The Strangest Valentine’s Day

Courtney Brooks
Courtney Brooks

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.

6 thoughts on “<em>The Strangest Valentine’s Day</em>

  • The cuban police — at least in Havana tourist areas — appear to act systematically like north american police. However, socialist police are supposed to be better than that. Unfortunately, they appear not to be. And I’ve encountered police from both sides of the old ‘Iron Curtain’. And believe me: they’re exactly the same type of cruddy people.

    Cuba clearly has a long way to go yet before the average cuban can be assumed to not be interested in the material — yet often shallow and empty — lifestyle of the capitalist West. Perhaps a few ongoing socialist revolutions in the Western “democracies” will go a long way towards achieving that goal.

  • Bravo for this great story and for the comments.

    In my experience staying with Cuban friends (many times over the past years) this problem with the police used to be much worse. The real issue, however, is accountability. To whom are the police accountable? Local government, the Communist Party, Raul Castro? I know the technical answer but the real answer is that Cuba still lacks – in important ways – the rule of law.

    In my experience many Cubans appreciate a heavy police presence becuase it brings “safety and security” – but the at the same time people do not like the arbitrary nature of police behaviour in Cuba. As one writer in Juventud Rebelde wrote a few years back – “the National Revolutionary Police must be respected, but to be respested they must earn that respect with professional behaviour.”

    The Police in Cuba (like everywhere) need to be held publicly accountable and held to standards of legality and professionalism. It will be to the benefit of everyone.

  • I have never had this problem and I have been hanging around Cubans for years. But, I have heard of this type of thing. The reason for stopping them has more to do with their mission to protect tourists than to “keep Cubans from seeing the luxuries that capitalism brings.” If that were the goal, then US televsion shows and movies wouldn’t be dominating the Cuban TV stations. (no I am not talking about the TV’s in hotels, I am talking about regular programing on state channels). Also, those on a national team may actually be watched more closely since they are supposed to be representatives of the country. It would be horrible for a major athlete to be involved in anything illicit. I’m not saying I agree with thier methods, but it is important to try to look at it from an “inside” perspective if you can.

  • The same thing happened to me while I was in Habana. There really is an intense amount of profiling that goes on. My friend was also arrested with me for trying to see a movie together..jajaja. But when I returned to the states, to Oakland, I found out that a young man in my community had recently been murdered by the police, shot in the back while riding on the subway. The police everywhere profile people, and in the states sometimes people get killed because of people’s prejudices. It’s important to recognize that in the states white college students aren’t usually the recipients of police harassment. What you experienced in Cuba happens everyday on the streets of major American cities, and cities all over the world. While we, me and my Cuban friend, were very upset when the arrest happened, it gave us the opportunity to talk about racism in Cuba and in the US, police harassment, brutality and the differences between how people are treated in our two countries….and helped us come to the conclusion that our countries really aren’t all the different after all. Two side of the same coin.

  • This incident seems like a scene from the theatre of the absurd–Kafka meets Beckett! Although Gore Vidal once characterized the U.S.A. as being “The Home of the Free…and the Land of the Literal,” it seems like some Havana cops suffer from this same “literalness,” wherein every Cubano or Cubana seen with a foreigner is categorized as a jinatero or jinatera until proven otherwise (i.e. guilty…until proven innocent–the typical Kafkaesque bind). When Cuba first opened up to touristism back in 1990’s, this provoked unanticipated consequences: a wild circus of sex tourism, and a plague of locusts offering “real” cigars “that my brother snuck out from the factory,” etc. (all, no doubt, caused by the profound shortages and lack of consumer products). Subsequently, the pendulum swung back (too far) in the other direction. The hallmark of a professional in the law enforcement biz, however, is to assess each individual situation, and not fall into stereotypic “profiling” (as often happens up here…time and again I’ve seen cops stop cars based on the driver and passengers being black, or being young or hippies, .or on the car being beat-up looking, a “muscle-car” etc.). Let us hope that these young policemen will learn to differentiate between the hustler and the non-hustler (but also, that the very reasons why there are so many hustlers in tourist areas also eventually disappears, or at least lessens. Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen, however, or you’ll be “Waiting for Godot!”

  • Thank you for this beautiful post, the unfortunate story but how your reflections develop…beautiful. I am American and agree with what you say. I absolutely LOVE Cuba and her land and people. Just beautiful.

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