by Ryan Kearney
It’s my first night out in Cuba and already I’m surrounded by women who want to sell themselves to me. I just don’t know it yet.My friend Christian and I have followed a 39-year-old Danish man to an ornate mansion-cum-nightclub on the suburban outskirts of Havana, and with him are two young Cuban womengirls, reallyhe met earlier in the day. The room is dim with high ceilings and it’s steadily filling up with locals whom, based on the $10 all-you-can-drink cover, must be slightly less poor than the average Cuban. Either that, or they’re allowed in for freeto act as tourist bait.The Dane and I are sitting at a flimsy plastic table, in plastic fold-up chairs, drinking mojitos out of disposable plastic cups. The two girls, meanwhile, are sitting at eavesdropping distance, but they don’t speak a lick of English, so the Dane launches into a story about the previous night. First, though, he wants to make one thing clear: “I never pay for sex.”
I don’t put much stock in those words. Just minutes earlier, he had told me that during the bloody “biker war” in Denmark in the mid-1990s, he shot at rivals and dynamited homes. Five of his friends were killed. He wouldn’t say whether he, in turn, actually killed anyone. Which means…yes.
Thus, when the burly Dane, with his spiky, dyed-blonde hair and tattooed forearms, tells me he never pays for sex, I don’t believe him. But there’s also no need to upset this man, and I keep my mouth shut.
The story goes like this: He met a Cuban woman at a club last night. They danced, they flirted, they kissed. At the end of the night, she went home with him and they had sex. It seemed obvious enougha one-night stand, right?but this morning she asked him for $80. This might have been a miscommunication, seeing as the Dane’s Spanish skills are limited to “cuanto cuesta?” and “hola,” but I doubt it.
I ask the obvious: “Did you pay her?”
“Yes, of course,” he says, sounding as helpless as a murderous biker ever could. “I had to.”
In 2004, along with tens of thousands of other Americans that year, I traveled illegally to Cubaas much an act of curiosity as rebellion. The U.S. embargo, by prohibiting Americans from spending money in Cuba, also acts as a travel ban, and I, like the deviant child of overbearing parents, wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Getting there was easy enough. Christian and I flew to Cancun, Mexico, and booked a flight to Havana for the following day. Air Cubana’s plane was perhaps 40 years old, with clunky metal latches on the overhead compartments, boxy stewardess call buttons, baby blue décor and zero legroom. For several minutes after takeoff, cold vapor plumed from beneath my feet, clouding the entire row.
No matter. We landed without incident at José Martí International Airport, where we were issued tourist cardsour passports went unmarked the entire tripand within moments we were rolling towards Havana in a Japanese-model taxi, my asthmatic lungs shuddering from the exhaust of Studebakers and other ancient American cars rumbling ahead of us.
We spent our days walking around the dilapidated city, occasionally being accosted by jineterosmen who, working for tips or commissions, illegally tout cheap cigars, rooms and paladares (in-home restaurants). At night we went dancing or sat around our casa particular (a home with a license to rent rooms). One evening, President Fidel Castro, then 77 years old, delivered one of his epic speeches on TV. He was denouncing the U.S. government, occasionally pounding his fist to punctuate a point, but the whole performance felt like a meaningless volley in a decades-long grudge match. As he stood there, slumped against the podium with all his weight, he couldn’t have looked more comfortable if he were lying in bed.
Later that night, the owners of the casa particular, a married couple, introduced us to their 17-year-old daughter. We greeted her in passable Spanish, then she disappeared and the couple, in not so discreet language, asked if we would like to sleep with her. Blushing, we declined their offer.
“We have girlfriends in the United States,” I lied.
“Sí, claro,” they said, disappointed. “Está bien.”
Then we sat down in the living room as if nothing unordinary had happened. Siezing the opportunity, I summoned the courage to mention how, during several nights out, women had approached me on the dance floor and proposed having sex for $80.
“Do all young Cuban women offer themselves to tourists?” I asked.
The man didn’t even blink. “Sí,” he said, nodding in concert with his wife. “Todas.” All of them.
I didn’t stay in Havana for long. Christian and I wanted fewer tourists, fewer cars, less noise. Someone had suggested Trinidad, a mid-sized town on the south coast. We went. It turned out to be a hidden gem: a beautiful town near the beach with cobblestone streets and colonial facades painted in crisp, pastel colors. It wasn’t overrun with tourists, nor was it the sort of place I expected much, if any, prostitution.
