CUBA: Cuban women, beyond prostitution

Issue 

BY NOY THRUPKAEW

I recently travelled to Cuba as part of a US women's delegation, sponsored by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Sojourner, a feminist newspaper, and Hermanas, an organisation dedicated to building solidarity between US and Caribbean women.

Away from our group, I was armed with only the most rudimentary of Spanish skills and an Insight Map Cuba, whose retrograde descriptions provided an interesting counterpoint to my observations: "[Cuba] is a magical place, full of romantic images: beautiful women who are proud of their ample hips ... quick conversations spiked with sexual innuendo."

The hot 'n' nasty tone of my map isn't much different from what many US citizens have in mind when they think of Cuban women. As one US woman staying at our hotel in Havana told me, "The first thing this guy said when I told him I was going to Cuba was, 'Bring me back one of those hot Cuban women, will ya?'"

What this booty-call approach toward Cuban women is missing is any mention of the achievements they have won since Fidel Castro led the Cuban Revolution 41 years ago, overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Federation of Cuban Women

Much of the progress made in health care and medical advances is due in large part to the Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas (Federation of Cuban Women, or FMC), which was formed to ensure women's full participation in the economic, political, social, and cultural development of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Quite a few women participated in the armed uprising and, after their victory, many of them wanted to create an organisation to make sure that the revolution would continue to respond to the concerns of the many women who had fought on its behalf.

Today, the FMC is the primary women's rights group in Cuba, organised at the block, municipal, provincial, and national levels.

Open to all women over the age of 14, the FMC has approximately 3.2 million members who work on issues ranging from domestic abuse to job training for women and help create government policy on women's issues. They also run free childcare centres for children under the age of seven, a great help to the women who now make up 42% of Cuba's workforce.

One of the FMC's greatest accomplishments was its participation and leadership in the government's 1961 literacy campaign. In 1959, literacy in Cuba hovered around 75%. Ten thousand teachers were unemployed and around 70% of people living in rural areas had no schools.

In 1961, led by the FMC, the government spearheaded its year-long literacy campaign. All schools were closed for eight months and 100,000 students and teachers arrived in rural areas to teach basic literacy skills. Of those teachers, 50,000 were women and girls. Five thousand FMC members helped create the campaign, and 20,000 FMC members taught.

Over 707,000 people, 56% of them women, learned to read. Cuba's current literacy rate is now 94.5%.

Women were also instrumental in the development of Cuba's outstanding health care system. After the revolution, more than 35,000 women were organised into health microbrigades, walking into villages to teach women and their communities how to eradicate diseases such as polio and malaria, improve hygiene to prevent parasites and gastroenteritis, decrease rates of infant and maternal mortality, and develop proper nutrition. Sex education was also a component of these microbrigades' agendas.

To this day, the health care system in Cuba is strongly oriented to addressing women's health needs.

More than half of Cuba's doctors are women. Cuba's markedly low rates of HIV/AIDS are even lower for women, who are less than 25% of individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Abortion is free, and women have ready access to many forms of contraception.

Sex education begins at the elementary school level. Dedicated to the idea that sex is a form of natural human expression, Cuba's national sex education program also teaches students about mutually respectful sexual attitudes and safer sex techniques.

And although homophobia resulted in devastating purges of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals 20 years ago, educational work on rectifying attitudes and discrimination towards queer people began in 1986.

This shift in attitude began at a conference in the 1970s, where Havana educators declared that homosexuality was "a matter that needed further study", according to Sonja de Vries's Cuba Update article "Homosexuality, Socialism and the Cuban Revolution".

The ensuing discussion of homophobia and of the contributions of queer individuals to the Revolution eventually led to the 1986 Comision Nacional de Educacion Sexual (National Commission on Sex Education or NCSE) rectification campaign to educate all Cubans about queer issues.

Jineterismo

The NCSE and the FMC and other Cuban feminists have also turned their attention to the issue that has begun to dominate foreign imaginations and media on Cuban women: prostitution.

I had read about jineteras in US media and had wondered about the true severity of the issue — as someone whose parents are from Thailand, I've become somewhat irritable about the many articles trumpeting the horrors of acres of pliant, brown flesh for sale.

