UPDATE (8 September 2014): Megan originally wrote this as a guest post, but is now with us more permanently.
This post is based on stories about sex, love, tourism and identity relayed in Cuba in 2010, and is (loosely) based on, and at times excerpted from, an article of the same name just published in Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. All names, many locations, and some additional identifying details have been changed in accordance with the interviewees’ wishes.
Yakelín comes to the Hotel St. John nearly every day around two o’clock in the afternoon. Most days, Jean-Claude is already there, ensconced on the terrace with a glass of dark rum, chatting amiably with the staff, or pensively smoking a cigar as he waits. When she arrives, she kisses him discreetly before settling down for a drink on the terrace. The hotel is rather unassuming, but it sits just steps from the busy east end of Calle 23, known as La Rampa, and blocks from the historic University of Havana, and as such Hotel St. John has become a haven for tourists and foreign students who come here for strong coffee and cold beer. After an hour or so, Yakelín and Jean-Claude walk away together, hand in hand.
This same routine has been going on for more than two years now, since the day that Yakelín first met Jean-Claude, walking along Calle 23 with a friend. She was 21 years old, living in a small flat with her mother, father, brother, two sisters, aunt, uncle, two cousins and her grandmother. After spending her teenage years at a boarding school in the countryside, she had elected not to continue to university and was back in Havana with her family. Like so many others, her family worked hard to make ends meet, and Yakelín was looking for ways to lighten the burden. Not long after they met, Jean-Claude made her a proposition.
He suggested that, since I was en la lucha [struggling to get by], you know, he suggested that I no longer be in the streets [looking for leads on work, food, clothes] and that he was going to help me resolver mis problemas [solve my problems]. And since then, he’s my boyfriend.
Jean-Claude is married, but Yakelín says that in spite of that they have a “formal relationship” – she lives in a comfortable casa particular, for which he pays, and they spend every afternoon together. As a retiree, Claude lives more or less permanently in Cuba, leaving only to attend to his affairs in France and returning laden with gifts including clothing, jewellery, and even a television. He provides her with spending money and helps to support her family as well. She says she loves the independence he has given her, even though she readily acknowledges the implied contradiction – she has found her freedom in total dependence on him. Yakelín has no official work at present, because she feels that the meagre salary is simply not worth the trouble.