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Cops and Robbers in Havana

September 28, 2009

I wanted to take a short break in my series of posts on my visit to North Korea last year to tell the story of an interesting “adventure” I had on an earlier trip to Cuba.  I traveled to Cuba in 2005, as part of an academic project sponsored by the Wharton School.  Since we were traveling legally, under a U.S. Treasury license, we actually flew direct to Havana from Miami (yes, to my surprise there’s actually a regular Continental Airlines charter that services visiting relatives, journalists, and humanitarian aid workers, tucked away in a small corner of the Miami airport).  The trip lasted about a week, and could not have been more different from my experiences in North Korea — not because I came away any more impressed with the system (I didn’t) but because I was able to freely travel and talk to a wide range of people, most of whom had at least one relative in Miami.  I’ll try to relate some of these experiences and my impressions in future posts.

The story I want to tell today, though, took place on the last night of our visit, in Havana.  Before leaving the U.S., I bought a bagful of sundry items — little sample-size tubes of toothpaste, bottles of shampoo, bars of soap, a couple packets of cigarettes — to take with me as small gifts or tips for people I might encounter.  Such items are very hard to come by in Cuba’s economy, and much valued and appreciated.  Even if someone doesn’t have an immediate use for them, they can be traded in the country’s thriving black market for something they do need.  I found them to be a great help in thanking people when they welcomed me into their home or posed for a picture.  One female guard at the old colonial governor’s palace even took me furtively aside and offered to lift the velvet rope and photograph me sitting in the King of Spain’s personal throne in exchange for some Head & Shoulders.  (I gave her it as a gift, but declined the photo-op for fear I might break some precious historical artifact!)

Nevertheless, by the final evening I still had half the bag left over, and rather than take it back with me to the U.S., where it would do no good, I figured I might try to sell it to the black marketers who prowled the sidewalks outside of our hotel seeking to change money.  I would have been happy to give it away, but to who?  None of the black market characters looked particularly like charity cases to me, and time was running out.  The bag full of items had cost me about $40 back home, so I thought I would offer to sell the remaining half for $20 and walk away even.  And I have to admit, I was curious to find out just how such a deal would go down.

Now somebody at this point is going to ask me about safety.  Wasn’t I worried I could get robbed or killed?  Well, the former was certainly possible, but since my entire “stash” was worth just $20, and I had planned on giving it all away anyway, it didn’t really matter that much if I was robbed.  I’d prefer not to be, but I could live with it.  As for being in any danger, it was still early evening and the streets were full of people.  I didn’t plan on going anywhere or following anyone too far out of plain public view.  I would be cautious and not stick my neck out.

For that very reason, I left the bag of goodies back in my hotel room when I went out looking to find a potential buyer.  I’d check out the lay of the land, and if I arranged a deal and it felt safe, only then would I go and get the merchandise.  Outside, on the sidewalk, I passed by several men who whispered “change money” to me but I didn’t like the look of the first few I encountered.  Eventually I settled on a guy who seemed less shifty than most, and approached him.  He was eager to trade currency.  I told him I had instead, and explained up front that it cost me $20 and I was leaving the country tomorrow and was willing to sell it to him at cost.  I could see him doing some quick numbers in his head and he agreed.  “Where is it?” he asked nervously, and became more nervous when I told him I had it in my hotel room and would bring it back down.  Clearly, he feared he was being set up for a sting of some sort.  But the opportunity was too tempting, and he agreed to wait for me outside the hotel.

P1010233-smallHe was visibly relieved when I emerged a few minutes later with a backpack in my hands.  Our hotel was located on the Parque Central, the park just kitty-corner from the capitol building where all the men gather to argue all day about baseball, right on the edge of Havana’s old colonial district.  The labyrinth of tiny street in Old Havana are all dark at night, due to scarcity of electricity, but the park itself is well-lit and well-trafficked, so I felt secure as we walked along its border.  We found a convenient alleyway and ducked around the corner — still right next to people walking along the sidewalk, but where we could crouch down and examine the contents of the backpack.

