Violence in Cuba: People’s Helplessness and Protection of Power / Miriam Celaya

Havana Police. Photo OLPL

It was Saturday morning at ten-thirty, and was out with my oldest grandson. I was driving our old little car down a street in Central Havana as we turned a corner and I had to stop. On the left side of the street, a van parked at the curb was taking up a lot of room, while in the left lane, in the middle of the intersection, a young man was having an animated conversation with a girl, blocking my way.  Since I thought that maybe they were too absorbed in their talk to notice that I wanted to proceed where they were standing, I blew the horn once. The young man glared at me, clearly annoyed at my interruption and immediately, without moving an inch, continued with his talk.

I insisted then, blowing the horn once again, and he turned to me, gesticulating angrily, and cursing me out. His face was irate, and, to my surprise, he challenged me to get out of the car. I didn’t even have time to be scared and couldn’t believe such an irrational and unexpected situation. My grandson was terrified, pressed against the back seat, while the girl tried to grab the young man by the arm, in an effort to get him over to the other sidewalk. I finally had enough space for my little car to move and continued on our way. If the girl had not intervened, the young man would have hit me, even with my grandson watching. I would have been helpless in the middle of the street.

“Grandma, who was that man? Why did he want to hit you?” The kid asked, still overwhelmed by the event. “I don’t know who it was. I’m sure he was a little crazed and mistook me for someone else.” I did not know explain to my grandson why a 20-something total stranger had become so violent in a matter of seconds when I had not offended him at all and he did not have the slightest reason to act in such a way. Nor could I explain to him that the brief episode was just a sample of the level of violence that is reaching Cuban society, particularly in the capital, manifesting itself in an increasing spiral of aggression between individuals and groups for the most insignificant reasons, most often without any reason.

Almost every day one hears of assaults, burglaries, knives fights, murders. The news of the attacks seem endless and events happen daily and in the most dissimilar places. Recently, a woman was beheaded by a subject in a moving public taxi in a Vedado-La Palma route in the presence of other passengers, including a child. A few days ago, three men were attacked by a youth gang in Mulgoba, In the Boyeros area, leaving one dead of a stab wound and another one hurt of several fractures as a result of the beating.

At a bus stop, a young man mortally stabbed a family man who was out with his wife and children, simply because the victim claimed his place on line, which happened to be just in front of that of the attacker. Another bus driver was assaulted by a passenger who refused to pay his fare, and had to be helped by another driver of a bus that stopped at the same bus stop. Another bus driver from Guanabo was also attacked with a knife by an irate passenger who did not want to pay for his fare. The driver had to stop at the village clinic for treatment. It is a fact that buses are potentially among the most prone to violence in the capital.

Central Havana. Photo OLPL

A street in downtown Havana. Photo OLPL

The list of violent events becomes endless and it’s growing. One could almost say that each municipality in Havana is competing for the highest crime rate and, unfortunately, they all seem determined to reach the first place. At the same time, the impunity of criminals and the police inaction are staggering, so the feeling of insecurity among the population is intensifying. Many people say that they fear going out because of the possibility of becoming victims of the violence that has become commonplace.

Testimonies of knife assaults abound. It would seem that the law of the jungle has descended on our streets and that the strong and warlike elements are taking over, displacing decency and imposing terror among peaceful people.

The accumulation of frustration, poverty, marginalization and lack of a social project that would afford the population a modicum of prosperity, coupled with widespread corruption, even the very law enforcement for public order favor the emergence of the worst scenarios in a nation already marked by polarization, deep social differences and exclusions.

Marginal sectors, increasingly prone to violence, are marking the symbol of the system’s social decay, pointing to a spiral of unpredictable consequences if the situation doesn’t get under control. There are already decent people who have made the decision to acquire self-defense weapons of various origins and nature to defend themselves in case of aggression, whether in the streets or in their own homes. Violence as protection against violence, violence in response, as social code. I can’t think of anything worse that could happen.

The authorities are clueless. The official press continues its praises of the system, depicting an imaginary Cuba where only flourishing cooperatives exist, model hospitals where the best specialists in the world save the lives of children and all the sick poor people that in other countries would not stand the slightest chance to survive or to undergo surgery, or where schools are getting ready for the start of a new year which, incidentally, future criminals will also attend. Because this is also a revolutionary achievement: there might be many illiterate delinquents in the world, but not a one of them is Cuban. I have not heard of any of these violent acts where the police have had an important role, protecting “the public” or capturing the wrongdoer.

In fact, right now I can’t recall a single event in which the police have been even near the conflict. Most of the evidence I have collected reflect the tremendous distrust and suspicion of the population in relation to the euphemistically called “law enforcement”. Chances are that while the crimes are taking place, uniformed law enforcement entities may be supporting agents of State Insecurity whose job seems to be cracking down and trying to uselessly intimidate peaceful opponents, with that other form of selective violence, and making use of police vehicles not in the pursue of muggers and troublemakers who sow fear in society, but to carry away those who are dreaming of and working toward a better Cuba.

However, it appears that in a few years we will have more scientists in the Ministry responsible for these matters of internal order. This Sunday September 1st, Juventud Rebelde published a report (Orgullosos de servir a la sociedad, by Ana María Domínguez Cruz), which reported that students from the thirteenth detachment of cadets of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) composed of 400 young people across the country of which 250 belong to districts in the capital, have served their period of “preliminary military training” before being injected into university careers, such as Journalism, Psychology, Law, Computer and Medical Sciences, among other specialties not related to Agronomy or any of the technical schools or offices the General-President so much endorses as the most necessary for the country. With these cadets, states the report, “the ranks of MININT will be fed by educated and committed professionals”.  We already know on which side the commitment rests.

There is nothing to hope for. The press does not reflect what is happening in Cuba in real life: Everything seems to be fine with the country and the news about the assaults and crime is no more than rumors of those who want to damage the revolution’s image and create an opinion state that is adverse to the system. Everything indicates that the blue-uniformed police are not going to be more efficient and are not going to improve the social order and public peace, but we are certainly going to have more well-educated and learned MININT with the assigned task of pursuing and harassing anything that threatens the political power. That’s too bad for everyone.

Translated by Norma Whiting

2 September 2013