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Sex Tourism in Cuba

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
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 Tourists in Cuba
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
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

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