By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News
Police crackdown takes country off top list of sex tourist destinations
HAVANA – Cuba is no longer one of the world’s top destinations for sex tourism after five years of relentless police crackdowns, travel experts say.
But another trend has emerged: More travelers are using the Internet to find prostitutes in Cuba. And rights advocates say that computer-assisted sex tourism is troubling because it makes it easier for men to sexually exploit Cuban women and teenagers.
The online sex trade is a multibillion-dollar industry that often targets the Third World and treats women and teenagers as “sexual commodities,” said Donna Hughes, a University of Rhode Island professor and women’s rights advocate, and author of a report titled “Pimps and Predators on the Internet – Globalizing Sexual Exploitation of Women and Children.”
Sex tourists frequently log on to adult travel Internet sites and rate the Cuban prostitutes they find, remarking on everything from hair and skin color to mood, sexual attributes and performance.
Some also take nude or semi-nude photos of the women and post them on the Internet. Some of these photos are shot without permission or captured by hidden camera. Others are casual snapshots, but the women have no idea that these intimate pictures will be available on the Internet for years to come, Ms. Hughes and other rights advocates say.
Sex tourists who travel to Cuba are unapologetic. They call themselves “hobbyists” and say they enjoy nothing more than traveling the world in pursuit of easy, preferably cheap sex.
But these days, they’re not happy with Cuba. Police enforcement has driven many prostitutes off the streets, they say, and in some towns, few can be found at all.
The World Sex Archives, which touts itself as the Internet’s largest “escort resource,” follows these trends in detail. Not long ago, a member of the service posted an urgent question.
“Is the crackdown ending?” he asked. “Are things starting to go back to normal?”
A string of replies gave him the latest news: Heavy enforcement was continuing, “good girls” were hard to find, and some Cuban nightclubs were “horrible ... only half-full of chicas ... and not at all worth the time.”
Prostitution surged in Cuba in 1990 when the former Soviet Union cut off nearly $6 billion a year in aid, sending the economy into a free fall. Soon thousands of prostitutes regularly gathered in discos, hotels and along main thoroughfares in Havana and other cities.
Suddenly, Cuba became a hot destination for sex tourism.
Through the mid-1990s, prostitutes operated with little interference, openly propositioning tourists as part of Cuba’s bustling, often wild night scene.
Travel writers helped spread the word.
“Cuban girls are the Ferraris of prostitution, top-of-the-line Formula One hookers and, boy, are they enthusiastic,” wrote A.A. Gill in 1998 in The Sunday Times of London.
Today, the landscape has changed entirely. Prostitutes, increasingly fearful of going to jail, spend more time dodging police than cavorting with customers.
“It’s terrible. The police are everywhere,” said Misleidis, a 17-year-old who was looking for clients in Old Havana.
The operator of the World Sex Archives said: “Really, the [prostitute] business is drying up. There are far more girls in other Latin American countries now. ” WSA, which touts itself as the largest escort resource on the Internet, added, “Cuba is like an obituary.”
Many travel experts agree.
“I don’t think Cuba ranks any longer as a prime sex destination,” said Christopher Baker, an award-winning writer and author of Moon’s Cuba Handbook. “The Dominican Republic and Thailand continue to be the top destinations. Cuba is now in the second tier.”
Still, some sex tourists can’t stay away from Cuba. And via the Internet, they share information on where to find women, how to approach them, what to say and what to pay.
A traveler nicknamed Pelon, who said he lives in Brownsville, gave the latest prices for sex in Cuba in a Sept. 10 message on the WSA site:
“The ongoing rate is about $30 for an afternoon and $50-$60 for the night. Avoid girls with cellphones. They tend to ask for $80 or more.”
Many Cubans are disgusted by the sex trade, even if it has diminished. And they are offended that some foreigners think their country is awash in prostitutes. In fact, they say, most Cubans have nothing to do with prostitution.
Still, Cuba’s anything-goes image persists.
In July, when a WSA member asked if he should try to have sex with a married woman and her sister, another member replied, “Just go for it! You don’t have to worry about things like this in Cuba.”
Many sex tourists say they feel safe, even late at night in Cuba.
Another thing they say they like about the country is the noncommercial nature of prostitution. There are no gaudy strip joints, brothels or peep shows flashing Triple-X neon. There are no girlie magazines for sale, either. Not even a Playboy. That’s all illegal.
But sex is a staple of Cuban life, and many people have a casual attitude toward it, Mr. Baker said.
“Judging by the ease with which couples neck openly, wink seductively at strangers and spontaneously slip into bed, the dictatorship of the proletariat that transformed Eastern Europe into a perpetual Sunday school has made little headway in Cuba,” he writes in the upcoming edition of the Cuba Handbook.
Sex tourists quickly notice the difference between Cuban prostitutes and those in their own countries.
Charlie, a Canadian visitor quoted in a 1995 study on prostitution in Cuba, said European and American prostitutes are all business.
“It’s by the hour, like a taxi service, like they got the meter running. There’s no feeling.”
But in Cuba, Charlie said, prostitutes are “responsive. They even kiss you.”
The literacy rate of Cuban prostitutes also sets them apart, some say. Even Fidel Castro once commented on that, telling a crowd in 2001 that Cuban prostitutes had a “university level” education.
Some prostitutes go to school or work during the day and sell their bodies at night.
Grechell, 20, said she studies accounting and dreams of attending the University of Havana. But for now, she said she goes out with foreigners “because I need the money.”
Many Cubans earn just $10 or $12 per month. But prostitutes take in $500 and up, according to a 2002 University of Miami study.
Not all charge big fees, and some travelers brag they’ve had sex with Cuban women for as little as a meal or a pair of shoes.
Such experiences give some men a sense of economic power and control that they couldn’t possibly achieve in their own countries, according to Julia O’Connell Davidson and Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor, sociologists at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.
They studied the sex trade in Cuba in 1995 and later published a paper called “Child Prostitution and Sex Tourism.”
At one Cuban nightclub, they wrote, they encountered a Canadian in his 40s who repeatedly insulted and threatened teenage prostitutes, sometimes reducing them to tears.
He was a “physically nondescript and puny individual, a divorcee ... and a less than completely successful real estate agent,” the study said. “Back home in Canada, he feels himself to be a ‘nobody’ and a ‘nothing.’ In Cuba, by contrast, he fantasizes himself to be somewhere between a Rockefeller and a Mafiosi boss. He believes that his economic power combined with his status as a tourist places him above the law.”