Cuba to address sex trafficking, prostitution

October 20, 2012

Cuba’s ongoing socialist revolution has consistently shown it is adaptable and capable of renewal in the areas of feminism, environmental sustainability, political participation, health and education.

Despite the constant and concerted campaign by the United States to undermine the Cuban Revolution, it has achieved many great outcomes, including universal health care, universal education, eradication of illiteracy, low levels of birth mortality and low levels of HIV and AIDS.

Cuba has always been ahead of its time on the issue of equality and women's participation at all levels of society. The inclusion of women within the revolution has been cemented through the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), a non-government organisation with more than 3 million members that has a guaranteed advisory role in the formulation of government policy.

One of the goals of the revolution was the eradication of prostitution, viewed by Fidel Castro as the fault of United States imperialism and brought to Cuba by the way of North American tourism.

After the revolution, Cuba criminalised pimping through the use of heavy penalties, while working to provide women in the industry with alternative livelihoods including educational and trade opportunities.

Castro's insight is as relevant now as it was at the time of the revolution in 1959. His views follow that of other socialists.

It is worth noting the writings of Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai. In 1919, Kollontai became the first female government minister in Europe and later became Europe's first female ambassador, undertaking appointments as Soviet Ambassador to Norway, Sweden and Mexico.

Kollontai said: “Prostitution is above all a social phenomenon; it is closely connected to the needy position of woman and her economic dependence on man in marriage and the family.

The roots of prostitution are in economics. Woman is on the one hand placed in an economically vulnerable position, and on the other hand has been conditioned by centuries of education to expect material favours from a man in return for sexual favours whether these are given within or outside the marriage tie.

Prostitution in Cuba was classified as nearly non-existent until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country was hit hard by the collapse of Cuba’s largest trading partner. Without the USSR to offset the impact of the US trade embargo, poverty became rife and Cuba became reliant on tourism and foreign currency.

With the re-emergence of tourism came the problem of prostitution and advertising campaigns that reintroduced sexist attitudes towards women. Another problem that came to Cuba with the collapse of the Soviet Union was trafficking of human beings, specifically women and children for sexual slavery.

The US Department of State report of 2011, Trafficking in Persons Report-Cuba, has criticised Cuba's failures to prohibit sex trafficking of persons under the age of 18 or ensure appropriate assistance for those rescued from sex trafficking and forced labour.

The report did highlight Cuba's legislation against trafficking, but criticised past failures to prosecute human traffickers or end child prostitution. The report also commended efforts last year that led to a rise in convictions of sex traffickers and those profiting from child prostitution.

Recently, the FMC proposed measures to reduce sexist advertising and implemented outreach programs to women engaged in prostitution. It is has also proposed measures to reduce sexual tourism and re-educate Cuban men who believe it is acceptable to hire a woman for sexual services.

Now in an effort that would make the Cuban government deal with both the problems of trafficking and prostitution, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and the FMC have expressed a desire to introduce Swedish-style legislation.

These comments were made by Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban president Raul Castro and Vilma Espin, a radical feminist and founder of the FMC. Mariela is a sexologist, psychologist, published author and director of the CENESEX in Havana.

Sweden has drastically lowered human trafficking and prostitution by imposing a ban on the purchase of sexual services. This model has since been adopted by Iceland, Norway and South Korea.

Max Waltman from the University of Stockholm has discussed Sweden's prohibition of purchase of sex stating: “The Swedish government and parliament in 1998 apparently realised that one cannot fight gender inequality and keep prostitution as a viable option for women without resources.

“As long as prostitution is viewed as a viable situation and 'work', particularly for women, resulting in them being excluded or not competing with men on the regular job-markets, changing gender equality at large becomes less likely ...

“Prostitution, on these terms, is antithetical to social equality. Just as apartheid couldn’t exist alongside social equality, prostitution as such cannot either.

“Hence, reducing the number of persons in prostitution is imperative … the Swedish law, has accomplished such a reduction in addition to reducing the demand for prostitution. Swedish law has accomplished such a reduction in the prostitution in addition to reducing the demand for prostitution.”

With Cuba taking inspiration from the Swedish model, it is reasserting values of equality and defending marginalised people. Cuba is fighting against the widening inequality seen in many Western countries. Following in Sweden's footsteps is likely to lead to a lowering in prostitution and trafficking, which has plagued the revolution since the economic decline of the 1990s.

