Crime and Hustling
All the negative media hype sponsored by Washington has left many people with a false impression that Cuba is unsafe. Far from it. In rural areas many residents still say they can hardly remember the last time a crime was committed. However, the material hardships of Cubans combined with the influx of wealthy tourists has fostered crime. Pickpockets (carteristas) and purse slashers work the streets and buses. Chambermaids pilfer items from guests’ luggage. Theft from luggage occurs at the airport, where bogus tour operators and taxi drivers also prey on tourists (the British embassy also reports attempted robberies from vehicles on the Havana airport road). Muggings have escalated. Car-related crime is on the increase, notably by bogus hitchhikers and staged punctures (if you get a puncture, drive on several kilometers, preferably to a town, before stopping). Sexual assault appears to be rare.
There have been several unreported murders of tourists in recent years. Most, but not all, have involved sexual relations between foreigners and Cubans. Never go to a casa clandestina (an illegal room rental, usually rented by the hour), and always check a Cuban partner’s carnet (ID) and leave a copy with someone you trust if possible.
Most crime is opportunistic snatch-and-grab. Caution is required when walking city streets (especially at night) and in crowded places. If you sense yourself being squeezed or jostled, elbow your way out of there immediately.
The U.S. State Department (888/407-4747, or 202/501-4444 from overseas, www.travel.state.gov) and British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (tel. 020/7008-1500, from overseas 020/7008-0210, www.fco.gov.uk) publish advisories.
Hustling and Scams
Your biggest problem will probably be hustling by jiniteros (street hustlers), plus scams pulled by restaurants, hotels, and other tourist entities. And the consumo mínimo charge in many bars and nightclubs is an invitation to fleece you. Be prepared for charges for things you didn’t consume or which didn’t materialize, and for higher charges than you were quoted. Insist on an itemized bill at restaurants, add it up diligently, and count your change.
Car rental companies and tour agencies (and their employees) are adept at scams. You pay for a deluxe hotel, say, on a package to Cayo Largo, but are told when you arrive that the hotel in question doesn’t honor such packages. You’re then fobbed off to the cheapest hotel. When you return to Havana to request a refund, the documents relating to your trip can’t be found. Rarely is there a manager available, and usually they say there’s nothing that can be done.
If the scam amounts to outright theft, take the staffer’s name and threaten to report him or her to the head office and police. Don’t pay cash in such conditions. Pay with a credit card and challenge the bill. Or simply refuse to pay. Good luck! Once it has your money, the CUban government is not about to give refunds under virtually any condition.
Make photocopies of all important documents. Carry the photocopies with you, and leave the originals along with your other valuables in the hotel safe. Prepare an “emergency kit” to tide you over if your wallet gets stolen.
Never carry more cash than you need for the day. Never carry your wallet in your back pocket; wear a secure money belt. Spread your money around your person. Thread fanny pack straps through the belt loops of your pants, and never wear your purse or camera loosely slung over your shoulder. Wear an inexpensive watch. Don’t flaunt jewelry. Be wary when cashing money at a bank. Do not deal with jineteros. Insist that credit card imprints are made in your presence. And make sure any imprints incorrectly completed are torn up; destroy the carbons yourself.
Never leave items unattended. Always keep an eye on your luggage on public transportation. Don’t carry more luggage than you can adequately manage. And have a lock for each luggage item. Always keep purses fully zipped and luggage locked, even in your hotel room. Don’t leave anything within reach of an open window nor in your car, which should always be parked in a secure area overnight.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition