Cuba’s Shortages & Blackouts: Ideal Setting for Crime Surge

Photo: El Toque

“Hopefully it’s just a bad run and we can return to peace of mind,” said singer Yuliesky Perez Placeres.

By Glenda Boza Ibarra  (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – The police arrived on First Street in the Velazquez neighborhood of Las Tunas at 2 a.m. Maria Manuela had made the call at 11 a.m. the day before when she discovered that some tools and cleaning tools had been stolen from her backyard. The thieves had jumped the wall and taken everything they could find, including a pair of old shoes with a ripped sole that she used to clean the back of her house.

“This isn’t the first robbery in the area,” she told the officer who knocked on her door in the early morning after apologizing for the delay. “We’ve received lots of calls ever since blackouts first started in the “San Jose” area. Sometimes, it’s the very same kids who live around here that are stealing,” notes Manuela Maria.

The agricultural engineer says that even though her stolen belongings weren’t that important, she still decided to report the incident to the police because other neighbors had been stolen from previously: the light bulb in a doorway, a pig from the pen, the water pump, a cellphone and computer monitor through a window.

News has been breaking on social media and in the press of violent crime, and even murder, to steal cars and clothes. However, not a lot has been disclosed about the rise in violent crime in recent years, or the outcome of these cases.

No statistics, but we have the stories

The latest tragedy linked to rising crime rates in Cuba is that of a Cuban living in Spain who was brutally killed when being robbed for money.

Days before, a 58-year-old man was beaten to the brink of death with fists and stones by three people in Pinar del Rio, after being mugged. This incident took place on Maximo Gomez Street at around 10 PM, on December 4th.

According to an announcement broadcast by Radio Guama, two of the people involved in the attack – young men aged 19 and 22 years old with a criminal record – were arrested and found with “a backpack full of stones, that appeared to be stained with blood.” Meanwhile, the victim sustained serious injuries to the head.

“The culprits are in police detention and will be investigated,” this media outlet pointed out.

That very same day, Cuban comedian Otto Ortiz took to social media to ask for blood donations for a young man who had been attacked. In an attempt to steal his cellphone, he was stabbed in Havana’s Nuevo Vedado neighborhood. According to information provided by the comedian, the victim was in a critical state.

“His life is hanging by a thread,” he wrote.

The surge in crime and violence in Cuba in recent years falls within a landscape marked by the population’s limited access to basic resources such as food and medicine, and by inflation that has triggered a disproportionate spike in prices. A reality that became worse with COVID-19.

The pandemic not only hit the health system, it left high unemployment and precarious work – especially in the informal labor market -, scarce work opportunities and growing social unrest.

“Attacks continue in the city of Pinar del Rio and I believe they’re becoming more violent. There are no police on the street in spaces within the city center (…) and to everyone’s surprise,” playwright Iran Capote wrote on Facebook. “People are scared.”

Capote isn’t the only artist on the island who has used their social media as a platform to complain about the increasingly apparent insecurity on Cuba’s streets. Last November, singer Dianelys Alfonso Cartaya, better known as La Diosa de Cuba, posted that her 13-year-old son had been the victim of a robbery. According to the mother’s testimony, the thief put a knife to the boy’s throat to take his cellphone and the shoes he was wearing by force.

“There isn’t any peace here,” she ruled.

Without access to statistics provided by official institutions – the Ministry of Interior (MININT) or the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) -, independent platforms such as La Hora de Cuba began recording reports of crimes that were posted on social media day after day, and which were being mostly processed without a solution in Camaguey.

According to the media outlet, the list of crimes in November was longer than reports received in previous months. Perpetrators using weapons to take victims’ vehicles, clothes or cellphones seem to be a widespread phenomenon across the country. Lots of these crimes are even being committed in the light of day.

“These statistics are enough to put Cuba’s cities on high alert as they are being devastated by this plague. Dark cities because of blackouts, a more severe economic crisis and the police force’s apathy are driving criminals to go to town,” La Hora de Cuba pointed out.