This will cause exploiters and those who profit from the prostitution to face severe penalties.

Such a move shows Cuba following the evidence-based, human rights model of those parties and governments across Europe pushing for Swedish-style legislation. This move affirms Cuba’s proud revolutionary tradition of exit strategies for prostitutes including personal support, health care, retraining and alternative employment options.


Needless to say, it would be disappointing if the Cubans (provoked by a US government authored report) adopted the Swedish model for policing sex work. Needless to say there is far from consensus that such prohibitionist measures are a "evidence-based, human rights model". In fact such a claim is laughable. As Petra Ostergren has documented ( - the legislation has been widely criticized for undermining the rights of sex workers. At a time when governments (such as in NSW) are using the bogey of "trafficking" as an excuse to undermine hard won gains of sex workers it is very poor form for GL to run such an article. And who is Matthew Holloway: an advocate of sex workers' rights or an employee of a Catholic organisation?
The article quotes a Swedish academic: “As long as prostitution is viewed as a viable situation and 'work', particularly for women, resulting in them being excluded or not competing with men on the regular job-markets, changing gender equality at large becomes less likely ... " This says that the acceptance of prostitution as "work" causes women to be "excluded or not competing with men on the regular job-markets". What an appalling reversal of the truth. Further, if prostitution is not work, what is it? You can only define it as something inferior to "real work" if you think that somehow sex becomes immoral if there is a financial transaction/it's not loving/they aren't married/etc. (And of course marriage has historically been the biggest financial transaction on sex, although Matt's Catholic employers probably wouldn't see it that way). As the comment above alludes to, Swedish style anti-sex-work laws have served to drive the industry underground, which - like it or not - makes it more dangerous for sex workers. While I won't say GLW shouldn't print any conservative viewpoints like this, I hope you will run a progressive counter-argument.
I don't think it is far or reasonable to call Matthew Holloway 'employee of a Catholic organisation'. Where is the moralising and talk of 'unclean' women or sin that Catholics talk about? Matthew talks about the economic conditions that force many women into prostitution, especially in the developing world, against their will and how that can be challenged. I know 'trafficking' is being used in NSW and other places to attack sex workers rights, but one has to look at it in its context. NSW has a right wing government, which actively undermines womens rights. Cuba is an entirely different system with active input from women into legislation and what happens in their communities. To say that what is happening in NSW and other places is the same as in Cuba is simply incorrect. Implementing a Swedish style model in Cuba where pimps and Johns are punished but sex workers are not would actually look entirely different in Cuba due to the nature of that society. Cuba has the ability to provide full employment, healthcare, training and education to those sex workers who no longer wish to engage in that profession. Sweden does not.
The issue of sex work in Cuba is complex, to say the least. Completely absent from this article is the voice of sex workers. Liberation doesn't come from moralistic or paternalistic interventions, but from self-organisation and mobilisation, and that's as true for sex workers as for anyone else. A more detailed examination of the situation can be found in Stout NM, "Feminists, Queers and Critics : Debating the Cuban Sex Trade", J. Lat. Amer. Stud. 40, 721–742.
Some of these comments are a complete joke. Stating this is a conservative viewpoint is unbelieveable, proposing GLW run a progressive response makes me wonder, we have just heard the progressive response, what other is there apart from the capitalist pro-industry approach which lets brothel owners continue to undercut workers, compromise workers safety and force them to take whoever comes in the door. As for those who think the legalisation/libertarian model is leftist, you are sadly mistaken, it is a capitalists model. Trying to make out this is somehow a catholic writer or written for the catholic church is a joke. Socialist across the world have recognised that prostitution is a symptom of capitalist institutions and gender inequality, secondly many of the nations/governments and political parties that have adopted legislation based on the Swedish model are broadly considered leftist, socialists, green and progressive. Secondly I would like to point out some policies from the Socialist Alliance website; • Despite the formal rights that women have won through struggle, women and girls are increasingly stereotyped and female bodies are more brazenly sexualised in popular culture. • Capitalist culture manufactures acceptance of the sexist idea that women’s bodies exist for the pleasure of men. This is reinforced by the corporate media and especially advertising targeted at young people. • Research has linked sexist and sexualised depictions of women and girls in advertising, pornography and the corporate media to sexist attitudes, expectations and unsafe behaviour among young people. • Repeal all laws against prostitution to end the criminalisation and victimisation of sex workers, and publicly fund comprehensive