Being Watched By The Cuban Police

We’d spent a week living in Trinidad by this point, the locals knew us, we were hanging out in Cuban bars and clubs and staying away from the places that are usually frequented by the tourists. One night at the outdoor locals disco at the bus station, a couple of drinks in the local bar – we were immersing ourselves with the Trinidadian residents. We’d also made a few Cuban friends, Caesar, a light skinned man with Roman looks of our own early thirties age who’d taken a liking to Ashley, was our main guide throughout the week showing us a new paladaras (private restaurant in a Cuban family’s home), organizing us horse rentals, and other activities. There were a few other Cuban faces I remember, but each evening the cast changed with only our friend Caesar as the constant character.

It’s our last night here, and we wanted to go out with a bang, so we ate in a paladaras, and gorged ourselves on lobster, shrimp and chicken, then headed over to the half tourist-half Cuban Casa de la Musica which is basically an outdoor discotheque complete with flashing lights and an excellent sound system, but it’s always a live salsa band instead of recorded music. The band was incredible, and within minutes of our entry Marshall and Ashley were on the dance floor. I was hanging in the back with Melinda when a tall, black, basketball player sized Cuban man came over and asked me if Melinda could dance with him. I said no, but Melinda intervened and said it would be no problem.

Off they went dancing, so I moved closer to the dance floor, picking up a mojito cocktail on the way and watched my friends dancing away. I watched them move to this Latin rhythm that wasn’t completely comfortable to dance to for any of us, and once you’ve got the basic steps down it’s OK until the locals speed up the tempo making it very difficult for us to keep up. They all did pretty well and I was impressed since they were all dancing with the locals and keeping up. I went back to the bar for a cuba libre (yet another rum drink) where I was joined by Marshall, and an English woman we’d met on the diving trip we’d been on the same afternoon.

We talked a while next to the bar when Melinda walked over, now done dancing with the basketball player, and said to us “I think one of us just had sex on the dance floor with our clothes on, and it wasn’t me.” Melinda explained that inside of five seconds of dancing with her partner’s hands on her lower back, he decided to let them take a wander down to her toned butt to see what that was all about. Melinda then revoked his lower back permissions and put the Cuban’s hands on her upper back at shoulder blade level. Apparently he was dancing very, very close, which is hard to do dancing salsa since you need space for your hips to move. Apparently not for this dancer.

Melinda, Marshall, myself and the English woman, who’s name escapes me, stood and talked to each other, the Cubans around us, the bartender – anyone within chatting distance – the whole time just loading up on cuba libres and mojitos. The bar closed and we were still standing around talking when the place was emptying out. Ashley and Caesar came and found us and asked where we were going, so we agreed to meet at the local Cuban bar across the street from our casa particular. Ashley took off and we walked the English woman home, and along the way we found out she’d been a backup singer for Sting and Phil Collins. The English woman weaved her way down the cobblestoned streets, Melinda on one side and Marshall on the other. Apparently we were used to people drinking in the volume we’re used to and had accidentally broken this poor woman with liquor.

We headed over to the Cuban bar, which opens at about two in the morning, and instead of going inside we were sitting about two buildings down from the entrance. The reader needs some background about this bar and Cuba itself in order to understand how crazy this evening was.

This bar in particular had caught our eye mainly because it was open at all hours of the day and night. The bar itself is not too attractive – a rectangular green building front, very plain and boxy looking with an incongruous looking security guard stationed outside. Security guard? Why would they need one of those? Upon entering there are no walls, only a solid concrete roof covering a large open area with a low dividing wall separating the main dancing and pool table/pinball area from the rest of the seating. Along the back wall is the bar itself following the wall, with its sole teenage bar tender serving drinks to the locals.

The first time we visited this bar a few nights before at about 1:45am one morning it was totally empty, save us, and the girls thought it was boring so Marshall and I walked them home. We returned to the bar, got one drink and sat down at one of the small tables in the back. In no less than ten minutes the bar had filled with thirty to fifty young Cubans playing pool, dancing to the now playing salsa music, another group crowded around the air hockey table – this was a complete bar transformation. Marshall and I had a couple of Cuban women ask us to dance so we stood up and moved to the center of the room between the pool table and the bar, closer to the entrance. We were dancing with these women when the one dancing with Marshall looked over and spotted a PNR policeman in the bar. She tapped her friend, my dancing partner, on the shoulder and told her the police were in the bar, then both of them turned and walked away as if both Marshall and I had either insulted them or told them we both had communicable Yellow Fever. This was our first taste of the effect communism has on all the people living in Cuba – these women were not supposed to be seen with any tourists, and hence the reason they had walked away directly then the communist authority entered the bar.

