3 Cheers for Cuba’s Hurricane Preparedness

I’ve been interviewed by Canadian media in advance of at least 2 hurricanes. It’s funny they have never reached out to me after a storm has passed to check and see how things went, or how we were recovering, but perhaps that’s a little less exciting for news-followers. So I do hope this post won’t bore most of you, with that in mind. Growing up in Prince Edward Island, Canada, hurricanes were something I’d never experienced prior to living in the Caribbean. But having spent my entire adult life in Cuba, I’ve learned quite a bit about how to be prepared for the occasional wrath Mother Nature metes out in this part of the world. Back in 1993 my two brothers began our Cuban adventure travel business by boarding a commercial Cuban ship in Halifax with a container load of bicycles, parts & accessories bound for the port of Havana. They hit some bad weather along the way and what was supposed to be a 5-day trip turned into a 2-week journey. US laws wouldn’t let the commercial ship of Cuban registry take shelter in any of their ports, so they were forced to continue the journey south while taking a beating from waves in the Atlantic along the way. Cars on the deck were smashing against containers of lard which in turn broke loose and began to tear apart the ship’s gunnels. One of my brothers was vomiting on the deck as the captain was calling for everyone to don life jackets; meanwhile my younger (not wiser) brother was capturing the whole scene with a vhs video recorder. I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the danger they were in, but thankfully the ship did not break apart, they eventually made it to safe harbor in Havana, and so began our adventures in Cuba.

In 1994 I was living on the coast in Marea del Portillo in Granma province when there was a distant threat of a hurricane possibly headed for the area. One thing about hurricanes is they can be unpredictable – they can gain/lose force and even change directions depending on other weather factors. But Cuba’s government’s 4-step preparedness plan doesn’t leave anything to chance. They went to the work and expense of evacuating the entire resort, busing guests / representatives and even a full complement of staff to Bayamo for a couple of nights while the weather situation was monitored. In the end, the storm dissipated and we all returned to the hotel without further adieu. But the incident gave me a very up-close and personal picture of how methodical and prepared Cuban authorities are to face these kinds of disasters, acting several days in advance to take preventive measures first to preserve human life for those living in any areas identified as vulnerable to coastal flooding, etc. and then attention is paid to any resources that can be saved with the remaining time. The civil defense in Cuba has the authority to take over state hospitals, hotels, schools and other facilities to turn them into emergency refuges. Medical staff and facilities are prepared, announcements are regularly made to the population on how to prepare, and citizens are usually working like busy ants beforehand removing potential projectiles, storing water, charging batteries, and securing all that needs attention before heavy winds and rain force them indoors until the storm has dissipated. School children are taught how to prepare for hurricanes from the time they are very young.

Many of you who have never experienced a hurricane before assume the most dangerous time is during the storm. But quite often the after-effects can be just as deadly, including storm surges, or in the case of some countries where clean-up is less than efficient, you may find standing water or debris can lead to breeding of mosquitos and the spreading of diseases such as dengue or zika. In Cuba, we have a public health system in place which has widespread reach. Inspectors regularly knock on all doors to check water deposits. They correct bad practices such as flower pot bases where water can collect, vases with standing water, they sprinkle anti-mosquito products into any puddles that may form in your patio / around your house, even in some cisterns. The covers for water barrels must be hermetic or you risk a fine. You’ll often see aerial fumigation for mosquitos around certain hotel zones. Or trucks pumping out billows of smoke will sometimes crawl the streets, all in an effort to ensure mosquito populations do not thrive, and that the propagation of the illnesses they can spread is limited.

