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News / Nation & World

A surge in violent crime is worrying Cubans. The government calls it fake news

By Nora Gámez Torres, Miami Herald
Published: September 24, 2023, 5:29am

Residents of a small town in Sancti Spiritus, in central Cuba, were shocked last year when the body of a schoolteacher was retrieved from a well. He had been tied down with stones and heavy pieces of agricultural machinery. By the time he was found, with the help of family and friends who led the search, he had been missing for three days.

His killers, who murdered him to steal his Suzuki motorcycle, were arrested and sentenced to life in prison in June. State media outlets, banned in the past from publishing crime stories, reported the murder and praised the police for what they said was a prompt response.

In another harrowing case in June, the parents of a Catholic priest were assaulted with machetes after his mother caught three masked men eating from the refrigerator in their home in a suburban neighborhood in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city. Father Leandro Naung Hung’s parents survived, and just a few days later, the police arrested the attackers, two 21-year-old men and a 27-year-man authorities said had a criminal record.

Naung Hung declined to comment for this story, but he previously told the independent news outlet 14ymedio that the violent attack resulted from “the acute crisis” in Cuba, “the loss of values and criminal impunity.”

Stories like these, usually first reported by Cuban independent media, have become more frequent in the past two years amid what journalists and Cubans on social media describe as a crime wave driven by hunger and scarcity.

That the stories are getting out at all is a relatively new phenomenon for Cuba, where from the early days of the Revolution the government has strictly controlled the media and banned stories about crime from newspapers, radio and television. But the rise of independent news websites and social media, where more and more Cubans are posting graphic photos and videos of grisly crimes, has forced even the government to react.

“Every time there are serious economic crises, criminal activity becomes more violent,” a defense criminal lawyer working in Cuba told the Miami Herald. “When this crisis started, I told my family that we would hear horrendous crimes of all kinds, not only related to property, although obviously those are the ones that happen the most.”

The lawyer, who works in a local court outside Havana and asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation, said he is handling “many more cases” than he did two years ago.

“Yes, there is violence, perhaps not comparable to that in some Latin American countries, but compared to the country we knew before, you notice the violence, you can breathe it, and people fear it,” he said. “I can’t back it up with statistics, but I can back it up with the public knowledge of the situation.”

Cuba keeps crime statistics secret, making it more difficult to understand changes in crime rates and whether other factors might be at play, such as increased media scrutiny or more people publicizing the cases on social media. While the country is generally free of mass shootings and the type of widespread organized drug trafficking seen in many of its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors, over the years, anecdotal evidence indicates that robberies and theft are common and tend to increase during times of hardship.

The Cuban government claims any perceptions about a crime wave are the result of a campaign financed by the United States to spread fake news to create unrest in the population.

And yet, an annual report published by the Cuban Ministry of Public Health shows that homicides sharply rose in 2021, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That year, there were 101 more homicides than in 2020, for a total of 565, a 22% jump. It is not known if the trend continued because the ministry has not released data for 2022.

Additional figures published by the Cuban Ministry of Health in its annual health statistics suggest the number of homicides in recent years might actually be higher than officially reported.

Between 2016 and 2021, the number of deaths labeled as “events of undetermined intent” has steadily risen, while the total mortality rate has not fluctuated much. Deaths from undetermined intent surged by 131 percent, from 244 to 565 over the period, the reports show, with no explanation as to why.

According to international standards set by the World Health Organization, that category means that a doctor or legal authority could not determine if the deadly injuries resulted from an accident, suicide or homicide.

The upward trend in that little-known category “raises questions about why this increase is occurring and how are those cases being coded,” said Alex Piquero, a professor of criminology at the University of Miami and former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice. “As a criminologist, when I have studied crime data around the world, the best data we have to compare is homicide data because a body is a body. The problem is this other category.”

“I had no knowledge of whether that occurs” in Cuba, he said, “but changing the way things are coded may make one statistic look better.”

Cuba’s Directorate of Medical Records and Health Statistics, which compiles the annual report, did not reply to an email asking for clarification about its methodology.

What is behind violence in Cuba?

Cuba was not alone in experiencing more violent crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rise of violent crimes on the island parallels what happened in the United States during the second half of 2020 and into 2021. According to FBI data, the overall homicide rate spiked 29.4% in 2020 and increased an additional 4.3% in 2021.

The current crime wave in Cuba has been linked to the ongoing economic crisis, which economists believe equals or has surpassed that of the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, when stories about people being assaulted for a pair of sneakers or a Chinese bicycle were common.

Amid widespread shortages, soaring inflation has rendered state salaries, around $16 a month on average, essentially worthless.

“Imagine a country where your monthly salary can only buy food for one day,” a man living in Guantanamo told Cuban independent news outlet Cubanet for a video about the increase in violence in that province in eastern Cuba. “What do you eat the rest of the month? What you can steal?”

Piquero says academic work shows that during periods of high unemployment and economic strife, “people don’t have the means to obtain the kinds of things they need to survive, and turn to the means necessary to get the goods that they need.”

“That happens in the United States, too,” he added.

