Watching and Snitching

State security agent keeping watch on journalist Luz Escobar / Photo: 14ymedio.

By Ines Casal (El Estornudo)

HAVANA TIMES – It is the summer of 1957. I am spending part of my school vacations in the small apartment of my older sister who lives with her husband and their first son in the “Cerro” neighborhood, west of Havana Bay. While trying to put my nephew to sleep, my sister seems nervous. I cannot understand exactly what is happening to her. I am barely nine years old.

We have finished eating and I help to pick up the dishes from the table. One of my brothers, who has been enjoying a family afternoon, is preparing to return to our parents’ house. The after-dinner is extended, and my sister urges him: “Do not delay anymore, please. You know how the streets are.”

A few hours after my brother’s departure, I had already gone to bed on a small sofa in the living-dining room of the apartment, but I cannot fall sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I see terrible scenes in which some young man lies in a bush, tortured and dead. Without hardly thinking it, I reach my sister’s bed and beg her to let me sleep with her.

The unexpected reaction of my brother-in-law, who wants to return me at that very moment to my parent’s house, perhaps because I have interrupted an intimate moment between them, makes me feel very ashamed. The good sense and understanding of his wife prevail, and I sleep that night snuggled next to her.

This incident will not be discussed in the family, at least in my presence. But I will keep remembering it for a long time.

***

Mainly after the intensification of the struggle in the cities and the arrival of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra, the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista -who had taken power through a coup d’état on March 10, 1952-, escalated the persecution, the torture and murder of young revolutionaries.

In various places of the island, and particularly in La Havana and Santiago de Cuba, good Cubans were rebelling against tyranny and supported the rebels in the Sierra Maestra and the fighters in the flatlands. Some young people died in the streets or in police stations, and Cuban mothers openly protested against these crimes.

Along with the so-called “henchmen” of Batista, appeared the abhorrent figure of the “chivato” (snitch), a subject hired by the government to denounce possible opponents. People called them “33/33,” because that was the monthly salary they received for their betrayal: 33 pesos with 33 cents.

The snitch operates in the shadows and tries to maintain a normal activity in his daily life in order not to arouse suspicion. Most of the time, their attitude stems from envy and a deep personal discontent, but also, sometimes, from the mere need for money. Jose Marti said it: “What a terrible enemy is the desperate need of money for the achievement (yes, ‘achievement’) of virtue.”

People despised the “33/33” and kept keenly aware of them. People listened to the parts of the war waged in the Sierra Maestra surreptitiously on the clandestine Radio Rebelde and commented in hush tones to friends and relatives. Many Cubans would rather have a thief as a son than a snitch as a son.

The informant, spy, rat, has existed in all times and countries. Some are official agents of the State or of other bodies created for surveillance and snitching. Generally, they are encouraged and financially rewarded, although some do not need rewards and feel satisfied when the person they betrayed breaks down or goes down.

This type of individual is always despised by the majority of citizens, anywhere in the world and in any circumstance, but something happened in Cuba after the triumph of the rebels in 1959 that totally upended the perception and opinion about this specimen in our country.

***

In October 1960 the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) were created and the snitch reached another connotation: he was a revolutionary who had the historic responsibility of discovering the enemies of the Revolution. He became the neighbor who watched the neighbor, the colleague who watched the colleague, the family member who watches the relative. The “revolutionary snitch” had to know what his victim was working on, who he was meeting with, who he was writing to, what correspondence he received, what he ate, what he was thinking.

In the mass rally of September 28, 1960, and before the exaltation of a homogeneous and fanatical mass, Fidel Castro expressed:

“We are going to introduce, in the face of the aggressive imperialist campaigns, a system of collective revolutionary surveillance, so that everyone who lives on the block knows what anyone who lives in the block is doing and what relations they had with the tyranny, and what does he do for a living, who he hangs out with, what activities they are doing. Because, if they believe that they are going to be able to confront the people, they will be completely disappointed! Because we will deploy a revolutionary surveillance committee in every block…, so that the people will monitor, so that the people will watch, and so they can see that when the mass of the people is organized, there is no imperialist, nor lackey of the imperialists, nor anyone sold to the imperialists, nor instrument of the imperialists who will be able to move.”

The snitch became a character acclaimed and rewarded for his invaluable services to the revolutionary and patriotic cause. Many feared them but they were not despised by all. Their actions began to gradually divide families, neighbors, workers, students, the entire country. And opportunism, envy, intransigence, and hatred proliferated. And everyone learned to distrust everyone.

