14YMEDIO, 18 August 2014 – From Thursday night at 10:00 PM Anabel stood in the line at International Legal Counsel on 22nd Street in Playa. She’d already tried at dawn that morning, when she thought if she got there at 5:00 AM she would have a good chance. But she was wrong, they only took 40 cases and she was about 80th in line.
Anabel came to get a legal criminal record document because she’s trying to get a visa for Argentina and this is a part of the required paperwork every Cuban citizen who is not traveling on official business must have.
This time, on arriving at the corner in the dark, she found only “coleros,” professional line-standers. A group of 4 or 5 individuals who work selling, for 10 convertible pesos (about two weeks wages in Cuba), the first 15 places in the line. Each one “stands in” for three people and has enormous psychological experience in determining to whom to offer their services.
The normal clients didn’t begin arrive until two in the morning. Some, like Anabel, had been frustrated on previous occasions.
People come to the International Legal Counsel for multiple purposes. To get legal papers for use abroad, documenting their university degrees or certifications, their marriages and divorces, and especially, Cubans living abroad who need to update their passports. Here is where you used to get permission to leave the country in exchange for a letter of invitation, but this requirement disappeared with the immigration and travel reform law enacted in January 2013.
At 7:30 in the morning, about an hour before the offices officially open, the public starts to swell the line. It’s a crucial moment when, already daylight, people physically place themselves one after another. Those who arrived at 2:00 AM who thought they would be behind just five or six people, discover that in reality they are 18th in line. They now realize, that the gentleman who arrived in a Peugeot at 6:00 am and never asked “who’s last in line?”* occupies one of the first spots. The first protests are heard, but they’re weak because they are confronting a practice accepted for decades.
That gentleman who arrived in a Peugeot at 6 in the morning and never asked “who’s last in line?” occupies one of the first spots.
At 8:30, giving it all the importance she believes it deserves, a clerk comes out to explain that today there are only two specialists in the center and they will only be calling 40 people. At that moment the line seems to have received an electric shock and stiffens like a living organism.
The official, who has entrenched herself firmly in the door to collect the identity cards of those who manage to pass, stares into Anabel’s eyes before spitting out in an unpleasant tone: “Up to here are the places for criminal records.” And only then does Anabel realize that the employee has more ID cards in her hands than there are people in the line. She has the urge to protest, because she’s the only one who has noticed, but chooses to keep quiet because in the end she will be seen.
The group goes to an office on the second floor, in a hot space where it’s not possible to control the passage to the cubicles where the specialists work. She has 65 convertible pesos in her purse, and stamps worth 25 Cuban pesos, which is what the paperwork costs.
Those who have come to legalize degrees have to pay 200 convertible pesos, while certifications cost 250. Other more minor paperwork costs between 15 and 20 convertible pesos. An entire industry to extract money.
At 3:00 PM they’ve called only five of those waiting in line, but the parade to the specialists’ cubicles has been continuous. Then there’s a spontaneous demand to see the director, because the excessive delay for a requirement that is so expensive, and the undeniable influence peddling by which it works, seems unspeakably disrespectful.
The director arrives, friendly and positive, and pretends to scold the employee in charge, and promises the clients that everyone will leave satisfied. Indeed, as if by magic, in the last 45 minutes they resolve every case. Everyone goes home; tomorrow will be another day.
*Translator’s note: Cubans, on joining a line, ask “who’s last?” and then position themselves behind that person at the end of the line. At that time the person in front of them can ‘relax’, walk around, chat with others, and even, if they know the wait will be very long, go off and run other errands and return to their place later. In this way the line is organized based on every person recognizing the person directly ahead of them in the line.