This piece was first published in Spanish at El Ciudadano
Cuba today is facing one of its toughest tests. It has been under a U.S. financial and trade embargo for over six decades, and in the past year has suffered catastrophic environmental disasters with Hurricane Ian and the fire at the Matanzas fuel facility. In spite of this, the Cuban people continue to resist and defend their revolution.
Denis Rogatyuk sat down with Gerardo Hernández, a Cuban revolutionary and one of the “Cuban Five Heroes” who spent over 16 years in a U.S. prison convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and acting as an agent of a foreign government. Since his release in 2014, Hernández has committed himself to deepening and advancing the revolution in the grassroots and today is the national coordinator of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs). He spoke about the history of the CDRs, their role in the revolutionary process and the diverse attempts of Washington to overthrow the revolution.
Denis Rogatyuk: I would like to start by talking about the Committees in Defense of the Revolution. Can you tell us a brief history of these groups?
Gerardo Hernandez: Well, in 1959, the Revolution triumphed. And with that victory began the plans of the United States to defeat it. They financed organizations, groups, armed bands in the mountains and in the cities. The CIA tried to organize sabotage that affected the people. In 1960, Fidel visited the United Nations and when he returned, the people were waiting for him in the former presidential palace of the Revolution.
And from the balcony of that palace, in front of a crowd of 1 million people he made a historic speech. Fidel was explaining in the speech his impressions of his visit to New York. It was a truly memorable trip because of the events that happened there. In the middle of his speech, some firecrackers were lit, with the intention of creating panic. Instead the people present there began to sing the national anthem. And then Fidel said “they’re playing with the people and they don’t know what it’s like to play with the people. We are going to organize this town to find out who the enemies of the Revolution are. There on every block, in every neighborhood, so that they can’t do these things to us and we’re going to create a mass organization.”
This speech on September 28, 1960 marked the beginning of the organization. In fact, a few months ago I was in Pinar del Río talking with a man who is already in his 80s, and he told me “I was there present at that speech, that day listening to Fidel and I left there for my province, Pinar del Río and founded in Pinar del Río the first CDR, the first Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.”
From there they began to rise in all the neighborhoods of the country.
DR: So they are autonomous organizations?
GH: Exactly. Neighbors choose who they want to be their representatives, the president of their CDR. Throughout the revolutionary history of Cuba there is not an event in which the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution did not participate. The CDRs participated in the literacy campaign, the vaccination campaigns to eradicate diseases, and the recent fight against COVID-19.
We play a very important role. It is an organization that has also been heavily attacked by the enemies of the Revolution. Like all the elements, the opponents of the revolution claim that the CDRs spy on other neighbors, etc. But the facts are that the CDRs work closely with the residents of the neighborhoods, in their defense, and play a very important social role.
For example, we play a big role in the reintegration of people who served time in prison. When they are released, they integrate into society right there in their neighborhood, with help to their families. Through the CDRs we identify the people who are in need of a helping hand, to receive food and medicine.
The CDRs have a presence there, on every block, in every neighborhood, and there are other initiatives that have characterized us over the years, such as blood donation drives, organizing the area, and collecting raw materials to help the economy.
We finished an election process last year and the CDRs play an important role in preparing the electoral records and other stages of the process. We help organize the voter list in each place, those who arrive to vote, the people who have passed away, those who are born in another country and those who have moved residence. In addition, we also encourage people to go out and vote. We explain the importance of the elections, we take care of the polling stations, the information that is placed in the places, in short, it is an organization that has to do with practically all aspects of life in Cuba.
DR: Can you explain in a little more detail what role the CDRs played in particularly difficult periods in Cuban history, such as the special period of the 1990s?
GH: Well the CDRs have been part of every chapter of the Revolution. A few months ago, on the organization’s anniversary, a doctor visited us here.
Now, during the Special Period, we also played our role, because the eyes of the revolution in a neighborhood are precisely the CDRs. And if there are people who need more help due to their vulnerability as a family, it is the neighbors who lend a hand.
