By Irina Echarry
HAVANA TIMES – As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, governments have taken to the streets all over the world, not to win over supporters this time though mind you, but to look after us.
Deploying their military or police forces, they are keeping a close eye on citizens and controlling their actions. We need to take care of ourselves, but we also have to keep our guard up. It’s interesting that it is this very same State/government who oppresses us, that now has to save us.
In Cuba, police patrol cars are driving down avenues, uniformed police officers are watching over long lines and even picking up older people they find on their way. The most vulnerable need to stay at home, but sometimes, they have no other choice but to go outside and look for the basic things they need.
In these times of social distancing, there are lots of people showing solidarity, helping out, and there are also others who need to find a way to get by on their own. Cuba is one of the countries with the oldest populations in Latin America: 20% of the population is aged 60+, many of whom live alone.
You just have to take a quick look at crowds outside pharmacies, banks, stores, bodega ration stores, and you’ll see a sea of white hair, people at risk not just because of their age, but because they also have underlying health conditions.
Sometimes, the police give them a warning; other times, they are arrested and taken to the police station, where they are then fined for spreading the disease. This also happens to people who don’t wear a mask or only wear it hanging off their chins while they smoke or eat something.
The thing is that the police are in our neighborhoods, on our blocks, in our lives. People have already got used to seeing them there all the time, on the street corner, having a snack at the kiosk, talking, harrassing young women.
Before public transport services were suspended, it was normal to hear: buses won’t stop if there aren’t any police around. Sunrises, which are more peaceful than ever, are accompanied by a patrol car on every street corner. You can also see them do shifts where there are lines, preventing people from stealing basic everyday items, watching over bodega stores and doing the rounds in the neighborhood late at night, even when there is a blackout.
In the beginning, when people would take to their windows and balconies at 9 PM to applaud health professionals, a police car would beep its horn around the block, and it was a real party, children and old people really enjoyed it; but one day it stopped, and people missed it.
And that’s because the police’s presence has become a part of our landscape, a habit. If anything happens, you can go to them; and meanwhile, they are always watching and regulating everything you do.
What will life be like when this all blows over? Will they recognize that they need to withdraw from civic life? Will there be pressure for them to do this?
I find this “normality” of the militarization of society very dangerous. There is a crisis, and everything is coming into play, some people say, and I heard the phrase of the year on the TV: people want to be close to the police.
The media is constantly reminding us that we are fighting a battle against a deadly enemy, so it makes perfect sense that the military are out there fighting. We shouldn’t be passive and trusting, all of this power leads to an increase in the abuse of power too. Right now, it’s in the name of public health, but the government normally restricts citizens’ freedom of movement and association.
Ah, the police haven’t stopped doing their other cherished duty either, repressing independent media or anyone who dissents. Nowadays, the police are summoning, interrogating, fining and threatening journalists who speak their minds. And they will be a lot more active as they continue to apply decree-law 370, which means you can get yourself a fine and all of your devices seized just for posting something on social media.