A Letter from Cuba, Part II: Cuban Women, Beyond Prostitution


Thrupkaew

I

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

The

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?’"

What

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.

One

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.

Women

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

microbrigades’ agendas.

To

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.

The

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

women-prostitution.

I had

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.

I did

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.

After

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

for women.

But

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.

In

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

women.

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.

But

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

for Dollars."

After

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."

 

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