The True Story of My Night in a Cuban Jailhouse with
Two Hookers and the Minister of the Interior
Date: December 15-22, 2014
On 17 December, 2014, President Obama announced the formal reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba after fifty-four years of embargo. Ernesto, our ageing, portly, fifty-something tour guide, who the following day took us speedboating up a river to the choppy waves of the Atlantic, was ecstatic. His son, he proclaimed, would get a chance to taste real Coca-Cola, would get to see the interconnectivity of the World Wide Web. Such was the opinion of most Cubans, who seemed overjoyed; at least those connected to the tourist industry.
I was in Holguín Province, at the far east end of the island, staying at the all-inclusive Brisas resort, about an hour’s drive from the city of Holguín, in the small town of Guardalavaca. My parents had been married for thirty years and, for their anniversary, were renewing their vows in a beachfront ceremony. I was my father’s best man, my sister was the maid of honour, and my brother had obtained an online minister’s certificate, and officiated the ceremony in a gazebo on the Brisas beach. Two friends tagged along with me to enjoy the week.
On the first day we arrived late into the day and barely had a chance to familiarize ourselves with the resort before we settled into a night of drinking. My friend - we'll call him Charlie - was the last of us to retire that night, and actually stayed out almost all night, largely by himself, where at one point he fell asleep in one of the many hammocks scattered along the beach (this is after he, reaching that point of drunkenness, had to test every hammock he could find to see if it would bear his weight). He told me the next day that he’d been awoken by resort staff around 2:30 or so in the morning to see if he was alright, to which he promptly replied he had been, until he’d been woken up.
The second day, at 9 in the morning, was an information seminar conducted by our WestJest representative, Jorge, run out of a lounge in the main building, overlooking the pool. This covered things like currency exchange, whether the tap water was safe to drink, what excursion packages were available, and so on. We didn’t have to attend this, but I wanted to to get some basic information. I awoke early, as I normally do, let my hungover friends keep sleeping, and lounged in a hammock outside. I cracked open the book I’d begun on the plane and read some more about Koxinga, the seventeenth century pirate king of Taiwan (I was at the point where Koxinga’s father, Nicholas Iquan, seduced his own stepmother and then skipped town to become a pirate out of Macao). Come 7, my stomach grumbling, I went for breakfast at the buffet. As a side note, I should mention that everyone told me the food in Cuba was godawful, yet I didn’t find this to be the case at all. While it wasn’t Michelin Star quality, I had no complaints – and indeed, if nothing else, some of the various mistranslations of the dishes (pasta/paste, mashed potatoes/masked potatoes) are worth a laugh.
[1: Coxinga: And the Fall of the Ming Dynasty by Jonathan Clements.]
Jorge went through a thirty-minute seminar on the resort, currency exchange, excursion packages and general info on Cuba. Charlie, hungover, stumbled in a few minutes after Jorge began. Afterwards, we went to book an excursion with him to Holguín City and the fishing village of Gibara the following day, that Wednesday (which left the resort at 7:30am). The remainder of the day was spent drinking, swimming, relaxing and visiting the local market about ten minutes’ walk west down the beach. Two other resorts shared the beach, and small open air market crowded a space at the far end, where I picked up a scorpion statue carved from bull horn and two nudie oil paintings (which I was later taxed on when I attempted to leave the country, and had to roll out salacious nude images in front of a young twenty-something senorita at the customs desk as she photographed and stamped them).
At 6:00pm the buffet opened once again for the dinner rush, and we’d all agreed to meet for a good meal. It was raining; my friend Brian and I had been relaxing in the hotel room (I was reading more about Koxinga), whereas Charlie had ventured out to “make every minute count” but agreed to meet us there for 6. Brian and I were there, met up with my parents and the others, and I sat down to a nice meal of pasta in wine sauce with a glass of red wine, wondering where Charlie was. I got about halfway through the meal when my phone started ringing, and you can guess who it was.
Because Cuba is a communist backwater, their telecommunications infrastructure is in the toilet and my service provider grouped them in with Russia, the Middle East, and most of Africa (the only places worse had no service at all: North Korea and two or three African countries where they still consider radio waves to be witchcraft). As a result, just answering the call would cost me four dollars, so the very first thing I said was, “This is costing me money, so it better be important.”
