Cuba: a country known for its beauty, its history, its culture, and its unique heritage and system. However, Cuba is also known for the prevalence of prostitution, which represents a black mark on its otherwise vibrant cultural landscape. While little statistical data is known, the issue of the alarming growth and ambiguity of the prostitution sector in Cuba has recently been put forth internationally, in August 2013, by the UN Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
In the early 1900s, prostitution was a rampant problem in Cuba, a country that was commonly called the “Brothel of the Caribbean”. After the 1959 revolution, following José Martí’s sociopolitical model – which proposed education as a means to advance Cuba and Latin America as a whole – the Castro administration implemented new policies to eliminate prostitution, gender inequalities, and racism, while focusing more directly on education, poverty and job opportunities for women. While Fidel Castro’s 1959 communist government succeeded in outlawing prostitution at first, Cuba saw a new rise in prostitution in 1991. This was largely caused by the US blockade, which led to economic stagnation, and was also due to the fall of the Soviet Union, the source of Cuba’s most significant support. Rather than thriving as a state whose purpose was to create a better and fairer society for its citizens, Cuba rapidly deteriorated economically, socially, and politically. This popular unrest was illustrated by the 1994 mass exodus, in which tens of thousands of Cubans fled the country. The government thus resorted to opening up and promoting tourism to funnel hard currency into Cuba.
Like citizens in many poor countries, Cubans have resorted to jineterismo – a tourist-related strain of the black market – in order to obtain a sustainable source of income. The most common form of jineterismo in Cuba has become prostitution; prostitution is not only rampant, it has enabled the country to have the largest and most thriving sex tourism sectors in the Americas. Many citizens have turned to prostitution in order to make a sufficient living, to feed families, or more drastically, to get out of the country. With an average salary at around $20/month, women can make a much greater salary as prostitutes rather than by working state jobs (such as cigar rolling, or nursing). Cases where underage girls have been pushed into prostitution by relatives are not unheard of. Additionally, mostly Afrocuban women engage in prostitution, increasing not only a gender issue, but also issues of race and class. Since prostitution is so common, it has also become a social norm in Cuba and no taboo is attached to it. Although the government has taken some steps towards the elimination of prostitution, it seems that other issues have changed the political agenda, since the government has continued to turn a blind eye to the matter. The causal factors associated with prostitution are deeply embedded within Cuban society; for instance, it has been reported that sex workers have maintained relationships with pimps who pay off police officers. For the already underdeveloped Cuban government, then, addressing prostitution is no small feat.
Thus, it is no surprise that the international community, especially organizations which protect women’s rights, have been intrigued by the social development of Cuba. On March 6, 1980, Cuba was the first country to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Like other parties to the convention, Cuba has been legally bound to put its provisions into practice and to submit reports on the progress and overall situation of women within the country, at least every four years. Since the early 2000s, the UN body has addressed the problem of prostitution in Cuba and promoted the abolishment of prostitution through more direct means than those currently present. Prostitution has been a part of the Cuban political agenda for a long time, but in evaluating the problems of prostitution today, it is clear that the Cuban government has done little more than create new policies without enforcing them.
Upon receiving and reviewing the 2013 Cuban report on July 9th, CEDAW expressed a number of concerns regarding Cuba’s procedures, objectives, and lack of information on numbers and conditions. The only statistical figure expressed by the deputy head of Cuba’s supreme court, Olga Lidia Jones Morrison, at the July 9th CEDAW conference, was that 660 women over the age of 18 were imprisoned for working as sex workers in 2011. Due to the disconcerting shortage of statistics on sex workers and the reluctance of the government to acknowledge the pressing issue, the CEDAW committee proposed reforms for “guaranteed access to justice, free legal assistance programmes, protection for victims of violence, and mandatory training for judges, prosecutors, police, healthcare and education professionals and journalists on matters of violence against women” since the government has made it clear that it has a zero-tolerance policy on prostitution. The committee gave two years for Cuba to inform them on the policies and steps taken towards the implementation of their recommendations. The next report and examination will still be held in 2017.
Castro’s model primarily denounced the exploitation of humans in the capitalist world; yet the exploitation of women has been prominent in his own country. The Cuban government promoted and facilitated tourism, and enticed the international population through the linking of the country with the image of a sensual and immoral Afrocuban woman. So while policies are put forth to eradicate the issue, contradictory realities encourage and facilitate the growth of this sector. Only recently has the government tried to eradicate prostitution, after many years of denying that it is even a problem. The rapid growth of prostitution and the sex tourism industry has become indicative of a larger social problem; one which represents the crumbling values and institutions of socialism, as economic disparities rise alongside racial inequalities. In the case of prostitution, the social reality has exposed the flaws of the once idealized communist model. It is also important to note that prostitution in a corrupt and poor country only decreases its chance of further development. As a black market develops, it impedes the growth of society as a whole; it brings no addition to GDP, it will decrease the likelihood of social services for the women. With a crumbling social system, Cuba must address the issue of prostitution as fast as possible in order to develop into a more prosperous and more egalitarian country.
– Inès Lecland
photo Conrad Richardson