The Miami Herald
January 22, 1999
Cuba cracks down on street crime
Elite brigade mobilizes against Havana prostitutes, hustlers

             El Nuevo Herald Staff

             HAVANA -- The prostitutes and hustlers who helped make Cuba's capital a
             world center of sex tourism have been swept from the streets by a small army of
             elite police in black berets who are occupying virtually every corner of every zone
             where visitors and Cubans come into contact.

             The police mobilization shut down a booming scene that has been widely
             portrayed by foreign journalists and novelists over the past five years. A recent
             growth in street crime has also gotten attention abroad. President Fidel Castro
             acknowledged as much in announcing the crackdown this month, at one point
             reading excerpts from a recent Washington Post story on the topic.

             The campaign against prostitution and other crime has begun to take on a broader
             focus in recent weeks.

             With prostitutes off the streets and young men no longer offering stolen cigars to
             foreigners, officers of the Special National Brigade, as well as regular police, are
             systematically stopping young people on the street, especially males, and checking
             their identity papers.

             Last Saturday morning, 18 officers were spread out along the Malecon, Havana's
             bayfront drive, between the Hotel Nacional and the Hotel Riviera, about half of
             them conducting identity checks of pedestrians, drivers and bicyclists. Earlier last
             week, on Neptuno Street in Old Havana, three young men were told to stand with
             one hand against a wall while a brigade member examined their credentials.

             Some Havana residents applaud the crackdown on crime and prostitution. But the
             campaign is having other effects as well, says a man who is active in a Roman
             Catholic parish in central Havana.

             ``People are afraid to have contact with foreigners,'' he said.

             Nevertheless, some Cubans are risking contacts in order to ask for money,
             although they are doing so far more discreetly than in the recent past. A tourist
             walking down Calle Obispo last week was approached by a man who said he was
             an airport worker and remembered the foreigner's arrival the day before.

             ``Today I am a father,'' he announced loudly, adding softly ``I have to buy the
             baby's cradle.''

             The sweep against young Cubans stands in sharp contrast with a hands-off policy
             against tourists, at least where minor infractions are concerned. That approach is
             consistent with the luxury hotels, air-conditioned cars and plentiful food made
             available to tourists in a country where these are far out of reach of most people.

             The leniency toward foreigners is infuriating at least some police.

             A foreigner in a rented car who made an illegal left turn onto Paseo de los
             Presidentes last Friday drew a tirade from an officer but no fine.

             ``You people are ruining everything we have in Cuba!'' the officer yelled, before
             walking away.


                               Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald