Crime on rise in Cuba as economy falters

Castro particularly targets underground economy that many need to survive

April 25, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HAVANA -- In the annals of crime in revolutionary Cuba, the assault on a government armored van in daylight in December was a botched but spectacular act of boldness.

"I first heard the shots; then I saw the [five] wounded people go by. It was shocking," said Marta Acosta, 59, who lives across the street from La Arcada, the cluster of dollar stores in the municipality of Guanabacoa here that was the scene of a shootout between one of the thieves and two armored van workers picking up the shopping center's receipts.

The high-profile crime was the kind that government officials used to associate more with the ills of American society than with their highly policed island.

But today Cuba, which for decades was immune to the high crime rates of more open societies, is itself grappling with a rising tide of common crime that has swelled in the last year.

The rise is taking place as Cubans struggle with hardships caused by the collapse of their Soviet patron 10 years ago, by Communist Party policies and by more than three decades of economic embargo by the United States.

Necessity now leads scores of people to steal from workplaces, to earn dollars as prostitutes or illegal taxi drivers, or to join a thriving black market.

In rural areas, livestock theft is such a problem, government officials said, that some people take their cows into their homes at night.

But the problem has also been fueled by the opportunity that has arrived here with increasing numbers of foreign tourists drawn by the government's efforts to earn hard currencies.

President Fidel Castro himself sounded the alarm about crime in a speech three months ago to the Revolutionary National Police, associating it with a creeping moral laxity and Cuba's rising reliance on international tourism and foreign investment, while noting that those two sectors were now endangered by crime.

Two Italian tourists were fatally shot in September during a robbery, even though handguns are not prevalent and legal access to them is tightly restricted.

"In the fight against crime we're also defending the prestige of the country and its economy," Castro said. "The rise in crime discourages tourism, aside from the damage it causes to 11 million citizens and the uneasiness it produces."

In response to the crime wave, the government has stationed police officers on almost every corner in Havana's tourist areas and in February stiffened penalties for crimes as diverse as drug trafficking, pimping, armed robbery and the illegal trade in beef.

The deployment of the black-beret-wearing special police officers has given parts of Havana, where officials say 80 percent of the island's crime take place, the feel of a city under siege.

The young officers are often seen checking the identification cards, writing tickets for some infraction or giving instructions to drivers, cyclists and passers-by through loudspeakers.

The crackdown, which officials say is already working, has been welcomed by many Cubans and foreigners who have been victims of pickpockets and burglaries.

But the heightened vigilance is also stifling what some Cubans say is their only way to survive.

What is most notable has been the virtual disappearance from the streets of prostitutes who are sent home to the countryside or interned for up to four years in "rehabilitation centers" -- work camps where repeat offenders receive counseling.

While not illegal here or penalized as a criminal offense, prostitution is regarded as "anti-social" and a magnet for related crime such as drug use.

In his speech, Castro, disclosing rarely published crime information, said that Cuba "persists" as a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine destined for the United States and Europe.

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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