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Chasing the good life


Chasing the good life
Tourism takes off...

They are strung out like pearls along the Malecón, dazzling in crotch-high miniskirts and form-fitting spandex. When night falls in Havana hundreds of young girls, black, white and mestizo take up positions along the waterfront. They pose singly or in pairs, a respectful 40 or 50 metres apart, hands on hips, legs bare and breasts partly exposed as bait for passing motorists. On any given night there are hundreds of jinoteras, as they are known locally, looking for customers. Many are teenagers, no more than 13 or 14, fresh from the countryside; others are teachers or factory workers drawn by the lure of making more in a single night than they can earn working in a month.

Mass tourism and the legalization of the dollar have given a new life to prostitution. Before 1959, the sex industry was a major money-spinner and brothels peppered Havana and other cities. When Fidel Castro came to power he saw prostitution as an affront to Cuban women. One of the first things he did was to shut down the whorehouses, jail the pimps and provide training and jobs for the women. Within two years prostitution was wiped out. It was one of the Revolution’s proudest achievements. Now with the hard times of the 1990s prostitution is on an upswing. But while many Cubans are embarrassed and upset by the change, others are in deep denial.

Officially, organizations like the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC) deny the link between mass tourism and increasing prostitution. FMC spokesperson Celia Berges Diaz explains patiently and at great length that ‘tourism is not to blame’. Instead she lays the blame on the ‘poor values’ of the women themselves.

‘All social problems tend to increase in times of economic crisis and prostitution is no exception,’ she explains. ‘We find these women have poor moral and social development and that they prefer material things to normal values of love and family.’ And she adds: ‘Economic needs affect all Cuban women but the majority have chosen to work harder; only a minority has chosen the quick way to get goods.’

She’s right in that jinoterismo is more than a question of material needs or absolute poverty. As one student moonlighting as a part-time prostitute in old Havana said: ‘I want to experience something more in life, to go to the clubs, wear fine clothes and go dancing.’ And who can blame her when thousands of foreign tourists flood the country bringing with them a lifestyle which will never be within reach of the average Cuban?

The country has decided to go full throttle on tourist development. Italian, Spanish and Canadian tourists are flocking to the island and investment in the industry is booming. There were joint ventures worth $600 million on the go in 1997 and dozens of new resorts are in the works. Already Varadero, the beach strip east of Havana, looks like Cancun or Miami with miles of glitzy, high-rise hotels lining the shore.

Over a million tourists visited the island last year and for the first time tourism edged out sugar as the number one foreign- exchange earner. The Government hopes to have more than two million visitors a year by the turn of the century. That’s roughly one tourist for every two Cubans. The impact is bound to be huge – and not just in relation to prostitution.

Jinoterismo means more than selling sex. The word is used to describe all those who try to latch onto the tourist dollar: whether they’re beggars, freelance tour guides, drug dealers or hustlers selling pilfered rum and cigars. Their numbers keep growing. After the dollar was legalized the flow of migrants from the countryside into Havana jumped from 10,000 to over 26,000 a year.

Worried by the inflow, the Government clamped down on the free movement of its citizens by restricting internal migration. Nonetheless, thousands of newcomers continue to be drawn to Havana and other tourist enclaves.

Supporters of the tourism push say the country has no choice. The Cuban social critic Juan Antonio Blanco calls tourism ‘chemotherapy for the economy’. Blanco argues that maintaining Cuba’s free education, healthcare, food and social security system requires as much hard currency as possible in the shortest possible time. He sees tourism as the only answer.

That may be the case. But tourism also has a political impact. Cuban socialism is based on the concept of equality and equal access. The tourist industry challenges that ideology because it operates as a dollar-dependent enclave within the country. Cubans working in the industry can earn dollars. But they spend them on basics like food and clothing. You won’t find them lounging around the hotel pool.

This creates a system some critics have called ‘tourist apartheid’. And it is not always subtle. One foreign resident I speak to tells me that her Cuban husband is often harassed when he goes to hotels to meet North American visitors. Other Cubans I meet complain about walking down the street with foreigners and being challenged for identification by police. ‘There’s a different set of rules for tourists than for Cubans,’ a Canadian student studying in Havana says. ‘Cubans feel they’re not respected in the same way and they resent it.’

Ministry of Tourism officials sound like unapologetic capitalists when they trumpet the industry’s projected growth figures. When I speak with Eddy Rodriguez de la Vega, the portly 50-something Vice-Minister of Tourism, he tells me that talk of sex tourism is ‘propaganda’ being spread by ‘enemies of the Revolution’.

His assistant hands me an impressive sheaf of computer-generated charts and statistical tables. ‘This will be a short interview,’ the Vice-Minister says, ‘because the answers to all your questions are right there.’ They aren’t, but they aren’t with Mr de la Vega either. Dressed informally in loose-fitting jeans with a cigar screwed into the corner of his mouth, he blithely dismisses any suggestion that tourism might have a down-side.

‘The Cuban people know that all the profits from tourism are destined to purchase more food and medicine,’ he declares. ‘That makes the inequalities both more understandable and more acceptable.’ I am not reassured.

Cuba: Talking about the Revolution, Conversations with Juan Antonio Blanco by Medea Benjamin, Ocean Press, Melbourne, 1997.

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