The following article written by J.P. McEvoy, appeared in the December 1944, issue of "Reader's Digest". The article recounts the story behind Cárdenas' exemplary success in civic activism, "grabbing the bull by the horns" to repair its city streets starting in 1939. In particular, it is an admiring look at part of the life and work of an adoptive Cardenense: respected educator, leader and visionary, Dr. Robert L. Wharton.

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How Cuban citizens aroused against bureaucratic inefficiency
by an American missionary, work together for civic betterment

One Thousand Men - and a Man
Condensed from The Pan American - J.P. McEvoy

Cuba is not all rum and rumba. All over the Island Cubans today are quietly conducting a popular revolt against the inefficiency and corruption of governmental bureaucracy. Their program is so simple and practical it could serve as a model for the long-suffering taxpayers of any community in any country, including our own. It is called Mil Hombres One Thousand Men - a permanent organization of 1000 citizens in each of 40 towns, pledged to pay $1 each per month, the money to be used for paving streets, controlling mosquitos, purifying the water supply, or some other civic improvement.

The movement started started five years ago in Cardenas, a seaport city of 40,000. Here the Thousand Men have raised enough money to pave some 200 city blocks, in addition to completing other public works.

A little background may be necessary to explain why the citizens of 40 Cuban cities and towns have taken matters into their own hands and have organized their own Thousand men.

Facetious Cubans tell you there are only two industries on the Island: Sugar and the budget. And they add: "The Americans have all the big business, the Spaniards have all the little business and there is nothing left for the Cubans but the government."

Result: there are more officeholders than offices, and a shockingly large part of the national revenue is paid out in salaries to employees who are best described by Secades, Cuba's leading humorist: "When a Cuban gets a government job he does three things. He goes in and signs the payroll, then he goes out and gets a cup of coffee, and then he goes back and gets his hat." But even the best joke wears thin. Hence the revolt of the taxpayers.

Behind the Thousand men is the Man who started all this, a 72 year-old American missionary, Dr. Robert L. Wharton, who came to Cuba in 1890, founded a school in Cardenas and taught continuously there for 42 years - until he was retired, still hale and hearty, two years ago by the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church.

Starting in a rented room with one blackboard and 14 pupils, Dr. Wharton's school, La Progresiva, grew into an institution that profoundly influenced the educational standards of Cuba. True to its name, it developed into a center of progressive thought and action for the local community, where Cuban youth studied the problems of Cuba along with the simpler ones in their textbooks.

The program of the Thousand Men grew out of one of these classooms. One of the biggest problems of Cuba is how to get good roads and paved streets, and "Good Roads" was a permanent assignment to the upper grades for research, study and discussion. Students were encouraged to collect technical booklets from government bureaus, universities and civic groups in the United States. Each student was asked to talk up good roads and paved streets at home, and was also pledged to talk to 20 people each day about what good roads would mean to Cardenas.

A few months of this and the whole town was stirred up. The local Rotary Club offered prizes for the best compositions on good roads. Publication of the essays aroused the people to call a mass meeting, at which 25 citizens were named as a committee to get together and do something. On the committee were merchants and doctors and lawyers and day laborers - some of the richest men in the town and some of the poorest. They were the community's natural leaders, now aroused to action. Hundreds and thousands of dollars had been appropriated throughout the years for roads and streets and the money had been spent, but still the people had no good roads and no good streets.

The Thousand Men of Cardenas will tell you today that it was Dr. Wharton who focused their revolt into a plan that was simple and workable. "First, let's not try to pave all the streets at once," he told them. "Let's pave one block at a time. Second, let's not try to do everything ourselves. The city belongs to all the people-let them all help. And, whatever we do, let's start in such a way that we can go on, not for just a few weeks or months - but year after year. Many programs are born of enthusiasm, only to die later of neglect, and usually this happens not because the program isn't good but because it is too good - too big, too ambitious and too impractical."

What would paving one city block cost? Five hundred dollars. "Let's start with that," said Dr. Wharton. "Can we get 500 to give $1 apiece?" The committee thought it would be easy - and it was.