health-care, legal and personal support services, and alternative employment opportunities, for sex workers. • Prosecute Australians who profit from international sex trafficking and prostitution, and give full protection and rights to victims of the sex trade in Australia. ( There is nothing here which does not fit into the Swedish Model, there is nothing in the Socialist Alliance policies about brothel legalisation or protection for those who seek to use and abuse sex workers. Can I also highlight that the DSP, one of the former affiliates/initiators of the Socialist Alliance stated very clearly ‘We have consciously used the term prostitution, rather than “sex work”. This has been done to promote members’ understanding of the party’s analysis of this activity as not merely “work like any other work”. It thereby challenges the main basis upon which many feminists are attempting to redefine prostitution as non-oppressive under certain circumstances (or at least no more oppressive than most of the work women do), and also points to the idealism inherent in the more general notion that you can change objective reality by changing what you call it. (
Oh Ok, so driving people out of their chosen field of employement (and given Cuba's social welfare, healthcare, education etc it very much is chosen there) is Ok so long as a "left wing" government does it? If Cuba has full employement etc then the only possible reason for banning sex work at all can be moral.
"Active input from women", perhaps. But has this legislation had active input from sex workers? Liberation is not something you can impose on people. It didn't work in Iraq, it doesn't work for sex workers, and it usually indicates another agenda entirely. I'd also like to point out that the Socialist Alliance supports decriminalisation. We do not have a position in support of the Swedish model. And I have a question. If Cuba has the ability to provide full employment, healthcare, training and education to sex workers who wish to leave the industry, what is the point of punishing clients? If people who want to leave are able to, does that mean the people who are still doing sex work are the people who want to? In which case, there is no point in punishing their clients. Farida
Trafficking is no bogey, it is an problem which is rising year by year, and police are consistenly stating that figures released yearly are just the tip of the iceberg. With states like Victoria and New South Wales having entrenched corruption in legal brothels and a massive illegal sector. It is obvious that there are major issues that need to be addressed. In-fact it is important for Australians to realise that other nations are looking at Australia in a poor light. Reports have come out of both Scotland and Germany criticising Australia as a high trafficking nation. When will Australia and the left wake up to this. Lets stick with our traditions and put human rights first!
Whatever the solution is, there is no doubt there is a strong material incentive to engage in sex work in Cuba. Exactly as there is a strong material incentive to be active in the black market . Cuba is mired in a longstanding economic crisis where by, yes, it can provide jobs, health care, education and housing to all of its citizens, but there is actually a lot more than that needed for a comfortable life and the state is struggling to provide it. You can eat much better, have a much more comfortable life (even with necessities let alone with luxury or consumer goods), if you work in the tourism industry, or engage in the black market -- which by a number of accounts almost all Cubans do to some degree as they need to to have anything but the most basic of lives. Among other things, the dollarised tourism industry is creating a two-tiered economy in Cuba, and if you can get tourist dollars (through whatever means, and sex work is one clear way women can get them) you can live much better. This is why Cuba is pushing ahead with serious economic reforms, because it has serious economic problems. This is not in anyway a defence of the Swedish model or how Cuba is choosing to deal with sex work. But in arguing against Cuba's path in dealing with sex work, you can;t present an argument that bears no resemblence to Cuba's reality. -- Stuart Munckton
This issue is so polarising in Australia. The problem which people seem to not be recognising is that sex workers are consistently stating they do not want to be involved in the sex industry. The reasons for involvement are varied but circumstances created by capitalist society are a contributing factor. The overt sexualisation of women in the media, the limited educational and employment options for women in low socio-economic areas and the heightened instances of backgrounds of sexual abuse amongst sex workers. A study recently came out of Queensland from the PLA which confirmed this the instance of childhood sexual abuse/violence against sex workers was higher than the general population. As for Socialist Alliance policy, i agree, Socialist Alliance supports decriminalisation of prostitution/sex work. This is also the aim of the Swedish model, it is a decriminalisation/harm minimisation response to sex work. Also i do not feel there is anything in Socialist Alliance policy which would not fit into the Swedish/Nordic Model.
The Swedish model criminalises seeking the services of a prostitute. That means the industry, the work, in all practicality is criminalised and driven underground. That's the opposite of decriminalisation, even if it's not the sex worker who is prosecuted.

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