Matt Binder on Cuba’s CDR

Matt Binder – As part of our Cuban Politics and Culture class with Dr. Hollander, my classmates and I learned about and discussed the competing stories that Cubans on the island tell and Cuban-American exiles in Miami disseminate. We came to Cuba and Miami to see for ourselves what the true story is. What I did not expect was to find that I could see my own experiences fitting into both sides, that even within our own travels I could struggle to know what my experiences meant. I can point to one poignant example from this past Tuesday night.

Children dance to entertain Wabash students during a CDR meeting.

The Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) was founded in Cuba in the early 1960s as a sort of neighborhood watch to keep an eye on Cubans within their own communities. It is a network of several million Cubans, with different sections of the Committee in different areas of Cuba. Through our tour guide in Cuba, we were able to arrange to attend a meeting of the CDR. Since we heard about this meeting, most of the students in my class, including myself, expected a formal meeting of ideologues wearing military fatigues and spouting communist propaganda. However, we were quickly disabused of these notions when we got off our bus and walked down the street to discover a large Cuban flag hung up across the street and several hundred people, many of them young children, greeting us excitedly.

Since it was raining, a woman ushered us into her home where the leader of the local CDR, a woman in a simple t-shirt, read us a letter welcoming us to the community and articulating Cuba’s desire for good relations with the United States. She then proceeded to lead us outside where seats had been set up for us in the street. We were told to sit down and then enjoyed a nearly two-hour block party of the neighborhood children entertaining us with their exceptional dance skills and even handing each of us a flower as we departed. Everyone in the town seemed to enjoy our company sincerely, and we likewise enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Our guide informed us that the CDR frequently organizes such events and suggested that its principal purpose is a social one. The entire bus ride back to the hotel, we all could not stop talking about how impressed we were with our welcome and how unexpected it had all been.

The author poses for a photo in Cuba.

Of course, the longer we thought about it, the more it seemed suspicious that the entire event had been so prepared. We wondered if a true CDR meeting was usually such an event. As those ideas festered in our minds, we returned to Miami, where we talked with Jaime Suchlicki, a professor at the University of Miami who represents the views of many in the Cuban-American exile community, and Tim Padgett, a Wabash alumnus who currently reports on Cuban-American relations. In our conversations with these people, it became more apparent that our entire tour of Havana had been fairly well scripted for us. Padgett told us he was glad we had witnessed the way the Cuban regime wants to portray Cuba to visitors. His statement really got me thinking critically about just how genuine our experience had been. Sure, the neighborhood seemed glad to host us, but nothing about that night was spontaneous and it had seemed rather artificial.

This experience has given me an excellent chance to apply my Wabash critical thinking skills to the real world. I simply cannot take anyone’s word about what exactly my CDR visit meant or even how organic it was. I have to decide for myself, and the more I analyze it now, the more my thoughts on it develop. This immersion trip was vital for me to understand this part of the Cuban situation. This particular international relationship is highly complicated, and the fact that few Americans have the chance to view it first-hand only makes it murkier. I believe that while my CDR experience was obviously scripted, the Cubans we met showed genuine warmth toward us and clearly use the committee to socialize. However, I can’t possibly know that from a book and understanding that fact in itself takes critical thinking.