A surge in complaints also correlates with a powerful migration wave. It is suspected that some of these robberies are occurring so people can make some fast cash and buy a plane ticket abroad.

The new “mass exodus” is unfolding amidst a seriously weak economy, and with inflation standing at 194%, which makes it hard for any ordinary Cuban to be able to cover the cost of their journey. Tickets to visa-free countries for Cubans, like Nicaragua, can cost between 2000 – 3000 USD.

Blackouts are thieves’ partner in crime

When there’s a blackout, crime in a certain area is likely to increase. This lack of light makes it hard for people to identify criminals and gives thieves the chance to steal from or attack people without being seen.

Plus, no electricity can interfere with security systems and make it easier for criminals to access buildings and assets.

Two 16-year-olds took advantage of the darkness of a blackout to steal a 32-inch TV, which was located in the living room at the “Ernesto Lecuona” Primary School of Art.

According to weekly newspaper Escambray, the facts came to light four days later when the thieves tried to sell the TV at their home and neighbors tipped off the authorities.

Darkness can also be an accomplice for people who take advantage to steal food, whether that’s from private backyards where people plant fruit trees or from farms and harvests.

A few months ago, filmmaker Carlos Melian, who lives in Santiago de Cuba, said that thieves normally steal “bunches of bananas” that he’s planted at home. “I’m practically planting them for the thieves,” he said.

According to his Facebook posts, his banana plantation has been “feeding” thieves for almost a year. “They are so desperate or poor that they don’t even steal the bunches when they’re ready to eat but steal them before they’re ripe. They even steal them before they’re half-ripe. They compete against me, or others. They steal tiny plantains, before they’ve properly developed,” he said last March.

“Isn’t the fact that they are stealing green bananas without ripening an SOS in itself?” Carlos pondered, thinking about how desperate a thief must be to take a bunch when it’s still green.

Other crimes that farmers face on a daily basis are cattle being killed illegally, as well as having their harvests stolen.

“Bananas are so small and stealing the bunch makes things worse, bandits come in small wagons and clear you out. They almost killed me last night,” Jorge Virella Figueredo, a farmer from Ciego de Avila, told Invasor.

This isn’t the first time that farmers are complaining about the authorities’ lack of action against the thefts that are detrimental to their work. However, beyond calling for “farmer patrols” to look after farms and emphasizing that cattle owners are responsible for thefts and killings, these kinds of crimes continue to happen.

What about official data?

At the latest plenary session of the National Assembly of People’s Power, Prime Minister Manuel Marrero recognized the surge in theft, violent theft, burglaries and robberies of phones and scooters, “subjecting victims to physical force at times.”

While social media is full of these stories and complaints, neither Marrero – whose speech to the Assembly about these issues wasn’t broadcast on live TV -, or the Ministry of Interior (MININT) have disclosed numbers that illustrate the growing crime rate in statistics, in 2022.

MININT has only made a reference to crimes that go viral on digital platforms and end up in the arrest of citizens.

Neighbors themselves have caught criminals and then called the police, a few times. Other times, neighbors find and help those who have been victims of violent theft. In the worst cases, citizens have been the ones to discover the corpse of victims of some of these crimes.

Some people have even blamed victims for “giving away” their belongings – such as wallets, purses and cellphones – on buses, which has seen a significant increase in recent months too.

Radio Guama recently announced that there were cases of violent theft or intimidation in Pinar del Rio, in November 2022, and that up until December 6th, there had been another two. “Cellphones are the most stolen item,” they reported.

The report recognized that “as the energy crisis gets worse,” “surveillance of the hardest and busiest public spaces in the city has been boosted, with police walking around and being physically present in these areas.

Even though this information stresses that people using these incidents “to defame the Revolution and create a state of panic,” comments confirm that the Cuban people don’t feel safe.

“The only thing we had left in this country was having peace of mind that our children would be safe and not mugged in the street or in parks. Now, we don’t even have that anymore. Let’s hope this is just a bad phase and we can go back to the peaceful way things were,” singer Yuliesky Perez Placeres said.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times