Cuba and Having to Carry an ID Card

Dmitri Prieto

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 9 — What recently happened to my friend Mario Castillo, who was arrested and fined here in Cuba for not carrying his ID, reminded me of my experiences in Great Britain.

When I went to that country for a year to study for a master’s degree in anthropology, I knew that within three days of my arrival I was required to register with the police. It turned out that I had to register not at just any police station, but at a kind of special center where they produced the documents for resident foreigners.

After going through a long line, I was interviewed by an officer who took a picture with a digital camera and, in almost the same instant, handed me my A4-formatted document. On it appeared my origin, my home address, the photo and a few other bits of data. The paper, which was in such an exotic format for personal identification, was nothing more than an “identity card” for foreign residents.

What immediately came to my mind was how complicated it was going to be for me to get around London with such a “personal card.”

Yet that same form/ID specified very clearly that if the police ever questioned me, I wasn’t obligated to show them that A4 form; rather, I only had to go to the nearest police station with it within 48 hours. In other words, not having it on me implied no problem at all.

In London, for practical purposes, we would use a student ID, a monthly bus pass or other similar documents as identification.

Needless to say, it doesn’t work that way in Cuba. Everybody has to carry their ID card here.

And as we learned from Mario’s case, if they catch someone undocumented, they can be held for about four hours at the police station, and finally — like with Mario — made to pay a small fine.

Nor is not having one a big deal for the police, given their ID card system. They have their own digital banks of photos and fingerprints of virtually the entire adult population in Cuba; therefore it’s not so difficult for them to identify someone who isn’t carrying their ID card.

Many people say that requests for IDs made by police officers to people on the street don’t fall evenly on the various groups of the population.

They say, for example, that dark-skinned people are much more frequently requested than lighter-skinned people – something I’ve witnessed.

I also know from my own experience that when I had long hair I was carded more often than when I wore my hair at a “respectable” length.

And when Cubans and foreigners walk along together, the probability of being asked for IDs rises dramatically (except in the case of professional tourist guides).

We need to ask whether such a document is really necessary. In other countries people go around with whatever type of ID, from their driver’s licenses to film club cards.

In the USSR, the introduction of the “internal passport” marked the beginning of the cruelest period of Stalinism.

Is there such a need for an ID card? After all, the fine for not carrying one is only 7 pesos (30 cents USD), a figure whose relative value denotes the degree of danger represented by such an “offense.”


Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov has 254 posts and counting. See all posts by Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

5 thoughts on “Cuba and Having to Carry an ID Card

  • Cuba functions well.As clean society Being asked to carry an identity card is no big deal The main problem is economic and yes the USA hasn’t helped in that regard but there are internal problems as well. Cuba is basically a secretive society so it is very difficult to understand what is going on there The attitude of the govt is you’re a tourist it’s not your business

  • Dmitri Prieto,

    Don’t know about Britain, but here in the US, you do have to carry a government issued, photo ID most of the time. No fine if you don’t have one, but actually if the police are involved, you may pay a price in time and trouble. The ID most people use is their driver’s license and those who don’t drive have to go get an official ID at the motor vehicle office. Technically, you are not breaking any law, but that doesn’t matter once a cop stops you. No ID? You will probably have to go to the police station, and Dmitri, please understand that the US today has become much more militaristic than years ago. Going to the police station is usually a ride in a police car, with your hands handcuffed behind you. (Not in front like those old movies). And this can take an hour if you are in a small town and they like you to all day or more if not.

    To judge by anecdotes, I have watched police in both countries and the Cuban cops I saw were much more human. Those who defend the increasing militarization of police in the US argue that the examples of police violence in the US are just examples of a few “bad apples.” But my over 60 years of observing US police, convinces me that it is a “bad basket,” with an occasional good apple.

    Sorry to hear of any possible prejudice behavior by authorities anywhere. Seen to much in many countries. Only a highly involved community seems to make a difference.

  • The UK case is unique in Europe.
    In many other countries you have to carry an ID with you.
    I do not defend the rule of carrying an ID. I think it is stupid.
    All the best, my friend!

  • Dmitri, I am not sure if this is accurate.

    “They say, for example, that dark-skinned people are much more frequently requested than lighter-skinned people – something I’ve witnessed.”

    There are more dark skinned people in Cuba than lighter skinned people therefore is more likely dark skinned people are asked with more frequency because there is more of them. The question is if the proportion compare to lighter skinned people is really disproportional. That will be hard to answer just by direct observation I think only having in hand statistical data one can make such statement. On the other hand you are saying “They say” so that’s Hearsay and this is of little value for demonstrative purpose. Do you agree?

  • .
    There is not much common sense left in Cuba.
    The carne de identidad (ID) does not have to make sense. It is a mechanism of control and nothing else.

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