The Imposible Defense of Sonia
Sonia just got back from Santiago de Cuba. The trip, both coming and going, was strenuous. She was outraged, the bus she traveled in was stopped at several times by the police. Her baggage searched and turned inside out. She wonders if the authorities have the right to search a persons belongings, in the middle of a public street.
Article 243 of the Cuban Criminal Code requires authorities or police to arrest “the defendant for any crime.” It suffices that the behavior of the citizen be alarming, or they be suspected of committing a crime of those frequently perpetrated in a determined area of the country, or appear to be trying to evade the police.
The term “the accused,” that the precept, or rule, uses in this case, is not appropriate. At the time of the commission of an act, what exists is a suspect or a presumed perpetrator. The status of “accused” is acquired when the person is instructed about their rights.
That precept is what underlies the actions of the police in the public street. It is this that justifies the excessive control on the national highway. On the journey from Havana to Santiago de Cuba there are 12 control points, not counting the patrol cars that can also stop and search cars on the highway.
At these control points the inter-provincial buses are stopped. All the passengers are suspects. Their luggage is meticulously searched. The agents act based on information that prohibited merchandise is being transported.
In Cuba, transporting 5 or 10 pounds of coffee, cheese, chocolate or powdered chocolate, among other products, is a “crime.” And certainly they are among the most frequently “committed” by the population. Seen in this way, anyone who has luggage can be seen as a suspect. However, the legal obligation to stop does not include the immediate search of the personal belongings of the presumed suspect in the same place where they were stopped.
For such an action, the agent must lead the individual as detained to a police station. It is there where the suspect and their belongings are booked, to take possession of the supposed evidence of the crime, however this is not the police conduct.
A citizen can refuse to be searched in the open public street. Sonia would have missed her trip to the capital if she had refused to be searched. Because the police agents guarantee her transportation to the police station but not to her domicile, in her case the city of Havana. She had no other remedy but to consent to the search of her luggage. This is one of the reason why the population does not complain and consents to the violation of their rights.
Like the rest of the population, Sonia is defenseless against these excesses and abuses by the Cuban authorities. The law does not offer any form of defense with respect to this. Economic need transforms us all into suspects.
Photo: de Vos, Flickr.