—Six weeks ago I went to the beach with four American friends and there met three Cuban men who play for one of Cuba’s national sports teams. Since then we have gone out with them several times, and on several occasions we have been stopped by the police while with them.
Typically the police ask them for their identification cards and how they know us, and then leave them alone once they realize that they play for a national team.
On February 14 four of us, an American friend and two of the men from the team, decided to go to the book fair. We walked down the Malecon seawall in two pairs. It was a perfect day to walk from the National Hotel, where we met them, all the way to Old Havana.
As we walked down the Malecon the man I was walking with was stopped by the police. He whistled to his teammate, who was walking slightly further ahead. The police officer took their identification cards and called the station while we waited off to the side. After about five minutes our friends came over to tell us what was happening.
The police officers were taking them down the station to “investigate” because they thought they were bothering us.
We went over to the police to explain that we were friends with them, and had been for weeks. That we were students, not tourists, and weren’t being bothered by anyone.
One officer listened to us as the others handcuffed our two friends and put them in the squad car. He gave us directions to the station and told us to go and tell the officers there that we were friends with them. As one car drove away with our friends another car full of police officers pulled up. The officer in the passenger seat wished us “felicitaciones.”
“For what,” we asked. “It’s February 14th,” he answered.
We took a taxi to the police station, where we spoke with two different officers. The first told us that there was an investigation into something the men had done. We informed him that the police had only stopped our friends because they were with us and were supposedly bothering us.
He told us that would never happen, and that police would only stop someone if they were looking for them because they had done something wrong. We asked him how he could say that when they had been stopped many times before with us and let go as soon as they had their ID cards checked. He avoided answering, and suggested that we just go on with our day and forget about what had happened.
We refused to leave, and a few minutes later we spoke to a second officer. First he told us that our friends would have to stay overnight.
We told him, again, that they were on the national team, and so we didn’t understand why there was a problem. We asked him how they could treat their own national players this way. We also told him that we were students here for three months; shouldn’t we be allowed to have Cuban friends? He answered yes, of course, to this.
He made a phone call, relayed this information to an officer in the back, and then told us to wait outside for our friends. They came out to meet us and made jokes about the whole thing, but we could tell that they were angry and that their pride, something so important to Cubans, had been hurt.
Our friends had continued to tell the officers, throughout the encounter, that they played for the national team; that they were representatives of the country. I believe it was only through our refusal to leave the station and our shaming the police for treating their own people this way that they were let go.
Throughout this whole scenario I felt completely helpless. Who do you turn to when the police are the perpetrators of harassment? How could it be that we, as foreigners, were both the cause of the problem and the eventual solution? What happens to Cubans who don’t have the luxury of a national team identification card? And why do the police want to keep foreigners and Cubans apart?
I imagine the reason could be to keep Cubans from seeing the luxuries that capitalism brings, and to keep foreigners from seeing the poverty that they live in. If this is true, they are making a mistake.
Cuba has taught me the true meaning of entrepreneurship and resourcefulness, and resilience beyond all else. The Cubans I have met are some of the happiest and friendliest people I have ever known, families are amazingly close and friendships are strong. Most of my friends are also overwhelming supportive of the revolution and the government, although frustrated with the lack of opportunities here.
I have spoken with my Cuban friends about both the benefits and drawbacks of capitalism and democracy; in particular how little help poor Americans receive from the government, and how hard it really is to achieve the American dream.
I have also explained that the money we have isn’t necessarily real. Many of us, me included, pay more to attend university than we will earn when we graduate, and will spend the rest of our lives paying back student loans.
Separating Cubans from people visiting this country enforces the stereotype that all foreigners have a disposable income and keeps foreigners from seeing all the amazing things that Cuba, and Cubans, have to offer to the rest of the world.