Ivan Garcia, 22 September 2016 — Empty bottles of rum and Domincan beer lie scattered around the courtyard as five people drink and talk about sports and business. A Reggaeton tune, “Until the Malecon Runs Dry” by Jacob Forever, plays in the background.
Meanwhile, four girls take turns inhaling a mixture of cocaine and tobacco, known locally as cambolo, from a discarded soda can.
The party could well cost the equivalent of two hundred dollars. Eduardo, a mid-level bureaucrat in the Foreign Trade office, adds up the costs: “Forty-eight convertible pesos (CUC) for two cases of beer, forty CUC for five bottles of rum, twenty five for five kilos of chicken and two cans of tuna, and a hundred CUC for drugs and whores.”
And what are they celebrating? “Nothing in particular. A success or a failure. We’re not going to solve the economic crisis by getting all worked up. If a little money comes your way, you throw a party. That’s all there is to it,” says Armando, the owner of an auto repair business.
This is now routine, at least in Havana, where a group of friends might rent a pool or a house, buy some food, hire some prostitutes and have a good time. In summer, hookers like Elisa often take advantage of this period of prosperity to pad their wallets.
In privately owned bars, discotheques and downtown areas of Havana, the hookers roam freely. Their extremely short, tight fitting skirts and overpowering perfumes make them instantly recognizable.
“The customers are like flies to honey. I’ve made as much as 250 CUC a night. An Italian in the morning, a Spaniard in the afternoon and a Cuban who thinks he is a bigshot at night,” says Elisa.
And the economic crisis? Or the period of austerity? “That’s for state workers. Those who own businesses, work in tourism or make money under the table are still enjoying the high life. Just kick a can and the hookers come out of the woodwork. There are always more of us,” adds Elisa.
And predictions are that their numbers will continue to grow. At least that is what Carlos, a sociologist who lives in southern Havana, thinks. “In periods of economic difficulty, people choose the easiest paths to making money. During the Special Period from 1993 to 2000 the number of Cuban prostitutes soared. They didn’t work only in the tourism sector. They began operating among Cubans who owned businesses and now can be seen in poor neighborhoods where the main source of recreation is drinking alcohol and hiring cheap hookers.”
The exact number of prostitutes is unknown. Carlos, the sociologist, believes the figure “exceeds twenty thousand women in the entire island. If we add the number of men who prostitute themselves, the number could rise to thirty thousand. We must also add to this those who profit from the trade, which include pimps, corrupt police, tourist industry workers, people who rent out their homes, taxi drivers and photographers. We are talking about a big business.”
The boom in tourism on the island is too tempting a lure for many girls living in truly hellish family situations. “Although most prostitutes come from dysfunctional families, there has been in an increase in cases of prostitution involving adolescents from decent families without economic problems who are dazzled by the good life, easy money or the chance to obtain a visa,” says Laura, a former social worker.
It is likely that the number of foreign visitors in 2017 will exceed four million. And if the United States Congress lifts the ban on tourism to Cuba, the figure could be in the neighborhood of five million.
American tourists are highly sought after in Cuba. They have a reputation for being generous with tips and other payments when taking a woman or man to bed.
Yaité, a former prostitute now married to a German, believes “that prices could have a rebound. In the the 1980s the rate was $100. Then, because of the number of prostitutes and because tourists traveling to Cuba did not have a lot of purchasing power, the rate dropped to forty and even to thirty CUC a night. Now it could go up. An American might pay up to 200 CUC for a young, attractive prostitute with a good body.”
Elisa, a hooker, prays to her orishas* for that prediction to come true.
*Translator’s note: Deities in the Yoruba religion, whose practice is widespread in Cuba.