We learned through Caesar that regular Cubans aren’t allowed to talk to the foreigners, and if you don’t have a good reason to be talking to the tourists then the PNR might ask you questions. The PNR is the Castro version of the KGB, the official police force of Cuba. As much as we forgot about it while we were there, Cuba is still a full communist state, and their law enforcement organization consists of the PNR (National Revolutionary Police) and local communist neighborhood watch groups called the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution). CDR members are local neighborhood Cuban nationals who act as auxiliary eyes and ears of the police and report to the PNR any strange activity or local Cuban neighbors who are undertaking activities (like talking to foreigners) contrary to the ideals of the Revolution. Hence the reason Communism works – everyone’s always being watched and they live in a bit of fear of the state.

The Cuban girls left us and Marshall and I looked around at the crowd and noticed a few tough looking characters, but nothing that made us feel uncomfortable. Marshall bought the next round of drinks and I hit that “wall” where I knew that I was destined for a hang over if I put another one away so I exercised a veto and took the drink to go in case I might need it in fifteen minutes or so. As we exited I noticed the security guard at the door again, and it finally dawned on me that this is the only twenty four hour locals bar in town which pulls in all types of people, not all of who might be upstanding citizens. Cue security guard.

Back to our Saturday night with Caesar, we all regrouped at the Cuban bar and were sitting outside on the steps of a building ten meters away talking and drinking. It was Melinda & Ashley with Caesar next to Ashley, Marshall, and two other Cuban guys I’d not met before. Both were black as Africans, the younger one with dreadlocks, and the taller mid-twenties one was named Yuri (a nice Russian name for him). Everyone was just sitting and talking, so I went across the street to our casa particular to get something and when I returned Caesar and Ashley were missing, Yuri was sitting on the sidewalk and Melinda and Marshall recounted their run in with the local authorities.

All was well when I left, but a white van with three men in the front seat came driving up and stopped directly in front of my friends. The passenger door opened and a man in a PNR uniform pulled out a flashlight and shined it first in the faces of the two black Cubans. They heard the latch of the sliding door disengage and Ashley spotted the door opening a few inches and was sure the police were about to take away our friends. The PNR agent first questioned the younger black with the dreadlocks, then told him to get out of there so the boy ran. He then asked Yuri for his papers. asked him a few questions, then confiscated his papers. While Yuri was being questioned Caesar just turned his head away hoping, since his skin was light enough – more so than Marshall’s skin color – for him not to be noticed. The PNR agent shined his flashlight in Caesar and demanded his identity papers as well. He asked what they were doing with us (the Americans) and then told Caesar that he would have to report to the police station later to be questioned and retrieve his papers. With that the agent got back in the van, the sliding door closed and the van drove away.

When I returned Yuri was visibly disturbed and I tried to talk to him in my French-Spanish mix and he told me that he’d have to go to jail for three days or pay a fine of US$50.00 or 1,500 Cuban pesos. Knowing the value of the dollar by this point, this was a lot of money for a Cuban to come up with for an infringement like the supposed one committed. Yuri just told me this information but never actually asked me for the money. With that he left and stormed off down the street. Melinda, Marshall and I tried to put what had happened together, and they came to the conclusion that this was an elaborate scam and that they (Caesar and Yuri in conjunction with the police) were trying to get money from us. I was under the impression that they’d just seen a true Soviet style communist police state intimidation maneuver. But why hadn’t Yuri just asked me for the money instead of just telling me the price of the fine? And why did the police let the young Rastafarian go instead of confiscating his papers? I wasn’t convinced it was a scam but there were a couple of questions. When Ashley returned we tried to make more sense of this but didn’t make much progress, so we retired to bed and would try to ponder this again in the morning.

Ashley got up early and asked the patriarch of our house his take on why the police didn’t stop the Rastafarian and his response was that the police probably already knew that guy, where he lived, how to find him, but they needed information about the other two Cubans. Caesar stopped by our house that morning to tell me that Yuri had lied about the jail and the fine, but that he did have to go to the police to get his papers. Caesar explained to the police that he has a license to rent horses to foreigners, and that’s how he met us. All above board and on the up and up. Apparently it worked because I saw his identity card in his front shirt pocket during our conversation. He also said that because we were hanging out in the Cuban establishments and with the locals that we were being watched, not as a risk, but rather just to see what we were up to since we were much closer to the locals than most tourists.

As a political scientist I found the whole experience intriguing. It was like hearing stories of travellers to Moscow in the mid-eighties, not a real-life run in with a still operational communist regime. As much as Castro has created an environment for hard currency carrying travellers, we’d managed to slip under his fold and get a true feeling for what communist Cuban life is like for the locals. Even if Caesar had wanted to change his life, under the system he lives he does not have a permit to move out of his city. Saddening, intriguing, scary, incomprehensible, whatever the emotion that this experience evokes, we saw and felt something that not many foreigners get to see. Personally it just fuels my personal fire of hoping (and possibly trying to help lobby for) the US embargo to fall to help better the lives of the kind, warm and generous people we came in contact with in the city of Trinidad.

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