Love in the Time of El Período Especial

This is the second in a series of posts on Megan Daigle’s From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the Twenty-First Century. You can read Megan’s inaugural post here. More responses will follow from Pablo, Nivi and guest poster Dunja over the next few days.

If you key in the terms ‘Havana Malecón’ and allow your cursor to linger indecisively in a Google search engine box, you are urged to look for ‘prostitutes, pictures, hotels, gay, jineteras’. The Malecón is Havana’s seaside esplanade, and it is this cluster of connotations associated with it that Megan sets out to explore in her book From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the Twenty-First Century, in which the figure of the ‘jinetera’ assumes centre stage. Jineterismo, meaning ‘jockeying’, refers to the practice of Cubans pursuing relationships with foreign tourists as part of a broader set of black- and grey-market activities that have become widespread in the wake of the economic hardship of the so-called ‘Special Period’ engendered by Soviet collapse and US embargo. Taking her cue from many of her respondents, Megan is categorical that the term ‘sex worker’ fails as a description of jineteras, given that their relationships are not purely transactional. Indeed, even the term ‘jinetera’ with its more positive, even emancipatory, connotations and its valorisation of the struggles of young Cuban women, is rejected by many of those whose stories Megan sets out to tell. Rather than providing an authoritative account of jineterismo and jineteras, the book seeks to explore practices of categorisation: what does the category ‘jinetera’ imply? What is its genealogy? Who is presumed to fit within it? What are the consequences of doing so?

Megan’s encounters with young Cubans in the sexual-affective tourist economy quickly begin to reveal the depth to which ‘jineterismo’ is raced, gendered and classed in a state/society that claims to have abolished these forms of hierarchy with the triumph of socialist revolution. White or light-skinned Cuban women seen with foreign men can easily ‘pass’ as dating, Afro-Cuban women might be able to do the same if they were with men of their own ‘race’, while Afro-Cuban men with foreign white women are suspected of commercial offences such as bootlegging rather than prostitution (in their case, evidence of a sexual relationship legitimises the liaison rather than rendering it suspect). So it is relationships between young Afro-Cuban women and white foreign men that ‘fit’ most closely with popular conceptions of jineterismo and that elicit the greatest paranoia and the most draconian responses from the state (arrest, incarceration, forced rehabilitation). In an early historical overview, Megan helps us to see how social readings of the Cuban mulata as a sexually available object for white male desire endure and crystallise in the figure of the contemporary jinetera, while being intensified by socialist anxieties about wealthy white tourists as agents of capitalist penetration. Although she doesn’t explicitly invoke him, the spectre of Fanon’s politico-psychoanalytic reflections on the vexed relations between black/white men/women in the colony seem astonishingly resonant with this exploration of race-gender relations in the post-socialist postcolony.

As the title of Megan’s book hints, at the heart of contending discourses about jineterismo are rival understandings of the triangular relationship between sex, love, and money. I want to focus here on love, in part because it might be the most difficult category to make sense of notwithstanding the profusion of work in affect studies (how many IR books on love have you read?), and in part because of my enduring fascination with state views of the appropriate forms and objects of love. Reading the life stories of the young women that Megan meets and befriends, it’s clear that many of them hope that their relationships with foreigners will be vehicles for better lives, where ‘better’ is understood as encompassing a range of outcomes from economic security for themselves and their families to emigration from Cuba. But crucially, many appear unwilling to accept these material opportunities if they come unaccompanied by love. Indeed as one of Megan’s respondents Andre suggests, there seem to be hierarchies of authenticity and respect within this universe, in which those who are looking for love are considered the jineteros and jineteras de clase. Contrast this with the state view exemplified in a terse comment from Yuris, a high-level official in the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas (FMC), who informs Megan in no uncertain terms that no healthy relationship can exist between a Cuban woman and a foreign man, because these liaisons are always and inevitably mediated by material gain (by this standard, many Jane Austen protagonists cannot be said to have fallen in love).


Idealised views of love were central to the Cuban Revolution. Defining the New Man that the revolution was supposed to have inaugurated, Che Guevara famously said ‘At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.’ But this love, at least insofar as those in the vanguard of the revolution was concerned, was an austere and idealised sort of love. As Che goes on to explain:

Our vanguard revolutionaries must idealize this love of the people, of the most sacred causes, and make it one and indivisible. They cannot descend, with small doses of daily affection, to the level where ordinary people put their love into practice. The leaders of the revolution have children just beginning to talk, who are not learning to say “daddy”; their wives, too, must be part of the general sacrifice of their lives in order to take the revolution to its destiny. The circle of their friends is limited strictly to the circle of comrades in the revolution. There is no life outside of it. In these circumstances one must have a large dose of humanity, a large dose of a sense of justice and truth in order to avoid dogmatic extremes, cold scholasticism, or an isolation from the masses. We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity is transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.