In the fall of 2001 my brother & sister and I spent several days preparing food for my husband’s birthday party. It was our first year of marriage and we went a little overboard. Only about a dozen guests braved the night of the party as everyone else was holed up at home awaiting Hurricane Michelle. With the power out for 4-5 days afterwards and no backup generator, we had a lot of food to get rid of before it spoiled. The nursing home residents across the street were the recipients of that spectacular donation. We had limited water storage capacity at that house, so were rationing water from Day 1, making sure you only flushed when absolutely necessary. Once the water on roof tanks was depleted, then it was buckets from the small cistern until that ran out. Thankfully, being early November, temperatures were moderate and you could actually sleep at night. Everyone in Cuba remembers Hurricane Ivan from 2004, and I can still picture Fidel questioning Cuba’s weather guru Dr. Jose Rubiera on the nightly news. Fidel kept pressing him, telling him that while the trajectory was that it was going to hit Cuba’s westernmost tip, that it was still possible that it could be drawn off of the coast. I personally thought Dr. Rubiera was respectfully humoring him, saying that while it was possible, it was not likely. When Fidel’s “prediction” came true, well the believers in Cuba were all over that the next day, like it was divine intervention. Fidel was the chosen one again, just like when the white dove landed on his shoulder, a sign for Santeria followers.

I can’t remember if it was during Hurricane Ike or Gustav in 2008, but we’d recently moved into the new house we built just east of Havana, perched on a hill above the water. Cuba turns off the power in advance of the storm so that citizens aren’t risking personal injury or damage to household appliances by downed cables. Without electricity, it can get warm at night in your house, so I decided to sleep on the floor of the living room where a nice breeze was coming in from below the front double doors. It was quite comfortable until the plywood my husband had tied to the inside of the iron bars outside blew in the two inner wooden & glass doors, and the plywood flew into the living room, narrowly missing me where I was sleeping. My husband rushed out and somehow between the two of us we managed to get the doors shut again and then we waited out the rest of the storm. Lesson for next time: tie that plywood to the outside, not the inside of the bars.

Hurricane Irma caught me in Canada attending to some family business. I briefly considered rushing back to Cuba, as we’ve never spent a hurricane apart in 17 years together. But then I re-thought the wisdom of that plan. Several years ago we purchased a backup generator. Our huge cistern has ample water supply, for a month without even rationing for the two of us. We had just switched our propane tanks, so had ample supply of that on hand to cook with. Our house is made of bricks & mortar and is as solid as a rock. No temporary / light roof or anything that would represent a danger to him. Last summer I imported some fabulous Stihl garden tools including an electric chainsaw. My husband was going to be fine, probably the envy of the neighborhood in fact. So I decided to stay in Canada as I would be more helpful there to clients whose plans were going to be altered by the weather. I would have uninterrupted telephone and internet access, which I couldn’t be sure would be the case for my husband in Cuba. So I reminded him (twice, in fact, that doesn’t count as nagging, right?) to stock up on some gas for the generator and agreed I would call him on Sunday to check in. The landline was down, but his cell phone was operating. And all we lost was a cover to one of our water tanks, which he wrongly assumed had been tied down before the storm. He used the chainsaw to trim some trees on our block, so noone’s glass windows were damaged. Our handyman had a date with a tetra pak of rum during the storm so he hadn’t gotten around to hooking up the generator yet, but the gas had been purchased, so that was imminent. He ended up being able to pump water to the neighbors’ roofs as well as ours and kept everyone’s phones & laptops charged by turning the generator on for a couple of hours at a time. We didn’t even experience any food spoilage as the generator’s intermittent use was enough to keep the fridge & freezer cool.