"And now let's get 500 more men to give a dollar apiece and we'll have another block," said Dr. Wharton. That, too, was done.

Magic! After years of bureaucratic neglect, two City blocks were actually paved! You could walk on them, you could drive a car on them - but not far to be sure, before you were in the mud or dust again.

"Now we have a thousand men," said Dr. Wharton. "Let's keep that as a unit. As some drop out, recruit others. A thousand men giving a minimum of a dollar a month apiece will pave two blocks a month, or 24 blocks a year." The committee didn't think that was going very fast. Why not charge some $5, and the rich ones as much as $50 apiece? Dr. Wharton held them to the original idea. "Others will give more," he assured them, "and gladly, once they see results."

He proved to be a prophet with honor. The Thousand Men organized themselves into sub-groups of lawyers, doctors, merchants, laborers. Some of these, in addition to their dollars, gave their services. Technicians gave their skills, and laborers the work of their hands. The richest man in the city gave thousands of dollars. Some of the Thousand Men were women, who organized fiestas and other benefits that netted nearly $5000 a year for five years.

Even the provincial and city governments became interested enough to contribute money and materials, and the Cuban Government not only gave Cardenas an appropriation for public works, but insisted that the money be given to the Thousand Men to spend. The results were so satisfactory that by recent decree the government recognizes all similar committees wherever organized and utilizes them in the expenditure of any public funds available.

Naturally it hasn't been all rapture and roses. At the very first meeting, Dr. Wharton ruled that the organization "should engage in no political activity. Politicians resented this and wanted to know why they were being excluded. Dr. Wharton explained that politicians were not excluded, but politics was. Politicians were welcome, as citizens. That seemed to satisfy them-and those who came to scoff remained to pay. One prominent politician who lived in Havana sent his personal check: for $25 every month for two years.

Human nature goes on in Cuba, too. Many of the humbler class who live on the outskirts of the town bitterly criticized the committee for paving the central streets first. The poor man was getting it in the neck as usual, said they. So arrangements were made to pave an entire circuit around the town.

The house of every subscriber in Cardenas has a neat little Mil in script, tacked on the door. In Matanzas, capital of the province, the word Mil in bright yellow gleams on the front door of almost every home and shop. In Pinar del Rio, capital of the finest cigar tobacco belt in the world, the figure 1000 appears on the front doors, with the slogan "All for Pinar del Rio." Here the first project of the Thousand Men was to dig drainage canals for mosquito control. Only two years old, the Thousand Men have done $100,000 worth of work in the city - the same work, it is said, for which $350,000 had been appropriated and dissipated throughout the years with nothing to show for it.

Delegations come to Cardenas from towns all over Cuba, and even from other countries in the Caribbean, to learn how the Thousand Men can be organized in their communities. Many want to see with their own eyes if it is true that this program actually works, for Cubans love to boast that Cubans can never work together - "too individualistic, too temperamental."

But Dr. Robert L. Wharton, out of his ripe experience of living and working with Cubans, says Cubans will work together as well as any people if they have an inspiring program and a competent leader. "Cuba is a young nation," he explains. "Why; it isn't even as old as I am. Most of its troubles are growing pains. It was the last colony in the New World to be freed from Spain; in less than 50 years of independence it has had neither the time nor the opportunities to train even one generation in the complicated techniques of democratic government.

"But a new generation of Cubans is growing up - a generation anxious to develop their country and able and willing to work together." To prove his point, Dr. Wharton introduces skeptical visitors to the executive committee of the Thousand Men of Cardenas, a committee of 25 which has been meeting faithfully every Monday night for five years. "Beat that, if you can, in the States or anywhere else!" says the Man behind the Thousand Men.


Note: Check out the difference between the photo above and the almost exact same view today, after 37 years of destruction under the Castro regime. Cárdenas hasn't gotten a new building, facelift, or even a nice paint job during that time, let alone a new paving of its streets. This photo is an enlargement of one of the pictures taken by Silvia De Dios in 1991.

Special appreciation to Roger Hernandez for providing us with the article.

Mounument to the flag built by the Arechabala company

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