recently traveled to Cuba as part of a U.S. women’s delegation, sponsored by the
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Sojourner, a feminist
newspaper, and Hermanas, an organization dedicated to building solidarity
between U.S. and Caribbean women. Away from our group, I was armed with only the
most rudimentary of Spanish skills and an Insight Map Cuba, whose retrograde
descriptions provided an interesting counterpoint to my observations.
"[Cuba] is a magical place, full of romantic images: beautiful women who are
proud of their ample hips . . . quick conversations spiked with sexual
innuendo." -Insight Map Cuba
hot ‘n nasty tone of my map isn’t much different from what many U.S. citizens
have in mind when they think of Cuban women. As one U.S. woman staying at our
hotel in Havana told me, "The first thing this guy said when I told him I was
going to Cuba was, ‘Bring me back one of those hot Cuban women, will ya?’"
this booty-call approach toward Cuban women is missing is any mention of the
achievements they have won since Fidel Castro led the Cuban Revolution 41 years
ago, overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista. Much of the progress made in
healthcare and medical advances are due in large part to the Federación de
Mujeres Cubanas (Federation of Cuban Women, or FMC), which was formed to ensure
women’s full participation in the economic, political, social, and cultural
development of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Quite a few women participated in the
armed uprising, and after their victory, many of them wanted to create an
organization to make sure that the revolution would continue to respond to the
concerns of the many women who had fought on its behalf.
Today, the FMC is the primary women’s rights group in Cuba, organized at the
block, municipal, provincial, and national levels. Open to all women over the
age of fourteen, the FMC has approximately 3.2 million members who work on
issues ranging from domestic abuse to job training for women and help create
government policy on women’s issues. They also run free childcare centers for
children under the age of seven, a great help to the women who now make up 42
percent of Cuba’s workforce.
of the FMC’s greatest accomplishments was its participation and leadership in
the government’s 1961 Literacy Campaign. In 1959, literacy in Cuba hovered
around 75 percent. Ten thousand teachers were unemployed and around 70 percent
of people living in rural areas had no schools. In 1961, led by the FMC, the
government spearheaded its year-long Literacy Campaign. All schools were closed
for eight months and 100,000 students and teachers arrived in rural areas to
teach basic literacy skills. Of those teachers, 50,000 were women and girls.
Five thousand FMC members helped create the campaign, and 20,000 FMC members
taught. Over 707,000 people, 56 percent of them women, learned to read. Cuba’s
current literacy rate is now 94.5 percent.
were also instrumental in the development of Cuba’s outstanding healthcare
system. After the revolution, more than 35,000 women were organized into health
microbrigades, walking into villages to teach women and their communities how to
eradicate diseases such as polio and malaria, improve hygiene to prevent
parasites and gastroenteritis, decrease rates of infant and maternal mortality,
and develop proper nutrition. Sex education was also a component of these
this day, the healthcare system in Cuba is strongly oriented to addressing
women’s health needs. More than half of Cuba’s doctors are women. Cuba’s
markedly low rates of HIV/AIDS are even lower for women, who are less than 25
percent of individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Abortion is free, and women have
ready access to many forms of contraception. Sex education begins at the
elementary school level. Dedicated to the idea that sex is a form of natural
human expression, Cuba’s national sex education program also teaches students
about mutually respectful sexual attitudes and safer sex techniques. And
although homophobia resulted in devastating purges of lesbian, gay, bisexual,
and transgender individuals twenty years ago, educational work on rectifying
attitudes and discrimination towards queer people began in 1986. This shift in
attitude began at a conference in the 1970s, where Havana educators declared
that homosexuality was "a matter that needed further study," according to Sonja
de Vries’s Cuba Update article "Homosexuality, Socialism and the Cuban
Revolution." The ensuing discussion of homophobia and of the contributions of
queer individuals to the Revolution eventually led to the 1986 Comisión Nacional
de Educación Sexual (National Commission on Sex Education or NCSE) rectification
campaign to educate all Cubans about queer issues.
