Five years ago, I spent six months living and working in Cuba – a fact that, in casual conversation, generally provokes expressions of envy and eye rolling about mojitos, salsa music, and academics who don’t really do any work. Cuba is as much a fantasy as a real place. It is totally invested with the romantic and ideological dreams of wildly disparate constituencies: armchair socialists and campus lefties, right-wing US politicians and Cuban émigrés, cocktail-swilling package holiday tourists, and adventure-seeking backpackers, amongst others. Cuba is a steamy and exotic Caribbean island, with rumba dancing and free-flowing rum. Cuba is a repressive and secretive regime. Cuba is a test workshop for socialist ambitions the world over. Cuba is a fantasy.
It was ideas like these about Cuba, Cuban politics, and Cuban people that drew me there in the first place, and the resulting book – built on those months of ethnographic research and on the doctoral dissertation that followed – has recently been released under the title From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the Twenty-First Century (University of California Press 2015). Rahul, Nivi, guest poster Dunja, and Pablo will be commenting on it over the next few days, followed by a rejoinder from yours truly.
From Cuba with Love is a book about sex, politics, resistance, identity, freedom, oppression, and happiness. It contains chapters about identity, labelling, and language; violence and resistance; state power, governance, and love; and identity-formation and new kinds of resistance. It is roughly chronological, in line with my field research, and unfolds through a series of stories about the people I met and the things I witnessed in Cuba.
The book centres around the figure of the jinetera, a uniquely Cuban neologism denoting a woman who dates and sleeps with foreign men – a phenomenon (and an identity) that has captured both Cuban and international attention of various kinds in the last two decades or so. The jinetera emerged in the wake of the Soviet collapse, when Cubans confronted crushing austerity as their economy faltered, and some came to embrace economies of sex, romance, love, and money as a means of survival and escape. Beginning around 1996, the Cuban state apparatus responded to what it deemed to be a resurgence of ‘prostitution’ on the island with a programme of sweeping arrests, heightened police presence, rehabilitation centres, and other surveillance measures. Together, institutions ranging from the police and the Ministry of the Interior to the Federation of Cuban Women created an atmosphere of fear not only for jineteras, but for any woman who fit the popular understanding of the jinetera: young, attractive, Afro-Cuban or mixed race. This subjection to state control was compounded by vulnerability to abuse by police officers, middlemen and brokers, and sometimes the women’s own partners, in a cycle of violence and repression that continues to this day.
In Havana, Santiago, Camaguey, and other Cuban cities, I met young women and men who met, dated, and slept with foreign tourists for a variety of reasons, and I spoke to them about their experiences. More than anything, my informants challenged the notion that they are united by any overarching characteristics in terms of their backgrounds, families, values, or aspirations – that the jinetera even exists as a meaningful or representative category. It is a label that is largely applied from the outside by state institutions, police officers, and the general public.* It is based on perceived markers of race, gender, sexuality, and material wealth that ascribes moral laxity and depravity to the bodies of women bearing such markers.
The book begins with a history that traces certain threads through the centuries, from the island known to its indigenous peoples as Caobana, to the one that Columbus called Isla Juana, to the Cuba of today. Histories of Cuba tend to be bracketed by selection of foundational ‘events’: first contact and colonisation, the wars of independence, the republican period, the revolution. I tried to resist this, with mixed success, and focus instead on some persistent themes: the elaboration of virile national heroes, the genesis of the mixed-race mulata woman as the predestined and illicit bearer of sensuality, and the in-built sexual morality of the Cuban Revolution. These, I argue, are the roots of the jinetera today.
Turning to my field research, the book then moves through a series of temporal phases. With my first interviews, those that were in many ways the easiest to obtain, I learned about the ideas and life stories that motivated my informants, the relationships they had found, how they defined themselves and their situations, and their hopes for the future. As my time in Cuba wore on and I gained a bit more finesse as an ethnographer, I began to meet people who spoke of violence ranging from police suspicion and continual identity checks to physical and sexual brutality from partners, police officers, and state-sanctioned rehabilitation centres – all for a crime that does not appear in Cuba’s criminal code. After delving into these darker recesses of the revolutionary project, I emerged into its bureaucratic heart to investigate some of the state institutions behind the crackdowns and rehabilitative efforts and their policies at the highest levels. Finally, looking back on six months of research, I attempted to draw together the embodied, sexualised resistance and sense of community that I observed amongst young Cubans who sought and slept with foreign tourists in order to understand what it might mean for Cuba.
In light of this setting – so determined and shaped by the symbolic and ‘real’ violence against the people I met who identified as, or indeed were simply perceived as, jineteras – I argue that sexuality has become inseparable from Cuban national identity. What is controlled through state repression of the so-called jineteras is not exploitation, violence, or any objective form of harm but rather unacceptable sex and, through it, unacceptable ways of being. The Cuban revolutionary government held certain ideas about the good life, including what counts as a worthwhile career, a healthy relationship, and the right way to live, and it was trying to enforce them. This raised questions for me about bodies, and especially women’s bodies: what such bodies can do, what it is understood that they should do, and equally, what can be done to them within certain frames and discourses.
The people I interviewed flouted Cuban socialist norms by pursuing relationships that challenged conventions and gave them means of supporting themselves outside of the state system. In that light, sex becomes a potent form of resistance to pastoral power that is effective both in its effectiveness, allowing young people to turn away from exhortations to live a certain kind of life, and its form, which confronts prescriptive ideals of sexual morality at their most basic level.
All of that said, here are some of the things that I want this book to do:
Challenge ideas about Cuba’s jineteras and, in general, the relationship between sex and money: A lot of what has been written about the so-called jineteras of Cuba has fallen into two fairly distinct camps. That is, that the jineteras instrumentalise their sexualities to buy necessities and are punished for it by the Victorian state on one hand, or that they shallowly pursue material fripperies and eschew the meaningful life offered by a caring state on the other. This simplistic debate does a great injustice to the people I met, whose lives and relationships defied such easy categorisation. (It seems hard to believe that such things even need to be said.) It paves over the intersectional complexity of jineterismo-as-sexual-practice** – and the violent reaction against it – wherein privileges of race, gender, and social capital allow some to move unseen and escape censure. Most importantly, it collapses the multifaceted history, social context, and frames of reference that have together brought not only jineterismo as an observable practice, but the jinetera as a figure with cultural resonance and disciplinary power, into being.
This book was also an opportunity to spend some time thinking through a very difficult and divisive topic for feminist theory and activism: sex work (although that terminology has never achieved salience in the Cuban context). In what had already been written not just about jineteras but also about sex workers around the world, I detected a whiff of ‘choice feminism’; the women involved were either ‘empowered’ and choosing their choices or, alternatively, they had no choice and were victims of circumstance, coercion, or other forces. These women’s actions and identities were thus weighted with political commitments projected on them from the very start.
Said another way, virtually everyone writing about jineteras was a self-proclaimed feminist, but few seemed willing to engage with the question of what happens when women do things that feminists don’t expect, support, or find palatable. What happens if a so-called jinetera really is seeking frivolous luxuries? Or she just likes sex? What if our discursive lenses of either/or are blinding us to further violences and erasing complexity? While I am certainly no ‘choice feminist’, it was important to me to push back against what Katherine Cross has recently called “an unfortunate tendency in feminism to upbraid individual women for how we try to survive or accommodate ourselves in patriarchy” – or, to use the language of the book, the tendency (or desire) to dismiss and explain away the identities and relationships these women produce for themselves in the face of adversity.
Break down the polarised Cuba debate: Cuba has been the centre of intense and hyperbolic debate for decades, and this shows no sign of abating in light of recent developments. In the book, I tried to challenge that division mainly by, well, ignoring it – by trying to avoid engaging with that kind of reductionist and polarising framework. But even so, throughout the process, I was frequently met with questions that amounted to something like, that’s all well and good, but which side are you on? Do you support the revolution or the opposition? The answer, truthfully, is neither – or as I sometimes say, perhaps flippantly but just to drive the point home, I don’t care.
To put it somewhat more eloquently, I was once asked if I foresaw a ‘happy ending’ for my informants at some future time. The answer to that question is no, I don’t, or at least not necessarily, and for the most part neither did they. The resistance I observed in Cuba represents, I think, an opening – but an opening to what, exactly? The answer to that question remains undetermined, perhaps permanently. Some of my informants were explicit about the fact that, by rejecting the care of the Cuban state and whatever safety nets it could still offer, they might be throwing themselves on the mercy of even more volatile forces. Some were less reflexive. This is not an escape from relations of power but a negotiation within them. The point, however, is that they shouldered those risks willingly. In many cases, they embraced them. On a macro scale, it is temping to pin everything on the now-faltering embargo as a major break, but life in Cuba has been subject to breakneck change for decades already since the Soviet collapse. Much as more change is certainly on the horizon, it would be foolish to once again define Cuba by the US anxieties aimed at it.
