14ymedio, Pedro Acosta, Havana, 9 March 2016 – The teenage girl looks at the display window of CUPET at Santa Catalina and Vento with greedy eyes, a girl hungry for candy. She is tall, thin and fragile. She looks at me and seems to be saying “throw me a rope,” so I buy her a chocolate bar for 1.25 CUC.
Her name is Barbarita, she lives in the Palatino neighborhood and is 14. She opens up after having lied to me when I asked her age when she promised she would “pay me” if I bought her a pair of sandals. No, she’s not 16, let alone 17. She’s been prostituting herself since she was 13 for between two and four CUCs. Her father died when she was three, trying to reach the shores of the United States, and her mother is an alcoholic. She hasn’t studied since she quit elementary school two years ago. From the way she expresses herself it seems unlikely she passed the fourth grade.
Tonight Barbarita was waiting for Dayana and Lisandra, two friends age 21 and 16 respectively, who soon arrived. The three of them in front of my eyes gave the lie to the official statistics. In a 2013 report, the authorities assured that “cases of prostitution involving minors were minimal” and denied that Cuba is “a destination, transit or source country for human trafficking.”
Dayana and Lisandra are cousins and live in El Cerro where they have been providing sexual services since they were 14. The younger girl is called la Yegua (the mare) and the older Tetris, like the computer game. Dayana has two children to support; their fathers are unknown but she doesn’t give that much importance. “Look, Lisandra knows who the father of hers is, but what good does it do her? She gave birth at 15 and went with him until she was 17 and the wretch hasn’t given her a single CUC.”
La Yegua explained that she couldn’t support her daughter if she didn’t do “this.” “My dad kicked me out of the house and I live with my cousin who charges me even for the water,” she laments.
Dayama maintains a relationship with an 84-year-old Canadian who comes frequently and, according to her friends, since then hasn’t lacked for anything. “Paul has bought me everything,” showing off an iPhone and a Rolex, “but with the money he leaves me I can’t support five people.”
The increase in tourist arrivals has caused a surge in prostitution. Last year the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the Cuban government to establish “an archive to analyze and monitor the possible impact of child trafficking with regards to the sale and trafficking of children for sexual purposes and prostitution.”
The committee showed particular concern about the definition of adulthood as age 16, leaving a group of children very vulnerable to sexual abuse and prostitution without legal protection. Last September, the Cuban Justice Minister, Maria Esther Reus González, said in an interview that the country was considering legislative changes including, among other measures, raising the age of criminal responsibility and freedom to marry to 18.
But below age 16, these are still cases of child prostitution. “La Reina (the queen) also works at this and she is only 12 and is ‘an expert’,” says Lisandra.
Three days earlier in the Monoco wifi zone, I had met Leydis, an exhuberant mixed-race girl from the San Peditro neighborhood in Santiago de Cuba. “At 12 I already had this great body. I wanted my mother to give me a little party for my 14th birthday, I was mad for it. And one day, in the middle of the street, I told myself I would go to bed with some foreigner, and I would be yummy and he would give me a lot of dollars,” she said. A week later, she went to bed with an 18-year-old Cuban, the son of a businessman. She got pregnant and was thrown out of the house and went to live with her grandmother. She had just turned 14. Her son is now five and she lives in Santiago with her great-grandmother.
Leydis is embarrassed, but told me her story after a beer. “In Santiago, between my pimp and the police they barely leave me a cent, and I bring in 10 CUC for Cubans and 15 for foreigners. Also, since they’ve already fingerprinted me, they could put me in prison at any moment for ‘dangerousness’*,” she explains.
Her situation brought her to Havana, where she settled in the home of an uncle without a residence permit.** “I wanted to quit with the bad life and go after my little bucks, although not legally, but without bitching and without stealing. And you see, today they fined me 1,500 pesos and they seized from me soaps and tubes of Colgate toothpaste worth 100 CUC.”
When I ask her if she is thinking of selling her products to pay off her debt she tells me that I’m crazy and reminds me that now she is fingerprinted. “What I’m going to do is what I did in Santiago, hit the streets. Here, in the Monaco neighborhood, there are rentals nearby and a lot of people with money. I already met some girls who do it, even from Santiago, and they tell me that so far the police don’t pick you up for that.”
In 2014, the Interior Ministry said in a report that most crimes of sexual abuse of minors occur “domestically” because in Cuba there are no “criminal networks” engaged in trafficking or child abuse. This was the response to a United Nations report which placed Cuba among the countries with the most cases of sexual exploitation of children in the world – along with Argentina, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Chile – while the authorities continue to close their eyes to the evidence.
*Prostitution is not a crime in Cuba but “pre-criminal dangerousness” is and carries a sentence of 1 to 4 years.
**Cubans non-native to Havana require a residence permit to live in the capital city.