Sex Tourism in Cuba
by Julia O'Connell Davidson
Cuba is currently facing grave problems because of the continuing U.S. blockade and the collapse of Soviet economic support. The country is desperate for foreign exchange, and is looking to the tourist industry as a means to secure it. Cuban tourism has rapidly expanded with 1.7 million visitors in 1993. Though successfully generating foreign exchange, the vast majority of Cubans are suffering enormous hardship. Food rations ensure only the most basic minimum to stave off starvation, and many basic commodities such as clothing, soap, cooking oil and pain killers are often unavailable.
In the midst of all this, luxurious enclaves exist where goods and services are readily available for tourists. A 'black' market in currency and in many of the goods that are officially intended for tourist has developed. Officially, US $ 1 is equivalent to 1 peso, but on the 'black' market, the value of the US dollar is between 35 and 40 pesos. Cuban wages are generally somewhere between 250 and 400 pesos per month. Many basic necessities can only be obtained for hard currency from tourist shops or 'black' market entrepreneurs. It is not surprising that many women and girls, as well as some men and boys, are prepared to grant tourists (the most accessible source of hard currency) sexual access in exchange for cash, even for drinks or a restaurant meal.
This report on the growing sex tourism in Cuba is based on interviews conducted in March 1995 in Havana, Varedero and Santiago de Cuba by myself and Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor.
Prostitution in Cuba today differs both from prostitution in Western countries and Thailand. The post 1959 Cuban state tried to outlaw prostitution, but also attempted to remedy the conditions which create a supply of sex workers (i.e., poverty, absence of educational and employment opportunities for women, etc.), means that, at present, the sale of sexual services in Cuba does not take place within an established institutional and organisational framework. In other countries (especially those where the links between prostitution and the entertainment, leisure and tourist industries are well developed), most sex workers are forced into one of a variety of indirect employment with pimps, brothel keepers, massage parlour or bar owners - third parties who then exert a powerful influence over the prostitute-client exchange.
In Cuba there is no network of brothels, no organised system of bar prostitution, in fact, third party involvement in the organisation of prostitution is rare. Most women and girls are prostituting themselves independently. Since she is usually desperate, and he does not have to satisfy the greed of a third party, he can secure sexual access to her very cheaply. In Cuba, professional prostitutes will open negotiations by asking for $10 for oral sex or short fuck, but can often be beaten down to as little as US $2 to $4. Inexperienced women and girls can be persuaded and/or tricked into spending a whole night with a client for the cost of a meal, a few drinks or small gift.
Sex tourists state that it costs them less to spend two weeks indulging themselves in Cuba than it does in other centres of sex tourism, such as the Philippines and Thailand. This is partly because they are not paying a third party and partly because competition between prostitutes lowers prices. Prostitutes will entice tourists away from each other with offers of better deals (for example, cheap accommodation plus sexual access, rather than cheap sexual access alone).
Although very few prostitutes are directly controlled and organised by pimps, they are indirectly exploited. Prostitution is only viable in tourist centres, and many women and girls therefore migrate to Havana, Varedero, Santiago de Cuba and Santa Lucia from inland villages. Though official residents of these cities and resorts are entitled to housing, migrants are not. They must find somewhere to stay in order to work and to avoid police harassment. 'Black' market renters have been quick to exploit this. In Varedero, landlords are charging between $2 and $4 a night for substandard accommodation. This pressures the tenant to seek a continuous stream of paying clients, and reduces her net income from them, thus locking her into prostitution as a means of day to day survival.
One consequence of this is that the women and girls who sell sex to tourists are not a homogeneous group. Those who are legitimate residents of a tourist centre can often elect to supply their sexual 'labour' on an infrequent basis, and for very specific ends (e.g., some cooking oil and meat, some children's clothes, even simply a night out). Their economic disadvantage is still being exploited by sex tourists, of course, and their freedom limited, but women in this situation have more choices than migrants exploited by landlords and sex tourists alike. This latter group (which includes girls aged 14 and 15) are even more desperate for dollars and therefore more vulnerable.
