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Feminists, Queers and Critics: Debating the Cuban Sex Trade*

  • NOELLE M. STOUT (a1)

Cuban scholars and women's advocates have criticised the widespread emergence of sex tourism in post-Soviet Cuba and attributed prostitution to a crisis in socialist values. In response, feminist scholars in the United States and Europe have argued that Cuban analysts promote government agendas and demonise sex workers. Drawing on nineteen months of field research in Havana, I challenge this conclusion to demonstrate how queer Cubans condemn sex tourism while denouncing an unconditional allegiance to Cuban nationalism. By introducing gay Cuban critiques into the debate, I highlight the interventionist undertones of feminist scholarship on the Cuban sex trade.

Académicos cubanos y defensores de mujeres han criticado la emergencia generalizada del turismo sexual en la Cuba post-soviética y atribuyen la prostitución a una crisis en los valores socialistas. Como respuesta, académicas feministas en los Estados Unidos y Europa han sostenido que los analistas cubanos promueven agendas gubernamentales y demonizan a los trabajadores sexuales. Apoyándose en 19 meses de investigación de campo en la Habana, en el artículo se desafía esta conclusión para demostrar cómo los queer cubanos condenan al turismo sexual mientras denuncian la alineación incondicional al nacionalismo cubano. Al introducir críticas gay en el debate, se resaltan las tendencias intervencionistas de la academia feminista sobre el comercio sexual cubano.

Palabras clave: comercio sexual turista, feminismo, homosexualidad

Estudiosos cubanos e defensores das mulheres criticam a ampla emergência do turismo sexual na Cuba pós-soviética, atribuindo a prostituição a uma crise dos valores socialistas. Em resposta, estudiosas feministas nos Estados Unidos e Europa argumentam que analistas cubanos promovem agendas governamentais e demonizam trabalhadores do sexo. Com base numa pesquisa de campo de dezenove meses em Havana, eu desafio essa conclusão, para mostrar como cubanos homossexuais condenam o turismo sexual enquanto repudiam uma lealdade incondicional ao nacionalismo cubano. Ao introduzir críticas de cubanos homossexuais no debate, eu sublinho insinuações intervencionistas de estudos feministas sobre o mercado sexual cubano.

Palavras-chave: mercado de sexo turístico, feminismo, homessexualidade.

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1Pinguero’ is the Cuban term for a male sex worker. See Hodge, Derrick, ‘Colonization of the Cuban Body: The Growth of Male Sex Work in Havana’, NACLA Report on the Americas 34, no. 5. 2001, pp. 20–8; and Allen, Jafari Sinclaire, ‘Means of Desire's Production: Male Sex Labor in Cuba,’ Identities, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 183202. ‘Jinetera’ literally means jockey, but is commonly used to refer to Cuban women in the sex trade. I use the term ‘gay’ to describe Cubans who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and travesti, or transgender women. I understand that some sex workers identify as gay, but am interested in how many queer Cubans make distinctions between the two groups. The Malecón is the sea wall along Havana. The names of all Cuban interviewees have been changed.

2 For an important exception see Gisela Fosado's PhD dissertation, ‘The Exchange of Sex for Money in Contemporary Cuba: Masculinity, Ambiguity and Love’ (University of Michigan, 2004).

3 For an interesting commentary on this trend see Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, ‘De un pájaro las dos alas: Travel Notes of a Queer Puerto Rican in Havana’. GLQ 8: 1–2 (2002), pp. 7–33.

4 I use the term ‘late-socialist’ to describe the period in Cuba following the dissolution of the Socialist Bloc during which the Cuban government instituted economic and social reforms to maintain socialist programs in the face of crisis. I do not use ‘post-socialist’ because the government had not adopted a mixed economy or accepted neo-liberal reform.

5 See for example, Rosa Miriam Elizalde, Flores Desechables: Prostitución En Cuba? (La Habana, 1996) and Celia Sarduy Sánchez and Ada Alfonso Rodríguez, Género: Salud y Cotidianidad (La Habana, 2000).

6 See for example, Jan Strout, ‘Women, the Politics of Sexuality and Cuba's Economic Crisis’ Cuba Update. New York: 30 June 1995. vol. XVI, pp. 2–3; p. 15; Coco Fusco, ‘Hustling for Dollars: Jineterismo in Cuba’, in Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Doezema (eds.), Global Sex Workers: Rights Resistance, and Redefinition (New York and London, 1998), p. 162. Marrero, Teresa, ‘Scripting Sexual Tourism: Fusco and Bustamante's STUFF, Prostitution and Cuba's Special Period’, Theatre Journal, vol. 55 (2003), pp. 235–50.

7 Hülya Demirdirek and Judy Whitehead, ‘Sexual Encounters, migration, and desire in post-socialist context(s)’, Focaal – European Journal of Anthropology, vol. 43 (2004), p. 7.

8 Silje Lundgren, ‘You're a useless person: The understanding of prostitution within a Cuban context of gender equality and machiosmo-leninismo’, Uppsala (2003), p. 59.

9 Julia O'Connell Davidson and Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor, ‘Child Prostitution and Sex Tourism in Cuba’, ECPAT International (1996), p. 10.

10 Amalia Lucía Cabezas, ‘Discourses of Prostitution: The Case of Cuba’, in Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Doezema (eds.), Global Sex Workers: Rights Resistance, and Redefinition (New York and London, 1998), pp. 79–86. Also see the forthcoming work of Karina L. Céspedes on this issue.

11 The Federation of Cuban Women is the state-sponsored organisation established in August 1960 to foster women's participation in revolutionary goals. Sheryl Lutjens, ‘Reading Between the Lines: Women, the State, and Rectification in Cuba’, Latin American Perspectives, vol. 22, no. 2 (1995), p. 103 describes how the FMC recruited women into mass mobilization campaigns, including defense training, and helped to shape efforts to reform class, racial, and geographic hierarchies. Policies for working women included the creation of day care centers, a new maternity law, and the founding of a ‘Feminine Front’ within the national union structure in 1969. Vilma Espín, Cuban Women Confront the Future (Australia, 1991), p. 11 recounts how during the 1970s, leaders of the FMC saw to it that a Family Code was passed that demanded shared obligation between men and women in the arenas of parenthood and domestic duties and special arrangements were made to help relieve the ‘double shift’ of working women, such as ‘Plan Jaba’ which distributed of a bag of groceries and household goods at the workplace to save women time.

12 Rafael Hernández, ‘Looking at Cuba: Notes toward a Discussion’ (trans. Dick Cluster), Boundary 2, vol. 29, no. 3 (2002).

13 It is important to note that the FMC has not historically referred to itself as a ‘feminist’ organisation, but rather a ‘women's’ organisation. Many Cubans, however, including scholars and journalists publishing on jineterismo, do define themselves as feminists.

14 My research did not address child prostitution, pedophilia or underage teen prostitution. Although I interviewed jineteras and pingueros who had started work in the sex trade when they were in their late-teens, at the time of the interviews all were 18 years old or above.

15 Lundgren, ‘You're a useless person’, p. 59.

16 Reuters, 27 January 2003.

17 Demirdirek and Whitehead ‘Sexual Encounters’ p. 7; Fosado ‘The Exchange of Sex for Money’ p. 23; Sujatha Fernandes, ‘Transnationalism and Feminist Activism in Cuba: The Case of Magín’, The Women and Politics Research Section of the American Political Science Association (2005). Cultural critic and exceptional performance artist Coco Fusco maintained that the Cuban government's ‘clean-up campaigns’ were not sincere attempts to remedy the rise of the sex trade, but rather reflected the fact that jineteros threatened the state's control over the economy because they did not pay taxes. Fusco, ‘Hustling for Dollars’ p. 162.

18 Pope, Cynthia, ‘The Political Economy of Desire: Geographies of Female Sex Work in Havana, Cuba’, Journal of International Women's Studies, vol. 6, no. 2 (June 2005), p. 101.