Within minutes of dropping our backpacks in a casa particular, the middle-aged owner came upstairs and, apropos of nothing, began promoting her daughter, a dentist in her late 20s. “She doesn’t have a husband,” the woman said. “She doesn’t have a boyfriend. She doesn’t have anyone.”
Was she selling her daughter? Or just hoping a rich foreigner would fall in love with the young woman? In either case, this lady was talking to the wrong guys. At $15 a night, our room cost as much as we had hoped to spend in an entire day. We blushed and began quietly unpacking. She got the point.
While her intentions were unclear, those of other women in Trinidad were not. Here, there weren’t the street prostitutes one sometimes sees in Havanaand in most busy cities of the worldwho have pimps and 8-hour shifts. But the more discreet form, the whispers made in bars, is ever-present. They’re young women in clubs who flirt with male tourists in the hopes of getting free drinks and cigarettes. If all goes well, maybe they’ll offer to go home with himfor $80, of course. In a better world, these women might actually sleep with tourists for more legitimate reasonslike, say, drunken lustbut Cubans are poor and sex tourists are prevalent. Do the math.
Walking around town one quiet Thursday night, Christian and I were drawn to a gaudy neon sign that read “Fresa y Chocolate.” There was a door and a man standing there. We decided to check it out.
The club was dark and small, with a bar 12 feet long and maybe half a dozen tables. Beyoncé was singing “Baby Boy,” but nobody was dancing on the small raised platform that passed for a dance floor. In fact, there weren’t many people at all. Sitting in a row against the far wall, several young Cuban women stared at ussome expectantly, others impassively. We sidled up to the bar, desperate for some anonymity.
We drank our first Cuba librerum and cokeout of boredom. We drank our second for comfort. We drank our third for confidence. Then we drank for no reason but to drink and be drunk, and as we lost awareness of time the club seemed to fill up in a matter of minutes. We danced to a CD mix of American and Latin pop songs, set on repeat, and did so with strangers, with women who smiled and flirted and, yes, kissed us. Being imperfect, we kissed back. But over and over again, out came that figure$80quoted with such astonishing consistency I wondered if there was a regulatory agency setting the market rate. Bewildered, we returned to our table to find two Cuban guys chugging our beers.
Not that I didn’t consider paying for sex. Drunk, recently single, in a foreign country full of gorgeous womenhow would it not cross my mind? While in Trinidad, I was reading Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, and I recalled the protagonist, Converse, confronting and overriding the “moral objection” to drug dealing by thinking, “If this world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high.” I wondered if I could override the moral objection to prostitution in a similar way. If this world is going to contain children left limbless by “precision” bombs and suicidal zealots, then naturally people are going to want to pay for sex.
But I knew I couldn’t. I had paid for sex in Mexico not so long ago, and it left me with a tightness in my stomach for weeks. I ached just thinking about itthe woman, a single mother, giving me her home address for God knows whyand I vowed never to do it again. I might buy women drinks and dance with them and even kiss them, knowing what they’re after, but that’s where it would end. I had enough regrets.
It became my and Christian’s mission, then, to meet locals who weren’t after our wallets. Nights passed without success, but just when it seemed hopeless, we met a group of friends who locked arms with us and invited us into their homes, who even broke the law by cooking us free meals and finding us cheap, unlicensed rooms to rent.
And how did we repay these beautiful people? We got two of them arrested.
When you earn around $10 a month, even food rations, free healthcare and subsidized housing don’t suffice. You’ll do almost anything for money. And if you’re a woman in Cuba, where tourism is the number-one industry thanks to almost 2 million visitors per year, the quickest, most apparent way to make a small fortune is to prostitute yourself.
It’s risky. According to several Cubans I know, the penalty for female prostitution can be as severe as four years in prison, and if a man pimps a woman he may get as many as 20 years. At least, that seems to be the general consensus. (The law in Cuba isn’t always exact.) Other people told me that prostitutes are only fined, and still others say that in addition to prison, women are sentenced to hard labor. Perhaps it’s best to say that the penalty is whatever the authorities decide on that particular day.
Prostitution surged after Cuba legalized the use of U.S. currency in 1993, as though the dollar suddenly made Cubans aware of, and desperate to escape, their poverty. Which may be true: The surge was partly attributed to the unequal exchange rate between the Cuban peso and the dollar (26:1 at the time of my visit). In October, 2004, Castro banned transactions in dollars, effectively ending its use by tourists, which simply means that now tourists useand Cubans covetthe Euro.