While experts agree that the economic crisis is likely a major factor driving crime in Cuba today, some also point out that the extensive use of law enforcement to control political dissent means the police and the judicial system are stretched to fight and punish common crimes.

“Basically, Cuba’s criminal law at the moment is focused solely on persecuting any form of dissent instead of combating criminal activity,” said Alain Espinosa, a Cuban lawyer based in Argentina who works with Cubalex, an independent organization that provides legal help to activists in Cuba. “There are many police officers who are dedicated to repressing activists and independent journalists and to impede their movements.”

Cuba’s Ministry of Interior, which manages the police and the state security apparatus, led the violent crackdown on Cubans who protested against the government throughout the island in July 2021. It also monitors Cuba’s cyberspace to punish people like activist Leandro Pupo Garcés, who was recently tried in a court in Holguín, in eastern Cuba, and is facing a four-year sentence for posting “offensive” content against the ministry on Facebook.

But even if the ministry continues withholding crime statistics, the flurry of publicity on social media and independent media reports denouncing assaults, robberies and murders have forced the government to deny that violent crime is surging in Cuba.

Cuba’s denial

In an editorial published in June, Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper, accused the United States and its “paid terrorist mafia” of fabricating “an unreal world” by spreading “fake news and… daily lies” or “magnifying criminal acts … to offer the world and millions of social media users a destructive image of our society.”

Yet data quoted in Granma and by top police officers on state television show that, while they claim the police solve 98 percent of homicides — in comparison, U.S. law enforcement agencies solved only 54% in 2020 — even on an island known for its massive surveillance apparatus a large number of violent crimes go unpunished.

“There is no passivity nor impunity,” Granma said. “The violent acts that have occurred and are shamelessly magnified or manipulated by enemy digital sites constitute 8.5% of the total crimes registered so far this year.” But only 60 percent of the perpetrators of violent crimes have been arrested and charged, the editorial acknowledged.

Other statements in Granma and by senior Ministry of Interior officials suggest that either the overall crime rate has doubled or the police have become more effective at closing cases.

According to Granma, 12,000 people were charged with a crime between January and June this year. A week after the publication of the editorial, Manuel Valdés Brito, an Interior Ministry colonel, said on the television show “Hacemos Cuba” that “in this period, we have almost doubled the number of people charged with crimes.”

It was not entirely clear which period he was referring to, though the host of the show and the officers invited were discussing the same numbers provided in the Granma editorial.

The top Interior Ministry officials insisted on state television that the “enemies of the revolution” were trying to create public panic by spreading false stories and magnifying the problem. They also said that the police have reinforced “vigilance and patrolling” and increased vehicle searches.

But even the government-controlled media have acknowledged at times that crimes are becoming more frequent.

In May, a local newspaper reported about “ several acts of robbery with violence or intimidation of people with the use of knives” in Holguín.

“These incidents, in which the perpetrators rob the victims of cell phones, electric motors, cycles, wallets, among other objects, have mostly occurred at night and early morning, although some cases occurred during the day,” the Holguín newspaper Ahora wrote.

Similarly, the Cuban News Agency, a state media outlet, reported last year about rising crime in Matanzas, a province near Havana and a tourist hot spot famous for its Varadero beaches.

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During a local government meeting, police Lt. Col. Frank Villalobos González said crime rose 14 percent in 2021 compared to 2020 in that province. And he said that in January 2022, 40 crimes were reported daily, mostly robberies and thefts.

The local Communist Party chief, Liván Izquierdo Alonso, said in the meeting that it was “necessary to address the causes of crime and illegality. I believe that if we better serve the vulnerable, care more about the population that does not work and offer improvements in more disadvantaged neighborhoods, then we eliminate some of the roots of the problem.”

Alarming trend

The rise in crime, however, may not be a recent thing. In 2014, Gen. Jesus Becerra, the national police chief, said that burglaries, thefts and robberies of both residents and tourists were “highly frequent.” But without access to official numbers, it is difficult to say.

“The public needs data,” Piquero said. “Like many other countries, the need for data collection and transparency in crime data reporting in Cuba is important for not just statistical and research purposes, but also to aid practitioners and policymakers understand trends to identify points of prevention and intervention.”

But unlike in previous decades, everyone with a cellphone and internet access can now read the latest crime story in Cuba. And some of the latest viral videos circulating on Cuban social media show another alarming trend, experts say: vigilantism.

One video shows three men repeatedly kicking a man lying on the pavement who had been accused of stabbing a young woman — who is seen wounded nearby on the sidewalk — to steal her cell phone in San Miguel del Padrón, a Havana suburb.

Another shows a man with a rope around his neck, hand and feet lying on the grass. Bystanders are heard saying he was caught trying to assault a young man with a knife to take his money. According to the independent news outlet Cubanet, the incident occurred in Arroyo Naranjo, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, and the police came half an hour after they were called.

“This was not frequent before and, in my opinion, is happening because citizens do not find an adequate response from the legal system,” said Espinosa, the lawyer with Cubalex.

The lack of access to a “life with dignity” is making some Cubans more violent, he said, not only because they can’t afford the basics but “because when their rights are infringed, they also don’t find a proper state response. So they are left to react in the ways the video shows: trying to take justice into their own hands.”