Watching and Snitching
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.