Cuba’s “Sexual Tourist” is No Longer Prince Charming
The past has many layers for María de la Caridad. In one of them she is the happy wife of an Italian and in another a young woman who has just arrived in Havana with nothing but her own body. In the ’90s she was among the first jineteras (female prostitutes) that took advantage of the legalization of the dollar to offer their services. Today, a widow, grandmother and resident in the island believes that “the business has changed and almost no one is looking for a prince charming.”
“What I did, like many other Cuban youngsters, was more of an escort service and a price was rarely said directly,” she recalls now in a conversation with 14ymedio in her apartment in El Vedado, bought a few years ago when she decided to return to the Island. The death of her husband, a Milanese who fell in love with her “at first sight,” led her to make the decision.
María de la Caridad believes that the business of prostitution on the island “has become hard, direct, without grace.” “Before we knew how to distinguish when it was a client who just wanted one night, versus one who wanted a companion during his entire trip in Cuba, to establish a relationship and perhaps end up in a marriage, but now, from the first moment it is clear that it is an economic transaction,” she says.
The government kept prostitution under control — considering it a capitalist scourge — through programs of social reinsertion during the first decades of the Revolution, but during the Special Period it became a common exit from the misery.
The characteristics of the Cuban market, where having money did not mean access to a great number of products or more of any one product, in the case of rationed ones, caused a mutation in prostitution. The “companion” sought the privileges of generals, ministers and other leaders.
Starting the 1990s, large areas of Cuba, such as Guanabo beach east of Havana, became the epicenter of jineteras and clients who were seen to come and go, despite police control. Those were the years when, most of the time, the women negotiated directly with the tourists. Many ended up married to foreigners and emigrated.
“In Milan I met several Cubans who had experienced the same thing and we were very supportive of each other in those early years,” says María de la Caridad. “As time passed and we were having our families, we called ourselves the jinetera grandmothers,” she explains with humor.
The landscape has changed a lot since the times of María de la Caridad. The competition is greater with the pingueros (male prostitutes), who offer all kinds of services to men and women. In addition, the pimps and the seclusion in brothels “complicate their situation,” says this Cubana who sometimes interjects words in Italian. “Now women have less independence and finding a good husband is very difficult in those conditions.”
A few yards from her house, two young people were preparing this Saturday to go to 23rd Street, to one of the state clubs that are a frequent meeting point between prostitutes and customers. They are 17 and 19 years old, respectively, and their names in this report are. Both have been in the business since junior high, and the youngest is preparing to enter the university this year.
The two young women use new technologies, such as chat rooms and some dating applications, to meet foreigners who occasionally visit Havana. “Everything is clarified from the beginning and a price is established, he knows that it is not about love, but a bit of fun, and for me it is an important economic support,” explains Karla, who has been in the business for two years.”
“An important sector of women, educated and trained, is marginalized: many of them have a technical or professional training and their individual and family biography would place them in a more favorable position in social life,” explains Cecilia Bobes, who has a doctorate in Sociology. “There is also a change in the values of young people, who begin to see in the activity of the jinetera as a normal job, a way to earn a living and a survival strategy in the face of the crisis.”
Mara and Karla have managed to evade, until now, the pimps because they manage their contacts directly. “But many of those in this business prefer to have more protection and have someone to represent them, to look for the tourist and someone who can help if the thing gets ugly,” she says.
Pimping is one of the main crimes related to human trafficking and the pimps resort, in most cases, to violence, intimidation and drugs to obtain economic benefits, especially exploiting women. “At the moment I am doing well alone and I try not to put myself in high risk situations,” says Karla.
Procuring and trafficking in persons are punishable on the island, but prostitution is legal. Cuban authorities maintain police controls, especially on women, who are fined or deported if they come from another province. In the worst cases, they are interned in work farms to be “re-educated.”
The dream of Mara and Karla is to save some money to leave the country, but they do not believe that they can leave like María de la Caridad, directly through a client.
“All I want is for them to pay me and leave because I can not imagine marrying a man who knows I’m doing this. When I leave Cuba I’ll make a clean slate and start looking for a partner for love,” explains the youngest of the two women. Karla nods: “This is a business, there is no affection or plans for the future, it’s just about sex and money.”