Eliseo (Lichi) Alberto described them incisively in his book-testimony report against himself:

Gossip acquired political methodology. The tattletale (we called them “trompeta”—trumpet player), a historical justification. The people said: “echar p’alante” (rat on), “elevar el asunto” (raise the issue to superiors), “levantar el papelón” (be a show-off). I am convinced that in many cases the authorities did not even follow through on the memorandum written by ordinary citizens who could not narrate something of strategic interest: informatics forensics were not going to waste time on the autopsy of a corpse. In my opinion, what really mattered was to have a compromising file, not a profile on the potential defendant, but a weapon against the reliable confidant.

Possibly the first major task that the CDR fully completed was the request made by Fidel Castro, on the eve of the Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) invasion in 1961, to pick up anyone who “smelled” like a bourgeoisie or, simply, who could be an opponent of the young Cuban Revolution. Thousands of citizens, in the length and breadth of the country, were arrested for several days in places equipped for it, until the danger of a possible victory by the invaders passed. A little less than six months had passed since the creation of that organization, but the blocks already had lists of the “enemies” of the Revolution.

Since then, many Cubans have succumbed to the accusation of some informer; many times based only on lies, envy, hatred or personal revenge. They may have been saved from death or prison, but all dragged and continue to drag the affront of slander and the suspicion of relatives and friends. Because that is precisely what it is about: branding, labeling, staining the reputation, and dividing, above all, divide.

***

History always puts us in unexpected situations. And it teaches us that cowardice, together with a supposed ideological loyalty, can reach unsuspected limits and drag you down, like a whirlwind, to madness or suicide.

My life, as transparent as glass without a scratch, has passed between successes and mistakes, between hopes and disappointments, between achievements and setbacks, between sacrifice and well-being. Nothing exceptional, I think; it is how it happens with almost any existence. “Wanderer, there are no roads, the road is made by walking.”

I never tire of repeating that, both in the family and with friends, I have had more illusions than disappointments. But, as my wise father would say, you never stop learning throughout life.

As a result of the events at the headquarters of the “Movimiento San Isidro,” in November 2020, a group of artists and many other citizens appeared at the Ministry of Culture to demand a stance given the arbitrariness committed against the members of that project. That’s where the 27N comes from.

Thereafter, an escalation of hatred and slander forced its way, with the irresponsible complicity of many, in all state media (the only legal ones in Cuba), trying to denigrate the young people who committed the crime of having decency and speaking without hypocrisy. Among them was my son.

The objective, as always, was to divide the Cubans.

The most visible face of that campaign, Humberto Lopez, a law graduate from the university campus of Los Arabos, Matanzas, who became a journalist for Cuban television, did not show much concern about presenting real evidence to prove his accusations; the only thing that mattered to him was sending an unequivocal message that, in a single instant, and like the snap of fingers, the State can turn you into an outcast.

To perceive the elusive glances of some neighbors, sense the doubts of one or two family members, meeting a friend accidentally who reacts nervously when she sees me, waiting in vain for calls from others to even asked me what happened, how I feel, what is my version of the story told by the official media. All of this has convinced me of the big truth behind this phrase by the great English playwright and poet William Shakespeare: “Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.”

Above all, if behind it there is an entire state apparatus very well assembled to subjugate a country, and if many of the citizens are so alienated that they confuse loyalty to the homeland with fidelity to a ruler and defense of national sovereignty with welfare of the family.

Unfortunately, I am no longer nine years old and there is no longer that older sister to hug to forget my nightmares.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.


15 thoughts on “Watching and Snitching

  • September 14, 2021 at 10:57 pm
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    You really ought to take up Scottish dancing Nick. The way you avoid answering reminds me of the eightsome reel. Interesting to know that you don’t condemn fascism.

  • September 14, 2021 at 10:40 pm
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    Free market economies are all at the top of the living standards, with the most freedom Nick.
    Australia, Canada, Germany, USA, UK, France, Sweden the list is long.
    You use words that you think somehow degrade the advanced democracies like capitalism.

    It is simply freedom a free market economy.
    Cuba is a tyranny with no opposition parties and no free press, no real freedom of expression etc.
    I doubt you will ever grasp it.

  • September 14, 2021 at 5:01 pm
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    Mr MacD,
    I don’t go around condemning others.
    All your fellow conservative who hang out with those of a further and far right perspective.
    I don’t condemn them.
    I just see them for what they are. People of wealth who would sup with the devil if the devil permits are them to retain their wealth.
    I don’t condemn them. They’ve worked hard for it .

    All I would do is point out to them is that you can’t take it with you when you go.

