5 December 1985
CRIME | The revolutionary alternative
AFTER 100,000 Cuban malcontents left their native island aboard a flotilla of Florida-based yachts and cruisers in the summer of 1980, President Fidel Castro compared it with the exodus in the early years of the revolution. ‘This time they didn’t get our doctors and technicians,’ he commented with satisfaction. ‘This time they got our scum.’
By no means all the departing Cubans were criminals, but sure enough, in the wake of this exodus, petty crime virtually disappeared from Havana as the black market underworld collapsed. Host cities like Miami and New York, on the other hand, found their crime rates soaring remarkably. More remarkable still was the sea-change that the departing ‘riff-raff’ themselves underwent in crossing the Florida Straits. Pilferers and pickpockets became muggers and murderers overnight. Gangster feuds broke out as the new arrivals began to penetrate the criminal fraternity. Instead of car parts, dollars and stereos - coveted luxuries in Cuba - they started dealing in more exotic merchandise such as cocaine and arms. Like a chameleon drawing its colour from its surroundings, the Cubans rapidly explored the more spectacular possibilities on offer in the US, land of opportunity. Washington, expecting boatloads of honest-to-goodness dissidents, was appalled. The boatlift ended abruptly.
The bizarre chain of events gave outsiders a novel insight into some of Cuba’s realities: the overwhelmingly political context within which the island lives and breathes, the essentially petty nature of Cuban crime, and also the surprising number of revolutionary misfits, criminal or otherwise.
Yet as the 1980 events illustrated, crime in Cuba is very different from crime in rich countries like the US, or indeed most countries of the world. The most visible criminal activity in Cuba as far as any Western visitor is concerned is its dollar black-market. This is a reflection of widespread ‘consumerist’ ambitions which the revolution has not been able to eliminate. Foreigners are approached for dollars, paid for at around five times the ‘official rate. These are used to buy dollar-only goods like fans and stereos at the hotel shops, which are sold at a profit for hundreds of pesos, to be changed again for dollars, and so the cycle continues.
Yet there is an extraordinary absence of violent crime - visitors rarely fail to be impressed by the climate of security. Woman or man, old or young, there is an almost palpable feeling of safety in walking the streets late at night such as exists in few other parts of the world. No tourist need expect much sympathy who leaves a camera or wallet unattended; foreign women are the target of frequent unwelcome ‘compliments’ and hisses (in Latin America hissing is a way of attracting attention, not a gesture of hostility) but they need not fear mugging or rape.
This peaceable social climate can be explained, first and foremost, by the fact that basic needs for food, clothing, health and education are met, forestalling the sheer desperation which is the central cause of endemic violent crime elsewhere in the Third World. Who blames the poor Brazilian who breaks into the houses of the wealthy? Cubans on the other hand can afford to despise violence for personal gain.
Second, the omnipresent Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, originally mobilised to provide a vigil on each block against counter-revolutionary saboteurs, have evolved into a permanent crime-watch of singular effectiveness. These ‘eyes and ears of the community - typically they are run by pensioners - can justly claim the credit for the virtual elimination of street rape, for example. But the principle of permanent vigilance - applied equally in workplaces, where workers stand nightwatch on a rota basis - operates not only against suspicious outsiders. Inveterate nosiness has also been elevated into a revolutionary principle. Be it because of the climate which keeps doors and windows always wide open, or the still-cramped housing conditions, nothing can pass unnoticed by friends, neighbours and relations.
Housing is far and away the major remaining social problem, above all in the capital, but the paradoxical truth is that a policy of calculated neglect has played its part in keeping down crime. Housing in the capital as a whole has been given a low priority by the government, which has, instead, concentrated construction resources in the countryside to build roads, dams and factories and to halt - at source - the drift to the cities. That drift has plagued the rest of Latin America, giving rise to huge, sprawling shanty towns around all the major urban centres which are inevitably breeding grounds for crime. Havana over this period has doubled in size, to two million, and accounts for - now as then - a fifth of the population, whereas Lima in Peru, a comparable city in 1959, now holds half that country’s 14 million inhabitants.
The law itself appears to have been a relatively minor influence over the past quarter century, though sentences for crimes involving violence are long and severe. Only in 1975 did the country acquire a new constitution to replace what was left of the old Washington-style charter. And only in 1979 was the new Cuban Penal Code established, similar in most respects to the legal system in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries.
In the wake of the introduction of the penal code, the past five years have seen considerable efforts on the part of the authorities to promote ‘socialist legality’. But it is altogether too soon to talk about respect for the law in its own right, and indeed while society is highly intolerant of those who commit acts of violence there is very little stigma attached to the largest category of offenders, namely those who divert ‘social property’ for their own gain.
Even the official press is capable of reflecting this tolerance: an article on the theft of cutlery from a restaurant some months ago (‘Why do we have to eat our pizzas with a spoon?’ asked the headline) memorably drew the conclusion that the thefts would continue as long as people were unable to buy knives and forks in the shops.
The revolution’s success in reducing crime to such trivial levels is the more notable when we remember Havana was until relatively recently one of the Meccas of the gangster world, capital of a country whose history is uniquely drenched in blood and violence. Yet it can equally be said that the history of crime has made its abolition a truly popular cause, central to the revolution.
Fidel Castro, a lawyer, defended himself against the charge of attempting to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in 1953, closing his impassioned denunciation of existing social conditions on the island with the famous words: ‘History will absolve me.’ His speech caught the popular imagination because it offered a new definition of crime. Exploitation, disease and ignorance went on to become the greatest crimes in Cuban demonology, to which other labels, at first strange - such as imperialism, colonialism and capitalism - became attached. Serious crime and politics became inextricably entangled. Warts and all, modern Cuba is the singular outcome of that revolution against crime.
Noll Scott is a journalist who has lived and worked in Cuba since 1982.