Is it a Crime to Go for a Walk with a Foreigner in Havana?

Yanelys Nuñez Leyva

Street corner in Old Havana. Photo: Elio Delgado Valdes
Street corner in Old Havana. Photo: Elio Delgado Valdes

HAVANA TIMES — I still haven’t managed to let go of the anger or overcome the surprise.

While strolling down a street in Old Havana next to a foreign friend of mine, a police officer stopped me to ask me the most ludicrous questions I’ve heard.

I don’t want to embellish or distort the events with flowery prose. I will try to offer a faithful transcription of the conversation I had with this police officer, as I recall it.

“Good evening, citizen. May I see your ID, please,” said the officer.

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

“Is he your husband?” he asked, pointing at my friend, who was standing nearby, unable to understand what was going on, as he doesn’t understand Spanish.

“No.”

“Then, what are you doing with him?”

“We’re walking around the city. Is that a crime?”

“Are you a tour guide?”

“No, I’m an art historian and he’s an artist. We’re preparing an exhibition that will open in Cuba very soon.”

“And how do I know what you’re telling me is true? Do you have any papers on you?”

“I don’t have any documents on me, not even a student ID, because I’m no longer a student. But, if you wish, we can head down to my place and I can show you my degree. Or perhaps you can go to my place of work and confirm all of this.”

The officer remained quiet.

He hands my ID to another police officer, who asks me the same question the first did:

“Is he your husband?”

“No,” I replied, and proceeded to tell him the same story.

This officer tried to see if I had a criminal record over the radio, fruitlessly, as they had communication problems.

He gave me back my ID and I stood there, waiting for a reply, perhaps even an apology for having wasted my time, anything.

Nothing. Seeing I wasn’t leaving, he told me I could “continue on my way,” with a tone suggesting he had nothing more to say to me.

I was left perturbed and confused. I think I need to read my country’s laws more carefully and see how much of a right they have to unjustly question who I walk with or talk to.

Yanelys Nuñez

Yanelys Nuñez Leyva: Writing is to expose oneself, undress before the inquisitive eyes of all. I like to write, not because I have developed a real fondness for nudity, but because I love composing words, thinking of stories, phrases that touch, images that provoke different feelings. Here I have a place to talk about art, life, me. In the end, feeling good about what you do is what matters; either with or without clothing.

28 thoughts on “Is it a Crime to Go for a Walk with a Foreigner in Havana?

  • I have been to Cuba 87 times since 1993 and have no such problems with my many Cuban lady friends. It could be your foreign friend is being watched ?

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    • Are you suggesting that in 87 trips to Cuba, you and your “many Cuban lady friends” have NEVER been stopped and your Cuban escort asked for her ID? Never? That’s incredible. Or, are you suggesting that being stopped was not a “problem”? If so, problem for whom?

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      • Never but I do not go to Havana. Most visits to Holguin and Granma Privinces.

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        • Nonetheless, it’s quite incredible.

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  • Were you over / under dressed ?

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    • WTF does that have to do with anything?

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  • What can i say.?

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  • When I am in Havana with my wife she is stopped all the time we carry our marriage certificate with us always. My Cuban friends and family also get stopped when they are with me. It is very frustrating since it appears we can not complain to any one.I should also mention that my wife is black and I am white. Who says there is no discrimination in Cuba, not I.

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  • I’m sorry if I seem critical, but people in Cuba really don’t know what police harassment is. I have no criminal history in any country, but have been arrested and charged by the police here in Australia more times than I can count. On one occasion, I was charged with an offence allegedly committed when I wasn’t even in Australia. When I produced my passport to prove this, the police threatened to charge with the unlawful use of my passport as well. On another occasion, I was followed along a country road by police for 20 kilometres before they pulled me over and tried to charge me with possession of housebreaking implements. The offending “implements” were my car jack and wheel nut spanner. The only thing that got me out of this little set up was the fact that I was working in a prison at the time, and was able to produce my prison pass as identification. The story you publish here sounds pretty unremarkable to me.

