HAVANA (AP) -- Cuba's National Revolutionary Police banged on the
apartment door at 4 a.m. They roused a pair of prostitutes and their foreign
clients out of their rented rooms and hauled them down to the station.
Then, in an unusual move in a country that has recently tolerated prostitution,
three neighbors who were renting rooms to hookers were accused of
pandering. A dozen people, including the men who brought the couples to
the informal bordello, were charged.
"I didn't ask them what they were going to do. I just rented the rooms,"
one of those charged, Maria Garcia, 71, a former rebel who spent nine
months in the Sierra Maestra mountains during the revolution that brought
Fidel Castro to power in 1959.
Free on $2,000 bail until she goes to trial, Garcia could face up to eight
years in prison.
Cuban police in recent weeks have cracked down on crime in Havana,
which had seen growing hordes of prostitutes and a surge in violent acts such
as robbery and murder.
The streetwalkers who once swarmed around tourist locales and the
shadowy men offering cheap cigars and independent taxis have all but
disappeared from the streets.
Dozens of new white Peugot police cars patrol nightly, stopping suspicious
vehicles and ordering any prostitutes still bold enough to go outside to return
Prostitution is not a crime in Cuba. But a stern order by a Cuban police
officer is usually enough to get anyone off the street. Cuban authorities
occasionally round up prostitutes and put them on buses back to their
Pimping and pandering making money off a prostitute is seen as a far more
serious offense and can mean several years in prison for repeat offenders.
"They're going to do us in," said Esteban Lazo, regional leader of the
Communist Party of Cuba.
Communist officials see the crackdown as more than a battle against crime.
For them, it is a war on a "lack of discipline" threatening to rip the seams of
the island's socialist system.
Juventud Rebelde, the weekly newspaper of the Union of Young
Communists, recently described criminals as "enemies of the Revolution."
Leaders of Havana's ideological neighborhood watch groups, the
Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, have met with police leaders
to discuss ways to work together to fight crime.
"There are tendencies and types of crimes never seen before," Gen. Jesus
Becerra, head of the National Revolutionary Police, told a gathering of
municipal leaders. "It is becoming more complex."
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alejandro Gonzalez, blamed the growing
crime problem on drugs brought into the country by traffickers trying to use
the island as a stepping stone for smuggling between Colombia and the
Still, drug use in Cuba appears to be limited mostly to marijuana brought
by tourists. A proliferation of prostitutes and marijuana use in Havana's
discotheques prompted police to shut most of them several weeks ago. The
majority remain closed.
While the crime rate remains extremely low compared with other major
cities around the world, the sporadic robberies and murders in Havana have
shocked a city where the most common crime a few years ago was pilfering
from government offices and factories.
The government does not release crime statistics, but anecdotal evidence
suggests violent acts are on the rise.
The strangulation of a Cuban woman in her home during an apparent
robbery on Oct. 9 in particular terrified Havana residents who for decades
never dreamed of being attacked by a fellow citizen.
Police arrested several suspects in the slaying of Esther Nieto Selles,
They did not announce a motive, but said cash, jewelry, household
appliances and clothes were taken from her home.
In September, the Italian Embassy confirmed a pair of Italian men had been
shot to death and their bodies abandoned on a beach in Guanabo. Cuba's
government has never commented on the double homicide and the motive
has never been made public.
Castro blames growing crime on the influence of capitalism. "The war against
crime is also a war against the imperialist enemy," he told leaders of the
Committees for the Defense of the Revolution during a national congress in
September. He said his government was well prepared to fight crime with
"the force of the people."
The rise in crime followed the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning
of the decade. Cuba was plunged into a severe economic crisis, and most
citizens suffered for several years as they tried to scrounge enough food to
Soon, young women hard pressed to feed their families became prostitutes,
or "jinoteras," catering to foreign tourists. As tourism boomed, hundreds of
other women took to the streets.
Prostitution has gotten out of control, said Lazo, the local Communist
"They are going to do in the revolution," he said.
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.