Prostitution In Cuba Throughout History

Since the economic crises of the 90s – the “Special Period in Time of Peace” – Cuba has become one of the prime destinations for sex tourism alongside Thailand, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic. Prostitution in Cuba has shifted several times due to factors such as the government and the focus on foreigners. With the government involving themselves in change within Cuba, this allowed prostitution to evolve in numerous of ways. Prostitution evolving allowed it to benefit sex workers, foreigners, business owners and even the government. It is important to understand the history of prostitution in order to fully comprehend Cuba’s history and its connection with women’s lives. Many women in Cuba did not choose to be involved in a labor workforce or become a housewife. Recognizing why numerous of women choose to be a sex worker and not what was expected of them can allow others to see the importance of prostitution in Cuba, from a sex workers perspective. To understand prostitution in Cuba, one must research different time periods, which is what I aimed to do in this critical essay.

Before the Revolution, Cuba was dependent on the United States. During this time, social class was determined by race. Women during this age would choose to mate with a man who had a lighter complexion in order to produce lighter children. This would allow higher status for not only their children, but the women themselves. Female participation in the labor force and other areas of public life increased in the beginning of the 1930s as a result of progressive laws inspired by the United States, women’s access to institutional education and their determination to secure women’s rights. Though this remained a fact, women still did not have any professional qualifications, which limited the available jobs for them. This could be the reason why the number of women active in the entertainment industry increased. By the 1920s there were about 7,000 bards in Havana and the number of prostitutes soared. For most women, prostitution could have been seen as an easy alternative to gain money fast and allow them to distance themselves from the struggle of getting a decent paying job.

With race being a prime issue in Cuba, discrimination was also evident within the context of prostitution. Prostitutes of specific caliber had access to certain areas ranging from bars and dance academies. Only prostitutes who were white or mulatto would be hired into certain brothels. This factor influenced the economic differences between prostitutes who were of different races. Prostitutes with a lighter complexion were higher up on the social status. The issue regarding race can stem from tourists from North America who brought their views with them. Louis Pérez (1999) stated that since the 1920s, American consumed helped shape Cuba according to their ideals and perceived necessities. America’s obsession with race and linking it to a higher social status has been seen as highly influential since its views traveled to a different country, effecting the entire social order.

During the 80s, the Castro government undertook a series of measures, based on its Marxist-inspired ideology, that aimed at eliminating social and economic inequality (Kummels, 2005). Though the role of a traditional housewife was discouraged, women were still being discriminated in the work place. The government’s efforts at eliminating inequality within genders such as placing women in labor jobs failed to eliminate or help women gain equality. Placing women in labor jobs was one of the factors that the government hoped to discourage prostitution. In addition to this, the government eliminated a large part of the pre-revolution entertainment industry, as these activities were seen to a certain extent going hand in hand with prostitution (Kummels, 2005). Many common places that prostitution was popular such as cabarets and casinos, were forced to close. The government closed all the brothels and sought to assimilate ex-prostitutes into society by teaching them reading and writing, sewing and other crafts (Kummels, 2005). This process of re-education was completed in 1965 and consequently prostitution and the hustler networks were considered to have been virtually abolished from the island (Más Farías, 2004).

Though the government fought to abolish prostitution, several factors led to a reappearance of prostitution in the new form of jineterismo. Women who exchange sexual services for dollars from tourists are referred to as jineteras, which means ‘jockeys. Jineteras were women wo specifically targeted foreigners in order to obtain basic products and support their families. Cuban analysts Sara Más Farias (2004) portrayed the jineteras who cater to foreign tourists as working women with a relatively high level of education who help their families financially. Jineteras were viewed differently than most women who were prostitutes. This being because when they were seen with a tourist by other Cubans, it automatically gave the woman a certain social standing. Whether race was a factor in the amount of work a jinetera was able to gain is an unanswered question. Race was an important factor before the revolution in regard to the prostitution industry.

O’Connell Davidson (1996) distinguished two main groups of jineteras. One group of jineteras lives in areas that include tourist centers, making it easier to gain sex work. The other group of jineteras lives in other villages and towns, away from tourist centers, making it harder for them to profit from any foreigners. This being because there are laws that do not allow migrants to obtain a job in these areas. If migrants are caught, the police will return them to their residence. Though jineteras were a new form of prostitution and many benefited from their experiences with foreigners, numerous of sex workers were still being controlled. One group who is infamously known to control sex workers and their freedom are the police. Dr. Ingrid Kummels interviews a sex worker named Maria Elena in which Elena states,

If the police pick you up, you have to give them money or go to bed with them, otherwise they will take you to the police station. If they catch you several times, then they will imprison you in Villa Delicias. The policewomen there offer to set you free, but only if you continue to prostitute yourself and sell drugs to tourists. You usually consent to their proposal, so you won’t have to stay in jail. 

Not only were policemen forcing themselves to benefit from sex workers, but policewomen were as well. Regardless if they were women, there was no sympathy or compassion towards sex workers and other networks such as police saw a way to make a profit out of them. Forcing them to give drugs to tourists or they give up their freedom can show that corruption is still evident in the government.

Analyzing prostitution during specific time periods shows that all women in Cuba did not want to be a traditional mother, lover or wife. Women chose to be in the prostitution industry for numerous of reasons such as financial support for their family and in the case of jineteras, higher social standing for themselves. When jineterismo was introduced in Cuba, it was a major development in the act of prostitution. Sex workers were able to increase their social ranking just by being associated with foreigners. Though there has been research regarding prostitution in Cuba, all of the relevant and vital information is not always available. Studies of Cuban prostitution have suffered from the fact that scholarly work concerning Cuba in general is politically instrumentalized. The Cuban government does not allow the entire truth of their doings or the Cuban lifestyle to be easily accessed to outsiders. It is difficult to identify the entire history and truth regarding prostitution in Cuba, since resources are limited, or mis constructed. It is evident that prostitution has been present in Cuba for numerous of years and still remains present today. 

09 March 2021
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