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    • Aussie, I don’t drink much anymore so have no idea what you’re getting across but this is about Cuba and the people living there and the authors obscene and embarrassing encounter with a Cuban police officer. If you really want to see some sad instances of police abusing power check out the latest video out of Chicago and I would say you have high class problems compared to the 17 year old shot over fifteen times by a chicago police officer. As far as Cuba is concerned, change is inevitable and yes, without a doubt, what happened to Yanelys has to be made known and stopped!

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    • The fact that you have had negative interactions with police in Australia doesn’t make Yanelys experience any less upsetting for her. Moreover, you make no mention that you chose to exercise your right to seek redress. Yanelys has no such right. As an African American, there is no one more vulnerable and therfore sensitive to police abuse in the US than me. Nonetheless, the helplessness that you feel in Cuba after the police stop you is unique. I have been asked for my ‘carnet’ in Cuba many times. I look like a typical mulatto. I whip out my US passport and those guajiro cops begin to inspect it like it was a $3 bill. They have even asked me to say something in English. My wife’s best friend in Cuba is a white Cuban woman with blond hair. I have been out on the street with her within a block of our casa particular and we were stopped and I was asked for my ID. The cops thought I was the Cuban. I can totally sympathize with this post.

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      • I am a Dane, white, but due to a little indigenous blood from the former Danish, now US Virgin Islands, I’m dark enough to look enough like a white Cuban to blend in if I don’t dress like a tourist. I can walk with Cuban friends anywhere in Havana without police interference. Eight years ago I was married to a black Cuban, who looked forward to being able to whip out the marriage certificate if we were ever to be approached by the police – which never happened.
        However, when two friends of mine, German-Danish, one of them very blonde, were accompanied by one of my (black) Cuban friends, he was almost immediately asked for his carnet.
        Similarly, when an acquaintance of mine, a very dark-skinned Dane adopted from southern India, was in Cuba with a group of Danes, he was repeatedly asked by the police to produce his passport. He stressed that the Cuban police were always very polite about it. However, not once have I been asked to show any kind of ID on the streets of Havana, so even though the intention does not seem to be racist at all but merely an attempt to stop prostitutes and other hustlers from harassing tourists, it is a policy that obviously affects dark-skinnedrather than white Cubans – or, as in your case, dark-skinned tourists, who are confused with Cubans.
        This is very unfortunate, of course, and so is another regrettable fact of life in Cuba these days: When my wife and I along with one of her (black) friends visited a (CUC) shopping mall, they two of them were the only black customers in the whole mall – the result, I believe, of the scarcity of wealthy black Cuban emigrants abroad.
        To me it shows the impossibility of abolishing racism in one country only in a globalized imperialist (and consequently racist) economy.
        I think that the author of this article, Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, is even more aware of the facts of life in Cuba than I am, but she seems to be very unaware of the degree of police harassment or even brutality that you may be exposed to in other countries, as Dani and Ryan Ross point out above. I could tell her about “the most ludicrous questions” I’ve been asked by Danish policemen when they’ve mistaken me, an ordinary motorcyclist, with an outlaw biker … 🙂

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        • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with your conclusion. However I would reiterate that Yanelys’ lack of awareness of police harassment in other parts of the world does not diminish the value of her post. Moreover, because of the wrong-headed public boasts from the Castros that racism doesn’t exist in Cuba, this post is all the more damning of the false propaganda promoted by the regime.

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  • I can only guess that Cuba’s rulers are fearful of subversives coming to Cuba and shaking things up. In fairness, the US has most certainly been up front on how they’d love to see the communist regime fail and have pumped millions of dollars in various ways to instigate this. It’s wrong that Cuban citizens have this overhanging threat and I can’t imagine what it’s like living like this. Another reason why the US should have unfettered travel, lift the embargo and flood the country with people like me who will shake it up a whole lot better than those who are paid to do so. In short, the oldies running the show in Cuba better wake up and smell the roses or they might just be out on their asses by some angry folks like Yanelys!

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    • I don’t think the reason is fear of subversives, it is more to do with clamping down on prostitution and swindling/stealing from tourists. This is understandable given that Cuba depends on tourism and these kind of things can affect its image. Though it is not nice for the author to be questioned like this it really isn’t that big a deal. She wasn’t imprisoned or threatened – she was only briefly asked a few questions. They made no attempt to stop her communicating with her friend.