One of the campaigns that was done in special period and has been resumed now in recent years, is a campaign that we call “Cultiva un pedacito” which is to motivate people wherever there is a piece of land, a patio, a garden and even on the roofs of houses, to cultivate it [and grow things].
With this, we address the issue of food and there are many people who have joined this movement and grow things in plots on the roofs of residential buildings, places that at a certain time belonged to nobody, or were garbage dumps, or overrun with rats, etc. In these cases, neighbors often come together to clean these areas up and turn them into productive plots.
It is a program that has been mocked by the enemies of the Revolution, because, of course, it is inconvenient for them. It is an exercise that, beyond producing food as such, which is already good, also brings unity, cohesion among the neighbors. There are neighbors who in many places barely knew each other and who, thanks to an initiative of this type, have agreed to clean up this place and turn it into a public space.
And well, that already leads to a social function, to a union, to solidarity between neighbors, which of course the enemies of the Revolution do not want and that is why they have been criticizing our program. But it is a program that has been advancing food production and there are also places where progress has already been made on a higher scale, because residents not only produce, but they exchange among themselves, and donate to schools, donate to elderly homes. They have also started to dehydrate food to be made and give added value to the products they grow.
There are actually projects throughout the country where a lot of progress has been made.
DR: Now, I would like to talk about the threats that Cuba has faced in recent years from U.S. intelligence and its allies. We have seen its methods evolve from the use of terrorism and physical violence in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and develop into psychological warfare and the use of tactics designed to slowly deprive the revolution of its popular support.
However, the results remain the same. The Cuban Revolution stands firm. What are the main reasons for this resilience?
GH: As you know, we made a revolution under the empire’s nose and they have never forgiven us for it. This small island, which was practically a protectorate of theirs, where the economy was in the hands of major U.S. corporations, made a revolution and with it, tried to show that a different system is possible, that a better world is possible. The fact that we have done it barely 90 miles from their shores is reason enough for them not to forgive us. Even before the triumph, the U.S. was analyzing ways to prevent Fidel and his comrades from coming to power and have since tried in every possible way to destroy the Revolution.
Now these methods have been adapting over time. If you read and look for the famous Lester Mallory memo, there he explains step by step that the Castro government is very popular and that everything possible must be done to precisely affect its image. He affirms that the economic screws must be tightened so that the people are deprived of their necessities, so that the people take to the streets, so that the people blame the government. When you read the memorandum it seems as if it was written today and it is the script that they have been following with the imposition of the blockade, with all the attacks, and media campaigns against Cuba.
Now it’s a different world. There were times when they had to finance a radio called Radio Martí or Televisión Martí and I don’t know how many other stations that cost a lot of money to try to penetrate the minds of the Cuban people, and that was much easier to combat.
But now we are in the age of the Internet. Now anyone can receive any type of information on their phone. Thus they have adapted their attacks against Cuba to new technologies. And that is a great challenge. Our boys, young people, students, myself for example, never visit any counterrevolutionary website. However, as soon as I enter Facebook the recommendations for counterrevolutionary pages start popping up. Yet Facebook never recommends a revolutionary site to me. It never recommends El Ciudadano for example.
A lot of the media campaigns have been directed at opinion leaders in Cuba—artists, athletes, well-known characters, wanting to attract them, and add them to that campaign.
We have a saying “the monkey dances for money” and there are those who do anything for money. However, we have artists who one day praise President Miguel Diaz-Canel, but three months later they say that Cuba is a dictatorship. How is it possible that in three months people change their minds? These are people who until today have never had a political problem and have never complained about a political problem. But once they get to the United States they realize that in order to succeed or aspire to succeed you have to define yourself in this way and speak out against the Revolution, which is part of everything, of the same system.
DR: At this moment, what are the most notable campaigns and operations that the United States government is carrying out against the Cuban Revolution?
GH: Well, it would be hard to say, because everything has been thrown against Cuba with no respite. I could mention some of the most absurd and offensive examples. For example, you know that the Trump administration put Cuba back on the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. For many years Cuba remained on that list with completely absurd pretexts that have varied to the extent that they have become more illogical and absurd.
