In the 1960s, along with its effort to replace substandard housing, the Cuban government began to create new mass organizations that were designed especially to ensure civil defense and political mobilization. At the same time, they were part of a plan to combat internal subversion and sabotage. These groups were integrated into the new housing complexes as well as into the older residential areas of Havana.
Aside from the popular militias, two of the most important were the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC).
The groups were created in 1960 when (after the Organization of American States rebuked Cuba) it was believed that foreign intervention was imminent.
By 1961, popular militias had increased in size from 100,000 in 1960 to almost 300,000. Other groups involved in the mobilization effort included the Labor Ministry, the Central Organization of Cuban Trade Unions (CTC) and the Association of Rebel Youths. As part of this effort, volunteer work became de rigeur.
Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs)
By 1961,CDRs claimed a membership of almost 800,000, and Havana’s neighborhoods reflected their presence.
CDRs were visible on every block, in every large factory and at all work centers.
On the most superficial level, the CDRs resembled an urban block association or a highly refined political machine of the Tammany Hall variety. However, in spite of their humanitarian and educational functions, they were actually designed to allow loyalists to spy on their neighbors. In a 1960 speech, Castro describe the motivation for their founding:
We’re going to set up a system of…revolutionary collective vigilance. And then we’ll see how the lackeys of imperialism manage to operate in our midst….In answer to the imperialist campaigns of aggression, we’re going to set up a system of revolutionary collective vigilance so that everybody will know everybody else on his block, what they do, what relationship they had with the tyranny [the Batista dictatorship], what they believe in, what people they meet, what activities they participate in….When the masses are organized, there isn’t a single imperialist, or lackey of the imperialists, or anybody who has sold out to the imperialists, who can operate.
CDRs became a paramilitary factor in their own right. By 1963 more than 90,000 separate units existed. Initially, the goal was to have a unit on every block of the city and to coordinate CDR activities with the police security forces. The members of the CDRs “took turns to keep a 24-hour watch on each city block, noting all movements of people in and out of the neighborhood. In this regard, an American scholar sympathetic to the revolution noted:
With the formation of the local committees, the last refuge for the apolitical citizen or the guilty anti-revolutionary citizen has been torn down, the last set of excuses stripped away. No longer can anyone get away with saying that he does not participate in revolutionary activities because there are no opportunities close at hand, because he is too busy, because he is too old, because he has no needed skills, or because he cannot leave his children. Nonparticipation has become…tantamount to failure to want to participate, which, in revolutionary Cuba, is a serious failure indeed.
In fact, non-participation had negative consequences which affected the economic viability of the family since CDR approval was necessary for hiring, access to housing, and admission to universities. Citizens had to have identity cards, and detailed school and personnel records noted the degree of an individual’s integration with the revolutionary process. A good record was vital for a chance at housing, scholarships, or promotion at work.
Federation of Cuban Women
The purpose of the Federation of Cuban Women was to mobilize and monitor women in support of the revolution, and membership was evidence of solidarity and integration.
The early growth of the organization was phenomenal.
By 1962, it had almost 400,000 members who were organized into neighborhood, regional, municipal, provincial, and national units. These units played an important role in the 1961 literacy campaign and they took the lead in developing a national day care system.
The FMC units also created a number of programs which were designed to help ordinary women. These included the Ana Betancourt Schools for Peasant Women, schools for maids, sewing academies, and popular schools of health.
The Ana Betancourt program brought thousands of peasant women from the countryside to Havana for training. Many of them stayed at the Hotel Nacional, the favorite hangout of movie stars and mafia bigwigs. Others were “put up in abandoned mansions in the Vedado and Miramar districts.”
Rural parents were told that the aim of the program was to teach their daughters to sew and make clothes, but the actual objective was to undercut peasant counterrevolution.
The new government believed that “peasants would think twice about making trouble while their daughters were in the revolution’s grasp in Havana.”
After a year, the women returned to the countryside to “become the first political leaders in the countryside.”
Urban sewing academies were also established in abandoned stores and buildings for housewives who could only come for more limited instruction.
These instructional centers were actually socialization mechanisms.
Once the student had been properly integrated, they received a diploma ensuring them of full-time work in the clothing industry.
In 1968, there were 1,543 academies nationwide with 23,950 students. By 1974, 445,299 women had graduated from the academies.
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.