HAVANA TIMES — Elias Carranza, a senior UN official for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders Institute, said Cuba is the safest country in the region.
It is free of the critical situation of violence that characterizes the continent, with the island having made great achievements in reducing crime.
I immediately started looking for information about the most common crimes on the island and figures that could be compared to other countries in the region, but authorities refused to give me practically any information concerning this.
Nor does the issue appear in the national media. There’s no “crime page” and nothing is published about crime, robberies, rapes or murders. Nothing was even written when 33 patients starved to death in a Havana psychiatric hospital.
To counter the vacuum, citizens created “Radio Bemba” (Radio Lips), where information is transmitted from person to person. It’s true that the information is distorted a bit, but it travels with astonishing speed. Within hours, news of a crime that occurred in Holguin Province can reach Havana.
Living in Cuba, one “feels” fairly safe. No one is afraid of walking around at night, and I’ve wandered through the worst slums without ever being attacked. In 20 years, the most violent experience I suffered was someone pulling on my wife’s handbag in Old Havana.
And I’m not alone. An African American cameraman, who worked in Cuba and hung around in the most “difficult” neighborhoods of Havana, told us laughing that Cuban criminals are toddlers compared to the ones in the New York City neighborhood where he grew up.
Looking around us — in Haiti, Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, the United States — one wonders how Cubans have managed to maintain such minimal levels of social violence. The answer involves many factors, and none is easy to analyze.
Prior to 1959, the island wasn’t so peaceful. The gun-toting criminals became such a force that one president of the republic was forced to negotiate with them and appointed some of them police officers. Later, to complete the task, the US mafia appeared and took over the casinos.
The control of violent crime in Cuba can be thanked firstly to Washington, which required the island to create a highly efficient security service, one that for years was capable of infiltrating and maintaining a spy in the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
They learned to fend off violent planned attacks by their neighbor — invasions, assassination attempts, bombings, sabotage, uprisings, etc. — and then applied those same principles and the same techniques to get rid of common criminals.
They infiltrated the most violent criminal groups and captured their members one by one. Ultimately, some of those wrongdoers went to the wall, others ended up in jail and many left the country, taking advantage of the immigration facilities offered by the United States to all Cubans.
In the late 90’s, narco-trafficking had begun to grow on the island – moving a larger volume of drugs, achieving a certain stability in the supply, and having bought off some policemen. At the same time, more violent crimes began being committed, some of them appalling.
Therefore the intelligence services sprang into action supported with information from the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in a nationwide operation to put the major traffickers and their accomplices in jail.
There’s a CDR on every block of every city or town, each doing night-watch duty across the entire island. These played a key role in dismantling the violent opposition in the 1960s, though their surveillance activity is also an obstacle to criminal activity in general.
For decades the CDR branches were so powerful that they extended political guarantees to area residents. Today they have lost ground and have become a kind of tropical version of the cameras that monitor the streets of European cities – the ones that are always watching us but which we never see.
I confess that sometimes the CDR activists can be annoying. If a stranger stays over at my house for a few days, they’ll drop by to ask and jot down their personal data. If I were harboring a criminal, a CIA operative or some lover, it would all be just as complicated.
Notwithstanding all this, the most important component for containing the level of social violence could be the care given to children. Like former vice president Carlos Lage told the UN, 200 million children around the world sleep in the streets – but none of them is Cuban.
This explains why there are no adolescent hired guns, gang members, drug dealers or gangs of teenaged robbers in Cuba. It’s natural that these don’t exist since there’s not a single street child; all youth are under the protection of their families or state institutions.
The most effective incubator of violent offenders is the social violence suffered by millions of children around the world, those who are abandoned by their parents, sleeping in parks, eating garbage, sexually assaulted and sniffing glue.
There’s no need to go to the slums on the continent to understand why the writer Mario Benedetti noted that childhood “is often a lost paradise, and for others it’s a hell of shit.” It could be added that it’s in the fires of those hells where our worst demons are forged.
(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published by BBC Mundo.