Cuba: Fewer Guns, More Tourists
Guns tend to scare away tourists and keep locals in their homes after dark. There are few capitals left in the hemisphere like Havana, where you don’t feel like the nighttime is your enemy.
This atmosphere of safety for the tourist is precisely one reason why Cuba has become a favorite vacation destination spot for Europeans, Canadians and some US citizens traveling via third countries to brave Washington’s travel ban on the island.
Following sharp cutbacks in state budgets during the 1990s, many other countries of the Americas made deep reductions in their law enforcement budgets as part of the IMF and World Bank recommendations to reduce government spending. The de-funding of public services directly affected citizen safety, as well as health and education.
In countries from Colombia to Brazil, Jamaica to Guatemala, as in the USA, people’s response to fear was to purchase weapons for self-defense. And in many places this meant not just having a gun, but a high powered one with loads of ammunition.
Cuba has taken a different approach. Firearms are not sold on the island in any store and are only legally held by authorized security personnel, police and armed forces and a limited number of hunters. Illegal weapons possession is considered a very serious offense.
Citizen safety as well as security for visitors is a top priority in the country. The law enforcement budget allows for sufficient foot and car patrols and a considerable number of traffic cops on motorcycles. Security guards at businesses or offices may carry pistols but you won’t see any automatic rifles except on the guards of the few armored cars that transport cash from businesses to the banks.
Of course the rightwing Miami crowd asserts that the reason the Cuban government doesn’t allow people to own hand guns is that it fears an uprising against the Revolution. Such an accusation is easy to make from afar, but clearly lacks a basis of fact on the island.
My experience is that Cubans value their relative safety, and are genuinely shocked by the stories told by friends and family who have traveled abroad on work missions or for conferences. Likewise, the drug and gang-related violence in Miami is seen as a serious drawback, even for those Cubans who still want to go there for family or economic reasons.
Regardless of their opinions on the country’s political system, most Cubans prefer strong law enforcement with few guns circulating and harsh sentences that discourage drug pushers, any budding of gangs or other types of violent crime.
No Sleepless Nights
While the police do not release crime statistics and the newspapers rarely report on violent crime, the relative lack of fear among the urban population compared to other underdeveloped and some industrialized countries manifests itself in the large number of people in the capital out on the streets in the evening and late night hours, especially on weekends, holidays or during summer.
Having a son or daughter out at a party or going to the late night movies or a concert doesn’t mean a sleepless night for parents as it would be in many cities around the continent.
During the first six months that my family and I lived in Havana, I would go to the bus stop almost every night to wait for teenage daughter to return home from evening classes. When she would be out late for school activities, or just having fun with friends, we would be up until she came home, no matter how late. Finally, and to our relief, we realized it wasn’t necessary; with relatively little violent crime in Cuba, her good judgment was enough to keep her safe.
Another important factor in maintaining a secure environment is that organized crime was expelled from Cuba 50 years ago when the US based weapons-toting mafia led by Meyer Lansky was given the boot. Illicit drugs are strictly controlled and drug or gang related murders commonplace in the US and much of urban Latin America are extremely rare. Accidental deaths by gun shot or people going on shooting sprees at schools or other public places is virtually unheard of.
Of course, tourists do need to exercise some caution. The best common sense advice for a tourist one can offer with regards to avoiding violent crime in Cuba is to stay in public places and not go anywhere isolated with people you’ve just met, something a visitor shouldn’t do anywhere in the world.
Other countries where I have traveled take a different approach. In Guatemala for instance most businesses from hamburger stores to pharmacies, museums, cafeterias and hotels all have guards armed with high-caliber automatic rifles. Banks feel like fortresses. When I asked why, people said it’s because the criminals and gangs are so well armed that they have to be ready.
The Guatemalan legislature is currently debating whether to make it even easier for people to buy weapons. While some civic groups want greater limits, powerful business sectors want fewer restrictions on the number of arms and munitions; just like Republican presidential candidate John McCain wants in the US.
Cuba has taken the opposite path to citizen safety and as far as I can see, it has worked quite well.
Just the other day I was sitting on a bus alongside a first-year Colombian medical student, studying on a scholarship in Havana. She told me she was from Medellin. I asked her what she thought of Havana. She said she liked it a lot because she could move freely around the city without being afraid, taking advantage of the cultural offerings or just hang out, something she said is not the case at night in her country.