  • September 14, 2021 at 4:54 pm
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    So Brad, once again I will tell you that I do not embrace the regimes that you suggest that I embrace.
    Any more than I embrace the overreaching regime that you embrace.
    And once again Brad, I will remind you of your repeated failure to answer the following:
    If the capitalism which you idolise and worship to such a disturbing and fundamentalist degree is as perfect as you believe it to be, why are there such a legion of capitalist states at the sorry-ass, bottom end of the ladder living in such abject, grinding squalor and deprivation???
    I have put this question to you on many occasions Brad and the reason for your lack of response is due to the fact that you are bereft of response.
    You are bereft of response because the capitalist ideology that has nurtured your every thought, has not instilled in you any kind of adequate response to this question.
    Why should it?
    You have no requirement of a response.
    There is no economic reason for you to have a response.
    Capitalism does not require you to have a response. All it requires you to do is to keep repeating the same propaganda. This propaganda costs a lot of dollar.
    You, Brad, are the living proof that it’s dollar well spent.

  • September 14, 2021 at 11:27 am
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    There you go again Nick! “between the right wing of the conservative movement and the far right, the boundaries are seamless>”

    So how about the boundaries between socialism and the far left?

    You fail to observe the line between that which is totalitarian and that which is democratic.

    Fascism and communism are both totalitarian – do you condemn both, or only fascism?

  • September 14, 2021 at 1:18 am
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    Nick embraces totalitarian left wing regimes, clearly Cuba with a communist 1 party state is just that.
    Cubans deserve to be free just like us.

  • September 14, 2021 at 1:08 am
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    Mr MacD,
    There is nothing in what I have written which suggests that there are only two alternatives.
    In fact, one of the most successful forms of capitalism that the world has ever seen operates in China. Overseen by their Communist Party.
    Therefore completely negating the idea of only two alternatives.
    The system of snitches and informants is indeed prevalent in Cuba. No doubt about it.
    What I am doing is putting that into the context of the very real fact that a system of snitches and informants is a fundamental pillar of conservative led capitalism.
    I’m from a country where any opposition to conservative led capitalism is traditionally infiltrated. These are facts Mr MacD. As you well know.

    A debate is always broadened when reality-based context is introduced.

    And as I say, I’m sure there are many decent Conservatives all over the place. But between the right wing of the the conservative movement and the far right the boundaries are seamless.
    Always have been. Always will be.
    Trumpism is but one example of many.

  • September 13, 2021 at 3:32 pm
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    Nick, in your enthusiasm to attack Conservatism, you continually endeavor to attach it to “the far right” ie: Fascism. That is committing the very same falsehood as attaching Democratic Socialism to “the far left” ie: Communism.

    The political world fortunately has more than two options. There is graduation. The US has fallen into the same trap as your mind – there are only two alternatives!

    The major political divide in this world is between totalitarian or democratic systems. Individuals prefer one or the other, there is no graduation! I reject totalitarian systems, whereas you appear to be opposed to Fascism, but hum and haw when discussing Communism.

    Glad you are enjoying the view! We can both admire that one!

  • September 12, 2021 at 10:22 pm
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    The tyranny in Cuba loves the snitch system.
    Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, MININT copied the repressive East German communist Stasi security system.

  • September 12, 2021 at 4:37 pm
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    Mr MacD…..

    Greetings from a glorious and sunny Campbeltown.

    I make the same distinctions which you describe. Between the socialism of Bevin and what goes down in Cuba.

    I also make the distinction between the theory of ‘democracy’ and the conservative led, propaganda driven capitalism which perpetuates and masquerades as democracy in this day and age.
    The sad fact of the matter is that this type conservatism has most of the dollar and therefore can afford to pay for the finest and most impressive propaganda that the human race has ever seen.
    Unfortunately these very same Conservatives are only too willing to sup with the far right or in some cases even morph into the far right – so much so that it’s often difficult to draw a line between the two.
    Despite the undoubted fact that there are many decent, upstanding Conservatives, this cosy little relationship between conservatism and the far right is a hand in hand affair which has been going on for well over a century and is truly alive and thriving today.

    Many Conservatives turn a blind eye.
    Of course they do – as long as their money is safe.
    This has always been the case and always will be.

    And if you prefer to feel that what I describe is preferable to what goes on in Cuba, then keep on banging yer drum…….

    Me personally?
    I would criticise both.
    To the extent that I wouldn’t really come down on either side.

    Seeing the sun rise looking out from Campbeltown over the wee bay toward the mainland is a total stunner!!

