HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 23 — This has been an exciting week, as I was caught up in an operative of the Special Police while leaving the bar of the St. John’s Hotel in the Vedado district.
My crime was to drink a coffee and converse with a journalism student who I was helping with his final thesis.
In the bar, I noticed that the waiter was making too many trips to our table, but I thought that he was just bored by the lack of clients. Nevertheless, on one occasion I noticed him whispering with the receptionist while they both watched us out of the corner of their eyes.
What is certain is that when we came out of the hotel we were met by two agents of the Special Police (they never wanted to tell me exactly what their “specialty” is). With angry faces they demanded our documents, refusing to tell us the reason for such a measure.
The most aggressive of the agents began to write our data in his notebook at an amazingly slow pace. I observed him carefully, but was unable to determine if he was doing this to annoy us, or if he simply had difficulties writing.
I left them my identity card and crossed the street in search of a functionary from the International Press Center who could “function” as a translator, and explain to the police that I was not committing any crime by conversing with a Cuban.
Almost immediately, a lieutenant dressed in civilian clothes appeared; evidently he had been directing the operative from the shadows. Like the others, he wouldn’t tell us why we were being detained in the middle of the street, and even the functionary from the Foreign Ministry was unable to elicit an explanation from them.
They attempted to intimidate my companion by separating him from the group. There was a very funny moment when the agent – with an accent typical of the eastern provinces – said to the young student: If you’re from Pinar del Rio, what are you doing in Havana?
Many of these police are from the eastern region, but in spite of this fact they scour the streets of the capital searching for Cubans from the provinces who are living in Havana without a residency permit. These people are treated as if they were undocumented foreigners, including deportation.
The young man showed them — for the second time — his student identity card from the University of Havana, while I tried to explain to the police that this type of action damaged the image of their country. Their reply was curt: “I’m not interested in any image, and I can ask whoever I want for identification.”
I sensed that the dialogue was going to be a difficult one, and that it was very improbable that the police could understand me. Reinforcing this notion, they quickly accused me of “sublevarme” which according to my dictionary meant: “provoking a collective violent rebellion against the presiding authority.”
Anyway, I’m beginning to get used to this, as it’s not the first time it’s happened to me. Awhile ago in the Telegraph Hotel of the Central Park another waiter became interested in the interview regarding racism that I was holding with a Cuban citizen who — to make things worse — was black.
As we left the hotel, another police operative was awaiting us. The Press Center was very far away, so that we all ended up prisoners: the Cuban intellectual, my wife and I. Before he got into the patrol car, the “black man” was searched from head to toe.
That image proved more instructive to me than any abstract ideas about racism. Those police didn’t even ask my wife or myself to open our bags. It was evident that to them dark skin was a synonym of “danger.”
But this wasn’t the case with my latest detention; this one had a political connotation. The young man was asking me questions, and I spoke to him about the situation in the country, the role of the press, the censorship apparatus, the economy and I even committed the sacrilege of mentioning the word “changes.”
Surely we must have been plotting something! And those who were listening to us believed that they needed to put an end to such a conspiracy. Advised of the danger, the Special Police then waited for us in the hotel doorway, let us distance ourselves some 30 meters and followed us in order to trap us “red-handed”.
The most amusing thing about this story is that one of the student’s questions had been whether foreign journalists had any difficulties in approaching Cubans, and I had answered “no.” I never imagined that this would so quickly be revealed as a lie.
*Havana Times translation from the Spanish original published on Feb. 4, 2010. Posted with permission of BBC Mundo.