Exploring Cuba: Culture of Community May Help Explain Safe Feeling of Cuban Streets

Aug 31, 2018

In the morning, the Malecón, a sidewalk that runs along the seawall on the northern tip of Havana is full of runners, walkers and fisherman. At night, it turns into a hangout, full of young people, drinking and singing until the wee hours of the morning.

“At one point, I was walking all by myself along one of the more popular places, the Malecón, the seawall, and it was packed with people and I remember thinking this, in another context, would make me nervous, but I don’t feel it here,” said WKU sociology professor Jim Kanan. “And so that was a nice confirmation of what I was kind of anticipating.”

Kanan’s main focus of study is violent crime. So when it was announced that WKU would be focusing its “International Year of” program on Cuba this year, his interest was piqued. How has Cuba avoided the drug crime and violence that has befallen other Caribbean countries? As with everything it Cuba, this perception comes with an asterisk.

“You have to qualify all this by saying we don’t know for sure what Cuba’s violent crime rates are because they don’t release those data – they don’t tell us,” notes Kanan. “I don’t even know if they count. I’m assuming they do, but I don’t know that they do. They don’t keep it as carefully was we do.”

WKU sociology professor Jim Kanan takes in student artwork at the National Arts School, which was converted from a golf club after the revolution
Credit Emil Moffatt

So Kanan has to rely on data gathered from the outside – like by the U.S. State Department and his first-hand observations this summer. The State Department notes that the majority of crimes reported against American visitors in Cuba involve pickpocketing, scams or prostitution but that violent crimes occur in small numbers.

“Just interacting with the people – the whole time I was walking around I never felt confronted by someone. I never felt like they perceived me as a threat and I didn’t perceive them that way. And so I think that’s part of a cultural position on violence, which is interesting given that the country’s revolution was a violent revolution,” said Kanan.

There are many theories as to why the violent crime rate is low. Some credit community neighborhood organizations known as CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) for keeping the peace. Kanan points to a mindset that he observed while in Cuba.   

“There’s an amazing book about a high-crime area in Philadelphia called “Code of the Streets” by a just a brilliant scholar named Elijah Anderson,” said Kanan. “ And he talks about how violence is a means of trying to establish status and it’s a zero-sum game and to gain your respect – your heart, as they call it on the street, you’ve got to take it from somebody else.  I don’t get that sense in the neighborhoods and barrios and the areas of Havana or the other parts of Cuba that we visited.”

While in Cuba, Kanan and his colleagues experienced several communities including the Eastern Havana community of Alamar – originally a Soviet-style housing project. It was there they saw a ration store. They also took the ferry across Havana Bay to Regla where they visited musicians from the hip hop jazz group Obsesión, known for its provocative lyrics and commentary on Cuban society.  

And about two hours away from Havana visited Cinefuegos, where hundreds gathered each night to check their phones at an internet hotspot along the busy main street through town, the Paseo el Prado

“In some respects, there is a little bit of a kind of looking out for each other. The people from Cienfuegos, I thought, were very proud of Cienfuegos as a community. Were very proud that Cienfuegos is a safe place for people to come – for tourists or for other people to come,” said Kanan.

And with tourism a key to building the economy a safe Cuba is likely to encourage more visitors from around the world.