We’ve been trying to set some time apart for a short vacation ourselves this year in low season and I was anxious to get back to Cuba. My sister was questioning the wisdom of that decision after some of the international coverage she’d seen after Irma departed Cuba. But the areas I’d seen in Havana were those that are always prone to flooding, and I wasn’t surprised by much of the footage that made it to our news sources in Canada. Our lights in Old Havana were back on within 2 days. At home in Mirador de Marbella after 3 days. So on Friday I landed back in Havana and can confirm myself that life is truly returning to normal here. Yes, there were quite a few uprooted trees and some remain to be removed from sidewalks (we even saw a huge one still leaning against a house), but the major cleanup has already taken place. The majority of electrical services have been restored. The hardest-hit provinces were Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara, and recovery efforts there will be delayed a little longer as some of their infrastructure will take more time to repair. We took a motorcycle trip to Artemisa on Sunday with friends. The avocado season was cut short here – people were giving avocados away so that they didn’t rot after falling off of trees. By the way, Cuban avocadoes are spectacular, if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying them. The tunnel to 5th Avenue, which had flooded to its roof, has re-opened. The tunnel to Eastern Havana is not open yet, so we’re taking the ring around the port to get to work every morning still. That’s a bit of an inconvenience, but certainly not a deal-breaker.

We’ve had friends from Miami visit as recently as yesterday and they report that there are still some areas in their city awaiting the return of electrical services after Irma, which struck there with less intensity than in Cuba. Status updates from our ground handlers and tourism/hotel operators report that with the exception of Cayo Coco (which was hardest hit, and lost its airport), the large majority are already fully operational. The recovery of the causeways to Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria was exceptionally fast. The Malecon remains closed while they repair some areas of the sea wall that were damaged. But all the flooding has receded. From some of the images accompanying international reports on Irma in Cuba that are still being released, you might be led to believe otherwise. Venezuela sent aid, and in record time. Yesterday we saw a boat of supplies from the Dominican Republic, and this morning we jokingly said that it may have to return with supplies donated from Cuba after Hurricane Maria. Cuba has sent over 700 doctors to neighboring islands in the wake of the hurricane. The solidarity of sister nations in this region is commendable. Especially when some of the largest contributors to climate change are our industrial neighbors to the north, who do not wish to recognize their role and social responsibility.

Once again, in the face of adversity, Cuba has risen to the occasion and taken extraordinary measures to protect its citizens, visitors and resources, while at the same time showing great concern and committment to its history of international solidarity and humanitarian gestures. Organization, discipline, and preparedness mean that we are less likely to die during or after a hurricane in Cuba than our neighbors to the north. To the tireless electrical and telephone workers, public health personnel and military organizers who go to great lengths to alleviate discomfort during and once the storm has passed, our sincere thanks.

For those of you considering travel to Cuba anytime soon, it’s highly encouraged. It’s one of the best ways to offer your support and solidarity to a country whose economy increasingly relies on the tourism sector. Cuban officials are taking recovery efforts very seriously, and they’ve made extraordinary headway already. Our ground handler is taking a group of travel company supervisors and diplomats to Varadero this weekend so they can see the recovery efforts for themselves first-hand. Bank accounts have been set up for anyone wishing to make donations to the recovery efforts, as the recovery of infrastructure is undeniably expensive. Just this morning we heard that a Dutch bank refused to send a EUR wire transfer donation to Cuba, citing the US blockade. This is very disheartening, as the US government’s influence is clearly overextending its reach when we’re not even talking about a transaction in US funds. Facebook temporarily blocked Mariela Castro’s account when she published the bank account information for potential donors, and later apologied for the the mistake. Cuba calls the blockade “genocide”, and while that term is shocking and even unbelievable to some, what else would you call it? Certainly not a humanitarian gesture. To end on a positive note, three cheers for Cuba. Despite much hardship and some formidable challenges, you continue to rise to the most difficult of occasions and consistently put the safety and well-being of your population in the forefront. Cuba va!

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FIT Cuba 2015 (behind the scenes)

This past week we attended the 35th annual Cuban international tourism fair FIT Cuba 2015, held this time around in the tourist enclave of Jardines del Rey (Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo). After 20+ years of working in tourism in Cuba, when our partners at Havanatur asked if we would be attending, we responded with our usual frankness and told them that we’ve been avoiding the fair the past several years. Not being avid brochure collectors, and as an agency that maintain offices in Cuba we’ve not found it to be especially enlightening with the amount of industry and on the ground knowledge we’ve accumulated over the years. For those that come intending to concentrate signing their annual contracts all at once over a period of several days in just one place, I suppose it might be convenient. But being on the ground here on a year-round basis we aren’t in that boat. However, this year the US division of our ground handler’s offices suggested they’d like us to put together a presentation on our cycle tour programs for a delegation they were handling of over 100 US agencies and airlines, so we reluctantly relented and scheduled a few days out of the office to attend.


