“Feeling Like Fidel”: Empowerment, Surveillance, and Emotion in the Cuban Revolution

Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:50 PM
Gibson Suite (New York Hilton)
Lillian Guerra, University of Florida
Perhaps no other revolution's process of radicalization and socio-political transformation was as much fueled by euphoria and cross-class civic mobilization as the Cuban Revolution in its early years (1959-1961).  Yet continued US aggression, the Cold War context, and internal dissent from among revolutionary sectors propelled the emergence of a Communist state and a highly unique system of citizen surveillance based on neighborhood-watch committees called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Initially organized to temporarily shield against an imminent US invasion, membership in CDRs became mandatory for all citizens by the late 1960s. This paper focuses on the role of CDRs in deepening and expanding a popular culture of national belonging based on emotionally-driven street theatre and everyday forms of personal surveillance through the periodic organization of "repudiation committees" in the 1970s and early 1980s. Charged with verbally and sometimes physically attacking dissenting (or simply disillusioned) citizens in their homes at night and mobilized through door-to-door and on-the-spot recruitment of neighbors, co-workers and school kids by teachers and CDR leaders, repudiation committees urged their targets to leave Cuba for the US or condemned those already known to be seeking political asylum as traitors to the nation and imperialist lackeys.  Passion, emotion and individuals' channeling of collective hostility played unique roles in ensuring loyalty and enforcing public displays of "unconditionality" to the state. Despite the virtual collapse of CDR activism in the last two decades and the legitimacy in the Communist state over the last two decades, the revival of such repudiation committees in recent years under Raúl Castro's leadership begs a historical excavation of the purposes, effects, and personal impact of this processes, especially at key junctures in the evolution of Cuba's authoritarian state discussed in this paper, such as the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.