Getting arrested in Havana
Article and photos by Leo Turpan
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In an attempt to lighten the mood while two Cuban military officers in olive green uniforms escorted me into a concrete-walled compound, I commented on the heavy rain clouds moving in overhead. One of the officers looked up to the sky, but neither replied. The compound’s large metal gate shut at my back.
It had been a sunny day when I had wandered from the bus station and descended toward a river that runs through the outskirts of Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. It was my sixth day in Havana, part of a 10-day Venture Grant-funded trip to photograph found objects in the streets of Havana that could expand upon larger cultural or historical narratives. I stopped intermittently to photograph a building or a group of chickens squawking in a deserted baseball field.
Unfortunately, those particular photos will not appear alongside this article. They are still in the possession of the Cuban government.
Directly adjacent to the chicken-filled baseball field was some sort of military compound, armored with an oversized metal gate and 10-foot tall, barbed-wire-topped concrete walls that seemed to extend up into the hill farther than I could see. It was unclear whether the baseball field was originally intended for military recreation or was just another abandoned space, like the ones on nearly every Cuban block. A group of guards stood outside the gate smoking cigarettes and joking with each other. They paid no attention to me as I strolled by with my 35mm film camera in hand. The park and river were just up ahead.
As I walked the river’s banks photographing floating trash and a pair of mysteriously abandoned high heels, I stumbled upon a set of degraded stone steps leading up alongside a large cement wall. I didn’t realize at the time this wall was part of the extensive military base I had just passed. I took the stairs up and soon found myself in an abandoned children’s playground, where the encroaching weeds entangled the colorfully rusted blue and yellow slides and see-saws. It reminded me of the empty schoolyards I had stumbled upon and photographed during my first day in Havana.
The Cuban government brags about a strong education system, but as with seemingly everything in Cuba, the system is ridden with underlying contradictions. Cuba provides free education for all citizens, and the majority of young kids do attend school. However, job possibilities and pay rate remain largely the same for graduates and dropouts alike. The government provides nearly all jobs in the country, and thus regulates pay, so a high-level doctor makes the same monthly wage as the hospital janitor. There comes a point in most Cubans’ lives when the ability to work a job and bring money into their home becomes more important than education. There is little incentive to attend school for a number of years simply to end up with the same working wage as everyone else.
Within 15 minutes, I had finished shooting an entire roll of film. I sat down on a concrete bench to load another and wipe the sweat that my brow had been collecting in the muggy air. I heard boots scraping and looked back over my shoulder to see two Cuban military officers scale the 10-foot high concrete wall and drop down into the park where I was sitting. I faced forward and continued loading my film. I thought, “There’s no way these guys are coming to talk to me, right? Why would they?”
It wasn’t long before I was attempting to explain, in my conversational but broken Spanish, that I was a student working on a photography project, not a foreign intelligence officer sneaking photos of the compound from afar.
Officer #1 made a call on his cellphone to someone inside the military base. I was going to have to follow them inside. “Ok, vamos,” I replied, not knowing what was else to say or do. Officer #1 led, while Officer #2 followed behind me. In my head I imagined what would happen if I attempted to run. I very quickly dismissed any thought of escape and just followed. The rain clouds were moving in.
At the gate entrance I was asked for my passport, which I didn’t have, so instead I handed them my Colorado state ID. I was given a visitors badge and was asked to turn off my “cellular.” I followed the officers deeper into the compound, passing grassy playing fields, workout stations and small concrete barracks that appeared to house the soldiers. The architecture: solid, concrete and cold, with hard edges and closed shutters blocking off any view of what the interior might hold. As I sat on a bench waiting for more instructions, I couldn’t help but think how incredible it would be to take photos inside the base. Obviously, that was off limits.
I stood up as a seemingly highly-ranked officer (Officer #3) approached me. He greeted me with a military salute and then an outstretched hand. I awkwardly saluted late (and most likely incorrectly, having never saluted anyone before) and then fumbled his handshake. I scrolled through all my digital photos, attempting to explain that I was an art student photographing found objects like trash and abandoned toys for a school project. None of the officers could understand why I would be taking pictures of an abandoned park so close to a military base—obviously I had ulterior motives. He continued to question me about my arrival in the country, my stay and my objectives.
The rain began to fall in sheets as they checked on my immigration documents. I didn’t have my passport on me, or any written documentation from my school about the project, or basically any signifier that would convince them I was who I said I was. I listened as attentively as I could through the window behind my head to the Spanish spoken inside. Apparently immigration couldn’t find the photo of me that is taken of each visitor in the airport when they enter the country.
It was at this time that a young officer (Officer #4) who had been lurking around eyeing me, and who seemed of an oddly high rank for his age, accused me of working for “La See-A.” “Qué es La See-A?” I responded, confused. He huffed an air of joking humor, thinking I was playing dumb. It took me a minute; “Ohhhh, the CIA.” I laughed nervously at what I thought at first was such a ridiculous accusation, but fear settled in as he continued to stare me down. I considered the consequences such an accusation could entail. I guess accidentally playing dumb American wasn’t going to get me any out of the situation.
A police car with two officers (Officers #5 and #6) appeared at the scene, as well as a middle-aged balding man in civilian clothes (Detective #1), who quickly took charge and began running the investigation. I needed to go with them to the police station.
“Don’t touch your phone, your backpack, your camera.” After two hours in the military base, sitting and waiting, I was loaded into the back of the police car. My knees pushed up against the metal cage separating me from the drivers in the small backseat, the inside door handles having been manually removed. We drove off in the rain, the officers radioed to immigration and I attempted to understand what I could hear. They had found my visa photo in the records, but I had a feeling the situation wouldn’t be ending any time soon.