We like road trips, so decided to break up the longish drive from Havana and overnight on Sunday in the colonial city of Sancti Spiritus, which just celebrated its 500th founding anniversary this year. One of my goals while there was to check out the newest boutique hotel Don Florencio on the boulevard and see if there was anything new on the restaurant scene worth exploring. We toured a new Palmares restaurant with a wine cellar by the bridge and then dined at a local paladar where my husband only complained once about a reggaeton song that somehow slipped into the otherwise very good playlist in the bar. Lots of great Descemer Bueno tunes mixed in with some Ricardo Arjona and that catchy new (to me anyway) song by Pharrell Williams “Come and Get It”. I’d heard it the week before in the Piragua in Havana and it was one of those tunes that you like the very first time you hear it, especially that line “take it easy on the clutch”. On the walk back to our hotel a local rock band was preparing to perform in the square. My husband wanted to stick around, and I sensibly told him I’d much rather sit in comfort in the covered hotel porch rather to listen to the very same music standing next to booming speakers in the rain surrounded by freakies. When one of the local drunks swaggered by leering down my dress, I decided to just ignore my husband’s pleas to stick around with him and go with my gut, so off I strode across the square to watch the scene unfold. My husband loves disco music and classic rock & roll, so as soon as the first notes of the lead singer’s voice were broadcasted over his microphone, I knew I wouldn’t be waiting long for him to join me. They were one of those yelling rock bands that people our age don’t “get”. Perfect. I was up for some rest and surfing through satellite tv channels anyway at that point. A treat for us, since we usually only have 4-5 channels at home. As I made my last pit-stop of the day in the bathroom, I had a surprise monthly visitor top off the day, one I had totally forgotten about when packing for the trip and wasn’t entirely prepared for, considering I was going to be away from my stockpiled home supply of feminine hygiene products for a few days. I started counting the meager supplies I always have stored away for an emergency in my overnight toiletries bag, and told my husband that we were going to have to make a beeline for the international pharmacy as soon as we arrived in Cayo Coco the next day. Being one of Cuba’s major tourism poles I figured that would be my best bet for tampons instead of having to resort to Cuban maxis.