So when I read about Cuban prostitution, it seemed like the usual media need to recycle the same three depictions of international women: subjects of "bizarre" cultural practices, poverty-stricken victims of their governments' incompetence, or unhappy prostitutes.

I did see a few jineteras in Cuba, but not as many as the articles had led me to expect.

Two young women came to the hotel the first night I was there, and every night after. That first night, they showed up on the hotel porch, kissing all the men seated there as they made their way over to a secluded corner table. They sat in a corner, waiting, while a table of Frenchmen lingered over their cigars.

After a while, a man roared up in a taxi, bringing two young Cuban women. Two of the Frenchmen left with them. The leftover guy sidled over to the corner table. There was laughing, leaning in, a touch on the knee. The woman in the lime skirt pulled his glasses off so she could try them on.

Prostitution had flourished during Batista's oppressive 1940s-era regime, but had been dramatically reduced by post-revolution efforts to increase educational and employment opportunities for women.

But prostitution in Cuba has seen a resurgence within the past decade, for many reasons. When Eastern European communism started to unravel in 1989, Cuba lost around US$5 billion a year from the ending of the Soviet Union's above-market prices for Cuban exports — a devastating amount for Cuba's economy.

Faced with dwindling trade and credit, Castro was forced to declare a five-year "special period" austerity program in August 1990. Worsening Cuba's economic woes, President George Bush signed the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which tightened the original 1961 US embargo on trade with Cuba. Ninety percent of the trade banned by the act consists of food, medicine, and medical equipment.

In response to Cuba's growing hardship, in 1993, Castro declared that Cuban citizens would be allowed to hold US dollars, open dollar bank accounts, and spend their dollars at special hard-currency stores.

As the government began to promote tourism and open the economy to foreign investment, a steady stream of dollars started to flow into the country. But too often it seems, these dollars are attached to men who are willing to pay for the sexual services of Cuban women.

Jineterismo (literally, "horse-riding") encompasses a wide range of behaviours involving illegally making money from tourists by offering escort, guide, or sexual services, and accepting or asking for tips, dinners, drinks, or expensive gifts as payment.

Far more women than men engage in this activity, and far more of the women tend to be dark-skinned or are Afro-Cubans, according to Jan Strout, a Cuban solidarity activist, in her Socialist Review article, "Women, the Politics of Sexuality, and Cuba's Economic Crisis".

Some of this racial discrepancy, Cuban feminists have theorised, might be related to the fact that most of the Cubans who left the country in 1959 and now send money back to their Cuban relatives are lighter-skinned and live primarily in the United States. Darker-skinned women without these resources are in greater need of the dollars that prostitution can provide.

Foreign men's fascination with the "exotic mulatta/African" woman may also contribute to the higher numbers of dark-skinned women working as prostitutes, according to Strout.

But where women in pre-revolutionary Cuba turned to prostitution largely out of economic need, many women today see prostitution as a way to obtain access to luxuries and services not available to those who have only pesos.

According to studies and extensive interviews by Cuban feminists, many jineteras are quite young, and are "not aware of the risks associated with prostitution such as violence, drugs, AIDS ... and crime", according to Strout.

After a period of severe economic austerity and simultaneous development of a glamorous tourist sector, prostitution can seem an appealing alternative to a ration card, "power shortages, overcrowded housing, interminable lines, and lousy TV fare", according to Coco Fusco's September/October 1996 Ms magazine article, "Hustling for Dollars".

After rates of prostitution began to rise, Cuban feminists began to address the issue with a wide range of tactics. The FMC launched outreach programs to jineteras, and began studies on materials used to promote tourism abroad.

The Asociacion de Mujeres Comunicadoras (Association of Women Communicators or MAGIN, which has since dissolved) began training programs for tourism planners, management, and investors on responsible depictions of Cuban women.

Other Cuban feminists have focused their energies on correcting the government's inconsistent responses to the issue, which has ranged from indifference to harsh crackdowns on jineteras. According to Strout, "A number of feminists have called for a shift in emphasis: Don't attack the supply of jineteras, attack the demand for them."

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