Global Policy Forum

Poverty Pushes Cuban Women into Sex Tourism


By Jennifer Karsseboom

Digital Freedom Network
March 26, 2003

From north to south, Havana to Santiago de Cuba, amidst the decaying buildings, propagandizing billboards and food stores with empty shelves there are two things in Cuba which are always in full supply: prostitutes and sex tourists.

In a country with few employment options that offer enough upon which to subsist and an embargo that contributes to substandard living conditions for the majority of the population, women and girls flock to densely populated Havana in search of sexual employment in hotels, bars, restaurants and on the streets. Sex tourists flock to Havana and other cities in search of a form of escapism that is cheap, safe and exotic. In Cuba, foreign men can command Cuban women and girls with the same ease used to order cocktails.

Cuba's current tourism boom is one not seen since the 1950s, when under former dictator Fulgencio Batista, the island lured tourists with promises of cheap cigars, rum, casinos and prostitutes. Cuba's current leader, Fidel Castro, led the Cuban Revolution in 1959, promising to free Cuba of its servitude to the rich and famous Americans and Europeans. The post-1959 Cuban state tried to outlaw prostitution and attempted to remedy the conditions which created a supply of sex workers. Objectives of Castro's revolution included initiatives aimed at opening doors to women's reintegration into the country's socioeconomic life in terms of education, healthcare, employment and attaining overall full gender equality. His attempts in achieving these goals had been somewhat successful until the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost much of its aid and investment as well as its ability to survive without compromising some of its revolutionary ideals. Trade relationships with the USSR and Eastern Europe had accounted for over two-thirds of Cuba's foreign commerce. The country was forced to develop a new economic strategy and as a result adopted tourism as a basic pillar.

In the meantime, the U.S. placed an embargo on Cuba aimed at bringing down its political structure. The embargo greatly weakened, and continues to weaken, the Cuban economy by banning trade and investment in Cuba. Consequently, the Cuban government strengthened its attempts to lure tourists to Cuba in order to promote revenue. As a result of its dependence on tourism, Cuba has once again turned into a playground for those in search of cheap cigars, rum and prostitutes.

Economic enablers for sex tourism

Aside from the tasty mojitos and astounding music scene, one of Cuba's greatest lures to the male tourist is its booming sex tourism industry. Sex tourism, a sub-sector of Cuba's prosperous tourist economy, is a significant industry and a major employer for many Cuban women and girls. This is obvious by the number of women seen in the streets, bars and hotels openly soliciting foreign men. It is difficult to obtain statistics on the number of sex tourists and sex workers since it is considered illegal but what is known is that one-fourth of the investments in Cuba have been made in the tourist industry, making it one of the country's most dynamic economic sectors.

Cuban tourist agencies do a great deal of business with other tourist agencies in places like the Bahamas. Tourists from all over the world pre-book, and in some cases booking on the spot, tours that are thinly disguised weekend sex tours to Havana. In addition to Mexico, the Bahamas serves as a conduit for those tourists, particularly Americans, who are unable to legally travel to Cuba.

Nobody is prohibiting the business and although it is illegal, the Cuban government does nothing to stop it. Sex tourists bring money into the Cuban economy by drawing money to hotels, restaurants and other state-run businesses. Castro has declared, "Sex tourism will never be permitted, nor drugs nor anything of that sort. This is healthy tourism, and that is what we want; it is what we promote because we know that today tourists are worried about their safety and we have conditions to offer them that security."

Despite the fact that the government does not "permit," promote or legalize sex tourism, a handful of underground tour operators are catering to American and European travelers by promoting trips through advertisements in adult magazines, direct-mail solicitations and referrals from satisfied clients. To help the industry thrive, Cuban authorities and government officials look the other way so that the local economy can receive the foreign currency and foreign men that sexualized travel attracts.

Sex tourism has bloomed in part as a result of "dollarization," which is the legalized use of the U.S. dollar in Cuba in addition to pesos, the national currency. The U.S. dollar was legalized in Cuba as an attempt to boost the stagnant economy but instead has created a two-tiered society in Cuba: the privileged foreigners and the underprivileged locals.

In an effort to get more tourist dollars, the government created tourist stores, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels and even taxis that are accessible to foreigners with hard currency. Dollarization, in conjunction with the embargo, has opened the door to a proliferation of prostitution called "jineterismo" (a derogatory word translated literally to "horseback riding", in colloquial form translating to "gold-digger").

Working the industry

Unlike prostitution in the U.S. and other wealthy nations, Cuban sex workers are not organized or integrated into networks controlled by "pimps" and it is not just a direct exchange of sexual relations for dollars. "Jineterismo" often means the exchange of sexual favors for food, clothing or other basic needs.

At a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Malecon, Cuba's shoreline which runs almost the entire length of Havana, scores of Cuban men can be found working as translators for the women and their potential clients in hopes of getting a small cut, perhaps a drink and on a successful day a full meal. On the streets some men remind the passing tourists that they know beautiful Cuban women who would like to know foreigners and also make the introductions between the foreign men and Cuban women.

One such man is Manuel who explained that he passes entire days trying to make such introductions. "I become richer by introducing foreign men to Cuban ladies than I would working any government paid job. All day I do this work. It is more money than working in a store or anywhere else," he remarked. "Besides, I wouldn't get a job in a hotel or restaurant because I am black. Only the white Cubans are working with tourists making dollars. In Cuba, if you have no dollars, you have nothing." When asked if he controlled the women's business he laughed and added, "No, they control my business. They give me something and the tourist gives me something for making the meeting."

