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  • Cederistas:Women's Education and Vigilance in Cuban Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, 1960-1970
  • Ann Halbert-BrooksiD

Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (CDRs) feature prominently in accounts of day-to-day life in revolutionary Cuba, where in the first decade after the Revolution they are often described as "local citizens organized … as militant informers against possible counter-revolution," committees for "the enemies of people who like to commit sabotage," designed to "integrate, socialize and mobilize the masses, to implement revolutionary policies and programs," or busybodies who might report their neighbors to state security if they were suspected of engaging in counterrevolutionary thoughts or actions.1 In order to gain this pervasive influence on Cuban life, in the early 1960s CDRs worked to inculcate the populace in revolutionary culture, then selectively empowering individuals to enforce revolutionary norms by monitoring their neighbors. CDRs played an integral role in reshaping Cuban society in the early 1960s. CDRs were founded in September 1960, and their earliest major project was the Literacy Campaign of 1961, work that affected their mobilization efforts in the years that followed. In particular, CDRs portrayed their mission as one of educating Cuban society into proper revolutionary culture and lifestyles, a topic that will be explored in this paper through the lens of gender.

Often, the CDR officials (also known as cederistas) empowered to enforce revolutionary norms in their neighborhoods were women who arrived in their positions of power through the association between CDRs and domestic or stereotypically feminine work. The cederistas' gender and the involvement of the revolutionary government in local matters broadened the professional horizons of some women, but also inspired intense and gendered criticism from conservative elements of Cuban society.

Women comprised more than 80 percent of all teachers in Cuba in the 1950s, they comprised a majority of all of the teachers involved in the 1961 Literacy Campaign, and they remained a majority of the teaching workforce in the years that followed even as the definition of "teaching" expanded to include revolutionary vigilance.2 Their status as public authority figures outside of traditional school settings could lead to conflicts due to their gender. By leading local CDRs that took on educational work, women moved from the feminine domain of the "home" to the masculine [End Page 26] domain of the "street," engaging in activities traditionally regarded as the domain of women like education, but also acting as armed guardians of public order—work that had no clear analogue to women's traditional role in the patriotic imaginary.3 Particularly in the rapidly changing society of revolutionary Cuba, this created fertile ground for conflict where women described their work as necessary and for the benefit of the community, while men were sometimes reluctant to take direction from a woman in stereotypically male-dominated spaces. In some oral histories collected by researchers men remarked: "it seems to me that the two [sexes] are not equal; on a ship you can only have one captain and not two, otherwise the ship will sink for sure."4 These cederistas could appear poised to overturn the larger social order—the "ship" of Cuban society—all with the tacit approval of the revolutionary government.

As Pamela Stewart and Andrew Strathern argued in their 2004 study Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip, rapid changes to society and challenges to gender norms like these can spark waves of gossip and accusations of illicit or unnatural behavior, even when specific activities would otherwise appear innocuous and in keeping with social norms.5 In 1960s Cuba, this meant that women who took on leadership roles in their communities through the CDRs inverted existing channels of gossip, becoming gatekeepers rather than the focus of gossip. Thus, they could become targets for resentment by individuals who opposed the Revolution. Furthermore, female cederistas became filters for rumor and gossip, able to direct the attention of other parts of the state to reward good revolutionary behavior or punish disloyalty. The threat of gossip ruining a woman's reputation based on her ability to conform to gender norms, meanwhile, appeared diminished in comparison. This article will explore this process, beginning with an outline of the...


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