Cubans do not typically refer to the women, girls and men who grant tourists sex in exchange for dollars and/or other benefits as putas (prostitutes or bitches), but as jiniteras. This literally translates as 'jockeys', and is used because of the way in which such people are perceived by some to be ´riding' tourists.
Sex tourism is often a means to satisfy very specific sexual preferences. Many men choose to travel to particular destinations because they know that it is possible to pursue their tastes more cheaply and safely. Paedophiles are an obvious example of this type of sex tourist, but more common are men who have a preference for experiencing multiple, anonymous sexual encounters with teenagers and women in their early 20s. Other men do not travel specifically to buy sexual services, but do enter into sexually exploitative relationships with local women as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Alongside and often overlapping these groups, there are men who have very specific 'racialised'-sexual fantasies. They travel in order to secure cheap, easy sexual access to 'Oriental', Asian, Black or Latino women, men and/or children.
Cuba does not, as yet, appear to cater to men who buy sex from very young children. Although we found no evidence of pre-teen prostitution in Cuba, sexual access to girls between the ages of 14 and 16 is not difficult to attain, and girls between the ages of 16 and 18 are very accessible. We met 14 and 15 year old prostitutes working in Varedero who reported that a number of their Italian, Canadian and German clients make between three and five trips to Cuba per year. More disturbing still, such tourists are paying older Cuban women and men, often prostitutes themselves, to procure 14 and 15 year old girls for them. This practice is probably not as widespread as it is in other sites of sex tourism, and as yet it relies on individual 'initiative' rather than being an organised system of recruitment. However, it does mean that young girls from the more economically desperate inland towns are being encouraged to migrate to tourist centres to prostitute themselves. Inexperienced and without either language skills or knowledge about prostitution, these 'new' girls are very vulnerable.
The sex tourists who are primarily interested in Cuban girls aged 16 and over can be divided into two main groups: those who acknowledge the instrumental nature of their relationships (Macho men), and sex tourists who tend to deny it (Mr Averages and Right On Backpackers). The hostile sexuality of the former group can be encapsulated in the motto 'Find them, feed them, fuck them, forget them'. The majority of Macho male tourists in Cuba we saw were Italian, Spanish and Canadian, but British package tour operators are beginning to promote Cuba as a 'beach party' holiday destination, and a US-based company that publishes a book and electronic newsletter entitled Travel & the Single Male identifies Cuba as a new 'hot destination for the adventurous single male'. Macho sex tourists are typically happy to enter into fairly explicit transactions with the young women who approach them, generally offering (but not always actually paying) between $20 and $40 plus meals for 12 to 24 hours of access to her person. In exchange, they expect at least one night and one morning fuck. They often prefer to 'pick up' in the late evening, thereby saving the expense of buying the woman dinner, and, depending upon how much they like the particular woman, will 'drop' her after breakfast.
Not all sex tourists prefer multiple, relatively anonymous encounters. Some can only attain sexual and psychological satisfaction from a woman's body if they tell themselves that they are involved in a reciprocal relationship. Mr Averages and Right On Backpackers tend to spend several days or even weeks with the same woman and are keen to conceal the economic basis of the relationship from themselves. They do not wish to see themselves as clients, and cannot therefore think of the women as prostitutes. They will often turn down women who approach them with direct sexual propositions, preferring less explicit overtures ('Where are you from?', 'Do you like Cuba?') to lead into the same scripts they would use in non-commercial encounters ('Can I get you a drink?', 'Would you like to have dinner with me?'). The whole process can then be interpreted as confirming a mutual attraction, and when the woman later confides her desperate need for dollars, the man can construct the act of giving her money not as payment for services rendered, but as a gesture of solidarity. This accords him the role of a 'good guy', both irresistibly charming and generous.