From time to time the Cuban government cracks down on prostitution by arresting hundreds of “suspects” at a time, a carpet-bomb approach that’s meant to scare the populace. It works. My friends in Trinidad were constantly on the lookout for la policia. Our nights often began at Casa de la Musica, an outdoor venue with live salsa where, after taking a seat on the stone steps, my friends would furtively look around, noting every policeman in the crowd. It had the feel of a drug deal. But I didn’t appreciate the threat la policia posed until my one of my final nights in town.
The Friday crowd at Casa de la Musica was particularly large, and several policemen lingered on the perimeter. William and Barbaro, two contagiously happy Cubans in their mid-20s, joined Christian and me. William was a smooth talker who knew everyone in town; he hustled tips and commissions from undiscerning tourists. Barbaro was his sincere counterpart, a dreamer who idolized U2 and worked his tail off at an Internet café to support his timid parents and his sarcastic twin sister, Barbara. She didn’t come out that night, but her best friend, Yaliuva, did. A shy, disaffected 19-year-old, Yaliuva was already a divorcéehe ex was an abusive alcoholicand the mother of a 16-month-old girl. She had brought along a girlfriend whom I didn’t know.
We hadn’t even broken the seal on our bottle of Havana Club when a mustached man in civilian clothes approached us and ordered the two women to stand up. He asked them several questions, privately, then promptly led them down the steps to a police van that carted them off.
William and Barbaro were overcome withhow to describe it?resigned fury. Barbaro, wearing a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt emblazoned with the American flag and the word “freedom,” pointed at his chest and made an exaggerated frown. “Not here,” he said. In the two weeks since I’d met these guys, that’s the closest either of them came to criticizing their government.
I was furious. I wanted to run down to the police station to sort it outthat is, to yell at someone, anyone, in uniformbut they insisted otherwise, saying it would only make matters worse. “I don’t get it,” I said. “Why were they arrested?” William and Barbaro just shrugged. This is what la policia do sometimes, they told me. There doesn’t need to be a reason.
More women were arrested that nightan order had been issued, it seemed. William and Barbaro went to the station to lobby for the women’s release, and Christian went home, leaving me alone and helpless in the plaza, awaiting news. A Cuban man in his thirties walked over and introduced himself by his nickname: Yankee. Fittingly, he wore a Yankees hat, the brim pulled low to cast a shadow over large burn scars on his face. He said he’d just been released by la policia, who had detained him earlier in the night for talking with two British girls.
“It’s fucking shit, man,” he said in English. “We have beautiful country. Nice weather, nice people. But the system is shit.”
As we talked, I recognized a Cuban woman who, I knew for a fact, had recently prostituted herself to an Italian tourist. She was flirting with another tourist, openly, while several police officers strolled by without so much as a glance.
I was dumbfounded. “Why aren’t the police doing anything?” I asked.
“They probably know her,” he said. “Or want to fuck her.”
How poor are Cubans? Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but this much is true: They’re poor enough that when five of them, all teens, jumped me on a Havana side street one night, throwing me to the ground and stomping and punching me, they not only stole $10 cash, but my belt and sneakers, too. They even went for my jeans, which I kept only by kicking with all my might.
I found my way to a nearby police station and discovered what Cuban officers do when they’re not arresting people without cause: They stand around and do nothing. Even after I told them what had happened, they sat me down and continued to stand around, doing nothing. After 15 minutes passed, I asked what was going on. Someone was coming to speak with me, they said. Wait.
“I think I’ll just go home,” I replied.
They didn’t like that. They frowned, said no, that’s impossible. I had to wait. My instinct, naturally, was to flee the station the minute their backs were turned, and off I went, as though I had committed a crime, sprinting down dark streets in my socks and sagging jeans. I never looked back, but I suspect the policemen didn’t bother running after me.
I had returned to Havana a couple of days after the arrests in Trinidad, where the women were held for 12 hours in a cold, rat-infested cell, and then released without an explanation. The implication was that they shouldn’t have been socializing with two male tourists. Departing Trinidad on that note left me hollow and conflicted, and the mugging gave me the excuse I needed to return to Trinidad before my flight back to Mexico.
My first stop, once off the bus, was the police station. Yaliuva, who came with me, had said that, as a male tourist, I could get written permission to socialize with her and her friends. All I had to do was go to the station and say, essentially, “Hey, these women are my friends, and I’m not paying them for sex.”
The officer at the front desk said the police don’t handle such requests. He told us to go to the immigration office next door, which was closed. We returned the following morning, when, again, it was closed, even though we had arrived during regular office hours. We went back to the police station, where yet another policeman said we needed to go to immigration. We returned to the immigration office, which had since opened, and a man there immediately told us, “Go to the police station.”