Instead of sticking around in Sancti Spiritus until the shops opened, we got an early start the next morning and drove through the drizzly May weather to Ciego de Avila where we visited a few shops (because you never know what supplies you’ll find in the Cuban provinces that you never come across in Havana). We picked up some glassware, long fluorescent lightbulbs, sponges, and a few other odds & ends before continuing north. Leaving Ciego, as we drove by the local police station we noticed a car belonging to the head of the provincial government pull in, and we surmised they would be spending the morning going over last minute security preparation for the FIT Cuba 2015 event. After a mediocre lunch in Morón we made our way to the toll booths at the entrance to the causeway where the local authorities were checking everyone’s credentials before they were allowed to proceed. Out came our delegate credentials, identity cards, and with a friendly warning from the PNR to be careful driving in the rain we were off on the final leg of our journey, destination Iberostar Mojito. They checked us in but our room wasn’t ready yet, so to best make use of the time and be prepared for the worst, we inquired with the helpful ladies at the reception counter as to where we should start to look for period supplies. We started at the hotel store where they had nothing in stock except diapers. They sent us to the international pharmacy at the Sol Cayo Coco. Which, after driving over, we found out was closed for the day since the pharmacy worker didn’t make it in. I wasn’t about to tell the four Cuban men at the adjacent car rental company what kind of a mission I was on, so just asked for directions to the next pharmacy. They said to try the Melia Cayo Coco. When we pulled up at the gate, the security guard was circumspect about letting us through as we weren’t registered guests at the hotel. After showing him our event credentials, I decided just to spill the beans. He wasn’t going to turn me down with that request, no way no how. Despite the fact that the lobby was crawling with added security detail with all the foreign & local dignitaries present for the event. I promised I was only going to go to the hotel store and right back to the car. No luck there either unfortunately. Assuming I was a hotel guest, the woman clerk at the store suggested I check with the front desk staff, that maybe they would have some supplies on hand there to get me through. I explained that I was staying at another hotel, and that with my canary yellow all inclusive bracelet from the Mojito I’d stick out like a sore thumb. I asked where the next pharmacy was, and off we went to the Tryp Cayo Coco. We were getting a royal tour of every hotel installation in Cayo Coco whether we wanted to or not. At the Tryp, one of the internal hotel security ladies escorted me straight down to the hotel pharmacy which (surprise, surprise) had no supplies. The woman attending the pharmacy told me that she had some clients who had recently gone through every hotel in the destination and didn’t find anything until the very last hotel at the tip of Cayo Guillermo, either that or go 100 kms (each way) back to Morón. As it was approaching 5 p.m. already I wasn’t keen on starting out on a wild goose chase at that point in the day after all the driving we’d already undertaken. So I told my husband that we were moving immediately to Plan B and cutting short the Jardines del Rey pharmacy tour. Plan B was to plead with the front desk/maid staff at our own hotel. Cuban solidarity is among the finest in the world. Some of the most thoughtful hotel visitors often leave behind supplies that can be expensive or hard to find in Cuba (not just their used t-shirts), and one of the receptionists offered up a ziplocked bag with enough tampons to get me all the way back to Havana without having to resort to wine bottle corks or toilet paper contraptions. I’d actually even considered buying those diapers I saw at the hotel store, and asking the office staff for scissors and tape before the real supplies were beamed down from all inclusive tourist heaven to save the day.

We somehow managed to squeeze in a last minute reservation at one of the hotel’s specialized restaurants. As we were waiting to be seated, my view fell on a Cuban man in a fedora hat sitting behind the piano player. I said to my husband under my breath, I don’t know if my eyes are playing tricks on me, but that guy over there in the hat looks an awful lot like Descemer Bueno, don’t you think? That’s because it IS Descemer Bueno, my dear (ok, that’s really not what he called me, but we’ll pretend it is). How exciting…my thoughts began to race. If he’s here at our hotel, then it’s probably because they invited him to do a concert somewhere for this tourism fair. I wonder where it’ll be, and if we’ll still be here when it happens. Man, I love his music so much I’d even consider staying on longer if it’s going to be after our planned departure. It better not be though, with all the work we have to get back to once our presentation is over. I’d love to get a picture with him but he’s having a nice romantic gourmet dinner and I’m NOT going to interrupt that, no way, no how. It’s funny all these tourists here putting tips into the piano player’s glass and they don’t even recognize the huge international star who’s sitting right behind her. His song “Bailando” was even playing in Canada when I visited last summer, and a lot of the people here seem to know it. Or at least have heard Enrique Iglesias’ English version of it.

After feasting on shrimp and imported beef we headed back to our room where I began to comb through the multiple email messages that downloaded at warp speed into my laptop from the lobby wifi connection. At 11 pm I returned to the lobby to send off my work so that I didn’t fall too far behind while out of the office. This nose never gets far from the grindstone.

