Bureaucracy, Warnings and Xenophobia
HAVANA TIMES — Every 12 months for the past 26 years, I’ve had to renew my residency in Cuba, beginning with renewing my International Press Center credentials required to retain my residency and to obtain a new identification card and another year’s telephone line contract.
It is a bothersome procedure, particularly because of all the red tape involved and the mechanisms in place to make people sweat. To keep offering me Internet service, for instance, the telephone company demands that I present them with my new identity card every year.
Renewing one’s ID is one of the most complex procedures we foreigners have to go through, and it is crucial because, in order to travel abroad, one must present valid passport and residency card at the airport.
I had to renew my ID recently and the process required me to leave work three times, the first day to submit my old ID, two photos and a renewal application. Then, you must go back, from 8 am to 12 pm, to get your fingerprints taken and, lastly, return to pick up the document.
I was told to go on Tuesday and, when I arrived, there were a dozen people in line ahead of me. The “representatives” of different government entities began going in, without having to stand in line, and the officials would leave for 15 minutes at a time without offering a single explanation to those waiting.
An hour and a half later, it was my turn to go in but, when I did, they told me they couldn’t find my ID card, that I should leave and wait for them to call me again. In front of the uniformed officials, I called the Press Center and complained about the situation.
“You shouldn’t complain like that,” the military official responsible for taking people’s fingerprints said to me.
“I should, because the poor work you’re doing affects me directly,” I replied.
“I’m going to call my superior,” she said in a threatening tone.
“I’d be happy to tell your “superior” the same things I’m telling you.”
In a few seconds, the “superior” had arrived with a no no-nonsense look on his face. He was around 70 and wore a dark brown uniform. He heard my complaints and I confirmed I was complaining with the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Fairly angry, he said to me:
“MINREX has no power here. You’re a foreigner and you have no right to complain. This is our country and we have the right to do things as we see fit.”
“As a foreigner, I have the right to complain when I’m mistreated, be it in Havana, New York or Tokyo,” I retorted.
The “superior” thought about this for a moment and then immediately replied:
“If you have something to say, you come to me directly. You come and say to me, ‘sir, I have this or that problem.’ But you can’t do it with the employee here.”
“I’m not in the military, so I don’t have to follow any chain of command,” I replied, “let alone call you ‘sir,’ you’re not my superior.”
His expression got even sourer and he said I was being disrespectful. This surprised me, so I asked:
“What is it I said that you consider disrespectful?”
“It’s not what you said but how you said it,” the “superior” replied.
“And how exactly should one address you?” I asked.
“Look, I suggest you end this, for your own good,” he said to me, pointing a finger at me.
“Are you threatening me?”
“I’m telling you, for your own good, to put an end to this conversation.”
“What are you going to do? Throw me out of the country or put me in jail for criticizing the way you do things around here?”
“Get out of our offices, now!” He yells at me, losing it, and I obey.
I thought I’d become an illegal immigrant or that I would again be a “young man without papers,” but the International Press Center attached to MINREX intervened and solved the problem in a single day, without me having to stand in any more lines.
No “migra” in the world is characteristically sympathetic towards people but this is the government institution that deals with foreign residents in Cuba. One should expect a kinder, less bureaucratic treatment, from officials who should not address foreigners as though we were second-class citizens.
I’m a bit concerned and on edge about what could happen. We Latin Americans never take the “warnings” of a uniformed man lightly. In Cuba, one’s life is not in danger but some people know how to make your life bitter, and we run into immigration officials every time we travel and in many other official proceedings.