14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 11 March 2017 — An aging prostitute is like a book with tattered pages depicting the life of a nation. A survival manual to approach the vagaries of reality, to learn about its most carnal and, at times, most sordid parts. Many of the courtesans of Utopia in Cuba are already octogenarians. They have gone from caressing the chests of their bearded idols to the arthritis they struggle with as they stand in long lines to buy bread.
More than half a century ago this island decreed the end of the exchange of sex for money. No one, ever again, would sell their body for a little food, a social position or a better job. Hookers were a thing of the capitalist past and in a country heading for Utopia there was no room for such weakness. They had to transform themselves into militants, outstanding workers and the irreproachable mothers of the New Man.
But prostitution, alas, continues to exist. Like the national lottery that was submerged in illegality after being outlawed, and the jokes against the Maximum Leader shared in whispers, the world’s oldest profession hid in the shadows. Clients were no longer nationals with a few pesos to spend at the nearest brothel, nor sailors eager to recuperate in the tropics from their long days of abstinence on the high seas.
Hookers were a thing of the capitalist past and in a country heading for Utopia there was no room for such weakness
Instead, the goal for socialist courtesans was to end up between the sheets with a guerrilla down from the Sierra Maestra, capture some senior leader of the Communist Party, or hook up with a government minister who would provide a car, a trip abroad or a house. Cash was not a part of the operation. She caressed him and he paid her with power. Those were the years of revolutionary polygamy in which a commander who was respected needed as many lovers as medals.
The pimp was transformed. There was a proliferation of heads of protocol who connected these dedicated compañeras with foreign guests of the Plaza of the Revolution. In tightly-fitting outfits they brightened the parties where Latin American guerrillas exchanged toasts with Basque separatists, union leaders and Eastern Europe diplomats. They laughed and flirted. A Revolution is pure love, they thought.
The fall of the Soviet Union caused a cataclysm in those beds where sweat and influence, semen and privileges, were exchanged. With the end of the subsidy coming from the Kremlin, and the economic reforms officialdom was forced to undertake, money regained its ability to be converted into goods, services and caresses. The new generation of prostitutes had read Karl Marx, declaimed the works of Cuba’s national poet Nicolás Guillén, and thrown flowers into the sea after the disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos. They were, Fidel Castro said, the most educated prostitutes in the world.
The new generation of prostitutes had read Karl Marx, declaimed the works of Cuba’s national poet Nicolás Guillén, and thrown flowers into the sea after the disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos. They were, Fidel Castro said, the most educated prostitutes in the world
International tourism came into play in the mid-1990s with canned drinks, hotels where Cubans were not allowed to enter, and the companionable ladies renamed jineteras (female jockeys). Official propaganda had shouted all over the world that Cuba was, before January of 1959, “the brothel of the Americas”; not it but collided with the evidence that the island had become the whorehouse of Europeans and Canadians.
These were the years of shortages and ridiculous prices. A bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo or a pair of shoes was enough to buy the favors of these young women who had been trained to inhabit the future and ended up in bed with men three times their age who couldn’t even pronounce their names. The dream that many of them now caressed was summed up in a marriage contract, emigration and a new life far from Cuba.
Today, many of these graceful courtesans – who swarmed around the discos in their colorful outfits – have become mothers and grandmothers walking with their offspring through the parks of Milan, Berlin or Toronto. With their pensions they buy apartments on the island and return willing to pay for a young lover who sighs before the passport with the new nationality that they acquired with the sweat of their pelvis.
They are the graceful survivors of a hard battle, but others only achieved venereal diseases, long nights in jail cells, and the treatment of rude clients who haggled until the last kiss.
The official response against the jineteras concentrated on repression. Arrests, prison sentences and forced deportations to their province of origin were some of the rigors these sex workers had to suffer. The pimp became important in direct proportion to the risks on the street. Now, many wait in a room, get a client, collect the money and manage their lives.
The well-known pingueros were not as shamed by the police in a country where the macho tradition does not stigmatize equally merchandise that comes packaged in a young man’s body
Male prostitution also flourished. The well-known pingueros were not as shamed by the police in a country where the macho tradition does not stigmatize equally merchandise that comes packaged in a young man’s body. They manage to circumvent surveillance and fill every space in the national territory where visitors are betrayed by their accents. They populate the wall of the Malecon, show off their meaty biceps on the most touristy beaches, and most offer a unisex service that doubles their opportunities and swells their incomes.
Because money, alas, continues to buy bodies. Much more so at a time when a new class stumbles to emerge among the economic spoils. The new rich do not wear military uniforms, but run private restaurants or administer a joint venture. With them, the national client has returned to the picture of Cuban prostitution.
The increase in social inequalities and the tourist boom that the island has experienced since the beginning of the diplomatic thaw between Havana and Washington have also fueled the carnal market. In 2016 the country reached the record number of four million international visitors. Once again, customers arriving from the country to our north are the most popular, those gringos that the official propaganda thought had been removed from the brothels.
These women throw themselves into the arms of tourists because “they cannot meet the basic needs of food, clothing and footwear”
At the recent International Symposium on Gender Violence, Prostitution, Sex Tourism and Trafficking in Persons, held last January in Havana, a researcher from the Interior Ministry revealed alarming figures. Of a group of 82 prostitutes studied, the majority were “mixed-race, followed by white and black, coming from dysfunctional and permissive families, living in overcrowded conditions.”
These women throw themselves into the arms of tourists because “they cannot meet the basic needs of food, clothing and footwear.” One in three began in the trade before age 18 and “charge between $50 and $200,” depending on the service they provide.
They do not seek luxuries, but crumbs. They are the granddaughters of those courtesans who panted between slogans and privileges.
Editorial Note: This text was published in Spanish on Saturday March 11 in the Spanish newspaper El País .