The next morning I was anxious to get going early as I wasn’t sure exactly how far the new Melia Jardines del Rey hotel, the site of the tourism fair, was from our hotel. With the poor signage in Cuba that my husband’s always complaining about, you just never know what could go wrong. The fair was to be inaugurated at 9 am and I wanted to be there for the Minister of Tourism’s opening comments. We ended up taking an unexpected detour to Playa Prohibida before we finally got back on track after asking another carload of local Cubans headed to the same place for directions. Cuban tourism signage (or the lack of it) is one of my husband’s pet peeves. As we left Ciego de Avila the day before, he couldn’t see a single road sign for Cayo Coco. There was one for provincial Ministry of the Interior Delegation, he scoffed. Sure, I said, so at least the police don’t get lost and know where to find their buddies. Tourists are expected to know that “Polo Turistico Jardines del Rey” = Cayo Coco / Cayo Guillermo if they ever make it to the point after the rotary where that sign even exists. Eyes crossed.
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Journalists scrambled to get in position as the ministerial delegation pulled up to the hotel, the ribbon was cut, speeches & Cuban and Italian cultural performances delivered (Italy was the invited country of honor this year), announcements made about new projects and collaboration and as the opening ceremonies came to a close we made a beeline for the bathrooms. My husband waited outside with the few promotional brochures and magazines we did bother to accept, and when I exited he handed them over to me while he visited the throne. As I looked around there seemed to be a considerable security presence and, oddly enough, even several reporters standing outside of the bathrooms. The head of security took up guard at the door to the ladies room. I put two and two together and realized that the tourism minister and my husband were in the bathroom at the same time. My husband emerged first. I was giggling to myself, with a mental image of them standing beside each other at the urinals and wondering if my husband took advantage of the opportunity to pass along his constructive criticism on the road and signage conditions in Cuba that I’d been treated to with great frequency over the past couple of days. I asked him and he said no, they were washing their hands together and all he could think of to say was, Minister, the conference was very good, the fair’s a great success this year, muy buena la feria. Laughter and eye rolling from me. Your big chance, and THAT’S what you decide to say?!?!
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Back at the hotel’s lunch buffet I managed to get our picture taken with Descemer Bueno who happened to be sitting directly behind us, hooray hooray. We did have the decency to wait until he finished his lunch to solicit the favor. And once we did, every other Cuban in the restaurant, staff included, wanted to follow our lead. Sorry about that, but they love you too. The foreign visitors appeared confused but curious about the goings-on. Heavy rains flooded the hotel parking lot in the afternoon, so the concert was moved to the hotel lobby. Conveniently for us, at our very own hotel, no less (nice, meant no driving afterwards and a relatively early night). After dinner we parked ourselves at a table near the back and the place was soon packed with excited Cubans and clueless tourists. With all the local Cuban participation in the tourism fair, it didn’t take long for the news to travel and by the end of the night most of the tourists had packed it up but the Cubans were still dancing up a storm. We had to deliver a presentation at 8:30 the next morning in Cayo Guillermo and when we were walking through the hotel lobby at 7 am it looked a little like a disaster scene as the maids hadn’t been around yet to clean up after the considerable festivities. One guy had fallen asleep on one of the lobby couches the night before and was still there at 7 am in his shorts and flip flops. Party on, dude. I would have liked to have been around to see the look on his face when he finally woke up in the middle of a public space.

My husband figured that he’d actually have a little time on this trip to swim at the beach in Cayo Coco, which turned out to be wishful thinking. The Celimar presentations to the US agencies, tour operators & airlines began at 8:30, but it was almost lunchtime before we ended up getting out of there. Check-out, quick lunch, one last download of email on that fabulously speedy wifi connection I wish I had at home, and then it was on the road again for a 5.5 hour drive back to the capital. I took over driving for about half an hour (at my husband’s request) to give him a rest from the wheel, but since he started offering driving suggestions about 30 minutes into that experience it didn’t last long. He is a nervous passenger, highly annoying to me as a driver. More eye rolling.

So now it’s back to dial-up internet, making my own coffee, and picking at leftovers in the fridge for lunch. But I’m not complaining. I’m usually quite allergic to all inclusive hotels and avoid them at all costs. The main redeeming feature this time around was the truly authentic contemporary Cuban cultural performance to which we were treated, and for that, MINTUR event organizers, I’m eternally grateful. Muchas gracias, Ministro. Valió la pena.

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!