Increase in Crime Mars Cuba's Reputation for Safe Streets
By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 29, 1998; Page A27
HAVANA—This dilapidated Communist capital may be filled with derelict
automobiles from the 1950s, and its residents dependent on ration tickets for
food, but until recently, at least, they could boast of one advantage over their
capitalist neighbor to the north: safe streets.
Lately, however, that claim has begun to ring hollow, as economic hardship
and growing frustration among the legions of poorly paid Cubans have led to
a surge in crime, alarming the government of President Fidel Castro and
prompting urgent measures to preserve law and order.
Concern over the worsening crime situation has peaked in recent months
with the robbery and slayings here of a Cuban artisan, who was tortured and
stabbed, and a young church secretary, who was raped and strangled in her
home after taking her children to school. In another recent incident, two
Italian tourists were fatally shot during a robbery.
Overall, break-ins and thefts are said by Cuban officials and residents
on the rise, spurring the state insurance company to study the possibility of
expanding coverage from car theft to general property-theft policies. An
increase in livestock theft has been reported in rural areas.
The weekly newspaper Juventud Rebelde, in a special section entitled "One
of the Great New Challenges: Crime Versus the Revolution," said recently
that crime is emerging as a threat to the country's socialist system. "Crime
serves as the best fifth column for those who are betting on the failure of
Cuba's political and economic models," the newspaper said.
The increase in crime also has alarmed Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana,
who said after the murder of the female lay worker, "First came prostitution,
then the windows, terraces and balconies of Havana were covered with bars
for fear of assault, and recently there has gradually appeared among us
something that destroys people and produces crime: drugs."
The problem is particularly distressing to Cuba's Communist leaders because
they have pointed so often to Cuba's relatively low rates of violence and
juvenile delinquency as one of the paramount virtues of their revolution.
In speeches over the last several years, Castro has acknowledged the threat
of crime and social disorder in this poor nation of 11 million, blaming it on the
long-standing economic embargo maintained by the United States, as well as
other machinations by the U.S. government.
It is difficult to get a clear picture of crime in Cuba because the government
does not publish crime data regularly. Diplomats and Latin America
specialists agree that the country is still one of the safest in the region.
Anecdotal evidence, however, supports observations by many people here
that the problem is growing worse. Government officials insist that the
increase in crime is temporary.
The Cuban economy, which hit rock bottom in the early 1990s, following
collapse of the Soviet Union, has bounced back somewhat in recent years, in
part because of the creation of a dual monetary system that legalized use of
the U.S. dollar. That system, however, has failed to improve living conditions
for many Cubans, who do not have access to dollars and are increasingly
resentful of those who do.
"There is more crime because we are getting more desperate every day,"
said Jose Maes Dit, 67, a retiree passing an afternoon recently in historic Old
Havana's Central Park. "It is so unfair that many people like me cannot eat
good food or drink good coffee because we do not have dollars or barely any
Said Miguel Alvarez, assistant to the president of the National Assembly
People's Power, "I am not of the thought that we are having a crime
explosion. There is an increase, but not an explosion." He added, "It is
economic, and perhaps law enforcement got a little relaxed. . . . We are
trying to get people to participate in solutions."
Some government officials are concerned about the potential effect of crime
on tourism, Cuba's largest source of hard currency. While few details about
the killing of the Italian tourists have been released and the case remains
under investigation, Cuban officials are said to fear that the fallout could
weaken a booming industry.
Furthermore, Cubans themselves are increasingly becoming the victims of
robberies, rapes and homicides, creating a heightened sense of fear and
compelling tighter security measures for homes and businesses. Security
bars cover windows along side streets; some residents have turned to attack
dogs and alarm systems. In Old Havana, residents sometimes warn tourists
against walking at night through certain sections, many of which are dimly lit,
if at all.
Crime has become a focal point for Castro. At a Sept. 28 session of the
Fifth Congress of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution --
neighborhood Communist Party-led organizations -- Castro said in opening
remarks, "You had old tasks and now you have new tasks, and the new ones
are strategic. . . . The struggle against illegal activity is vital." Referring to
the United States, he added, "The enemy . . . uses all means possible and
today they are concentrated against Cuba in this respect."
Police have been outfitted with new Citroen cruisers, replacing the aging
Soviet-built Ladas they used to drive, and have been given more modern
communications equipment. With more robberies directed at tourists, large
numbers of officers and attack dogs have been assigned shifts at popular
tourist spots, such as Old Havana.
Part of the police presence in these areas is geared to enforcing a
crackdown on the many prostitutes catering to foreigners, their pimps and
the owners of rooms they use. Over the last several weeks, visitors have
noticed conspicuously fewer prostitutes soliciting tourists.
Prostitution itself is not a crime in Cuba, but those who profit from it,
pimps, can face several years in jail. Although there have been similar
campaigns against the sex trade in the past, party officials said that the
current one is the most intensive. Authorities have already taken aggressive
steps against prostitution in popular resort areas such as Varadero beach and
the Cuban Keys. To attack the problem further, and to address the
increasing availability of illegal drugs, Castro recently ordered the closing of
many of Havana's popular discotheques.
Nonetheless, on a recent night in Old Havana, several prostitutes operating
from an apartment building next to a popular tourist hotel were soliciting
foreigners with little apprehension as several police officers patrolled the
nearby streets and park.
"We have to pay the police money if we want to continue working," one of
the prostitutes said. "It can get expensive for us, but some, not all of them,
will let us do it. You just have to know which ones."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company