Cuba: Sex, Lies, & Tourists

exclusive feature
João Cerqueira

{photo via Flickr}

Since opening its doors to international tourism Cuba has been considered one of the top destinations for tourists looking for sex. The combination of relaxed customs, the warm weather and poverty form the perfect blend to make the island a great sex tourism destination. Although men are the main users of this type of tourism, women travel to Cuba for the same reasons.

When I went to Cuba for the first time, in 1996, I came across something I had never seen anywhere in the world. Before I’d even left the airport, I witnessed dramatic farewells between tourists and Cubans, with many tearful scenes and desperate hugging. Outside, dozens of young women, forming a kind of reception committee, were awaiting the arrival of tourists who had just landed. They waved cheerfully at us and invited us over to them. The whole thing was so bizarre; somewhere between comical and depressing.

Travelling in the company of two male friends we were then approached by a group of three girls. Wearing very short dresses, they couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. After a brief introduction, during which time we told them where we from and where we were going to stay, they asked us if we wanted some girlfriends to show us Havana. We politely declined the offer and went to the hotel.

In Cuba, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, this was not the kind of women we were hoping to meet. We had set our sights much higher. We dreamed of seducing Cuban top models, dancers at the Tropicana and other tropical beauties not usually available to tourists. A plan concocted by many young single males when travelling with friends, I suppose.

The next day we decided to visit the historic centre, or Habana Vieja.

As we walked from the Hotel Sevilla, we made the acquaintance of more girls, but also of cigar sellers and other citizens, from whom we requested information. In Cuba it is perfectly normal to approach anyone on the street and start up a conversation - as long as you can speak Spanish. No one is offended, no one fears being robbed or assaulted. That said, at the time of our trip tourists were still a novelty for locals, who were eager to ask them questions and to find out what life was like away from the island. So, by the evening we had already spoken to several Cubans and had learned things about the country that you would never find in travel guides. Besides the inevitable political and social issues, we learned that Italians were amongst the more numerous tourist groups. Italian men were very successful with the ladies and were almost all entrepreneurs or film actors. The remaining tourists worked in a range of professions, but the Italians, it appeared, were only devoted to industry and showbiz.

What fools, we thought, surely they were only exposing themselves to ridicule. The Cubans are an educated people, everyone - especially women -, would surely laugh in the Italians’ faces. We would never have invented such a chat-up line! We were teachers and engineers and proud of it. We would continue to be so in Havana. So, sitting in Cathedral Square, flanked by the baroque church and the eighteenth-century palaces, we made fun of the Italians, as we toasted to our success with mojitos.

The following night, after we had dined at the Floridita, we went to the Tropicana, where we were convinced the dancers would prove powerless to our European charm. After all, we were young, fit, friendly, and well-dressed, and with no need to invent a fake chat-up persona to get lucky with the ladies.

The Tropicana is an open-air cabaret in the middle of a rainforest created in 1939. Big names such as Nat King Cole and Josephine Baker once performed here. Dominated by the American Mafia during the time of Batista, the Tropicana was nationalised after the Castro Revolution, and remained one of the few nightlife venues not to be closed. Nowadays, it puts on an exotic music and dance show where the stars are black and mulatto girls with sculptural bodies. There are great singers and musicians, but the main reason it has become a major tourist attraction and source of revenue is its semi-naked, feather-clad beauties.

For anyone interested in racial issues, the fact that there are no white dancers at the Tropicana provides cause for reflection. Is this a form of positive discrimination of the black race? Or is it quite the opposite, and nothing more than a case of racial exploitation of the stereotype linking black women to sexual folly? And what should we make of a "ban" on white women on the show?

At the end of the show, we asked the waiter serving us drinks if it would be possible to meet the dancers. With no sign of surprise he told us that he would see to it. And so, twenty minutes later, three amazing women appeared, all six-foot plus, and sat down at our table. They proved educated, courteous and slightly distant, to show clearly that they were not prostitutes. In fact, their attitude demanded nothing but respect, leading me to believe that nobody would ever dare put their hand on their legs or make indecent proposals to them - not even our fake Robert de Niros and Al Pacinos from Milan or Rome. One of them came straight to point concerning relationships between tourists and Cuban women. She did not deny that for reasons of survival many girls and boys became involved with foreigners to earn a few dollars, or just so they could dine in fine restaurants, attend shows, or spend time in destinations such as Cayo Largo and Cayo Coco. But is Cuba alone in this kind of behaviour? Where in the world could you say that rich men and women are not surrounded by people offering their bodies to be able to benefit from this wealth? Besides, why should young Cubans be denied the right to have fun just like young Europeans or Americans, having adventures with strangers?

It all seemed entirely logical to us and the only difference between them and us was just the fact that we had been born in different countries. Wouldn’t we do all that we could to survive if our wages were no more than twenty dollars? We had found the right women. If we treated them with dignity and respect, we might just get lucky... Our plan was as follows: in the following days we would invite them to go to the beach, to stroll around town, to dine out and go clubbing. In Europe, and perhaps the rest of the world, this seduction technique usually works.

And that’s just what we did. For three days we went with our new friends to the beach, visited monuments, strolled along the Malécon, dined out and danced Salsa. We learned that their grandparents had lived in the time of Baptist; that their parents had a host of occupations including mechanic, nurse, housewife and teacher; that they thought most tourists were disrespectful; and that they wanted to leave Cuba - but not at any price. And when questioned about boyfriends they just made vague comments about "friends" who lived abroad. Everything was going to plan, although - in our opinion - something should have happened already.
And indeed, something did happen, but not in the way we expected it would.

The following morning, one of our friends turned up at the hotel and asked to speak to me. I went down to reception to meet her (in Cuba locals are not allowed to enter hotels unaccompanied or to enter the rooms without being registered as guests). With a look of embarrassment, she told me that they could no longer go out with us.

"But why?" I asked in disappointment.

"Because a group of Italian friends is arriving tomorrow. This is the second time they’ve come here and we have a very close relationship. They are going to take us to Italy so that we can appear in a movie."

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