Charlie was in a panic. Now, I heard him tell this story about seventeen more times in the course of the next several hours, so (although this is not the entirety of the story conveyed in that short phone call) here are the pertinent details:
Charlie had gone back to the market (rain had been on and off). He was returning along the beach to make the appointment for dinner. He was drunk. Two Hispanic women, that he variously described as looking sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and fourteen, approached him asking for a cigarette. They spoke very broken English, but were wearing American clothing (Aeropostale) and he assumed they were resort guests (there were a lot on non-English guests there, from Europe and other places). He gave them a cigarette and they asked him if he wanted “fucky-fucky,” motioning to the beach. It was at this point he realized they were Cuban, and reasoned they probably weren’t too well off if they were resorting to beachfront prostitution. He told them he wasn’t interested in sex. We’d all brought American products – shampoo, cosmetics and whatnot – to give out to the locals, as we were told this is often better than giving cash, given the embargo. These young women clearly needed these things more than the resort maid or bartender, both of whom live relatively good lives compared to the rest of their comrades, given the exchange rate between the standard Cuban peso and the international convertible peso. Why not give these women some of these products? They said that was cool and followed him as he made his way back down the beach. Resort security, lax as it was, nonetheless tries to discourage impoverished locals from disturbing the resort lifestyle, so, the sign language prompting of the girls, they hopped off the beachfront trail and over to the road that runs in front of the resort. At a certain point, when they were trying to lead him further from the resort, he tried to explain in broken sign language how he needed to go to his room to get these items. They didn’t seem to understand. He had the hotel room key with him – he could show them what he meant when he said he needed to go back towards the villas. As soon as he removed his wallet, the one girl grabbed it from his hand and they both made a mad dash through the field adjacent the hotel, where they “ran like jackrabbits.” He followed in pursuit, yelling in a broken French-Spanish mixture, “Mon identification, por favor.” He didn’t even care about the cash inside, but rather the health card, firearms licence and protection officer badge (his passport was safely locked away in the room safe). The two girls split up to go around a large cactus bush, he followed one while losing the other, and ran out of breath before he could get to either of them. He found himself in a field with a few horses, asked for help from a local drunkard half passed out in a ditch, who was unable to help him, and then managed to converse a little bit with the old Hispanic woman who owned those horses. She told him (in broken English) to go to “la policia” and offered to lead him there, through some woods, where she assured him it was only five minutes away.
(The exact reason as to why his wallet was out in front of two whores remains a matter of some debate.)
Not all of the above occurred during the phone call, but from what he gave me, I told him to return to the resort and let them call the police. I thought this was a joke, but assuming for a second it was real, I thought the old woman leading him through the woods was an even bigger scam – you’re likely to run into the senoritas’ pimp with a machete saying, “Si gringo, once upon a time in Cuba...”
When I met him in the lobby, and he came charging up the stairs drenched in sweat and panicked. We asked the concierge for assistance, and she promptly called security. A few minutes later, a young gentleman from the security staff named George appeared – clean shaven with closely cropped hair, a pristine white shirt and a tie clip. George’s English was not the best, but sufficient enough, and he began to get the picture after two or three renditions of this story from Charlie (who was anxious and rambled, spoke quickly – telling the story not just to George, but a bystander who happened to overhear the first telling).
It was at this point when Jorge, as well as his cohort Pablo, our WestJet representatives, were on their way out, in civilian clothes, and both stopped to catch the tale ending of this story. They conversed with George, got Charlie to retell the story once more, and waited patiently with us until the police arrived. I was ecstatic to have them there, because I knew as customers of theirs, they had a vested interest in helping us out, and also because their English was much better than George’s.
When the police arrived, they literally did not ask Charlie a single question; they spoke for about thirty seconds with George (Jorge and Pablo standing by), the one officer asking short, clipped questions while the other opened the hood of their 1970s-era Soviet-made Mercury Zephyr-style cruiser (presumably to keep it running), and then both officers vanished as quickly as they’d come. It was Jorge that explained to us that they’d had reports of girls matching the description given to George earlier in the day, and one officer might know where they are. (Guardalavaca, we would learn, was a town of about 3,000 people, so it’s not easy to vanish into anonymity.) Jorge told us it would be best to rebook our Holguín tour to the Friday, as the police would likely show up the following day and need a formal statement. Then he and Pablo left as they were late for a dinner.
