From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the 21st Century

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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.

Figure 9_Avenida Zanja

Avenida Zanja in the neighbourhood of Centro Habana.

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.

Figure 21_Malecon on a Busy Afternoon

The Malecón in Havana on a busy spring afternoon.

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 preciosabonita, 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.

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12 thoughts on “From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the 21st Century

  1. Sounds like an interesting book and it certainly has a beautiful cover – congratulations on its publication, Megan! One thing I wondered reading this blog is whether there are jiniteros: male Cubans who court foreign partners, whether straight or gay? If so, it would make a very interesting contrast and (presumably) highlight the sexual double standard at work (or more likely triple standard since I assume gay jiniteros would also be treated differently).

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    • Hi, Lee! Thanks so much. To answer your question, yes, there are jineteros, they do provide a very interesting gendered contrast, and I do cover them in the book. The most striking things about them, to my eye at least, are:

      1) The masculine form “jinetero” can mean a range of things related to tourism and the black market, including touting restaurants and hotels, selling illegal rum and cigars, and (of course) sleeping with female tourists. (Male Cubans with male foreigners go by the nickname “pinguero”, which is even more graphic.) The feminine form of “jinetera”, however, implies only a sexual role. Given the root of the word, which comes from the Spanish for “jockey” and can be interpreted both lewdly and in the sense of “jockeying for advantage”, it gives a fair idea of what it is understood that men and women respectively have to offer in the illicit tourist economy.

      2) The meaning of Cuban men’s sexual interactions with foreign women is interpreted very differently. Cuban women seen with foreign men were assumed to be sleeping with them by police, and that was a reason to stop them, ask for ID, potentially arrest them, etc. Generally, though, Cuban men seen with foreign women were assumed to be selling something or asking for money, and thus likely to be stopped by the police, UNLESS they were holding hands or otherwise indicating a romantic/sexual liaison. Then that was fine and in line with social understandings of men’s sexuality in Cuba. So what was the source of the problem for Cuban women was, in fact, the solution to the problem for Cuban men.

      All of this comes with the (perhaps obvious) caveat that it all depends on the visibility of a Cuban/foreign pairing, i.e. to race. There were other markers (big age differences, styles of dress) that might point a couple out as Cuban/foreign, but the burden of police attention always fell disproportionately on Afro-Cuban people, both because it made their Cubanness visible relative to presumed white foreignness, and because they were generally read as deviant by police.

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  2. Reblogged this on From Julie with Love and commented:
    Sexuality has become inseparable from Cuban national identity. What is controlled through state repression of the so-called jineteros & jinteras is not exploitation, violence, or any objective form of harm but rather unacceptable sex and, through it, unacceptable ways of being.

    This in an amazing article about Jineterismo, a neologism that encompasses sexual and affective relations between Cubans (read: Afro-Cuban and mixed-race women/men) and foreigners (read: white men/women), but which 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.

    In her new book “From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the Twenty-First Century”, Megan Daigle explores the role of love, sexuality, and politics in contemporary Cuba. Highly recommended! I am looking forward to read it myself soon as well…

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  3. Very interesting.
    Have just got back from Havana, and every trip out we were plagued by jineteros trying to get us into shops or taxis. Sad that the if asked “Where you from?” within hours of arrival I’d be saying “No thanks”.
    Him: “You want horse ride, like in Romeo & Juliet?”
    Me: “There’s no horse & carts in Romeo & Juliet”
    But we were never approached by jinetera, so either my wife & I look sexually fullfilled with each other, or we look too weird to be worth the risk.
    Loved Havana, but being able to look at a map or into a shop without a crowd gathering is a nice change.

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  4. Very interesting introduction, Megan. I’m looking forward to the rest of the posts in this series and to reading your book.

    I am very curious to hear more about about your discussion of communal solidarity and what you call “sexual-affective economies of tourism.” If you are thinking primarily a shared sense of community developed between Cubans who engage in the types of sexual relationships with foreigners which are frowned upon by the state, maybe you could say more about what ideas or values form the basis of this solidarity. Since, as you explain, there are so many different variables, motivations, and specific circumstances defining each relationship, to me it’s hard to imagine what terms these folks might be using to identify themselves as part of a shared community. Or perhaps the solidarity emerges mainly in the sense of a shared rejection of the negative associations of the label jinetera?

    You also hint at the idea that sexual relationships between Cubans and foreigners have a critical communal dimension in the sense that they create opportunities “for meeting across cultures, borders, and languages.” Here I guess I just want to put a bit more pressure on the idea of community that you have in mind. Certainly cross-cultural exchanges can have value, but don’t we need to ask questions about the terms under which this kind of exchange occurs? Just because some type of exchange is carried out, we don’t necessarily have to presume that bonds of community are being formed. What forms of politics and paradigms of power mediate these exchanges? This is where I want to know more about how your idea of “sexual-affective economies of tourism” is related to community. When I think of the relationship you described in your post here between Yakelín and Jean-Claude, I have a hard time seeing its communal aspects. When Yakelín emphasizes her ties to the local community and her goals of economic independence, there seems to be implicit acknowledgement of the contradictions these create in her relationship to Jean-Claude, whose position relative to this communal structure (beyond his love for Yakelín) seems to depend on his economic power. Will Jean-Claude be willing and able to have a role in the community beyond that of patron, tourist, and sexual partner? Tourism in Cuba might very well lead to economic benefits, fun, feelings of happiness, and even love, but can it ever contribute to the strengthening of communal structures or shared goals of resistance to power?