I opened the bag and showed him the soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and cigarettes, just as I had promised.  His eyes gleamed as he peered inside, as though it were Aladdin’s Cave full of treasure.  He tried to lower the price.  No, I said, and began closing the bag to get up and walk away.  Okay, okay, he quickly backed off, motioning for me to crouch back down. 

But he had one concern.  “These products,” he asked me, with great concern, “they are not poisoned, are they?”  It was the last thing I expected to hear.  Why did he mean, I asked him?  He explained, quite seriously, that the government said that the CIA sometimes distributed shampoo that made your hair fall out, or toothpaste that caused cancer.  He wanted me to reassure him that my merchandise had not been poisoned by the CIA.  I told him that I had bought everything at a local drugstore in the U.S., and would use it myself, and that if he didn’t believe me I could take my bag and go elsewhere.  Again, the opportunity was too appealing for him to pass up, despite his doubts.  He agreed to buy.

Closing up the backpack, he pointed around the corner to a shop, half a block down the street, where he said he could sell the merchandise and complete the deal.  He would take the backpack, he said, go into the store, and come back with my money.  I could see the risk involved — he could simply slip out the back of the store and never come back — but given his concerns about product quality, and the minimum loss to me if he disappeared, I decided to give him a chance.  He shouldered the backpack and stood to go.  I told him I wanted to watch him go into the store, but he wanted me to stand back in the alley, around the corner — just out of sight of the store, “for my safety.”  Fine.  He started walking, and regardless of what I just told him I stood on the sidewalk, watching him with a clear view.

He walked to the store … and continued walking past it.  I began walking to follow him.  He reached the end of the block and disappeared around the corner, into a side street.  I broke into a run.  As soon as I turned the corner I saw him, sprinting down the alley with my backpack on his shoulder.  Now at this point, I figured it was all over except for crying.  I had played my hand and lost — a learning experience.  I was more upset about losing my backpack than the items inside, but I also didn’t want to play the complete fool.  There was no way I was going to catch him in the dark winding streets that he knew and I didn’t — and I didn’t really want to catch him, because he might do something desperate.  But I had to at least give voice to my outrage and go through the motions of giving chase.

“Policia! Policia!” I shouted, at the top of my lungs, and I ran, a bit half-heartedly, down the side street.  There were plenty of residents about, and they all looked to see what was going on.  And to my immense surprise, just before my “buyer” turned the next corner to make his get-away, he dropped the backpack.  I ran over to it, checked, and everything was still inside.

Not 30 seconds after I cried for the police, just moments after picking up my bag, a police car barreled into the alley and screeched to a halt beside me.  I don’t know whether they saw me running (and thought it suspicious) or whether Havana’s “revolutionary” neighborhood watch committees are that incredibly efficient, but it all happened in the blink of an eye.

Two policemen got out of the car and asked me what happened.  Of course I was not about to tell them than my black market deal had gone wrong, so I said a man had grabbed my backpack off my shoulder and run away with it.  But he had dropped it, so everything was okay now.  Obviously I was a tourist, so one of them asked my nationality, and when I told him I was a “Norteamericano” (U.S. citizen) he rolled his eyes like “oh great, that complicates things.”  He told me to get in the car.  What?  I thought, seized with alarm.  Is there a problem, officer?  He explained that he wanted to drive me around and help them look for the thief.  Now at this point it dawned on me that I was holding a backpack full of contraband consumer products, which they had so far not asked me to open, and I was praying the thought wouldn’t occur to them.  And the very last thing I wanted them to do was catch this guy and have him spill the beans on our transaction — on top of which, he’d probably accuse me of distributing CIA-poisoned soap.  So I told the policemen, thank you, but that’s really not necessary.  I have my bag back and that’s good enough for me.  But they were very insistent, and I realized I really had no choice but to compliantly climb in back of the police car.  To resist to vigorously would have raised suspicions.

