Doing research in Cuba: ‘You could be a spy!’

I was still a naive foreigner and a naive researcher by the way, when I explained to Alex – a Cuban friend that lives in the Netherlands since he was eleven – that I was looking for stories that exposed the way Cuban entrepreneurs participate in the ‘informal economy’ to solve their daily problems, the creative ways they meander around the rules, and their view of Cuba’s future. When we were celebrating newyears eve in the back yard of his family’s home, while enjoying cheese and beers and the smell of pork from the barbecue, Alex helped me directly and translated this in a private conversation with his step-father, whom he considered to be a potential informant for me.

In first instance, his father agreed to help me, but when Alex explained what exactly it was that I was looking for, still focusing in my formulation on ‘resistance’, ‘creative ways to use or meander around the rules’ to ‘expand their leeway’, he was kind of shocked. He told Alex (who told me later) that people are not eager to talk about that, and that although everybody does it, and everybody knows it, no one is talking about it. On top of that, I could be a spy! And the thought of that possibility only leaves their minds when the opposite is proven; they are ‘obliged’ to not trust foreigners. Ironically, of course, proving I am not a spy is impossible. Moreover, a true communist will just report me, and that is not only dangerous to me, but even more dangerous to my informants and even anyone I spoke to.

I was already made aware by several people before that I should be careful with my subject, but this felt like a slap in the face. The facts directly got to me on my third day in Havana. However, facts… maybe the actual risks are not that high of being caught by the government, but obviously the risk is experienced by some, and therefore it is important anyway.

I heard it more often, that Cubans will not generally talk about political issues, or about forms of resistance, but this experience really got me a bit scared that I would never find the information that I was looking for. Note to self: rewrite research questions and never again explain my research again the way I did!