As well as granting sexual license, the woman often helps the tourist to find cheaper accommodation (sometimes putting him up in her own room), she acts his guide, companion and interpreter, she may even do his laundry and cook for him. In return, he is expected to pay for food, drinks and evening entertainment, he may give her soap, shampoo and clothing or leave her some cash when he moves on to the next place or the next girl. The price paid by the sex tourist and the benefits secured by the jinitera are thus highly variable. An experienced and skilled woman with good 'black' market connections might manage to squeeze as much as $50 and $100 a day out of her tourist, though not all of this will be in cash. A more inexperienced woman or girl may secure next to nothing. One British sex tourist proudly boasted ´Some of them have slept with me for just a bar of soap'.
The sums of money involved are often negligible to a European or North American man. One British Mr Average explained that his ´girlfriend' (he had traded in another woman for her the previous day) had suggested that he move out of the hotel where he was paying $20 per night, and stay in her flat where she would do all his washing and cook his meals for him. For all this, plus acting as guide and interpreter and granting him sexual access, she asked only $5 a day plus the cost of the food. At home, this man could not even buy a pack of cigarettes for this sum, far less obtain the services of a maid/prostitute. Although he was nearly 40, fat with receding hair, while she was 20 and, in his words, ´like a model', he could tell himself that this sum of money was too small to have anything to do with the invitation she was extending to him. She must find him sexually attractive to be offering so much for so little in return.
The relationship between racism and sex tourism in Cuba is too complex to analyse properly in a report of this length, but two points need to be made about the significance of the dynamics of racism within Cuba itself for sex tourists. First, it is sadly the case that Black Cubans face many of the same 'racialised' barriers that oppress Black people elsewhere in the world. Groups that face this kind of structural disadvantage are often over-represented in prostitution. Our initial impression was that there were more Black than ´mixed' or white jiniteras not just in Santiago (where this can be explained by demographics), but also in Varedero and Havana. Second, a number of racist stereotypes still exist amongst Cubans, some of whom (white, ´mixed' and Black) will openly attribute 'characteristics' such as hypersexuality and rhythm to Black people, and in the same breath insist that there is no racism in Cuba.
All this is of enormous significance for sex tourists. To begin with, it means that large numbers of Black women are sexually available to them, which is perceived as a benefit by those men who find it difficult to satisfy their 'racialised'-sexual fantasies at home. Meanwhile, Cuba's own racism is frighteningly congruent with variants of European and North American racism, and visiting white racists therefore feel very much at ease in Cuba, often more so than they do in their own countries. As one Canadian said to me 'You can call a nigger a nigger here, and no-one takes it the wrong way'. Some white sex tourists adhere to a classic racist ideology, believing Black sexuality to be more uninhibited and exciting than white sexuality. In most European countries as well as in Canada, this form of racism has been strongly challenged by Black intellectuals and political activists, with some success in reducing the open expression of such attitudes. Many racists therefore feel under attack in their own countries, where their opportunities for satisfying a sexual appetite for the Others they both despise and desire are also generally quite limited. For them, Cuba is ´paradise' in the sense that here, rather than being challenged, their racism is both implicitly and explicitly affirmed.
In Cuba, Right On Backpackers and Mr Averages can satisfy their sexual curiosity about Black and 'mixed' women and/or demonstrate their own 'racial liberalism' to themselves easily and without having to address any of the uncomfortable issues about racism which such a relationship would raise in their own country.
In Cuba today, exploitative sexual encounters are not only cheap financially, but in other terms. Because he is on holiday, the white sex tourist gets to enjoy sexual access to 'racialised' Others without risking the censure of his racist friends. Because he tells himself that Cuban girls are both hot and care free, he need feel no guilt about abandoning the woman and replacing her with a superior model.
Cuba presently has a great deal to offer the sex tourist. Such men can contemptuously command Cuban women and girls with the same ease that they order cocktails. Their power to do so rests not only upon the obscene disparity in wealth between the developed and underdeveloped world, but also upon American foreign policy. Under Batista, the US indirectly organised Cuba as its brothel and gambling house. Today, its punishment of Cuba is helping to recreate the conditions under which Cuban women and girls must become the playthings of economically advantaged, white, male Europeans and North Americans.
Julia O'Connell Davidson is a lecturer in sociology at a British university. Her articles on sex tourism in Thailand have appeared in the WRI Women's Newsletter.