    Another comment relates to your notion of sexual practice as resistance in the context of the state’s ideological discourse of jiniterismo and active policing of the bodies of women of color. I definitely appreciate the way your research frames questions in terms of how women especially are using their sexual relationships with foreigners to undermine the regime’s authoritarian efforts to control the sexual economy as well as the broader cultural myths in Cuba regarding the sexual promiscuity of the mulatta or black woman. But as you rightly point out, the image of jinetera is only one variation of the stereotype of the sexually available woman of color, which has a long history and circulates throughout the globe. My question is whether you have heard anything from the women you interviewed which might suggest how they also resist the negative stereotypes about Cuban women that the foreigners bring with them from Europe or elsewhere.

    Again, I enjoyed reading this and I look forward to the respondents’ posts and your final comments.

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    • Hi, Patrick! You’re getting at a lot of the themes that fill the rest of the book, to be honest. The sense of community and solidarity that I observed came mostly from the shared sense of rejection by the system of ideas in which these people had grown up. It was a loose and informal sort of sympathy amongst people who were taking similar risks, though not necessarily with the same goals or motivations, and facing similar obstacles.

      As for your second question, I wouldn’t say that I’m presuming community based on exchange (though I’m not clear what you mean by “exchange” here). As above, I’m talking about a sense of community amongst people who are similarly engaged in a rejection of certain values and the creation of new spaces for themselves and their families. In a similar vein, I certainly wouldn’t say that people like Jean-Claude would be limited to roles of “patron, tourist, and sexual partner” — why would they? He was a committed part of Yakelín’s life, and the compromises in their relationship that may seem so evident to your eye and mine are not so strange in places where the need to depend on a relationship (i.e. on a man) for stability, security, and social standing is not so far gone, or even resurgent in recent years.

      With regard to your third question, no, most didn’t speak of challenging the sexualised stereotype. Some bristled at it and how it meant they were subject to police scrutiny, sure. Many embraced it, though — sometimes because they genuinely believed in it as a source of power, and sometimes because it was a tool that they felt they could use to their advantage.

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      • Thanks for your reply, Megan. As I mentioned I’ll be following the rest of the posts in the series so I’m sure I’ll gain a better sense of your positions as I read on.

        Your remarks gave me a somewhat clearer idea of the solidarity that takes shape amongst people in Cuba whose romantic lives and sexual practices are unjustly restricted by state power and policing. It certainly makes sense that they would share sympathies, but it also makes me curious about whether more concrete instances of shared struggle could be all that uncommon. For instance, perhaps people share strategies with one another about how to avoid police harassment when dating a foreigner. The question, for me, would be whether such subversive collaboration contributes to the advancement of liberatory relations in a “communal spirit,” for lack of a better term.

        I’m still trying to think through your notion of new communal spaces that are being created around romantic and sexual relationships between foreign visitors and Cubans, but I understand that this is one of the book’s main claims and I’ll need read more of your argument when I get the chance. To expand on what I wrote earlier, when I think of Yakelín and Jean-Claude as you describe them, meeting every day in the hotel terrace (one of the few public places where, I imagine, they are unlikely to attract any attention from the authorities), the situation strikes me as one defined by a separation from community. The hotel, after all, is a gathering place used primarily by foreigners and tourists rather than Habaneros, and the social space may not be entirely inviting toward Yakelín’s wider circle of friends and family. I realize that they also spend their time together in other locations, but this daily scene as I perceive it points toward the obstacles to community formation more so than toward any sense of the couple’s participation in broader networks of communal practice.

        Perhaps part of my difficulty has to do with the framework of tourism, since to me the figure of the tourist strongly signals the precisely the absence of communal sensibility. Especially when traveling across the global poverty divide, the tourist most often becomes a consumer of the communities and locales he/she visits, which limits the possibility of relations of reciprocity and shared meaning. The communal bonds that you suggest are being formed between Cubans and visitors through sexual-affective exchanges would require, from my perspective, some radical forms of undermining the established hegemonic structures of power, privilege, communication, perception, and knowledge, which lie beyond the immediate authority apparatus of the Cuban state. This is not what comes to mind in relations of exchange framed by tourism. It’s definitely possible to think of more open, receptive, and intersubjective paradigms of travel in which the encounter with difference creates the potential for transformation and complex understanding between the traveler and the local subject. But even in this case, I would say that the formation of community would still stand only as a potentiality and not as a direct outcome. I admit that Jean-Claude may not fit straightforwardly into the category of tourist due to his continued presence in Cuba and his long-term relationship with Yakelín, but if we’re going to think of this couple and others in similar circumstances as involved in a process of creating new modes of communal relationality then it seems necessary to understand more clearly how their romantic affection and commitment connects with the intricacies and challenges of coalitional struggle across social spaces fractured by, among other things, asymmetries on based on gender, race, and wealth.

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