Eventually the restless Italian on the bus from Cienfuegos to Havana slumped into the seat across from mine. There he sprawled out and fell asleep, unaware that one pink testicle had wriggled free of his tiny swimming shorts. As I tried to avoid eye contact with the errant gonad I realised that this guy, with his swagger and dangle, understood Cuba far better than I did. I was the one struggling to make sense of the place. He got it, and he was loving it.
When I went to Cuba, I didn’t know that everyone went there to get laid. I had a bunch of questions about how Cuba worked which for years had been nagging at me. None of those questions, however, had much to do with getting laid. They were stale, older questions about revolutions and socialism and bearded men in berets.
Even if I hadn’t come to Cuba to get laid, Cuba clearly wanted me to get as laid as possible as fast as possible. By day the Cuban girls batted their eyes, smiled and waved at me or blew kisses to me. By night they hissed from the shadows or yowled out from street corners. Museum attendants flirted with me. Street vendors teased me. If I sat on a bench, a girl quickly appeared at the other end of it. Even standing before a Santería shrine, an attendant was sure I needed a date for the night.
Rule #1: If you come to Cuba, you’re probably going to get laid.
I’d like to be able to say that Cuban girls just find me irresistible, and that my Cuban experience was something out of the ordinary, but from what I could see I was just about the least desirable tourist in the country. Shabbily dressed, eating peso pizzas, and altogether too wrapt up in my camera: compared to a middle class, middle aged Italian man with his scrotum hanging out, I was nobody.
But even nobodies can get laid in Cuba. It’s not that we’re white or exotic or sophisticated; it simply comes down to the fact that we’re carrying CUC.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 spelt serious problems for Cuba. People still talk about the time as a kind of mystical disappearance; one day Cuba had an economy, the next day it had vanished. While the people were improvising and finding some pretty radical ways to get by (Cuba was becoming sustainable decades before doing so came into vogue), the government was substituting one sugar daddy for another by opening the country wide for tourism.
For a time there was a kind of tourist apartheid going on. The tourists flew in, stayed in all-inclusive compounds on beaches that were off-limits to locals. They used foreign currency and never really saw just how tough life on a Special Period ration card could be. The CUC or convertible peso became the currency of the tourist. With CUC you could buy pretty much anything. It became highly coveted by locals; a few CUC represented freedom and options, both in very short supply under socialist, embargoed Cuba.
Rule #2: You can buy anything with CUC. Anything.
This is the part that makes your average edgy backpacker squirm. Sex – or love or whatever you want to call it – is pretty much inextricably linked to money in Cuba (at least as far as tourists are concerned). Many foreigners are disgusted. Many insist that they would never pay for sex. The local guys I talked to, though, saw things differently. It wasn’t prostitution, they insisted. Certainly it’s not prostitution as most westerners think of it. No fixed, hourly rates, few pimps or brothels, and a lot less of the usual background sleaze like drug abuse and sex slavery.
As far as the guys I talked to were concerned, the girls had as much right to make a few CUC as the guys that sold cigars or taxi rides, or the families that rented out rooms in their houses. As with most CUC transactions, picking up in Cuba is an informal matter.
So a guy gets talking to a girl (although there’s every possibility it is she who initiated the conversation). She laughs at his jokes, touches his arm whenever she speaks to him, and is fucking gorgeous. He asks her out for dinner. She accepts and suggests a nice place (meaning they don’t recycle drinking straws and might actually have all the things listed on the menu). After dinner he pays and they jump in a taxi to a club. The taxi ride and cover charge cost almost nothing, although drinks in the club are pretty expensive by Cuban standards. They dance for a while and he is convinced she totally digs his shit because she is all over him. They take a taxi back to his room where she spends the night (provided she can get past the concierge). In the morning he is elated and she is still fucking gorgeous. Before she leaves she asks him if he has some extra money for a pair of shoes she really wants/for a birthday gift for her mother/for a ticket to visit her cousin in another town.
Rule #3: Sex is not free, but prices are negotiable.
In a country where health care and education are free and basic produce is covered by a ration card, wages are very low. In theory everyone has what they need to survive, but no one has much spare change for entertainment, or a varied diet, or anything else to make life a little more comfortable or interesting. Going out with a foreigner is one of the few ways a young Cuban is going to have some fun on a Saturday night. Or at least more fun than hanging out with several thousand other broke kids wherever there is free music and cheap hot dogs.
Going out with a foreigner can also be a way to help your family out. In cafes all over Havana I saw confused German and Italian guys sitting down to lunch with their lovers, plus half the family. Kids, grandparents, cousins and aunts all turn up for a meal (sometimes these ‘cousins’ are actually spouses). On weekends girls on the prowl are chaperoned by aunts to give everything a nice Catholic façade.
This dynamic changes the usual order of things. At least as far as tourists are concerned, romance doesn’t count for very much. You could mindfuck a girl with your wit and culture, serenade her on your beat-up guitar that was given to you by some mountain mystic, and then name ever star in the sky as you plait flowers into her hair, but at the end of the day it’s the Italian with the free-hanging bollock that’s going to invite her and the whole family out to lunch, and then offer to buy grandma a new hat.
Everyone knows this is going to be a short-term thing. Everyone knows you aren’t her first. Everyone knows that compared to the toned, bronzed local guys who can dance, sing, play percussion and cut sugar cane you’re pretty fucking lame. But you do have CUC.
Rule #4: The more CUC you have, the hotter you become.
The problem with all this is that while it’s mostly just a bit of harmless slap and tickle with a new pair of shoes thrown in, the system is wide open to abuse. Cuba has long had a reputation for producing stunningly attractive men and women, but increasingly now it has a reputation for offering the kind of cheap strange that you’d never be able to get at home. While some of the usual dangers that go with formal prostitution have been avoided (apparently STD rates – especially HIV – are very low, despite the paucity of frangers), the sex industry is growing in every direction, and entering into some pretty sinister territory.
Talking to one guy with a daughter in high school, he spoke of how some of his daughter’s classmates were starting to go out with foreigners. There were always some dirty old foreigners around to lavish CUC upon an impressionable fifteen year old. He lived in fear that his daughter would end up being lured into the clutches of some guy on his yearly romp through the country.
It is a return, in some ways, to life before the revolution, when the American mafia set up casinos and basically ran the country as their own pleasure island. Although the government can forbid locals from talking to tourists and occasionally crack down on prostitution, they can do very little more (and no one abides by the ‘don’t talk to tourists thing anyway’. Tourism and the informal CUC economy is basically propping the nation up.
This is in some ways a problem common to any ‘developing’ country with an exotic reputation. It’s probably not even as bad as in other parts of the Caribbean or South-East Asia. But still, more and more planeloads of nasty foreigners are landing in Cuba, marvelling at how cheap it is, and getting up to all the foul shit they wouldn’t dare do at home.
Rule #5: Wake up, tuck your ballsack back into your ridiculous little shorts and stop treating Cuba as your own secret little whorehouse. There’s plenty of fun to be had without swaggering around town throwing money at every girl you see.
And just for the record most of the above applies equally whether you’re a foreign guy or girl. In fact if you’re a foreign girl you might not even be expected to buy your boo a pair of shoes in the morning. Some breakfast and a cab ride home would probably do the trick.