Jailed just in case
HAVANA · It's true, Levi Fontaine hung out with the wrong crowd; a group of kids who broke into cars and loitered on street corners late at night. But his family never dreamed he would be imprisoned simply on the presumption that he might commit a crime in the future.
Yet that has been enough to keep Levi, who turned 17 last month, in a detention center and awaiting trial.
"There are no facts. He wasn't caught with anything," said Carlos Suarez, 36, Levi's uncle who helped raise him. "There is no proof, just words."
Levi, an avid basketball player and aspiring sports instructor, was rounded up in a police operation earlier this year that jailed approximately 400 young Cubans on charges of "dangerousness," an offense defined in Cuba's penal code as "a special inclination ... to commit crimes, as demonstrated by behavior that is clearly contrary to the standards of communist morality."
Some of those rounded up have been sentenced to two to four years in prison for "dangerousness" even though they did not commit a robbery, theft or other crime.
Others, like Levi, who grew up in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Central Havana, are waiting for their cases to trickle through Cuba's judicial system.
Levi's uncle and aunt, who have raised him ever since his mother was jailed for embezzlement five years ago, are allowed to visit him at a detention center outside Havana every 21 days. They bring him snacks and treats, but say they are able to do little to help Levi regain his freedom.
"Every time I go to see [Levi] he asks, `Uncle what have you heard?' But there's nothing, no information," Suarez said at his Central Havana home shortly after visiting with Levi last week.
"He seems different, over the past two or three visits I've noticed his spirit is down. They've been too rigorous with him."
The gap between Cuba's haves and have-nots is felt acutely in Havana's roughest urban neighborhoods where many youths find few rewards in government jobs that pay paltry salaries. They live on the margins of the law, buying and selling goods on the street. That leaves them vulnerable to the charge of "dangerousness," broadly defined as "antisocial behavior."
Many young people jailed for "dangerousness" earlier this year lived in dilapidated homes headed by a single mother who struggled to get by. Others had been detained for minor infractions and were warned by police to clean up their acts or face the consequences. Veteran human rights monitor Elizardo Sánchez called the operation an attempt at "social cleansing."
Suarez worries that Levi's time behind bars will make it difficult to put his life back on track. It is a fear shared by other parents like Lourdes Zamora whose son Randy Arambure, 17, was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of dangerousness.
"I never thought he would go to prison without committing a crime," said Zamora, who ekes out a living washing laundry for a few pesos. Randy's father left Havana for Miami during the 1994 rafter crisis and rarely keeps in contact with the family, Zamora said.
Randy spent 45 days in a detention center in 2003 in connection with a petty theft, but Zamora says he went back to school.
During his trial, prosecutors questioned how Randy was able to afford nice clothes and nightclubs, status symbols beyond the reach of many young people. Like others, he was suspected of resorting to robbery.
"They said he was living above his means," Zamora said.
A few blocks away, another mother, Daisy Miyares, said similar accusations were aimed at her son Luis Miyares, 17, who was also sentenced to four years in prison for dangerousness.
"They said he lived a high life. They said he wore expensive shoes, expensive clothes," Miyares said, explaining that the clothes and shoes were gifts from relatives who emigrated from Cuba.
Three years ago Luis was implicated in a tourist's purse snatching and spent a year in a youth re-education center. When he was released he began working with his stepfather repairing bicycles.
"He got out [of the re-education center] to change his life, but they didn't give him an opportunity. I think it's an injustice," Miyares said. "He made a mistake once. What does that have to do with this? Those are four years of his life he's going to waste."
Although Cuba's penal code defines dangerousness as behavior that contradicts "communist morality," the charge predates President Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution and is meant to prevent crime, said defense lawyer Amelia Rodríguez.
Cuba's penal code says dangerousness can include "habitual drunkenness, drug addiction, or antisocial behavior.
"An individual who habitually breaks the rules of coexistence by acts of violence ... violates the rights of others ... or disrupts the order of the community or lives as a social parasite ... is considered to be in a dangerous state," according to the penal code.
Those convicted can be placed in therapy, detoxification programs or job-training programs, Rodríguez said.
"If you are 16 years old you must study or work, you must take one of those two paths ... if you are prowling ... you are picked up," said Rodríguez, who has defended clients charged with dangerousness.
Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel