Hanging Out with the Cuban Police

If you thought British police love their paperwork a little too much, you’ll be astounded by the number of Cuban policemen and women it takes to file a report, especially when computers are scarce. During the six hours I spent with my sister across two stations reporting being robbed on the Malecón, I also realised that officers are reluctant to solve crimes in the rain, their squad cars are on the verge of breaking down, and they don’t need cigarette breaks because they can smoke where they like. Who needs museums when you have all this to experience?

The most difficult aspect of crime reporting was the language barrier. Most of the locals we’d spoken to in Havana had a good grasp of English and were more than able to hold a conversation – many were fluent, from museum staff and taxi drivers to stallholders and waiters. In a city that relies so much on tourism, this is obviously expected, but it struck me as bizarre that no member of staff in either police station could speak English, yet they must regularly have to deal with tourist incidents.

La Habana Police Report 3
Part of my police report – a big wake-up call for my shoddy Spanish skills.

I’m not normally one to insist that everyone speaks my language (believe me, I do understand that not everyone has to bend to my will and my lack of language skills), but my research had led me to believe that my sketchy knowledge of Spanish wouldn’t be a problem for me and my sister during the trip. Furthermore, the woman in charge of our transfer to the hotel insisted that Cubans learned English at primary school, secondary school and also at university. Even someone with basic education should be able to hold a conversation with us, right? Well, not quite.

Fortunately the taxi driver who took us to that first police station, on Zapata y C, had the forethought (and kind heart) to hail a policeman standing outside and explain our situation. He also spent a good deal of time inside the station, helping us to overcome that language barrier, particularly around certain difficult words, such as ‘insurance’, which I’d never covered at school. Of course, we did tip him heavily for his time and effort, but he certainly didn’t have to help out – he chose to. I’m so grateful that he was able to step in and help us to explain what had happened, as we’d have been powerless without him. Neither station had any kind of resident or freelance translator available, so it was pure luck that we had a driver who was kind enough to act as an intermediary for us.

La Habana Flag
The Cuban flag flies proudly.

The first thing I had to do, once the crime had been outlined in conversation, was to write in some kind of log book that was presented to me. Certain stilted official phrases had to be written in order to establish that I was officially reporting the incident, before the book was handed back and the next part of the proceedings began. My sister and I were then herded into a medium-sized room further inside the labyrinth of the station, where there were a couple of MDF tables covered in a wood-effect plastic coating that had been slowly peeled away by previous visitors. Beside the doorway there was a small desk with an enormous relic of a typewriter rusting on top, and by the windows was another desk, where a policewoman sat. Around one of the large tables was a cluster of blonde girls, who we later found out were on a study trip from Norway. One of their tutors, Femi, had been drafted in to act as a translator and to help the girls; she had a lot of experience in doing this, so she was able to explain a bit more about the process of reporting the crime and what typically happens next.

Femi helped us to fill in another official statement each, which she then went through with the policewoman so that it was translated back into Spanish with the full story recorded. In between, various constables trotted in and out, coming in to chat and air kiss and light up cigarettes, their trails of smoke dissipating into the stuffy room. Femi warned us to expect a delay, saying: “Unfortunately the police are often a lot slower than the criminals… they are waiting for a car to take you to the scene of the robbery, but it depends when a car and a driver can be found. They’ll also wait until it stops raining. I don’t know when you’ll be able to leave, but your case will be dealt with first.” And so we waited… and waited some more.

La Habana Socialismo
This mural is typical of government-endorsed artwork around the city. The main themes covered by the murals are socialism, revolution and community.

Again, it was luck rather than procedure that meant we had access to Femi’s translation skills – if she hadn’t been with her students at this time then we would have been in dire straits. The girls had all been robbed, though not all in the last few days; from what I could gather, crime was so regular that they’d lumped together a batch of recently affected students to avoid multiple trips to the station for the same tiresome robbery reports. Unlike us, the girls were used to Havana, having lived here for three months, and they had been studying philosophy, social sciences and Spanish in the city. They’d been robbed of iPhones and bags, all in different circumstances – at the beach, on a bus and, in the case of a girl called Signe, at the front door of their apartment. All Signe had left was the strap of her bag, which had been ripped off in the attack. Her key had still been in the lock of the apartment door; she’d been just moments from safety.

