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Cuba uncovered: Robert Cribb on covering Cuban child sex tourism

HAVANA, Cuba—It was a gut-check moment.

In the middle of interviewing a controversial Cuban journalist in a tree-lined Havana park last month with a photographer/translator from Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, a police car pulled up a few metres away.

In retrospect, it wasn’t the ideal location for meeting with Ivan Garcia, a vocal critic of the Cuban government, to discuss the incendiary political issue of child sex tourism.

But a park bench is where we ended up, the photographer’s small video camera poised inconspicuously on his lap, shooting upwards to capture Garcia’s responses to questions I was posing about Canadian sex tourists and their involvement with young Cuban girls.

We knew in advance Garcia was a risky interview subject.

He is followed by police from time to time ­— surveillance he believes is triggered by his blog posts and reports for newspapers in Florida and Europe.

Among those stories have been accounts of Cuba’s child prostitution market — candid assessments of what the 45-year-old father believes to be a troubling sex trade targeting the country’s most vulnerable.

It’s not the kind of journalism that endears Garcia to a Cuban regime that ranks 171st out of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 World Press Freedom Index.

As two police officers emerged from the car, we stared at each other, cameras and notepads quickly tucked away.

For the endless seconds that passed next, I recalled the warnings and the news stories I’d read before landing in Cuba about the country’s arrested and imprisoned journalists.

Then, I watched as the two officers looked our way, paused and went into a nearby home.

“They’re not here for us,” Garcia said. “Relax.”

Easier to say than do.

My photographer colleague and I spent a week in Cuba mostly sleepless, wondering what knocks might come at our hotel room doors in the middle of the night and what explanations we might offer should they seize the material in our hidden cameras and laptops.

“Deny everything,” he advised. “We are tourists.”

How we explain why tourists are recording interviews about Cuban child sex tourism with a dissident journalist and an equally outspoken independent lawyer was never clear to me.

On the way out of the country, I couldn’t find the small visa card I was given upon entry. The Air Canada desk directed me to a corner of the airport to speak with Cuban authorities.

Clumsily explaining the problem I was told to wait. A half hour passed. Heads from inside a small office occasionally ducked out to look at me. A surge of anxiety rose as my flight departure time got closer.

“You’re free to go,” a border official finally told me in Spanish, handing me the required paperwork.

On the flight home to Toronto I watched the film Argo with a deep emotional appreciation for the climax scene in which the plane carrying the undercover American diplomats lifts off the tarmac with Iranian police in hot pursuit.

I love that movie.

Read the Star’s Child Sex Tourism series here.

Robert Cribb is a foreign affairs and investigative reporter at the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @thecribby.



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