Charlie was most concerned about his identification, and didn’t care at all for the cash inside the wallet. He asked George if the resort could provide a guy with a flashlight to go skimming through the cactus bush looking for the discarded wallet, the rationale being that the girls would swipe the cash and ditch the wallet. It was now dark outside, and it would be much more effective (and safer) looking through the bushes with a flashlight and a security officer. George placed a call on his radio and had a man come around in a golf cart with a cheap flashlight, where we were driven about 100 meters down the road, and left to wander in pitch black with this one flashlight and the apps on our phones. The security officer provided turned the golf cart around and waited patiently at the side of the road as we wandered 100-200 meters into this field, with horse shit everywhere, and skimmed around this cactus bush.
By the time we’d given up and were walking back to the road, George had reappeared and sent away his man, and Jorge and Pablo reappeared as well. They told us the police had two girls in their custody and we needed to come to the police station to identify. We crammed in the back of Jorge’s car and went around the corner, about five minutes’ walk from the resort, exactly where the old farmer had been leading Charlie.
I’ve never identified suspects from a lineup before, and I know that Hollywood isn’t the best gauge for the way things really are, but when Charlie was brought in here, he was led into a hallway with four girls, stood two feet from them with no bars or glass or mirror, and then proceeded to point out the two who’d mugged him. I followed him in, didn’t get a chance to so much as look at these girls, and then we were being led out. (The other two girls would stick around the station for the next few hours, chatting amiably with the cops, so we concluded they must be informants or working with the police in some capacity.)
We waited for some time, then the one girl was led out by two officers, and was taken to retrieve the wallet. When they returned, the police (not one of them spoke a word of English) had to go through every article and item in the wallet and fully document everything for their report, occasionally asking Charlie about the contents (and being none too forthcoming with what they were finding). It was around this time that Jorge left us, leaving us in the good hands of George, who would continue to translate for us. Some time passed as the police slowly went about their business, and Charlie began asking questions about what sort of penance awaited the girls, and whether or not he could ‘drop the charges’ now that his wallet had been retrieved (the girls, he could see, were crying down the hallway; the scare had clearly been put in them and that was probably as effective a tactic as legal recourse – and he didn’t particularly have the heart to send them to a Cuban prison). George was unable to answer these questions, as the police seemed to be outright ignoring him, and he didn’t know the answers himself. We did learn, however, that the girls were aged seventeen and eighteen.
Some time later, after endless waiting in the police station lobby, Jorge returned in his 1970s-era Soviet Mercury Zephyr. He marched back into the lobby, and got into a somewhat heated debate with the four or five officers there. They all proceeded outside and he continued to debate them heavily in Spanish. We had no idea what was happening. Apparently the police were not accepting George as a representative for us as foreigners, and had called back our direct representative. Jorge then stayed with us pretty much to the end, although George dutifully stayed by our side as well.
At some point around this time two other officers showed up in black jackets that someone (I don’t remember who) briefly referred to as federales. Exactly who they were I never found out, but they drove a more top-of-the-line Mercury Zephyr and parked in the foremost parking spot at the station and walked in liked they owned the place. They, however, were not the power that be that was to deal with Charlie’s situation. As Jorge explained, the police (who were largely doing nothing save having retrieved the wallet and inventoried it for whatever money remained) were waiting for a district representative to arrive from the head office of that municipality. As a foreigner, Charlie would not be in the country to be a witness at these girls’ trial, so there was a special judicial procedure to satisfy the courts.
So we sat there, in the cramped police lobby, Jorge, George, Charlie and I, waiting, and waiting, and waiting, while we petted a stray kitten that wandered in and wanted some attention, and watched the night age. Charlie once more asked, of Jorge, what the girls were facing for this, to which Jorge sighed and answered probably five or six years – five or six years! – and explained that there was no dropping the charges; the police were going to pursue this to the bitter end and there was no way around it.
The little black kitten rubbed its head and shoulders on our legs, Charlie went in and out for a cigarette, we gave up one of the three chairs for one of the women from the lineup that hung around and chatted with the cops, and I absentmindedly read the (Spanish) quote on the wall from Fidel Castro and observed all the pictures of the dictator throughout the lobby and the word revolicionario on the shoulders of each of the cops in uniform.
