“He killed it! And I love this venue,” the young Cuban American says leaving the Jardines de la Tropical where Carlos Varela has just played a rare Havana concert.
“Yeah, way better than when we saw him in Miami,” his friend responds.
“Totally. And it’s so obvious we’re in Cuba: look at all the rejas.”
Gems like these are why I’m such an avid eavesdropper: whatever differences there are between here and there, the one warranting comment is the Cuban mania for throwing up gates and bars around their homes.
If you’ve been to Havana, Santiago de Cuba or anywhere in between, you’ve seen this obsession Cubans have with enclosing their homes with iron bars. They’re cages, literally and figuratively, and are poignantly ironic as a result – so many people carp on about ‘freedom’ here, while locking themselves away in jails of their own construction.
Home robberies do occur, there’s no doubt, and the Puentes Grandes section of town where Varela played fairly beckons ne’er-do-wells: it’s dark, isolated, and provides many easy escape routes. But the disconnect between the real and perceived threat is aggravated by various factors including press coverage (there is none); the Cuban penchant for, and reliance upon, gossip for information (loosely related to the first factor); and our human tendency to place an inordinate amount of importance on Stuff.
Our first home here – a charmless microbrigada box in the industrial outskirts of town – had a small balcony, for which I was thankful, except it was enclosed in a cage. For me, there was no stronger metaphor for a bird with clipped wings and will than looking out from that barred balcony. I tried not to think about it too often, but ended up not using the balcony much at all. That cage mitigated any levity my soul derived from the semi-outdoor space it provided.
But after a decade of watching people struggle to amass money to put up bars (see note 1) and as much time puzzling over the rich and contradictory Cuban psyche, I feel driven to write about theft, safety, paranoia, and protection of stuff here and why I think the Cuban perception is skewed.
There’s no evidence: Have you ever seen crime statistics for Cuba? Me neither. I’m sure they’re collected – after all, the data-laden ONE (Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas) amasses stats on everything from new HIV cases and teacher:student ratios, tomato harvests and tourist visits – but crime is neither reported on nor published. Is crime up? Maybe, if you believe the bola en la calle, AKA what’s being said in the street. But then you’d be violating one of my top Cuba rules: if you haven’t seen or experienced something here firsthand, it’s best to assume it’s false or fabricated (or at the very least exaggerated) until proven otherwise. Indeed, if I believed everything I heard here, I’d be writing about cooking oil made from cremated bodies; JFK’s bastard Cuban son; condom cheese; and the government’s plan to spend nearly $400,000 converting all license plates from American- to European-style. Rumors, nada más, which will remain so until evidence confirms or disproves them.
What my experience tells me is that house theft is not nearly as common as Cubans believe. In over a decade here, I know three people who’ve had their homes robbed. In each instance, no one was hurt, thankfully, though all were home at the time. In only one of these cases was the perpetrator caught; in none of the cases was property recovered. Three robberies in 10 years hardly argue for a generalized wave of house break-ins (see note 2) requiring enclosing your home in bars.
Paranoia, it’s epidemic: In reply to my query about government policies regarding this and that, a dear friend explained: “half of the paranoia is based on experiences of concrete, unrelenting and strategic attacks on the country from without and within. The other half is straight up paranoia.” The Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines paranoia as ‘a tendency on the part of an individual or group towards excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others.’
Based on my experience with everything here from bureaucracy to busy body neighbors, I’m on board with my friend’s assessment: there are some very real, tangible threats to protect against and there are the imagined ones. Something else my experience tells me is that paranoia is contagious. From day one, all of my neighbors, both in the aforementioned barrio on Havana’s outskirts and now in Playa, have urged me to padlock my front door gate, locking myself inside, especially at night while I’m sleeping.
But I’ve never done it: in my mind, the way Cubans smoke, fire is a much bigger threat than robbery (see note 3), and I’d rather be burgled than trapped inside a blazing building. Recently, a friend slept over after a party and locked up the house after I’d gone to bed. I was amused, but not surprised, to find upon waking that he’d padlocked the front door. What wasn’t funny (and gave me great pause) was, the following night, for the first time in a decade, I padlocked that gate, thinking ‘an ounce of prevention….’ Yet, when that prevention is based on rumor and paranoia, is it really worth it? And how about when the preventive measure generates another danger, in this case rendering my house a fire trap? Needless to say, that was the first and last time I padlocked my front door but it taught me an important lesson: paranoia is a disease, easy to catch.
Friends impose this same paranoia regarding my preferred mode of transport: constantly, I’m urged to be extremely careful on my bike, to the point of not riding at night, ever, because I risk being jumped and the bike ripped from between my legs. While I recognize that someone desperate (or stupid; see next point) enough might attempt this, I’ve never heard of this happening here. Have you? The more people tell me this, the more I think it’s an apocryphal holdover from the Special Period.
I’m was born and raised in New York: My friends from Centro Habana scoff when I tell them this, rejecting it out of hand as any kind of mitigating factor vis-à-vis crime against my person or property. ‘This is Havana, it’s different,’ they invariably say. My first inclination is to say: ‘hell yeah, it’s different!’ and then explain the armor and mechanisms one is forced to develop waiting for a New York City subway on an abandoned platform deep underground circa 1986 when wild-eyed crack hos, male and female, roamed and robbed violently, desperate for money for more rock cocaine.
You needed mad city skills in my New York of yore, I want to explain, but refrain. I don’t tell my Centro Habana friends about walking in the street – never on the sidewalk – in dark, decrepit neighborhoods to improve your visibility and sightlines and lessen the possibility of being jumped or cornered, nor about turning rings inward or forsaking jewelry altogether to decrease your chances of being marked. Although I don’t offer tips like ‘never leave a backpack in a locked car,’ sometimes I wish I had: my stepson made this rookie mistake in Madrid last week and was robbed blind of his laptop, passport, plane ticket and more. Likewise, I don’t explain the very real difference between walking streets where you know people are armed with guns and those where someone may have a knife – but probably not.
I also don’t share my experience of 18 months of self-defense classes where I learned tactics for what to do when jumped, pinned or attacked, at gun or knife-point, or with bare hands. With their belief in la bola, combined with paranoia and lack of firsthand knowledge of what constitutes real and constant threats, what would be the point? Besides, it reeks of mala brujería to talk about it: I don’t want to jinx myself and have to put those skills to the test.
Cubans have an unrealistic measure of what crime looks like outside their door, down the block, across town and overseas (see note 4). The question is: does it really matter? Isn’t this just a chronicle of life in contemporary Cuba? Possibly, except I’m worried about what relying on la bola about crime will mean as we move forward with current economic reforms. As inequalities deepen – and they are, as I type this – and crime begins to climb, as it tends to do when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, won’t it be helpful for citizens to know exactly what their playing field looks like?
1. Even more than renovated kitchens and bathrooms, the first home improvement Cubans make is erecting rejas on windows and doors.
2. Ojo: Note that here I am referring only to home robberies and how they correlate with barred windows and doors, not opportunistic theft of bicycles, chain and purse snatching, etc.
3. One friend of mine has fallen asleep not once, but twice, while smoking, torching his mattress in the process. Despite having escaped unscathed, he continues to smoke and nod off; I have the burnt furniture to prove it.
4. This intrigues me even more still since part of the reason for this skewed perception is lack of press coverage of crime here. But you see the same exact fear and paranoia in the US due to too much press coverage and the generalized media strategy of ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’