Tag Archives: cuban psyche

La Bola en la Calle: Crime in Cuba

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“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.

¿Conclusión?

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?

Notes

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.’

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Cuban Psyche 2010

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“You must be a very patient person,” my friend said in reference to living in Cuba.

He doesn’t know the half of it. Standing in line for bread, the bus, ice cream, hard currency, hats or whatever other random thing appears on the shelves. Or losing my youth waiting for my 50k dial-up to giddy up and connect me (see note 1). These things don’t require patience. They demand resignation. Quite simply, we have no choice (see note 2).

Most days I can live with that. Most of the time I’ve got the trade offs in perspective.

In my previous life, I had to step around mother and son sleeping on the sidewalk and was awoken by gunshots. I watched and worried as friends got hooked on heroin or tried to recover from sexual assault or a nasty crack habit (now that’s redundant!). Waiting for a bus? A small price to pay for peace of mind and the freedom to wander the streets without all that armor urban America requires.

I’m not patient. I’m resigned. And relieved. But tucked into that chasm between relief and resignation lies frustration. I believe frustration is one of the truly equitable things in Cuba and while it may manifest itself differently for different people, anyone who tells you otherwise is apathetic, inattentive, or both. (Incidentally, denial is another wholly human trait that finds firm foothold on the island and is also in this mix).

So what’s so frustrating? There are innumerable little things like lack of red meat and tedious Friends re-runs, but some people can afford steaks and others adore the antics of Phoebe and Ross. So instead of ranting about the picayune or personal, I’d like to cast the net wide and look at the top 5 frustrations I see contributing to the Cuban Psyche 2010. In no particular order:

1. Bureaucracy, capital B. Exit permits, house papers, customs processes, and entrepreneurial permission slips: it’s getting people down. Not just the paperwork and hoop jumping – after all, every society has them. No, it’s not simply the bureaucratic bloat, but rather the informational black hole that is so frustrating. Not knowing where to go to get the right form or who to approach to hold the right hoop is time consuming and irritating as hell. There are no 800 numbers or customer service representatives in Cuba. Many times there isn’t even a low level pencil pusher willing to answer the phone (see note 3). No websites walking you through all the bureaucratic bullshit or a handy ‘contact us’ button as last resort.

Finding out how to get something done in Cuba is often more laborious and time consuming than actually doing it. To give you an idea of just how wildly out of control Cuban bureaucratic bloat is, consider the fact that China, population 1.3 billion, has nine governmental ministries while Cuba, population 11.2 million, has some two dozen (see note 4). Bottom line: you’ll go gray and flabby trying to navigate Cuba’s too big bureaucracy populated by people exercising the little power they have.

2. Economic hardship. Owners of $250/night casas particulares notwithstanding, almost all Cubans experience this in one way or another. We’re not talking about the distended bellies and death-by-diarrhea misery that plagues other developing nations, but rather lentils and rice six days running and no new shoes for baby. There are so many different and complex reasons (from without and within) the Cuban economy is on the skids but regardless, no mother wants to deny her daughter a new bra if she needs it and psychological hunger runs a close second to the physical variety. Bottom line: low salaries are eroding goodwill and commitment. People want to earn what they’re worth and live a little.

3. Inadequate/insufficient/inappropriate housing. Chronic and fairly widespread, the housing problem in Cuba is like the health care problem in the US: intractable and inequitably harsh (see note 5). Again, there are many complex reasons for this, from the weather (hurricanes knock down hundreds of homes a year) to shortages of supplies (blame the embargo, the Cuban government, or the guys “helping” cement fall off the truck, the end result is the same: building materials in Cuba are in absurdly short and expensive supply). This housing crunch translates into five generations living in a two-bedroom apartment, 10 people crammed into a one-room solar, generations being raised in albergues (what are supposed to be temporary, post-hurricane shelters), and lovers who can’t find any privacy to get jiggy (see note 6). Bottom line: Major housing problem needs major fixing.

4. The embargo. It costs my sister more than a dollar a minute to call me in Havana, yet she can shoot the shit with Esteban in Brazil for three cents that same minute. But it’s not only the price. In this case, financial frustration is compounded by technical frustration since calls from the USA to Cuba get routed through third countries (the base at Guantánamo Bay excepted of course). This means that sometimes we’re sharing the line with a Korean housewife or an Argentinean carpenter. But at least we have that – it can take a dozen attempts over half an hour or more to place a call to Cuba from the United States. Bottom line: politics preventing families from communicating is frustrating (and cruel).

5. Good old-fashioned exhaustion. Cubans have fought, worked, and withstood. They have suffered and struggled. They have also triumphed, but they are, quite frankly, pooped. Ironically, one of the most divisive decisions in recent years didn’t get much press – the raising of the retirement age (funny how foreign correspondents jumped on Cuba’s liberalization of cell phones like a Beagle does a bitch in heat, but gave short shrift to this big story affecting millions of Cubans countrywide). In early 2009, the government held spirited debates across the country regarding the idea and despite some dissent, raised the retirement age by 5 years for men and women (to 65 for men and 60 for women). These would-be retirees are the same folks that built the Revolution from Day 1 and they are, in large part, pissed. Retirement in Cuba isn’t only a time to kick back a bit and hang with the grandkids. It’s a time to finally make some money. Those aforementioned perpetually low salaries are rivaled only by perpetually low pensions and folks of retirement age often work in parallel markets to augment their meager earnings. Bottom line: it’s great there are pensions, but people want them like, yesterday, not five years from now.

I don’t have any answers, but I know 2010 is going to require a lot of patience, on everyone’s part.

Notes

1. Anyone who doubts there’s a digital divide in today’s iPad/YouTube/Twittering world should come to Cuba where the scintillating beeps and squeaks of dial-up are just enough to keep us connected (sort of – it’s so slow even streaming audio is impossible). More than once in the past 8 years, I’ve had young ‘uns up north give me a blank stare when I tell them my connection is measured in kbps. ‘What’s that?’ they ask me.

2. Like anywhere and everywhere, moneyed people in Cuba can create choice. Pay double the price for a loaf and there’s no waiting in line for bread. Shell out ten times the bus fare and you can ride downtown swiftly and comfortably in a 1956 Chevy. And yes, $7 an hour will get you a (slightly faster) WiFi connection in the fanciest hotels. Alas, while that choice is available to some Cuban bloggers, I’m not one of them.

3. In all my travels, I have never seen a people more able to ignore a ringing phone than Cubans.

4. Ongoing consolidation of ministries should help, but it’s causing other types of frustration not limited to job losses.

5. Housing in Cuba and healthcare in the US share another parallel in that neither problem is black and white but rather an awkward shade of gray. True, there is no one sleeping on the streets in Cuba. Likewise, no one in the US will be turned away from an ER for lack of insurance. This does not mean, however that this type of housing and that type of care is good or desirable.

6. This last is particularly hard on gay folks. While parents typically allow their grown (or nearly) breeder children to bring home their honeys for some loving, queer kids/adults usually don’t have that luxury. Since it’s extraordinarily difficult for Cubans of any age to get their own apartment, if Mama don’t like homos, you ain’t getting any in your own bed. I personally believe overcrowded housing and lack of privacy have tangible knock-on effects elsewhere in the Cuban reality from HIV prevalence (it’s hard to negotiate condom use during a back alley quickie) to divorce rates. Over 50% of marriages on the island fail (60% in Havana), giving Cuba one of the world’s highest divorce rates. Not surprising: what would you do if you had to live with your in-laws?!

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