Eventually (this is around 11pm or so), a military jeep pulls into the parking lot, and out steps a middle aged man with grey hair combed back, dressed in olive green with large glasses. And the words Ministerio de Interior stitched above his breast pocket. All the police seemed afraid of him, and George later told us that Internal Affairs and the Secret Service reported to him. This was the man that was truly in charge, and took Charlie into a back office with Jorge and one or two of the other officers. Charlie had, at this point, filled out a written statement, which the minister took into this back office to type up via typewriter and document the specifics of the crime and the contents (and missing contents) of the wallet. There was, we had learned, only about fifty pesos left in the wallet, and the girls had spent fifty in the course of less than an hour. Keep in mind that all prices in Cuba are heavily regulated, most things are subsidized and the average Cuban makes about twenty to twenty-five pesos per month (this is all in the value of convertible pesos; those available to tourists and which are used by Cubans for non-subsidized goods and services).
It was at this point, Charlie told me later, that he began to get very nervous, because, no matter how you slice it, the facts of the story are that he removed his wallet in front of two admitted prostitutes (one of whom was underage) en route to his room. Moreover, before the trip, we’d bought dollar store notebooks and had written down English-Spanish phrases we might find useful that we’d pulled off the internet. However, we were lazy with it, and what we wound up with was only one page worth of “Hello, how are you?”, “My name is...”, “Where is the washroom?” followed by about four pages worth of pick up lines, and then (of course) the obligatory “My hovercraft is full of eels”. He was worried that, in a country without warrants, the ministry of the interior might just investigate our room, find his handwritten translation book of hardly anything but pickup lines and could be facing a sentence a Cuban hard labour camp.
I, meanwhile, left in the station lobby, found myself increasingly tired and hungry, and at the same time restless. The kitten leapt up onto the spare chair, where it nestled itself into the cushion, and I waited some more. I hadn’t even brought my book with me, so I couldn’t read up on Prince Dorgon’s tactically brilliant conquest of China. I could have left at any time, walked the five minutes back to the resort, but I wanted to stick around just for the story of it. The receptionist at the station, a thirty-something woman, had her hair done up in a Marge Simpson style of a bun, delicately wrapped in a bandana, and in my fatigue I found myself wondering how on Earth that could be comfortable and how she would scratch her head. Charlie would later berate me for this: “I could have been shipped off to Guantanamo for soliciting underage hookers and all you could think about was how that cop scratches the top of her head?!”
Jorge left us one final time, telling me that George had our backs this time and that Charlie was almost finished. I tried to tip Jorge for spending literally over four hours with us that night, but he refused to take it, saying instead that it was his duty. Charlie finished assisting the minister with his report, he was given back his wallet, and George drove us back to the resort in his extended golf cart. The police were past due closing the station for the night, and George told us we should go to the twenty-four-hour burger restaurant on the resort and gather a bunch of hotdogs and hamburgers to take to the police for their service – which we did, through the bowels underneath the main hotel. The police munitions officer, who was waiting for us out front the service entrance, wouldn’t take it, presumably because it could be seen as some form of bribery, so we were forced to leave it on a table for him. He wouldn’t acknowledge it until we left. We both thanked George profusely for staying with us over the course of the night, and once more thanked Jorge and Pablo when we saw them the following morning, first thing, at their desk after a hour-drive back to Holguín at midnight and back the following day. (A very detailed letter of praise was sent to WestJet for the exceptional service we’ve gotten from those two. The response back I got, while delighted that we were so impressed with their service, gave the impression they didn’t believe the story Charlie presented as authentic.) It was there that Jorge told us that the locals have a term for girls like those: los bandoleros (literally ‘the outlaws’).
The lesson Charlie took from this whole affair was “No good deed goes unpunished,” and he jokingly remarked for the remainder of the week that he should have just fucked those two on the beach and avoided the whole mess. I told him that if he’d done that, while he was with the one the other probably would have stolen his pants and his wallet and he’d be left with absolutely nothing but the real risk of going to Guantanamo (this he begrudgingly agreed was probably the case). The lesson I take from it is: fly WestJet.