19 Pope, ‘The Political Economy of Desire,’ p. 101.

21 British Broadcasting Corporation (1992). I present and analyse the speech in greater detail later in this paper.

22 Pope, ‘The Political Economy of Desire,’ p. 101.

23 Pope, ‘The Political Economy of Desire,’ p. 110.

26 Oscar Lewis, Ruth Lewis and Susan Rigdon. Four Women: Living the Revolution: An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba (Illinois, 1977) p. xvii.

27 Ibid., p. 282.

28 Amalia Cabezas, ‘Between Love and Money: Sex, Tourism, and Citizenship in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Signs. Chicago: Summer 2004, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 987–1016; p. 1005.

30 At the time Cabezas published her analysis there was limited scholarly work on this topic, and Cabezas based her understanding of pinguerismo largely on the work of Hodge, ‘Colonization of the Cuban Body’.

31 Cabezas, ‘Between Love and Money,’ p. 1006.

32 See the important work being done by activists at the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual in Havana, including advocacy for the legalisation of gay marriage and a constitutional amendment protecting homosexual rights.

33 See for example, Grewal, Inderpal and Kaplan, Caren, ‘Postcolonial Studies and Transnational Feminist Practices’, Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies, vol. 5, no. 1 (2000); Chandra Talpade Mohanty, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ Feminist Review (1988); Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Indiana, 1989); Gayatri Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture; Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.) (Urbana, 1988).

34 Mahmood, Saba, ‘Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival’, Cultural Anthropology, vol. 16, no. 2 (2001), p. 203.

35 Sarduy Sánchez and Alfonso Rodríguez, Género, p. 200.

36 Elizalde, Flores Desechables.

37 ‘What distinguishes Cuba from other countries is one essential detail: the majority of the 30 million women and two million children prostituted in the world are not like the prostitute who goes .... to the sexual market place stigmatised by a culture of ostentation and luxury, but rather are the terrible victims of an economic order which condemns them to sexual slavery in order to survive – [what they do] is no more than this, avoiding death’. Ibid., p. 72. Emphasis in original.

38 Ibid., p. 25.

39 Jan Strout, ‘Women, the Politics of Sexuality and Cuba's Economic Crisis’ Cuba Update, New York. 30 June 1995. vol. XVI, nos. 2–3; p. 15.

40 Marrero, ‘Scripting Sexual Tourism,’ p. 247.

41 Fernandes, ‘Transnationalism and Feminist Activism’ p. 445.

42 By 2007, models of economic development moved away from capital-intensive tourism toward exports such as nickel, medical and educational services, and petroleum as a way to earn foreign exchange.

43 Maria Dolores Espino, ‘Cuban Tourism During the Special Period’, in Cuba in Transition ASSE. Vol. 8 (2000), p. 362.

44 Espina Prieto, Myra Paula, ‘The Effects of the Reform on Cuba's Social Structure: An Overview’, in Socialism and Democracy, vol. 15, no. 1 (2001), p. 37. The preamble to Cuba's Foreign Investment Act warned that Cuba could benefit from foreign investment only if the investments would ‘boost the efforts the country must undertake in its economic and social development’ (Foreign Investment Act 1995).

45 Jorge F. Pérez-López, Cuba at a Crossroads: Politics and Economics after the Fourth Party Congress (Gainesville, 1994), p. 190.

46 Many gay Cubans critiquing the spread of materialism, attacked pingueros by arguing that they were closeted gays in denial of their homoerotic tendencies. Certain views suggested that pinguerismo was a safe outlet for men to engage in homosexual relationships without risking their heterosexual privilege.

47 Strout, ‘Women the Politics’, Fusco ‘Hustling for Dollars’, Fosado ‘The Exchange of Sex for Money’, Teresa Marrero ‘Scripting Sexual Tourism,’ Pope ‘Political Economy of Desire’.

48 Pope, ‘Political Economy of Desire’, p. 113.

49 Ibid., p. 9; p. 11.

50 Marrero, ‘Scripting Sexual Tourism,’ p. 238; ‘Federation of Communist Women’ in original.

51 Marrero, ‘Scripting Sexual Tourism,’ p. 248.

52 See for example Kate Millet, Prostitution Papers (New York, 1975); Kathleen Barry, Female Sexual Slavery (New York, 1979) and The Prostitution of Sexuality (New York, 1995); Carole Pateman ‘Defending Prostitution: Charges Against Ericcson’, Ethics 93 (1983), pp. 561–5 and The Sexual Contract (Stanford, 1988); Catherine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge, Mass., 1987) and Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, Mass., 1989); Andrea Dworkin Intercourse (London, 1987) and Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York, 1989).

