The Sex Tourism in Cuba

By BobbyRica | January 23, 2012

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Sex tourism in Cuba remains a gritty reality, and has been the subject of much speculation through the years, but is not really as dire a situation as is commonly presumed and is commonly misunderstood. Being a jinetera (slang for sex worker) is not so much a source of livelihood as it is a lifestyle.

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Castro and his Revolutionary Government has never supported tourism. When they took command in 1959, one of their first major actions was the immediate cleanup and closure of many bars known to be brothels and drug dens. However, following the US travel ban to Cuba in 1961, tourism immediately took a nosedive and it was within this period that sex tourism developed in the country in secret. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Special Period, tourism regained prominence as one of the country’s top sources of income. The government undertook another cleanup, but this time emphasis was also placed on AIDS education and prevention. Subsequent crackdowns have remained necessary and were undertaken in 1996 and 2001. One cannot say the government has been lacking in action.

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In June 1962, Castro gave an unusually candid speech on the matter, saying, “We had to accept tourism as an economic need, but we said that it will be tourism free of drugs,free of brothels, free of prostitution… There are hookers, but prostitution is not allowed in our country. There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist. Those who do so do it on their own…We can say that they are highly educated hookers and quite healthy, because we are the country with the lowest number of AIDS cases.”

Jineteras are a label commonly bandied about by critics, but the term is actually more generic than assumed. Jineterismo, Spanish for jockey, is slang for different kinds of hustling, which includes prostitution, pimping, selling counterfeit goods, etc. Poverty is commonly cited by tourists as a rationale for women to become jineteras, but this is potentially misleading and shows a misunderstanding of the situation. Cuba has one of the best educational systems in the world, and provides jobs. Drugs and venereal diseases are not factors in Cuba, compared to other countries. Many are unemployed but basic needs are provided for by the state and indolence is not a cause.

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More likely, jinetera culture remains because it is what the women themselves want. Critics may find it hard to believe, but one of the lynchpins of the Revolutionary Government is that women enjoyed an increase in the exercise and granting of their rights and freedoms. Never patronizing or aggressive, jineteras will talk and date men liberally, and take control of the terms of any sexual contact with a wink and a smile. Apparently, the goal for many is to find a rich foreigner to marry and help get her and her family out of the country. However, most jineteras engage in casual sex just because they want to, and foreigners are hard pressed to distinguish between an actual jinetera and a woman standing in the street. Perhaps some of them decide to become jineteras the moment they become propositioned. Being outsiders, we don’t really know.

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Jinetera culture is perhaps comparable to what Japanese call enjo kosai. Again, this is a slang term, literally translating to paid date, but refers to a range of activities associated with young girls dating older salarymen for spending money. Unlike enjo kosai, however, where a transaction is presumed, jineteras will sleep with men for free if they want to. In both countries, it’s safe to assume that they are part of the underground culture of both but in no way represents them as a whole.

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Cuban tourism itself seems poised to move on, with health tourism and family tourism becoming increasingly more popular and lucrative in recent years. However, since jinetera culture is informal and decentralized, there are no prostitution rings to dismantle. Ironically, Cubans are not allowed to enter hotels designated for tourists, to discourage jineterismo, although of course tourists who want to can find hotels where they can bring them in. Ending the proliferation of jineteras requires something more dramatic than policy change; Cuban culture itself is going to have to adapt, which it perhaps could, in response to changing realities. Today, however, Cuba remains a haven for free love.

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