The Ups & Downs of Sex Tourism in Cuba

I’ve already told you that my native Prince Edward Island in Canada is not the right place to look for paid sex while on a holiday. And by no means am I condoning paying for sexual favors, much less taking advantage of the poorer economy of this Latin American nation to satisfy your lust while here. But over the weekend we had a conversation over dinner with an Italian/Cuban couple and the Italian man’s well-traveled Italian cousin and her husband that included the new wave of “jineteras” in Cuba and I figure that now’s as good a time as any to address this phenomenon.

As someone who is fascinated by linguistics and what the development of language says about a culture, until recently I didn’t quite connect where the term jinetera actually came from. Literally, it means jockey, and I always wondered why – was it because the girls “rode” their customers? It turns out that before the dual currency system was introduced in Cuba, and before international tourism became as prevalent as it is today, the profession was largely looked upon negatively by Cuban society. A hooker was just a lowly prostitute, una prostituta, una cualquiera, a whore. Today the few girls that serve Cuban nationals are known as “luchadoras”, since they must struggle much more than the girls who are serving the international clientele to make a living. My husband pointed one out to me once. She was standing below a tree on the highway waiting for horny truckers is all I can figure. It wasn’t a pretty sight. When tourism began to open up and a lot of Spanish businessmen began opening foreign firms in Cuba, the girls who chased after them were first known as “Las Mambisitas”. During Cuba’s historical struggle for independence, when they were fighting against Spanish rule the Cubans armed with machetes who chased after the Spaniards on their horses were known as Mambises. The popular Cuban cartoon character Elpidio Valdes is one of these. Well I guess they didn’t really want the Cuban “Superman” associated with workers of the sex profession so the term was changed to Jinetera (for females) and Jinetero (for males, who typically are associated more with being street hustlers rather than sex workers). A lot of the public opinion on girls who traded sex for money (or cigarettes, rum, bling, or a night out on the town) started to be less derisive and more accepting of their choice as a practical one, the clever Cuban girl taking advantage of the foreigner to get the things she wanted.

I recall being flabberghasted when (a long time ago) I read this quotation by Fidel: “Cuba has the cleanest and most educated prostitutes in the world.” At the time, internet use wasn’t as prevalent as it was today and the source of the quotation didn’t elaborate any further on its meaning. It seemed to me that that kind of comment would promote sex tourism, not at all the objective of the government of the Cuba I knew. But having spent almost a couple of decades here I’ve seen prostitution rise & fall, ebb & flow. Until relatively recently Cubans that weren’t legally married to their foreign partner couldn’t even register at a state hotel as their guest. But it didn’t mean that there was no hanky panky going on between the hotel sheets. A lot of security guards made extra $ by sneaking girls into hotel rooms late at night, and then whisking them out at 4 or 5 a.m. This very law was one of the factors which made my Cuban husband and I make a very quick decision to tie the legal knot (we only knew each other for 3 months when we were married, but I’d already been living and working in Cuba for over 5 years by then so thankfully had decent insights into Cuban society). We wanted to live together, and we were counseled that if that were the case then the only legal option we had was to marry. A bit drastic, but thankfully in my case it ended up being the right decision.

When the Pope visited Cuba there was a low point in the sex trade here. A lot of known jineteras were rounded up and jailed. A lot were sent back to their native provinces. Discos were closed down. Prostitution apparently became more of an underground thing, flourishing at private parties and such. This lasted for around 5 years. But little by little, they started appearing and discos were opened, and even certain areas in Cuba’s major tourism poles would be known as pickup spots. If you’ve been to Cuba before you’ll know that Cuban women dress somewhat provocatively so it’s confusing to some first-time visitors to know who’s a hooker, and who’s not. I had a very well-educated multilingual Cuban friend who worked as a representative for a Canadian tour company and when we’d go to the beach together in Santiago de Cuba she was often propositioned by elderly German and Italian men. She was indignant that they should think all Cuban women would want money for sex. I was driving a couple of French clients of mine to their hotel once and they mistakenly thought a Cuban girl who was hitchhiking (asking me for a lift) was a hooker. I explained that no, not every girl in Cuba is a hooker despite what they might have heard before coming here.