Upon arrival at the police station, I was told to take a seat. I had to once again repeat to a different officer (Officer #7, a short, chubby Cuban with a dark mustache who smoked a cigarette at his desk) the same answers to the same questions about what exactly I was doing in Cuba. He recorded them with pen and paper. I hadn’t yet encountered an officer working on a computer. A Spanish version of “Tom & Jerry” played fuzzily on a TV screen off to the right. Occasionally, a Communist-style commercial would interrupt the cartoon to show footage of a revolution-era parade or part of one of Fidel’s many powerful nationalistic speeches. There are no real television advertisements in Cuba. There are some large highway billboard signs, but they only tote painted Fidel or Che faces with inspiring quotes beside them in bold letters.
By this time, the sun had dipped below the city’s horizon and night was taking over. I sat in the lobby, my stomach grumbling. In an attempt to kill time, I read the Fidel posters and historical recountings of the revolution that hung on the wall. Fidel Castro had died only a month before my arrival in the country, but all this surrounding propaganda had existed since the revolution. Now footage of his funeral procession is simply added to the commercial loop.
I heard a number of different responses from Cubans when I asked them about Fidel. One man on New Year’s Eve looked me in the eye and held his fist proudly over his chest as he told me, “Yo soy Fidel, Fidel es mi corazon” (I am Fidel, Fidel is my heart), a common billboard and poster phrase. But that same night, Johan, a Cuban friend I had made during the day, leaned in close to my face and told me in a hushed tone how, “Fidel, el gobierno, es la mafia, nada más” (Fidel, the government, is the mafia, nothing more).
I paced the lobby under the watch of the many shabbily-framed Fidel protraits. Strangely, I never felt too nervous. Perhaps it was the Cubans’ relaxed state and continuous humor, but speculation about what might happen to me finally set in. Was I going to have to spend a night in jail? Were they going to kick me out of the country? What new piece of information could I possibly give them that would convince them I wasn’t gathering intelligence for the CIA? It was another hour and a half before they called me in.
The questioning room was a small rectangular space with peeling light blue paint, four wooden Adirondack chairs, a plastic fold-up table set up in the back left corner, a single exposed light bulb in the center of the ceiling and an off-white rickety overhead fan that didn’t spin fast enough to generate any cooling air. A young, sharp-looking police officer (Officer #8) again recorded everything I said with pen and paper. With him at the table sat a middle-aged female immigration officer (Officer #9). An English-speaking immigration officer (Officer #10), with slicked hair and a thin gold necklace, stood leaning against the wall in the opposite corner. Two men, in their business casual civilian outfits (Detectives #1 and #2), stood on either side of me. And finally, a soldier (Officer #11) in the olive green military uniform stood behind us guarding the single door.
A game of questioning ensued. I answered in the best and calmest Spanish I could muster. Drawing from my summer CC classes in Spain, I attempted to correct my conjugations and use proper grammar, as if my broken but desperate Spanish would help them see me as an innocent student. They laid out every single item in my backpack on the table before us. They thumbed through my journal, wrote down any address, name or phone number I had with me and continually scrolled through my digital photos. I had to suppress a chuckle as one of the detectives thoroughly flipped through each photo on my phone with great intensity, eventually examining shots of my ex-girlfriend in her Classy Christmas outfit.
I explained over and over again, seemingly to each officer in the room, my reasons for being in Cuba, what exactly I had been doing that day, why I just happened to be so close to a military base and why I had been using a film camera as opposed to a digital (which they believed was a way for me to keep my photos hidden). The immigration officer with the gold chain, who spoke some English, was clearly tired. Believing me, he would help fill in words or sentences I couldn’t complete. At one point the female immigration officer turned over her shoulder and gave him a questioning look, as in: “Why are you helping him?” We were in a stalemate. I hadn’t taken a single digital photo of the abandoned park, or the military compound, but they couldn’t see my film. They lacked evidence to convict me, and I lacked evidence to absolve myself.
As the questioning seemed to be winding down, Detective #2 leaned over me in my seat, locking in my gaze, and asked, “So why should we believe you?”
“Confianza?…Trust?” I replied with a unknowing shrug of my shoulders. A small silence in the room ensued. There was nothing else to be said, no more questions to be raised.
They finally agreed to let me go on the condition that they take the two rolls of film I had on me to process them and confirm. And they would be monitoring my activity, and where I would be staying for the duration of my trip. Although I didn’t want to give up the irreplaceable 72 shots on my film, I breathed a sigh of relief and handed over the rolls. After they made a few calls, it was finally time to go.
I climbed into the back of a white sedan with the gold-chained immigration officer behind the steering wheel and the female officer next to me in the backseat. As we slowly backed out of the police station, the English-speaking officer clicked on his radio and a Cuban love ballad with swaying guitar and a soothing drum-line began to play. I couldn’t help but laugh, not believing what my day had turned into. I didn’t say anything and just listened and looked out the window as the officer tapped on the steering wheel and hummed along as we drove down the barely illuminated, nearly empty Havana streets.
I spent the remaining hours of the night on the balcony of my apartment in Vedado with Maria Luisa, the sweet seventy-year-old Cuban woman who owned the apartment. We spoke in hushed tones of all that had happened. If my voice grew too loud, she would quiet me with an expression of silence and wave me to sit closer. In Cuba, she told me, even now, you still have to watch what you say. Your landline phone could be monitored, or your friendly neighbor might be enlisted by the government as a civilian informant.
Maria Luisa was beginning to fall asleep in her rocking chair. Silently, I stood up and leaned over the balcony railing, examining the far-off sound and sight of the dark ocean lapping up against the city’s dimly lit seawall before finally retiring to rest after a bizarre and lengthy day.
Part of the Red Issue