But during the Obama administration an act of justice was carried out and Cuba was removed from that list, which is also a list that lacks any credibility. Not even U.S. officials believe in that list in relation to Cuba, because they know that it is a list that is used for political purposes.
But since Cuba was added again, this entails a whole series of economic and financial measures against the countries that do business with Cuba such as banks. They in turn cannot continue offering services to Cuba because U.S. law says that any financial organization that cooperates, that acts in a certain way with a country that supports terrorism, would immediately be sanctioned.
In other words, it is far beyond the fact of being on a list. It is all that this entails which is designed to continue suffocating Cuba economically and financially. That is one of many campaigns.
Of course, they also use the immigration issue for political purposes in order to say Cuba is bad: “Look how they throw themselves into the sea risking their lives.” Why don’t you look at the Rio Grande or what happens in the Arizona desert? Those who come to the United States fleeing from capitalism are then hunted, and deported.
I was imprisoned with people from several Latin American countries who were detained for re-entering the country. They were caught and deported, and if they were caught again entering the country, they were automatically given ten years in prison. But also, many of these cases are people who entered the United States very young, grew up in the country, hardly speak Spanish, raised their families in the country, have their children, their wives, and have no one, let’s say in Mexico or in El Salvador.
Their whole family is in the United States and one day, after 20 or 30 years, they committed a crime or a traffic violation, they realized it was illegal and they are separated from their wives, their children, and sent to the country where they don’t know anyone, and in many cases they don’t even know the language.
So that person has no alternative but to cross the desert and enter, risking ten years in prison. In the case of Cubans it is the opposite. If you are Cuban or if you are a Cuban doctor, a professional, you can go to a consulate in any other country and say “I am Cuban, I want to take advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Law” and they guide you to have all the help in the world.
Brain theft is designed to deprive Cuba of the doctors around the world, to steal Cuba’s brightest minds and use them with the objective of saying “Cuban doctors are slaves that they send to other countries”.
They even put pressure on the governments, the administrations of those countries so that they do not accept Cuban doctors. Can you imagine a more absurd and criminal level of obsession than putting pressure on a country’s government so that it does not receive Cuban doctors who are going to save lives? It is something really inconceivable. And there are many other campaigns, because it is a whole propaganda apparatus with millions of dollars devoted to misrepresenting the reality of Cuba and increasing Cuba’s problems.
DR: How do you see the leadership of President Miguel Díaz-Canel? What has been his role in this stage of the Cuban revolution compared to the leadership of Fidel and Raúl?
GH: In my opinion, not as a leader of the CDR, I have extraordinary admiration for him because he has had a very difficult role, which is what we popularly say, to fill the shoes of the historical leaders of the Revolution.
We, for more than half a century, have lived admiring Raúl and Fidel because they were the fathers of this revolution. And in the case of Díaz, it is the first time that the country is led by a son of the Revolution, not a father of the Revolution. That in itself is tremendously difficult.
Added to that is the fact that imperialism has been waiting many years for this moment, for the generational change. They tried by all means to kill Fidel, to kill Raúl, to assassinate the historical leaders of the revolution and expedite the fall of the revolution, getting rid of those leaders but they realized they couldn’t.
And not for lack of trying, because there is even a documentary called “635 ways to kill Castro”, which are the assassination attempts that are registered, but could not carry out. They ended up relying on the biological solution: “When the leaders disappear, the revolution, the new generation, will not be able to continue forward with that banner.”
The time has come for us. It is well known how events unfolded and it fell to our current president, first secretary of the Party, Miguel Díaz-Canel, to continue with that banner. But on top of that, despite the fact that the blockade has intensified, which is also part of the plan, it has suffered a whole series of incidents, natural phenomena, pandemics, inflation.
Therefore, he is someone who I have also had the opportunity to be close to and I have great admiration for him as a person, great admiration as a revolutionary and I have no doubt that the country will continue.