‘Experiencing Cuba’ while under government surveillance
CAIBARIÉN Cuba — Caibarién is a town on a bay that separates it from
Cayo de Santa María, which is located on Cuba’s northern coast. It’s
proximity to the city of Santa Clara, which is less than an hour to the
south, provided the perfect place to escape “experiencing Cuba” and all
that it entails — including a flat tire and dead battery on my rental
car on Thursday morning — before returning to the U.S.
The breeze that was blowing off the bay was refreshing. The fish at La
Tormenta, a small restaurant on Caibarién’s beach that means “the storm”
in Spanish, that I had for lunch was freshly caught and delicious. There
were also no visible Cuban police officers or security agents within sight.
It became increasingly clear over the last couple of days the Cuban
government decided to place me under surveillance, or at the very least
knew where I was and with whom I spoke. The Cuban government will likely
never confirm my suspicion if I were to ask, but coincidence is more
than simple coincidence in a country with little tolerance of public
criticism of the government and/or those who represent it.
Tuesday afternoon was the first time I realized the Cuban government may
have decided to place me under surveillance.
I called Nelson Gandulla, president of the Cuban Federation of LGBTI
Rights, an independent LGBT advocacy group, shortly after noon from the
street to confirm our meeting at his home in the city of Cienfuegos that
we scheduled for 3 p.m. I called Nelson from the cell phone that I
bought from the state-run telecommunications company shortly after I
arrived in Cuba on May 2. The conversation lasted less than two minutes
and I walked back to the apartment near Santa Clara’s Parque Leoncio
Vidal that I had rented on Airbnb from D.C.
I was leaving around 2 p.m. when the woman from whom I was renting the
apartment told me someone from the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs
called and asked her whether I was a credentialed journalist. The Cuban
government granted me a 20-day visa that allowed me to report on
LGBT-specific issues in the country. I also received a Cuban press
credential from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ International Press
Center in Havana.
The situation clearly left the woman from whom I rented the apartment
embarrassed, and I honestly felt bad the government had placed her into
such an awkward position. She profusely apologized to me several times
after I showed her my Cuban press credentials and assured me that I
would not have any problems while staying in her family’s home. I left a
few minutes later and walked to my car that was parked a couple of
Police checked documents after interviewing activist
The hour-long drive from Santa Clara to Cienfuegos, which is on Cuba’s
southern coast, was largely uneventful aside from getting lost while
leaving the area around Parque Leoncio Vidal. Driving anywhere in the
country is another one of those “experiencing Cuba” moments that can
certainly leave a lasting impression.
Four Cuban soldiers in red uniforms were clearly visible when I drove
onto the main road on which Nelson’s house is located. The large rainbow
flag that usually hangs on the fence and a poster on the front door that
describes Mariela Castro as a “fraud” were gone. The dozens of people —
independent activists and neighbors — who welcomed me to Nelson’s house
in 2015 and 2016 were not there when I arrived.
Nelson, who is a doctor, was alone. The only interruptions during our
nearly hour-long interview were a handful of telephone calls and a woman
who asked him to write her a prescription. Nelson casually pointed out
two security agents who passed by his house as he sat in an old wooden
rocking chair with his front door open.
The soldiers that I had seen at the intersection when I drove to
Nelson’s house were not there when I passed it shortly after 4:30 p.m.
Men wearing military uniforms were among local residents as I drove
through Cienfuegos, but they are a common sight in Cuba.
I parked alongside a square in Palmira, a town that is roughly 15
minutes north of Cienfuegos, shortly after 5 p.m. to check my email on a
public hotspot. One must use cards from the state-run telecommunications
company to access it. I sent a couple of emails and texts about my
interview with Nelson and started driving again after about 15 minutes.
I was driving through a town near the border of Cienfuegos and Villa
Clara Provinces less than 15 minutes later when a police officer on a
motorcycle pulled me over. He asked me to where I was driving — Santa
Clara I told him — and requested my documents — passport, visa, driver’s
license and Cuban press credentials — that I politely and calmly handed
to him. The officer took them and walked over to his motorcycle. He
spoke to someone over the radio before writing something down on a piece
of paper. The officer walked back to my car a few minutes later, handed
my documents back to me and said that I could leave.
I returned to my apartment in Santa Clara about half an hour later. The
trip to and from Santo Domingo, a town that is roughly half an hour west
of Santa Clara on Cuba’s Carretera Central, where I met a group of
independent activists who are less forceful in their criticism of
Mariela Castro and her father’s government was uneventful.
Back in Santa Clara, I began to notice a white police car (patrulla in
Cuban Spanish) that was parked near the corner of Parque Leoncio Vidal
that was closest to my apartment. I took particular note of its location
in the morning and at night when I walked to the park to check my email
at a public hotspot in the park.
I’m a curious and somewhat defiant person, so I decided to stare into
police officers’ eyes on Wednesday when I saw them. It was an admittedly
self-serving attempt to convince myself that they know that I know the
government decided to place me under surveillance.
A white patrol car was once again parked along the edge of Parque
Leoncio Vidal that was closest to my apartment on early Thursday morning
when I was walking home from a party that Mariela Castro’s organization,
the National Center for Sexual Education, organized as part of its
International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorations.
There were two officers leaning on the car smoking cigarettes. I walked
past them and said, “Good evening” to them in Spanish. They looked at me
incredulously. I chuckled and called them “idiots” in Spanish under my
breath as I walked home.
A white patrol car was parked in the same area on Thursday morning when
I walked through the park to exchange some U.S. dollars into Cuban pesos
at a government-owned currently exchange house. It was not there when I
returned to my apartment about half an hour later.
The idea of “experiencing Cuba” during the 16 days that I was working in
and traveling through the country will continue to evoke laughter,
resignation, frustration and a variety of other emotions long after I
have returned to D.C. The idea the Cuban government likely placed me
under surveillance — however absurd the reason may have been — is a
clear reminder the country’s human rights record remains a very serious
problem that should not be ignored.
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