NCSE and the FMC and other Cuban feminists have also turned their attention to
the issue that has begun to dominate foreign imaginations and media on Cuban
read about jineteras in U.S. media and had wondered about the true severity of
the issue–as someone whose parents are from Thailand, I’ve become somewhat
irritable about the many articles trumpeting the horrors of acres of pliant,
brown flesh for sale. So when I read about Cuban prostitution, it seemed like
the usual media need to recycle the same three depictions of international
women: subjects of "bizarre" cultural practices, poverty-stricken victims of
their governments’ incompetence, or unhappy prostitutes.
see a few jineteras in Cuba, but not as many as the articles had led me to
expect. Two young women came to the hotel the first night I was there, and every
night after. That first night, they showed up on the hotel porch, kissing all
the men seated there as they made their way over to a secluded corner table. The
white woman had long brown hair, a long face. The black woman had a wide mouth,
a kerchief in her hair, a hot lime green skirt. They sat in a corner, waiting,
while a table of Frenchmen lingered over their cigars.
a while, a man roared up in a taxi, bringing two young Cuban women. Two of the
Frenchmen left with them. The leftover guy sidled over to the corner table.
There was laughing, leaning in, a touch on the knee. The woman in the lime skirt
pulled his glasses off so she could try them on. Prostitution had flourished
during Batista’s oppressive 1940s-era regime, but had been dramatically reduced
by post-Revolution efforts to increase educational and employment opportunities
prostitution in Cuba has seen a resurgence within the past decade, for many
reasons. When Eastern European communism started to unravel in 1989, Cuba lost
around five billion U.S. dollars a year from the ending of the Soviet Union’s
above-market prices for Cuban exports-a devastating amount for Cuba’s economy.
Faced with dwindling trade and credit, Castro was forced to declare a five-year
"special period" austerity program in August 1990. Worsening Cuba’s economic
woes, President George Bush signed the 1992 "Cuban Democracy Act" (CDA), which
tightened the original 1961 U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. Ninety percent of
the trade banned by the CDA consists of food, medicine, and medical equipment.
response to Cuba’s growing hardship, in 1993, Castro declared that Cuban
citizens would be allowed to hold U.S. dollars, open dollar bank accounts, and
spend their dollars at special hard-currency stores. As the government began to
promote tourism and open the economy to foreign investment, a steady stream of
dollars started to flow into the country. But too often it seems, these dollars
are attached to men who are willing to pay for the sexual services of Cuban
Jineterismo (literally, "horse-riding,") encompasses a wide range of behaviors
involving illegally making money from tourists by offering escort, guide, or
sexual services, and accepting or asking for tips, dinners, drinks, or expensive
gifts as payment. Far more women than men engage in this activity, and far more
of the women tend to be dark-skinned or are Afro-Cubans, according to Jan Strout,
a Cuban solidarity activist, in her Socialist Review article, "Women, the
Politics of Sexuality, and Cuba’s Economic Crisis." Some of this racial
discrepancy, Cuban feminists have theorized, might be related to the fact that
most of the Cubans who left the country in 1959 and now send money back to their
Cuban relatives are lighter-skinned and live primarily in the United States.
Darker-skinned women without these resources are in greater need of the dollars
that prostitution can provide.
Foreign men’s fascination with the "exotic mulatta/African" woman may also
contribute to the higher numbers of dark-skinned women working as prostitutes,
according to Strout. She notes,
Racism and the sexual double standard create a market for the exotic/erotic
Other. The influx of foreign men seeking sexual partners who are racially and
culturally different, coupled with the sexual double standard’s separation of
women into "good" and "bad" ones, reinforces the desirability of these
darker-skinned Cuban women.
where women in pre-revolutionary Cuba turned to prostitution largely out of
economic need, many women today see prostitution as a way to obtain access to
luxuries and services not available to those who have only pesos. According to
studies and extensive interviews by Cuban feminists, many jineteras are quite
young, and are "not aware of the risks associated with prostitution such as
violence, drugs, AIDS . . . and crime," according to Strout. After a period of
severe economic austerity, in which the daily caloric intake in Cuba fell to an
average of 2,000 calories, and simultaneous development of a glamorous tourist
sector, prostitution can seem an appealing alternative to a ration card, "power
shortages, overcrowded housing, interminable lines, and lousy TV fare,"
according to Coco Fusco’s September/October 1996 Ms. Magazine article, "Hustling
rates of prostitution began to rise, Cuban feminists began to address the issue
with a wide range of tactics. The FMC launched outreach programs to jineteras,
and began studies on materials used to promote tourism abroad. The Asociación de
Mujeres Comunicadoras (Association of Women Communicators or MAGIN, which has
since dissolved) began training programs for tourism planners, management, and
investors on responsible depictions of Cuban women. Other Cuban feminists have
focused their energies on correcting the government’s inconsistent responses to
the issue, which has ranged from indifference to harsh crackdowns on jineteras.
According to Strout, "A number of feminists have called for a shift in emphasis:
Don’t attack the supply of jineteras, attack the demand for them."