Intimidation in Havana

I saw and heard what looked like a riot, as I walked down Neptuno street in Centro Habana on Saturday December 10th. The commotion was a couple of blocks further on from the turning into the street where I was staying. A large flag had been stretched over the street, and I could see dozens of men and some women yelling and punching the air with their fists. It was intimidating.

I soon learned what was going on. The ‘riot’ was outside the house of Laura Pollán, former leader of the Damas de Blanco, the ladies in white who demonstrate peacefully against political imprisonment and for human rights in Cuba. Laura died aged 63 in Calixto Garcia hospital, behind the university, on October 14th 2011, reportedly of Dengue fever (which is more widespread than foreigners are supposed to know). I have just watched a clandestine amateur video of the accident and emergency unit at Calixto Garcia, on Youtube ( and it does not inspire confidence. Poor Laura.

“Did you see the yellow bus parked in the next street?” one resident asked me. “It brought military personnel, militares, out of uniform in civiles. Their job is to harass the Damas de Blanco.”

Harass them they did, until about three o’clock in the morning. It struck me as similar to the US military’s treatment of General Noriega in Panama in 1989 when they wanted him out of the Vatican Embassy, where he had sought refuge. They played heavy metal music very loudly until the general could stand no more.

The women were meeting in Laura’s home. The military, pretending to be ordinary citizens, were a threatening presence.

Walking about Havana in early December, on two occasions I saw elderly men arrested on the street and bundled into police cars. I don’t know if these were political arrests or not, and I suspect they were probably for vagrancy, but afterwards I read that in Cuba in 2011, according to a tally by CIH Press, there were 3,835 political arrests, 576 of which were in December. )

Not surprisingly, many people are afraid to say what they think. These are among the comments that I heard:

  • When there is an unexpected knock at the door, and you are watching a foreign soap opera thanks to an illegal satellite dish, you switch the TV to a Cuban channel before opening the door.
  • Cubans do not often speak in the future tense because they may not have a future.
  • If you leave Cuba and are away for over 11 months, your property is forfeit to the state.
  • A group of 24 Cuban students went to China for four years to learn Chinese. Only six returned. The others stayed in China or travelled to Europe.

I came away feeling sad that the Revolution has failed to usher in  new era of hope and justice, sad that most Cubans have such a struggle just to get through each day, sad that they cannot engage freely with the rest of the world, sad that hurricane damage compounds their problems, sad that out of fear they have to pretend to be living in a successful state. One day I went to see an elderly lady who used to be a teacher at the university. Her work must have been of great value to the state, yet she lived in a dingy room and her bed was a mattress on the floor. Her pension of less than £10 a month did not buy her a nutritious diet. She did not complain.


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