Cuba: Police state or tourist haven? Depends who you talk to

Special to the Miami Herald

Despite Cuba’s sometimes gritty streets the country is one of the safest in the hemisphere by some accounts.
Despite Cuba’s sometimes gritty streets the country is one of the safest in the hemisphere by some accounts. Miami Herald

At midnight on the streets of this crumbling capital, tipsy tourists walk down dark alleys with cameras dangling from their necks that might be worth six months’ salary to a local Cuban. Yet by many accounts those innocents abroad are probably safer here than on almost any other street in the Caribbean.

Living in a communist police state has dramatic downsides — paranoia, suspicion, fear, unjust imprisonment. But it also makes the island unique in the region: virtually free from the violent crime that plagues much of the Americas.

As U.S. travelers increasingly flock to the island, attracted by its time-warp scenery of 1950s Fords and colonial architecture, safety might be one of its less-flashy selling points.

Cuba doesn’t report crime statistics and state-run media rarely cover crime, but the meager data that exists paints a picture that sets Cuba apart.

The country had 477 homicides in 2012 or a rate of 4.2 per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That’s the third lowest homicide rate in the hemisphere after Canada and Chile, and it’s dramatically lower than its neighbors. Jamaica, for example, had a homicide rate of 39.3 per 100,000, followed by the Bahamas with 29.8 and Puerto Rico with 26.5. Mainland United States, by comparison, had a rate of 4.7 homicides per 100,000.

Monica Petruzzelli, 21, was in Cuba with classmates from California’s Chapman University working on a documentary about local artists. She said she had spent the previous night wandering around old Havana snapping pictures and bar hopping.

“I felt the same as if I had been walking in the United States,” she said. “I felt very safe. Of course the guys weren’t tame, they were harassing and harassing, but it was the same way in Chile.”

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security says violent crime isn’t common in Cuba, but “evidence continues to suggest that petty theft and minor crimes remain a problem.... American travelers are perceived to be wealthy and are, thus, often the target of these types of crimes.”

In a country without many first-world perks — like reliable Internet access or electricity — locals take pride in the island’s safety. Yoel Monsalve, a cab driver in Havana, said his neighborhood, San Miguel, is considered one of the rougher ones in the city.

“If you walked around with a camera at two in the morning you might — just might — get robbed, but I really doubt it,” he said. “In all my life I’ve never heard of a kidnapping here, for example. It just doesn’t happen.”

But others are more skeptical about Cuba’s squeaky-clean image.

Evis Leyva, 39, has been homeless since he sold his residence in 2006 with the hopes of putting together enough money to go to the United States. He says the smugglers he hired to make the trip ripped him off and he’s been living in a derelict building ever since.

He says he hears about thefts and muggings on the streets but they never make the press.

“The only time you ever see crime in the paper is when it has gotten so big they can’t cover it up any more,” he said.

As the online news site Havana Times wrote in 2012, local newspapers don’t have “a crime page and nothing is published about crime, robberies, rapes or murders. Nothing was even written when 33 patients starved to death in a Havana psychiatric hospital.”

A search of the archives of Granma and Juventud Rebelde, Cuba’s two largest newspapers, had only two mentions of local homicides in the past three years. In one case, from June 2014, the Interior Ministry reported that four bodies had been discovered in western Cuba. The article said the men had been killed in connection with a plan to flee the country and that six people had been detained.

Another case, also from last year, said the state was pressing charges against individuals who had killed 11 and poisoned 99 with illegal moonshine made from alcohol stolen from the pharmacy at the University of Havana.

“The official narrative leaves no room for violence,” said Julia Cooke, who spent five years living in Cuba and researching her book The Other Side of Paradise — Life in the New Cuba. Even so, the island’s radio bemba, or gossip grapevine, sometimes carried reports of violence.

“I think when poverty and heat and desperation and lack of information converge it can induce violence in the most calm of people,” she said. “That I heard about it as infrequently as I did is a testament to Cuba’s overall safety.”

There are multiple theories about why the country is an outlier when it comes to violence. Even before the 1959 revolution gun ownership was restricted and the country still has one of the lowest civilian firearm-ownership rates in the world. (In fact, 71.8 percent of all Cuban homicides in 2010 were committed with knives, according to the Small Arms Survey research group in Geneva.) In addition, the island’s powerful Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, essentially aggressive neighborhood watch programs, are thought to play a role in social control. Others have suggested that organized crime is firmly in the hands of government, which has kept a lid on violence.

Tourists — one of the few sources of hard currency for the government — have an added layer of protection, as police come down particularly hard on crimes against them.

“Cubans know that tourism is essential to the national economy,” Cooke said. “If you hassle a tourist you are more likely to get in bigger trouble than if you hassle another Cuban.”

Tom Popper, the president of Insight Cuba, which has taken about 10,000 U.S. travelers to the island over the last decade, said safety will be one of Cuba’s silver bullets as it opens up to American travelers.

“Families can bring their children and if you’re a female you can walk around at night without being worried; there’s not a whole lot to be concerned about,” he said. “Tourism is going to take off as word gets out that it’s one of the safest places to visit —particularly since the world is in such tumult right now.”

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