53 Ratna Kapur, ‘The Tragedy of Victimization Rhetoric: Resurrecting the ‘Native’ Subject in International/Post-Colonial Feminist Legal Politics', Harvard Human Rights Journal (Spring 2002).

54 Demirdirek, Hülya and Whitehead, Judy, ‘Sexual Encounters, migration, and desire in post-socialist context(s)’, Focaal – European Journal of Anthropology, vol. 43 (2004), p. 7.

55 Carmelo Mesa-Lago and Jorge Pérez-López. Cuba's Aborted Reform: Socioeconomic Effects, International Comparisons, and Transition Policies (Gainsville, 2005), p. 75.

56 Hernández, ‘Looking at Cuba’, p. 128 questions the vague notion of the ‘elite’ within this context and pushes scholars to define who exactly qualifies as elitist: Cubans with access to hard currency, such as musicians, artists, athletes and technicians who travel abroad, members of the communist party, or private peasant farmers who receive higher annual incomes than most workers.

57 For examples see Fusco ‘Huslting for Dollars’ p. 163; Marrero ‘Scripting Sexual Tourism’ p. 245.

58 Espina Prieto, ‘The Effects of the Reform’ p. 42.

59 British Broadcasting Corporation (1992).

60 Fusco, ‘Huslting for Dollars’, p. 161.

61 Pope, ‘Political Economy of Desire’ p. 101.

62 O'Connell Davidson and Sanchez Taylor, ‘Child Prostitution’, p. 6.

64 Ibid., p. 11.

65 Stephan Palmié, Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (Durham, 2002), p. 282.

66 The word cucaracha has been used in Cuba to refer to a coward, hence further reinforcing the notion that homosexual clients are weak and easily conquered by young hustlers.

67 Queer critiques of same-sex prostitution and materialism must also be read alongside historical discourses of Cuban sexual deviancy that linked homosexuality to prostitution. The conjoined nature of queers and prostitutes in national imaginaries did not arise from the ashes of the fall of the Socialist Bloc, but rather incarnated new dimension of decades-old social dynamics. In 1961 the Cuban revolutionary government conducted the first known crackdown on same-sex enclaves when Havana's police forces conducted organised street raids aimed at homosexual prostitutes. The original state crackdown led to the arrest of law-abiding homosexuals, including a number of well-known literary and artistic personalities who were detained along with so-called antisocial groups.

68 Pope, ‘Political Economy of Desire,’ p. 111.

69 Ibid., p. 114.

70 Jo Doezema, ‘Ouch! Western feminists' “wounded attachment” to the “third world prostitute”’, in Feminist Review, no. 67, Spring 2001, pp. 16–38; p. 28.

71 Rosa Miriam Elizalde, ‘Remembering Vilma Espín’, The Nation (27 June 2007). Emphasis in original.

72 When the author of the paper was contacted by the press, he could not provide a citation for his findings that Castro supported sex trafficking. Michael Janofsky, ‘Bush Criticizes Castro and Human Trafficking’, New York Times, 17 July 2004.

73 For instance, Jasbir Puar highlights a collusion of gay rights activism with contemporary anti-Arab racism and military intervention in the Middle East; a discourse she calls ‘homo-nationalism’. Images and stories of homophobia in Arab countries are used to foment Orientalism, racism and neo-imperialist tendencies, as the United States and Europe pretend to ‘civilise’ Middle Eastern nations by spreading queer rights through military occupation.

* I would like to thank Dr. Janet Davis, JLAS editors, and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism on previous drafts. Their insights helped strengthen the paper in its final version. Also of enormous help were the librarians and researchers I met while in Havana. Their patience and guidance enriched the early stages of this study and have contributed to the cause of international scholarship.

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