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Cuba Cuts Down on Crime, Hustling

January 22, 1999

HAVANA (AP) _ Suddenly, ``psst!″ is passe.

The streets of the Cuban capital, recently a carnival of hissing hustlers offering women, cigars, rooms, potency medicine and even adjustments to rental-car odometers, are quieter these days.

For the first time in five years, Havana’s Malecon waterfront and Fifth Avenue are almost wholly empty of prostitutes. Tourists can wander for blocks along the narrow streets of Old Havana without an offer of cigars, an appeal for dollars.

Fidel Castro’s government is clamping down on crime and ``anti-social activities″ _ vices it blames on the limited capitalist measures and the rampant tourism Cuba was forced to accept after the collapse of its Soviet bloc allies.

The campaign extends from discotheques to drugs to farmers’ markets _ helping efforts to fight crime but also having a chilling impact on some small private business.

Castro recently expressed anger over foreign reports portraying Havana as a haven for sex tourism _ and alarm at reports of increasing attacks on tourists, who have become Cuba’s top industry.

In a Jan. 5 speech to police, Castro said the battle against crime was of ``enormous economic and political transcendence″ and compared crime to a ``fifth column″ of enemies attacking the socialist revolution from within.

``Should we be tolerant, should we be weak with any of these criminal manifestations that offend our people, that rob their tranquility?″ Castro asked. ``Not even the thief wants to be robbed.″

After a small but notable opening to one-man capitalism in the mid-1990s, Castro’s government has steadily moved to exert control and impose taxes on a sector Castro has blamed for increased inequality and has linked to crime.

Licensed businesses have declined to about 150,000 from about 210,000 two years ago.

In his speech, Castro said robbery and assaults were almost always associated with groups involved in prostitution, drugs, unauthorized renting of rooms and unlicensed taxi drivers.

``All types of intermediary agents in dirty businesses or cabbies who work on their own account at airports should be completely prohibited,″ Castro said.

Special brigades of police patrol the tourist zones of Old Havana. Crime in that area, Castro said in his speech, has declined 25 percent in the few months the brigades have been on the job.

Police patrols and increased inspections have emptied at least some of the parking lots and hotel curbsides that once featured dozens of independent taxi drivers and freelance parking attendants.

Once-throbbing discotheques are also quieter. In recent months, the government has imposed a couples-only policy and increased vigilance at clubs that once swarmed with both drug users and young women in Spandex seeking dollar-spending friends.

Castro said 219 people were prosecuted for procuring prostitutes last year, and more than 6,700 women were processed for prostitution _ not a crime in Cuba, but one dealt with as ``anti-social activity.″

Government inspectors are also taking a tougher line on small private restaurants and unauthorized taxi drivers. And almost half the stalls at the usually busy Santiago de las Vegas market in southern Havana were empty recently, one of the areas where farmers can offer goods at free-market prices.

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