P1010654-smallAs I sat in the back of the police car, we started cruising the neighborhood.  Each time we encountered a group of men or youths in a dark corner, the officers rolled down the window and ordered them to come over.  I was directed to look at their faces, one by one, in a kind of improvised line up, to see whether I could identify the perpetrator who had tried to run off with my backpack.  Fortunately I didn’t see him, and I would never have identified him even if I had.  Not only did I not want to incriminate myself, I had no intention of ratting him out.  On the one hand, he attempted to steal my merchandise; on the other, we were partners in crime, and I had gotten my belongings back in the end.  I suspected that the punishment, especially for stealing from foreigner in Havana’s prime tourist district, would be much harsher than any he deserved.  To take such a risk for $20 worth of goods — well, it was clear they were worth far more to him than to me, and I felt sorry for presenting him with a temptation he could not resist.

For the next half hour or so, we drove around the darkened streets, interrogating anyone who even remotely resembled the suspect.  I was struck by the fear in their faces, as I was forced to search their faces for signs of recognition.  The police were polite to me, even kind in their way, but you could sense the absolute power they possessed.  All the while I held the guilty package in my lap.  As time passed, and I could not identify the thief, I feared they would grow curious about it.  If they made me open it, I reasoned, the worst that would happen is they would confiscate it for themselves, and I would gladly give them the contents in exchange for being let off the hook.  But I didn’t relish the awkward questions that might ensue.

In the end, they grew weary of the futile search, and we fell to conversation.  It turns out they, too, had relatives in Miami.  And since I no longer had any real complaint to lodge, they dropped me off at my hotel.  I was immeasurably relieved as I waved goodbye, probably as relieved as they were not to have to file a report involving a Yankee tourist.  The entire episode had lasted just over an hour.  I ended up leaving the priceless toiletries in my room for the maid as a ridiculously extravagant tip.  My brief and not-so-successful career on Cuba’s black market had come to an end.  I do hope nobody’s hair fell out.

All photos were taken by the author.  Please ask permission before copying.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. artandhistory permalink
    September 28, 2009 10:44 pm

    This all seems soooo elaborate. On a trip to Cuba in 2003 under license of a state humanities foundation, we were all encouraged to bring along such items. During a week’s stay I found dozens of opportunities to hand out those sample toiletries to women and children in schools, art galleries, during conversations in the neighborhoods around our hotels, chambermaids, musicians in the park, etc. I even gave my husband’s old baseball glove to a student at an art school we visited.

    Although there is much to admire, much to critique and much to think long and hard about in Cuba,it is clear that they still have a de facto racial/color hierarchy so I made a point of sharing the items with darker skinned people. Nothing cloak and dagger about seeing kids in need and handing them a bit of soap, shampoo or toothpaste.

    • prchovanec permalink*
      September 29, 2009 7:35 am

      Of course it is possible, and encouraged, to hand out such items. Many people asked openly for necessities such as aspirin, which is difficult to obtain in Cuba and gratefully received. And my other interactions with Cubans were far from “cloak and dagger,” as I hope I’ll have the chance to relate in the future. But the opportunity to receive such gifts from foreigners is relatively rare, and there is also a thriving black market in such products. And it was this world that I unexpectedly stumbled into when I attempted to sell the goods I had left. Believe me, I didn’t go seeking out such an adventure, at least I had no idea what it would lead to. But it did happen just as I describe (no over-dramatization or romanticizing). By no means do I wish to portray it as “the” experience of Cuba, it is merely a slice of life I unexpectedly encountered. But it brought home to me, at least, how desperate and dog-eat-dog the struggle for basic survival can be in the Cuban economy, just out of sight of the typical “tourist” experience.

  2. talkingcuba permalink
    September 29, 2009 9:42 pm

    Great story. I’ve been traveling to Cuba regularly on humanitarian trips and as a writer. At Hemingway’s House in Havana, the security guard offered to lift the velvet rope and let me see his bedroom and kitchen (normally of limits). It cost me $20. Now I wish I had brought some shampoo. I’ve also had some similar experiences in the black market. My blogs on past trips are at http://talkingcuba.wordpress.com/ if you are interested.

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