The Cuban Revolution brought with it many things that Cubans welcomed, like socialised medicine and education, but with a distinct moral agenda and an impressive biopolitical machine. As the spectre of US influence looms once again, it is becoming more and more clear that there is no right answer for individual Cubans, who are as likely to be washed away as buoyed up by the flood. We need to talk – and think – differently about Cuba and Cuban politics.
Explore possibilities for resistance through sexuality, body, and identity: The more conversations I had with my informants, the more I realised that jineterismo-as-sexual-practice wasn’t just a fascinating socio-political phenomenon. There was a sense of community and even solidarity amongst the people I interviewed that elevated jineterismo above the individual level. In the book, I used the phrase sexual-affective economies of tourism to express this as a space, though not a physical space, for meeting across cultures, borders, and languages.
It was also an opening to think resistance differently. It was not about pushing back, fighting and struggling, contesting, or confronting. Instead of violence, pain, and disaffection, resistance might be more potent when it took the form of affection, laughter, love, fun, and sex – things that for me connote connection and relationality. When faced with a form of power that purports to care and foster life, prescribing its own schematic for the ‘good life’, perhaps the best defense is to simply shrug and refuse – and to revel in that refusal, living happily and determinedly despite the risks.
Sex, in such a setting, becomes a tool of resistance that counters state power not just with its efficacy but also with its qualitative content – that sexual deviation from prescriptive norms. Cuban socialism comes equipped with its own understanding of what sex, love, and relationships ought to look like. It seeks to police sex between foreign men and Cuban women, along the way revealing deep-seated understandings of which women are likely to pursue such liaisons (thus embodying risk and deviance), which pairings merit sanction (and, by extension, which are ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’), and what sexual encounters can and do mean.
The young Cuban women whom I met and interviewed turned this knowledge about them on its head, using their sensualised personae as Caribbean and Latina women of colour to seek new relationships and sources of support, to opt out of the socialist system and the benefits it offers, and to create new notions of the ‘good life’ in their own images.
This book project presented ethical and methodological challenges throughout the process of writing it, from the field research to the early planning stages to the final edits. It was a project that by definition ruled out a lot of what are considered to be ‘best practices’, like consent forms and feeding back written material to informants in question. I have had no meaningful contact with my interviewees since 2010, but for most, this is exactly how they wanted it to be and how they felt most safe. When I returned from Cuba, I spent several months struggling to come to terms with the notebooks and recordings in front of me. It had been very difficult field research, both personally and politically, and I failed to see how I could ever avoid the representational violence that I could and surely would do to the people I had met. Finally one of my supervisors said to me, ‘Just tell the story.’ I began writing stories – so that I could foreground uncertainty and contradiction, be transparent about my own role, and write ‘felt-fact aliveness’ into the book. Ethically, my efforts can only be a failure, really – we all fail when we speak for others – so the question is, how badly? I am still uneasy about this last question.
More than anything, I want this book to spark new conversations about politics, resistance, sex, and Cuba. It doesn’t contain much in the way of answers, but if it succeeds in provoking debate and maybe unsettling accepted knowledge about even one of the questions it poses, then – at the risk of delving too deep into my own navel – I think it will have succeeded.
* In Cuba, one sometimes hears the word jinetera used casually to describe an attractive and well dressed woman. I even heard it used as a playful nickname amongst coworkers and friends, much the same way they would say preciosa, bonita, or mamí. Many Cubans were often willing to point to obvious (i.e. interracial) foreign/Cuban pairings as examples of jineterismo-as-sexual-practice, but with little judgement or derision attached. Used in this way, the term bears none of the sanction implied by its use in state newspapers and by law enforcement.
** Jineterismo is indeed a neologism that encompasses sexual and affective relations between Cubans (read: Afro-Cuban and mixed-race women) and foreigners (read: white men), but it also implies a much wider range of other black- and grey-market activities such as selling bootleg rum and cigars, acting as a tout for restaurants and guest houses, and driving unlicensed taxis. For many, jineterismo has become less about illegality per se and more in tune with notions of hustling, struggling to get by, and innovating, or their rough Cuban equivalents: resolver, inventor, luchar. Many Cubanists decry the reduction of jineterismo to a purely sexual meaning.