Ready to start a revolution of my own, I went back to the police station and insisted on speaking to someone who wouldn’t send me next door. Alas, I found such a man. Like all men in power here, he had a mustache. He led us upstairs, sat us down on a couch in the lobby and told us to wait. Then he struck up a conversation with two other officers about nothing of any importance whatsoever.
To kill time, I read a sign above Yaliuva’s head that detailed “the moral and legal rights of Cuban citizens,” then I fell under the spell of an educational biology program on TV. I watched larvae wriggle in the grooves of a tree trunk. A butterfly took flight for the first time. A snail crept along the ocean floor, leaving behind a clean groove in the sand.
Lifetimes were beginning and ending before my eyes.
Yaliuva nudged me and told me to speak up; as a woman, she was in no position to do so. I asked the same officer how long it would be before someone helped us, and he decided that, yes, actually, he was the exact person I should be talking to. Could I explain the problem again?
Speaking slowly to avoid any confusion, I said in Spanish, “I want. Permission. To be with my friends. In public.”
“There’s no such thing,” he said.
I explained the details of the arrestthat the women were jailed without ever being charged with a crime.
“En Trinidad?” he asked, his eyes opened wide. As if such injustice would never happen here, not in a million years.
“Sí,” I said, pointing at the ground. “Aquí.” I demanded an explanationwhich is to say, I furrowed my brow, threw out my arms and asked, “Why?”
He shrugged. “Un error,” he said, and turned his back to me.
I’m sitting in José Martí airport, waiting to board another rickety Air Cubana plane, and I am not at ease. My final days in Trinidad were uneventfulby all accounts, a good thing. But I keep remembering what Yaliuva told me: that, after a couple more arrests, however unjustified, she could be put behind bars for several years. I remember apologizing again and again. I remember hugging her goodbye. And I remember the housefly that landed on her shoulder blade and stared at me, rubbing its forelegs together, scheming.
I need a distraction.
On a wall-mounted TV nearby, a Cuban man in a low-budget music video is singing to an over-processed Afro-Cuban beat. His white button-down shirt is half-opened, and it flutters in the wind to reveal a gold medallion around his neck. With his heavily ringed fingers, he points at a soiled white high-rise along the beach behind him, points as if he owns it, then holds up a wad of U.S. bills and shakes it at the camera, both teasingly and menacingly, and grins so widely it scares me.
Meanwhile, in front of me sits a hulking American arcade game, “Gunblade: Special Air Assault Force NY.” The intro begins. It’s July 12, 2005, 10:03 a.m. A tractor-trailer rolls into Times Square, stops, and out leap three superhumans firing rockets in all directions. Cars are exploding, people are dyingit’s happening all over the city. Twelve minutes later, two uniformed men board a helicopter on a carrier in Lower New York Bay. The copter rises and angles off, passes the outstretched hand of the Statue of Liberty, then whips through the screen on its way to Manhattan. Your mission, Player 1, should you choose to accept it: save America.
I’m itching to play, to grab one of the mounted machine guns and just blow these beasts to pieces, but Cuba has squeezed me of all my cash. I’m condemned to watch the intro on repeat, as explosions rock New York over and over againuntil, that is, two blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids rush over and grab the guns with their parents, also blonde, in pursuit. Scandinavians, I presumelike the Dane. I had forgotten about him, but now I remember the last time I saw him, the end of my first night out in Havana.
Later on at the club, one of the two Cuban girls who had accompanied him, a 17-year-old with fire-truck-red hair, appeared on his lap and started making out with him. It all happened rather quickly, but for good reason: When there’s no common language between you, there’s nothing else to do but make outeven if, as the Dane astutely noted while the girl was in the bathroom, “She’s young enough to be my daughter.”
In the late hours we left in a cab that dropped us off in Central Havana. The redhead’s equally young friend offered herself to Christian. He said he had a girlfriend, but this hardly discouraged the short, plump girl, who started at $80 and, a capitalist at heart, dropped it by $20 each time he said no. Finally, as though making an irresistible concession, she said he wouldn’t have to pay a thing. That he still declined her offer was too much for her to take. She cupped her hands to her face and there, in the middle of the street, dwarfed by the city’s crumbling buildings, she started bawling.
We tried to console her, but she broke free and trudged down the street, alone, zigzagging to avoid Havana’s deep holes. The Dane and the redhead followed several paces back, their silhouettes passing in and out of shadows. They were dead silentthey’d exchanged just a few sentences all nightbut really, there was no need for words. His arm around her shoulder said it all.
Ryan Kearney is a writer living in Marblehead, MA.