lifted a hand to anyone, not even to her own children.

The Rapid Response Brigades were created from worker “volunteers” to put down “malicious” expressions by people.

Be it with words, or if necessary with blows, their role is to convince people of their mistaken actions.

To accomplish this, they outfit themselves with rustic arms consisting of wooden sticks or electric cords that serve to strike blows, but without causing serious injury.

Each brigade has an identifying symbol that they have the right to choose: a red armband, a blue button, black cords – anything that indicates that they’re in the same group and must be respected accordingly.

But my mother-in-law knows that when crowds of people become enraged, such pieces of identification serve for nothing.  When a group of people begins to fight no one looks around (nor do they have time) to decide if the person next to them is on their side.

The brigade members are not well trained; they only lash out to defend their ideas or the ideas of others.  They brawl.

“Do you remember what happened in ’94 – when people took to the streets? That’s what I’m afraid of.  I’m the secretary of the Communist Party cell, and if they give me the order I have to mobilize people and confront the disturbance… I can’t do anything else,” she maintained.

“But you don’t have to jump into the fray; you can follow your orders and then run off in another direction,” I argued.

That’ not right; you don’t understand,” was her response.

Yet hitting someone is not right either, I believe; but I didn’t say anything else to her, she had enough of an interior dilemma to deal with.

It’s absurd enough that somebody controls what you say; that you cannot state it freely when you disagree with a certain government measure, because somebody in a brigade will take care of correcting you.

It’s absurd.  Words don’t kill anybody; on the contrary, they help.

In fact, what happened in August 1994 was that the people who demonstrated against the government changed their chants when the commander (Fidel Castro) appeared personally on the scene. The shouts of “DOWN WITH…” turned into “LONG LIVE…”

I think it’s better that I talk to her about something else, about all this rain we’ve had over the past few days, or that it looks like August is going to be a scorcher.  Anything else.

In the end, today, she had her own rapid response; she left hurriedly from work, just in case.