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Crime in socialist Cuba: the economic crisis fuels crime, but it is not the only cause

DIARIO DE CUBA spoke with Cuban lawyers Julio Fernández Estrada and Laritza Diversent, and Mexican professor Vidal Romero.

Cubans on a Havana street.
Cubans on a Havana street. Diario de Cuba.

Why has crime increased in Cuba in recent months? Is it an effect of the increase in poverty? Are the regime's grip on power and the delay in the democratic transition threatening citizen security? DIARIO DE CUBA talked to two Cuban lawyers and a Mexican professor about these questions.

The first hurdle to analyzing the relationship between the increase in poverty and in crime in Cuba is the lack of official statistics, in addition to the distortion of data. In 2020, DIARIO DE CUBA showed how the Government manipulated reality in a report on the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals until 2030, by eliminating the "poverty" indicator and speaking only of "extreme poverty."

In the absence of official data on the relationship between the increase in poverty and in crime —which the official media initially denied, although the Matanzas Police recently acknowledged the commission of at least 41 crimes per day in that province—, Laritza Diversent, director of the legal consultancy Cubalex, spoked based on her experience as an independent lawyer in Cuba.

"It's not that there are no statistics, because the courts should have them, but court statistics are classified. There is no public access to that kind of information. But I do remember reading some interim findings by a defense attorney who cited those statistics and made reference to black people being more likely to commit property-related crimes."

"People of African descent almost always live in peripheral areas of cities, in poor neighborhoods, which do not feature conditions of habitability; unhealthy neighborhoods," explained Diversent.

"I lived in Arroyo Naranjo, in Havana. It is the fourth most populated municipality in the country, but it was the poorest in the entire capital. Most of the town's neighborhoods are marginalized neighborhoods, where the Afro-descendant population predominates: La Güinera, Párraga, Mantilla, El Moro. These are neighborhoods where the level of delinquency and marginalization is very high."

"If you are caught in Arroyo Naranjo with a nail clipper, or a knife, which in other countries is normal to have, it is very likely that you will be prosecuted for illegal possession of weapons and explosives. Several protesters (of 11J) are being charged with this."

Diversent even heard an officer state at a police station that, because Arroyo Naranjo is one of the most violent municipalities, anyone caught with a knife, a machete, whether going to work or not, would be deprived of their liberty and prosecuted.

"In the economic crisis people lack income, especially in those poor neighborhoods where the Afro-descendant population main lives —having migrated from other provinces to the capital, where the 'come and slap up' shantytowns are found, which have become communities— are more prone to higher levels of violence and delinquency. You're not going to find that in the official statistics. We saw it when we analyzed the sentences," he says.

Mexican professor Vidal Romero, head of the Political Science Department at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, led a study research in 2018 on how a process of opening up in Cuba would affect public security and lawlessness.

At that time he pointed out that, although Cuba needed economic liberalization reform and democratization of its political life, this could entail risks to the people’s security.

Three years later, the democratization of political life in Cuba is still far off, but crime has increased anyway. Are we facing a scenario in which the regime's determination to cling to power threatens public safety more than democratization?  

"Indirectly, the increase in the perception of insecurity and crime is related to the hard line being taken by the Cuban regime, but there are other important elements," says Romero. "It is important to note that predictions of a probable increase in insecurity due to political democratization and economic opening up do not imply that these things should not be implemented."

"The economy must be democratized and opened up, but it is important to do so in a way that does not generate more insecurity, as this leads citizens to demand the return of the harsh regime, and democratization can be frustrated, as is happening in many Latin American countries, for example. There are successful examples of economic and political openness combined with strong public security, such as Slovenia and the Czech Republic," he explained.

"The causes of the increase in insecurity in Cuba are several: the combination of the economic opening with the regimes political toughening up generates strong pressure for an increase in crime. There are relatively more business and income opportunities, but the Cuban state maintains a monopoly on economic decisions. This encourages corruption and prevents a large part of the population from accessing economic benefits. In the Chinese and Vietnamese models it was possible to open up the economy, but not politics, in a context characterized by high security, but this requires a strong government (in autocratic terms), which is not the case of the Cuban government, which is a relatively weak state in terms of resources and internal legitimacy."

"The Covid pandemic has been an exogenous factor that has revealed that the Cuban regime is weaker than was thought. The incentives to commit crimes have increased due to the need generated by the economic crisis, which the pandemic has spawned; this, anywhere in the world, increases 'crimes of necessity', such as robbery."

"Finally, the regime’s hardening, which is reflected in a bad economy (pandemic aside), has generated an increase in the Government's need to attract economic resources from abroad. In the absence of benefactor countries, the resources of Cubans off the island are attractive. The Cuban Government is now more permissive in terms of receiving this type of investment, which combines licit and illicit resources. Thus, money laundering activities are generated in Cuba, which attracts related illicit activities, such as corruption, smuggling and black markets," Romero noted.

For his part, Julio Fernández Estrada, Doctor of Juridical Sciences, believes that the increase in crime in Cuba in recent months, "especially robbery with violence and robbery with force", has various causes.

"The general causes of crime are also complex and wide-ranging. The argument of a single political or economic measure is never enough."

"It is important, in order to conduct a serious analysis of this issue, to have reliable data on the occurrence of these crimes, the filing of cases, their investigation and the judicial response in each case. It would also be important to know the number of cases of this type that have not been solved by the police."

"If these crimes have increased, I believe that the main cause is the sustained and profound economic crisis in which we have found ourselves in recent years and its worsening in the last four."

"But I don't think the causes are just economic. We are also dealing with an atmosphere of increasing political tension and the exacerbation of extreme ideological political views."

"In situations of political instability, there is a proliferation of violent behavior expressing feelings of hatred, insecurity and social unrest," he concluded.

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