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.”