Jonathan Berger
Jonathan Berger

Christmas in Cuba

Being extremely risk averse, I seldom stray beyond the bounds of the law. Granted, I once had sex with another man just north of the Limpopo. It was consensual and, to be frank, quite delicious. But unlawful nevertheless. Luckily, however, the privacy of our coupe on the night train to Mutare secured our liberty. Steamy windows aside, the compartment on wheels provided us with a much-needed safe space.

As is to be expected, my ordinarily conservative behaviour has not gone unrewarded. On the rare occasion I have found myself in a police station, it has only been to report a home break-in or a stolen car radio. And the only time I have ever spent in prison was for work, representing inmates with HIV in their successful legal action against one of the country’s worst ministers. I know, competition in that regard is fierce.

But my luck changed on Christmas day, when two friends and I set out for dinner in Old Havana. Tony, a forty-something English gentleman who was born and spent the first twenty or so years of his life in Georgia, is short and black. His partner Chris, also in his late 40s, is tall and white. Neither speaks much Spanish, notwithstanding the latter’s daily lessons in the living room of our casa particular.

As we were crossing Central Park, Tony was approached by a police officer demanding his “documentos”. As he had done on numerous occasions before when singled out in this way, Tony declared his tourist status, stated that he had no documents on him and simply walked away. A week in Cuba had made it clear that he was being stopped only because he is black. But this time was to be different.

One of the official reasons for requesting documents from persons suspected of being Cuban is to protect tourists from being harassed by locals. Another is to stamp out the burgeoning sex industry, which thrives in a climate where a single blow-job earns you more than the average monthly wage. Whatever the motivation, it results in black people – whether local or foreign – being harassed when in the company of whites.

After a minor scuffle and a short wait, our officious law enforcer’s call for backup – or assistance, or direction, or whatever – resulted in him being joined by a colleague. Not long thereafter two more cops pulled up in their Soviet-era Lada. After some angry comments that none of us understood, the chubbier of the new arrivals gestured for us to get inside. Easier said than done in a car clearly not built for comfort.

As someone who is well aware of police brutality at home, which is well recorded in official reports, court judgments and the like, I was somewhat concerned when our captors drove away from the local police station in the direction of the tunnel leading out of the city. Add to that an unhealthy dose of Semitic doom – if something can go wrong it will – and you have visions of being left for dead in an open field.

Strong policing means that in Cuba the chances of being the victim of violent crime are quite slim. So instead of having to face our demons, we were soon dropped off at a second police station in the historic heart of the old city. After a fifth police official considered our matter, we were finally delivered to an immigration official with a rudimentary knowledge of English and a penchant for dated soap operas.

While the lawfulness of our visit to the island nation was being determined, my attention alternated between the bad television on offer and the even worse story being told by an older Dutch man who had somehow “lost” his passport and simultaneously “fallen” on his face. My money was on a much simpler story, which apparently plays out day after day after day: sex, money and theft, in that order.

After establishing that we were indeed registered at our casa, we were sent on our way. For me, that was the end of the story. But for my friends, who remained in the city for another week, yet another trip to a police station – for the same reason – was on the cards. That time the two of them were to be handcuffed to each other. Their dinner companion, a tall white Croatian, had his hands cuffed behind his back.

According to Tony, Havana’s finest also set up patrols one night all along the street where our casa is located. Armed with a list, they entered the building across the road and returned with a bunch of people who were loaded onto a truck. They were not the first, or the last, to be taken away. So too were a couple and their baby, as well as the pram they had been pushing down the street. Every single detained person was black.

In searching for press statements issued in response to the recent Supreme Court of Appeals decision regarding Jacob Zuma’s travails, I came across a glowing Young Communist League account of two comrades’ recent trip to Cuba to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolution. Funny, but I wasn’t so easily impressed by a racist police state run by a largely white, unelected gerontocracy. Nor was I convinced that, but for the unjustifiable embargo, Cuba’s economy would be booming.

Blaming all of the country’s woes on arrogant, anachronistic and misguided US foreign policy is – at best – disingenuous. At worst, it’s nothing more than complicity in the continued oppression of a truly beautiful people. It might be cool to brandish images of Che, or to decry all things American, but true friends of Cuba need to speak out in support of those in whose name the revolution was executed. Will they do so if and when an Obama administration does the right thing?