When Fidel stepped down and Raul took over the leadership of the country, meetings were held in many communities and workplaces and Cubans had a voice in proposing changes to existing laws, one of which was to once again allow all Cubans to lodge in state hotels. As you can imagine, that has once again provided somewhat of a stimulus for prostitution. Since the hotel regulations were changed several years ago, we’ve heard rumors that discos in certain areas (namely, Santa Lucia) have been closed to Cubans altogether, as well as hotels stays there, but can’t personally verify whether that’s truly a matter of government policy, or simply the arbitrary choice of local hotel management. I’ve also heard that Cubans in that area can’t lodge twice in a 6-month period in a Cuban hotel with a different foreigner. The registration records are examined by the government and immigration officials.

Over the weekend my friends were recounting their visit to a local open air nightclub in Havana. My husband and I hardly ever go to late night performances – we go for the early ones that are over by 10 pm (my wild party days ended with university!) so we’re sometimes totally in the dark about what’s really going on out there nowadays in the adult entertainment scene. Our friends say that men were outnumbered there by about 3 to 1. The girls had to lower their skirts to an acceptable hem length before they’d be let in the door, but once they were in the skirts were hiked right back up. Apparently there is a reserved seating area, and another line behind which all the unaccompanied girls must stand. So that they’re not actively propositioning any visitors who have paid to see the show, they are not permitted to cross that line unless they are specifically invited by someone to sit at their table. Our friends say there was all kinds of security there to keep order in the place, including one fellow who at one point starting pointing all around like he was a traffic cop, directing the girls here and there. The girls don’t seem to be put off by the fact that a foreigner is traveling with his wife or girlfriend.

I still insisted to them that Cuba’s reputation will be sullied if the government continues to permit this to happen, but they gave me a dose of reality. Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. The state is not going to be able to stop it. In Cuba the government’s laws forbid it, and Cuba’s stance towards child prostitution is particularly intolerant. You don’t see girls in Cuba standing on the street selling their sexual wares as you do in many other places in the world. They cited some of their travel experiences in Thailand, Africa, and even in certain European countries where prostitution is prevalent. Johns who have catalogues of sex professionals, underage children, any ethnic background you want. You pick the person and they’ll deliver them to your hotel room. Girls who, in sub-zero temperatures, stand on street corners in skimpy coats and open them to show you their naked bodies. You just don’t see these kinds of things in Cuba.

So here we are again. Cuba does a lot of things to make the world a better place and has many public campaigns against promiscuity and awareness about AIDS. But, like anywhere, not everyone who lives in Cuba is of strong moral character. And the draw of quick money, commercial desires and the “easy” life proves irresistible to many young women. Hopefully for those of you who take the time to read this blog, you’re of superior moral fiber and visit Cuba for the right reasons. I hate to see society corrupted by tourism. Tread lightly, folks!

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One thought on “The Ups & Downs of Sex Tourism in Cuba

  1. Prostitution in Cuba is a two-way street. I wrote a story on the subject recently for a national publication. I met some jineteras over in Holguín for the purpose of this article. Many men are caught in a web of deceit, being led to believe this incredibly hot woman (sometimes half their age) is lusting and in love with them. Soon, the girl’s hand is in the guy’s pocket. Before long, marriage proposal ensues. When that happens (at least in Canada), you’re responsible for that woman’s living for 2 to 3 years. Oftentimes, she will dump the guy before they left the airport in Canada, only to go and find some acquaintance already living here. Recent changes to the Federal law only makes things worse, as these immigrants now wrongfully claim spousal abuse to be freed from marriage.

    I don’t know of any jinetera that chooses prostitution willfully over other viable means of living. Prostitution is, at best, a sad state of affair. But it also rings differently in Cuba, where making a living is sometimes next to impossible otherwise. Crack down on prostitution in Cuba and these women will have to resort to crime or suicide. While being a rough way of making a living, prostitution, in these specific circumstances, almost comes as a ticket to freedom to some of them.

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