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      • The first thing that came to mind was they were checking for prostitution. The US also has terrible trouble with the police racial profiling our citizens, here in the “freest country in the world.” Or just being shot by a cop for being black. Does Cuba have the same decades-long epidemic of young blacks being killed by cops for no good reason? I think the US wins that “honor.” I’m sorry for your embarrassment, but being stopped by cops and then allowed to go on your way would sound pretty good in this country.

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  • Wow! Excuse my ignorance but if i am walking down the street in Cuba with my Cuban boyfriend are we likely to be questioned by the police? He’s not a black afro-cuban, more Hispanic, chocolate skin & I am white. We are both in our late 40s. LJC

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    • The simple answer is yes, depending. If you are on La Rampa or the Malecon, count on it. Also on Obispo in Old Havana. On the other hand, it is less likely to happen in Vedado. But if he looks Cuban and you look like a foreigner, odds are some guajiro cop with teeth missing is going to ask your Cuban boyfriend for documentation no matter where you are.

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    • LJC, based on the facts that you present here, I don’t think that it is very likely that you will be approached by the police. Your boyfriend would be aware of the risk. The police will clamp down on hustlers who might be out to take advantage of tourists, however, and unfortunately this may affect some totally innocent Cubans as well. You can tell that this has nothing to do with attempts at political oppression since you can visit people at their homes as much as you want.
      By the way, “guajiro” and “bad teeth” have nothing to do with anything; it merely makes the bias of the poster obvious.

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      • Mission accomplished. To write without bias is a waste of time. The crime is not to have bias. The crime is to have it and pretend otherwise.

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        • Yes, the contortion of facts to make them fit your bias seems to be a sine qua non for you.

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  • I have been to Cuba many times, and I love the country and the people I have met. But the beaviour of the police is a different matter…

    The rudeness, the lack of respect, the blatant display of authority that shouldn´t have been given them in the first place.

    On several occasions have I been walking peacefully on the streets of Havana with one Cuban friends or another, only to be stopped and interrogated by policemen/women. For no apparent reason what so ever.

    I have actually witnessed my cuban friend start to cry of humiliation.

    Needless to say, an experience like that casts a dark shadow over the rest of the day/evening.

    It has actually come to the point where I hesitate to be out in public with a cuban friend. Not for my own sake, but for his/hers.

    “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark…”

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  • Change will come slowly. Tourism is a key revenue source that will be protected by the state. That protection should not come at expense of lawful citizens.

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  • The laws that police in Cuba are trying to enforce when they ask such questions are the same type laws that police everywhere try to enforce and the way they do it is also pretty much the same everywhere else. Cuba has paid a heavy price for dignity and now that things are on the verge of getting a lot better, it is important for people going to Cuba to remember that every society has a right to make sure that people visiting understand what is socially acceptable and what is not and we (Americans and other foreigners) need to remember that a willingness to embrace economic opportunities does not mean that everything is for sale. Cuba did not suffer so much for so long only to hang a price tag on its dignity in the last few feet to the finish line. Cubans need to have a little more patience and try to understand what the police are really doing and what message they are really trying to send. We have a lot more and much bigger problems with our police here in the USA…

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  • I don’t know if this was the case here, but Cuba has a very bad reputation throughout the Caribbean for supporting the prostitution of their women to foreigners. This is sex trafficking. i even heard a conversation from a Jamaican where he boasted of his weekend flights to secure the sexual favors of very young women. One would hope that this is not true since sex trafficking sets back women’s rights wherever it occurs.

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  • The last post was 11 days ago, Still i feel the need to comment having read this only now. It makes my blood boil. When walking in any country with my wife I have never been stopped except in Cuba. Before our marriage on one occasion a police officer asked for a bribe. It took her parents to arrive to prevent her from being arrested for the crime of being in my presence.Later the only thing that stopped the police from harassing her further was a marriage certificate. Those here who feel the need to make excuses for the Cuban coppers harassing peaceful people should be ashamed of themselves. Yes, the Cuban police needs to change its ways,. It is unacceptable. Cuba literally is a police state. There is racism in Cuba, state-sponsored.

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  • Which of my facts was contorted? I would caution you to be careful in distinguishing between opinion and fact. Here’s a hint: Sentences beginning with “Odds are…” are opinión.

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