By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales
On June 12 I left Quito to go to Bonn, Germany, to the Global Media Forum conference. I took a taxi to embark in the adventure… No, I mean the adventure to the Tababela airport, which has become a brunt of jokes, cries, and damnations among frequent travelers and the taxpayers who paid for it.
Great friendships develop among taxi drivers and passengers in route to the airport. I believe more than one love affair emerged as cars wait to cross the Chiche bridge. Since one could wait there for two hours, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of pregnancies have begun there as well.
In the eternal quest for efficiency that characterizes at the current government of Ecuador, apparently they have decided to improve and speed up the process of immigration check in the airport. Now the police stops your taxi ten minutes before getting to the airport and questions you about your final destination, reason to be in the country, who invited you, your reasons for being, what your children want to be when they grow up and your first sexual experience. Meanwhile, they have their noses all over the car, while the other policeman blocks the driver’s door. Perhaps thinking he may decide to run and jump with one push across the Chiche Bridge.
Now the details. That June 12, while I was on my way to the airport, the police stopped the taxi and subjected me to a questioning of sorts, with questions such as: where are you going? I answered: the airport. They asked again: no, to where are you traveling? We were at least another 10 minutes from the airport, so I don’t even know what made him think I was traveling somewhere – since the suitcase was in the trunk – and not going to the coffee shop for an espresso. But, most importantly, what gives him the right to ask me where am I going, where I come from or what time it is?
Since it took me a second to react and remembered that I was in Syria, I responded that my final destination was Germany. Then, he asked me why was I in the country, if I had a government invitation and the like. By then, I had recovered my common sense and the contempt that policemen at the service of authoritarianism arouse in me, so I put on my sardonic smile and began to give the same answer for everything: Fulbright. They didn’t like it. But I didn’t like them either, so we were even.
They were armed policemen with uniform and vest. All the while with the entire head inside the car and devouring me with their eyes, looking everywhere, while the other policeman had his head on the driver’s side. The thing lasted a good five minutes.
I realized the driver was very scared, which made me limit my cynicism and irreverence. He was an older gentleman, in his sixties. He swore back and forth that he had never seen something like this and it never happened to him before. And said: “this is already like Cuba.” We were just being talking about his visit to Cuba, my native land, in his second honeymoon about ten years ago.
The cab driver was really tense. The poor man, he probably thought initially that he was driving the second wife of Mexican drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán, given the deployment of forces. They had set up an ad hoc checkpoint, but neither the driver nor I saw that they stopped anyone else before us. They signaled the driver to get into a closed lane. He thought they were stopping taxis, but then saw a lot of them continue on without being stopped.
I’m always suspicious of authority, but I don’t think my criticism or research has put them after my steps or that they are trying to intimidate me. I’m not that important. But, just in case, I do come from a dictatorship 50 years strong… you are just beginning.
But the issue is not if they tried to intimidate me, but that there is the possibility that the police can stop a citizen in the streets and question him because he was breathing in the open air. That happens in Cuba, in fact, any policeman can ask you to identify yourself for stand in a corner.
Imagine that the police or any law enforcement agent could stop you anywhere and ask you questions without probable or even apparent cause. I don’t have to explain to the police where I’m going, where I come from or my food preferences. Ecuador is not in a state of siege. There is no emergency. People have the right not just to privacy but also to being anonymous. I know I have to submit to a colonoscopy if the airport authority deems it necessary. If I choose to fly, I know those are the rules. But there is no reason or law that forces me to report my activities to any clown in uniform. And if there is such law, be very careful, because just because it is legal doesn’t mean it is just or moral. All dictatorships have passed laws.
Ecuadorians, pay careful attention to the things you submit to smilingly….before night falls, as Reynaldo Arenas would say. And do not believe that it is always darker before dawn. In Cuba we have been waiting for the sun to come out for 50 years.
The only thing I can say is that the roads to the airport was so pretty that the affront to my civil liberties passed almost inadvertently.