  • September 12, 2021 at 2:37 pm
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    Who ever claimed that governmental democracy or capitalism was perfect? But the point remains that despite all the imperfections, they are preferable to totalitarian rule. That is if one has respect for the individual and freedom of expression rather than slavish adherence to the concept of the “mass”.
    If only you Nick had been around when the late Ernest Bevin was Foreign Secretary in the Attlee Labour government. (1945-1951) He was particularly adept at describing infiltration by communists into the the Labour Party – and resisted it with all his might always making the distinction between the two. That is one of the several reasons why I differentiate between democratic socialists and the claim and lie promulgated by the Castros – both Fidel with his “socialismo” and Raul with exchanging the word ‘communist’ with ‘socialist’ throughout the Constitution of Cuba.

  • September 10, 2021 at 4:37 pm
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    Mr MacD, I most definitely grasp your point. I know Cuba well.
    I hope that you grasp mine. The infiltration of any potential challengers is a fundamental pillar of conservative/capitalist governance. Always has been. Always will be.
    As, presumably, you well know.
    In comparison to anything Cuba has managed to come up with, it is far more subtle and way more deeply entrenched.

    It’ must be somewhat difficult to have to put up with big bad neighbours.
    Tanto Escocia como Cuba eh?

  • September 10, 2021 at 2:16 pm
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    Not unusually Nick, you fail to grasp the point, which is that clearly, the snitch system in Cuba failed in its declared purpose. The CDR/MININT system has the purpose declared by Fidel Castro:

    “a collective system of revolutionary vigilance, so that everybody knows who lives on every block, what they do on every block ….. in what activities they are involved and with whom they meet.”

    The person in charge of that system is Alejandro Castro Espin, Fidel’s nephew and son of Raul.
    There can be no doubt that much investigation will be being pursued to try to explain why the system failed. The conundrum obviously being that Raul’s son is responsible. It is not his first failure, for he was in charge when the Cuban spying system was detected in the US, and five spies, tried and jailed. That too was a failure!

    But who in the hierarchy – if anybody, will have the intestinal fortitude to question Alejandro’s abilities and role? All that KGB training of Alejandro and adoption of the Stasi system was supposed to avoid any question of failure.

    Enjoy Scotland, you are fortunate in your neighbour – look at ours!

  • September 9, 2021 at 2:13 pm
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    As per usual Mr MacD likes to imply that certain issues in Cuba are specific to his so called ‘‘authoritarian regimes’.
    Alas, once one touches base with the real world rather than being bogged down in some kind of daredevil, fantasy, boys own, good vs evil parallel universe, one will see that these same issues are overtly prevalent within countries which are led by Mr MacD’s beloved Conservatives.
    The system of snitches, grasses, squealers, rats, informants, chippers, snakes, conks, bloaters, blobbers, dobbers, bleaters etc is as old as the hills.
    It is one of the age-old aspects which underpins any capitalist system run by conservatives as well as any system run by so called communists. Mr MacD will be well aware of this as he has stated that he has forbears who served within the ranks of the British Constabulary. In capitalist countries a tapestry of informants is typically used for not only crime solving purposes, but for political purposes too. Often this is used under the laughable cloak of the ‘national security concerns’.
    For anyone to suggest that so-called communists or so-called totalitarians have some kind of monopoly on this fundamental, millennia-old aspect of human culture is genuinely hilarious.
    As it so happens, I’m off to one of my favourite countries tomorrow…….
    Scotland. The West Coast.
    It’s a pleasure to be setting off on my way with a good old chuckle inside courtesy of a fine Scotsman!!!

  • September 8, 2021 at 2:11 pm
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    Totalitarian regimes always place a high value upon a system of snitches. Currently Cuba is no exception, the CDR is based upon the former East German Stasi. But doubtless, following the demonstrations of July 11, 2021, there will be detailed examination of why the repressive systems operated by MININT failed to forewarn. For the system did fail! The response by Diaz-Canel to call the MININT thugs out onto the streets and assault, capture and imprison wherever possible, was to be expected, for that is an inherent part of the system. But, it does not resolve the problem of why the system failed? Apportioning responsibility for the demonstrations to US funding and the San Isador movement is a knee-jerk reaction (as if the Diaz-Canel government can be described as ‘reactionaries’). Non-trials and imprisonment are the standard fare. But the regime must and will have deep concerns about how and why tens of thousands of the usually compliant Cuban people rose up in protest – without prior warnings from MININT. Raul Castro is still very much in control – as Diaz-Canel declared he would be, when the supposed transfer of power took place. That makes criticizing the MININT failure difficult, as it involves Alejandro Castro Espin, Raul’s own son, who is head of security. Only time will tell whether any of the communist minions have the mental fortitude to do so, and whether there were consequences? Fear always stalks the corridors of totalitarian regimes.

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