Horse jockeys and gold-diggers

In Cuba, one would find that many of the "jineteras" are young and most are of African descent. Some are medical students, some used to be professors or doctors. A few continue to hold professional positions during the day and work as prostitutes in the hotels and bars at night. One thing most have in common is that they are well educated and multi-lingual.

While others call them "jiniteras", they call themselves "Cuban girlfriends" for foreigners and their job duties range from accompanying lonely businessmen on tours of Cuba to escorting them to dinner and then often back to their hotels. Generally, one of the only times a Cuban woman is let into a "tourist" hotel is when she is accompanying a foreign man.

Another thing these women have in common is their choice of prostitution as a profession is out of necessity. None of them appear to work to support drug habits or college education; they work to survive and ensure their families' survival.

"Jineterismo" as a profession has arisen largely due to the fact that it takes approximately $100 a month to live comfortably in Havana today, but government salaries in pesos are worth, at most, a fifth of that. In Cuba, a prostitute can earn in a week the equivalent of a doctor's annual salary paid by the state in pesos. Outside of the tourism industry, where workers make tips in dollars, all jobs are paid in pesos and salaries come from the Cuban government since the government runs all industries. Government salaries for professionals, such as professors and engineers, paid in pesos total close to $10 a month. Many establishments will not even accept their own national currency because of its minimal value, welcoming only U.S. dollars and making it impossible for those who do not work in the tourism industry to obtain dollars to buy goods.

Basic necessities are rationed and available at affordable prices; however, the ration amounts generally last just two weeks. People are forced to pay exorbitant free-market dollar prices to survive the rest of the month. Food rations have become the norm since Cuba does not produce enough food to feed the nation and importing food is complex due to costs and the embargo.

Another problem is that centralized planning has led to difficulties in agriculture and food distribution. With food rations being cut to malnutrition levels, the average family can live only if it somehow obtains dollars. This makes prostitution all the more appealing for women who are trying to support themselves or their families. Though prostitution does not appear to be an option for men, they are also abandoning their professional positions and choosing to work in the tourism industry as bar tenders, parking valets, bellhops and waiters in hopes of making dollars. Dollars are the means of survival in Cuba, where one in eleven people holds a university degree and there are more doctors and teachers per capita than almost any where else in the world.

A different kind of foreign aid

In speaking with men who seek "jineteras," their motivation appears clear. Feelings of being uninhibited and the ability to do many things that are not tolerated at home encourage men to enjoy the sense of exoticism that includes relations with women from different a race.

Paying for sex in Cuba is inexpensive and many say that there is less risk of arrest and fines than in their home countries. The men that frequent the tourist bars, clubs and restaurants (which are tailored for tourists, not Cubans) are from all over the world, including Germany, Canada, Spain, Italy and the U.S., despite travel restrictions. One American man said he believed he was assisting Cuban women by paying them for sexual favors on a regular basis.

His view is not unique. In fact, proponents of sex tourism bring up such arguments remarking that sex tourists are giving a kind of foreign aid. They reason that for a change the money does not disappear into the pockets of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, and it is not being spent on weapons or senseless prestige projects. Instead, it goes straight into the pockets of the poor population.

Social stigmas attached to survival

For Cuban men, opinions of the "jineteras" vary but the majority consider the "jinetera" to be ignoble wives, mothers or daughters who are greedy "whores" that are ruining Cuba's integrity.

Vladimir, who bartends at a hotel that caters to tourists, asked not to be identified and stated bitterly, "A Cuban man cannot get a Cuban woman. All she wants is tourists so she can get money. She is hoping one will marry her and take her away from here, from Cuba." When asked how he felt about this he stated, "I think they are whores! I can't get a girlfriend; nobody can get a girlfriend. If you are Cuban, they turn their noses [up] at you!"

Many Cuban men, employed and unemployed, revealed the same sense of shame, disdain and anger for the "jineteras," whom they find somewhat embarrassing and unjustified in their choice of profession. Another issue appears to be that "machismo" is being compromised as the women ("jineteras") are contributing more money to the household than the men. While their work brings shame to husbands, fathers and brothers it is often a substantial part of many families' incomes.

One sex worker, Lucy, pointed out that in some cases it is not necessarily much of a choice. Lucy had a simple response to the general male response to "jineterismo". She asked, "But do they bring money home to feed us?" Lucy candidly explained in perfect English, "They would do it too if they could, if women were always looking for sex and not able to always get it for free." In Cuba, one does not see women seeking the sexual services of men in public and therefore, the sex industry is not much of an option for men as a means of survival.

Not only does Lucy speak perfect English, she also speaks German, French, Russian and is learning Turkish so she can have an edge on the "Turkish market," as there has been an influx on Turkish men seeking Cuban women. When asked what she did before sex work she smiled, ignored the question, and mumbled that all this talk was ruining her business. Lucy said she was working that day for a $10 phone card to call her mother in southern Cuba.

Lucy's comments are echoed by other "jineteras" throughout Cuba: Women work for sex tourists because they feel they are responsible for taking care of the children and making sure that they can maintain the household economy. During shortages of soap, food, clothing and other basic necessities, they have to carefully strategize so they can provide for their families. If a woman is unable to provide her family with the basic necessities, she is considered a failure and bad mother or wife. She is left to deal with the guilt and scorn within a society that has created these terms. Unfortunately, for women working in the Cuban sex industry who find a way to provide, they are also left to deal with the guilt and shame associated with terms such as "jineterismo."

In any case, it is the women who must either make do with less, or find ways to earn more. In the struggle to survive as well as keep culture and family alive, many women will turn to whatever means are available in order to persevere. And as men leave their families and flee Cuba in search of work and better lives in richer nations, women are left with the burden of providing for themselves and their families in a society that pushes them into a way of life that it shuns.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.