Until I really looked round the room and considered what all of us had experienced, I hadn’t quite connected our looks with our predicament, but there we were, four pasty blonde girls together. I know that blonde hair is said to be something of a magnet for catcalls and comments in many countries – several people have told me I’d get a lot of unwanted attention in Egypt and Morocco, for example – but it definitely had worked to our collective disadvantage here in Havana. Two of the girls looked particularly vulnerable with their hair in pigtails, making them appear even younger. This raises an uncomfortable question: should they have dressed a certain way to avoid attracting attention, or should they be free to choose their own appearance without repercussions? I don’t know the answer. I hate being told what to wear, but I also don’t want to stick out for the wrong reasons. I’d quite happily adhere to the dress code of a country imposed by its moral or religious codes, but drastically changing my appearance would be a whole new challenge. Additionally, having seen other tourists looking far more like walking targets than we blondes, with their expensive cameras slung lightly over one shoulder, their wallets in their hands and a prominently placed (and also hideous) bum bag at their waist, why weren’t they the victims? I guess it’s as much about opportunity and timing as it is about choosing a suitable target. We happened to be it.

La Habana Malecon View
Looking across to the Malecon from our hotel window.

I had plenty of time to mull things over at Zapata y C; my sister and I arrived at 2:30pm and didn’t head outside to a police car until nearly 7pm, by which point my eyesight was failing miserably and my spirits were low. It had just about stopped raining when we got into the back of a rickety Lada with threadbare seats, exposed wiring and what seemed like paper-thin glass between us and the night. Soon enough we reached the place where my bag was snatched – that old familiar blue corrugated wall and the building site creating a gaping hole in the terraced line of shops and casas particulares. Despite my dodgy eyes, it was unmistakeable.

“Aqui! A la derecha,” I said, before one of the constables did her best to mime certain things and we somehow established what had happened yet again, this time using actions. She then radioed the robbery to her colleagues as if it had just occurred, stage by stage, whilst her colleague opened the bonnet of the Lada and looked quite concerned. It seemed as though the short journey had battered the car, and I dreaded being stuck next to the crime scene. Fortunately, several of her colleagues then turned up in another car and stood around for a bit to have another cigarette and a chat for no particular reason. We figured we’d at least have an alternative getaway car, if nothing else. After much chatting and smoking, by which point my sister was wondering if we’d been forgotten altogether, the Lada sprung back to life and we were on our way to the comfort of the hotel, armed with a piece of paper with directions to a new police station to visit the following day at 9am sharp.

La Habana Taxi Interior
This wasn’t our police car, but it was a similar-looking Lada that we hailed as a taxi. You can clearly see the wear and tear on the interior.

Station number two, on Zanja, wasn’t markedly different; like the first one, it featured plenty of constables with nothing better to do than have a gossip and stand around looking busy. We waited in the reception area, with a bad soap opera playing on the TV to keep us company, and I watched a line of tiny insects crawling up the wall. Eventually we were led into an airless side room, where a fan whirred above our heads but had no notable effect on the stifling heat settling around us. Just as we were about to expire (or so it felt at the time), we were led through the station and across a crowded courtyard, full of more officers doing very little. We walked through to a tiny room with a desk, where a man thrust a form into my hand.

“Is this it? The police report?” I said. He nodded, then left us to make our own way back to the street. After six hours of wondering and waiting and worrying, this was it, a formal acknowledgement of what happened. I’d love to say that it was worth the hassle, but the insurance company didn’t even ask me for proof of the incident on my return to the UK. Instead, I was given a paltry amount of compensation, meaning I’m out of pocket to the tune of a few hundred pounds, and I have an increased premium to look forward to next year.

La Habana Zanja
A street scene on Zanja – just a little further north of the second police station.

So, what have I learned from my brush with the law? I suppose it was an exercise in bureaucracy, if nothing else. In other circumstances it would be pretty cool to say I’d toured police stations and seen how they operate, but I was tired, dehydrated and still reeling from being robbed. Should you wish to peek behind the scenes at the station and ride an ancient Lada, I’d tell you to just watch your valuables instead.

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