Even bracketing its obvious heteronormativity this is a curious passage, contrasting, as it does, a lofty, idealized ‘love of the people’ with the ‘level where ordinary people put their love into practice’, while nonetheless insisting on some sort of connection between the two in its recognition that the ‘love of living humanity’ must be transformed into actual deeds. Even as Che powerfully articulated the affective structures that male vanguard revolutionaries were expected to cultivate, the FMC concerned itself with appropriate revolutionary womanhood. In a fascinating chapter that chronicles official stances on sex work, Megan notes a remarkable shift in FMC characterisations of sex work as a ‘lamentable form of subsistence that [women] had had to take up’ as a result of capitalist immiseration (1975) to an understanding of it as a function of familial neglect and ‘a lack of ethics and moral values in the broadest sense’ (1995). There is something deeply ironic about this drift, on the part of one of the world’s last self-avowedly socialist regimes, from a materialist (albeit abolitionist) view of sex work to one that sees it as—to borrow Judith Butler’s acerbic description of reductive accounts of sexual non-normativity— ‘merely cultural’.


We can turn once again to the aforementioned Yuris for the state’s explanation for this shift in its understanding of jineterismo: ‘Before the triumph of the Revolution, women were desperate, poorly educated, powerless. The difference is that today, in this day and age, Cuban women are better developed, educated, with opportunities. They don’t need to do what they do.’ It is curious that there is not the slightest acknowledgement in this ‘explanation’ of the economic hardships of the Special Period that have engendered jineterismo, not even an attempt to displace blame for it onto the US embargo. To explain why, Megan mirrors a move that Cynthia Weber made in her groundbreaking Faking It, which offers a queer anthropomorphic reading of the Cuban state’s international relations. Squeezed by the dual challenges of Soviet collapse and US embargo at the end of the Cold War, Cuba found itself having to make ideological compromises in order to survive in a capitalist world system. Foremost among these measures were increasingly sexualized tourist promotion campaigns in which the state itself seemed to become jinetera. Deeply ambivalent about these departures from socialist doctrine, the Cuban state has effectively displaced its anxieties onto the bodies of jineteras, who are read as embodiments of, and therefore scapegoats for, a putative moral decay that threatens the achievements of the Revolution.

By 2009, the FMC had entered into an accord with the police whereby the two institutions would determine, in collaboration, the best course of rehabilitation for individual women who came into their custody. Supported by regimes of everyday surveillance incorporating neighbours, schools and doctors, through whom women ‘at risk’ are identified for state intervention and possible incarceration, this collaboration seems to approximate an instance of what Janet Halley and others, studying largely liberal capitalist contexts, have called ‘governance feminism’. Indeed juxtaposing Megan’s work against the ideologically very different case studies of governance feminism that Halley and her collaborators offer, seems to suggest that feminisms anchored in very different ideological commitments nonetheless share crucial characteristics when they begin ‘seeing like a state’. Moreover, for those of us who know little about Cuba as an actual place, but for whom fragments of ‘Cuba’—foquismo, the Havana Tricontinental, medical internationalism (before MSF)—loom large as metonyms for another, more hopeful time (I am in this category of readers), the book’s account of the struggles of everyday Cubans, while never denying the achievements of the Revolution, nonetheless makes for sobering reading. Indeed the sophistication of Megan’s stance in relation to the Revolution is evident in the way she is able to acknowledge that the individualism and sexual liberation that characterise jineterismo are themselves ironic achievements of the socialist state’s gender policies on co-education, sex education and contraception, which had the consequence—among other things—of reducing the stigma of pre-marital sex.

One of the wonderful things about this book is the way in which it proceeds, not from the vantage point of a sovereign author masterfully surveying a ‘field’, but in the voice of an embodied interlocutor, trying (and sometimes candidly failing) to listen to and retell the stories of ‘ordinary’ people in an unfamiliar place. Indeed my review is somewhat misleading in having focused so much on the voice of the state when in fact Megan does quite the opposite. So I want to think a little bit, finally, about what we do when we tell such stories, and what Megan does with these stories. What emerges through the stories that young Cubans like Yakelín, Nadia, Lili, Ricky, Andre and Isabel tell Megan, are accounts of love, sex and money that depart substantially from those authorised by the state, and sexual-affective practices that perform these departures, often at considerable risk. As Megan narrates them, these practices take the form of various strategies of evasion of, and disinvestment from, rather than confrontation with, the state, making them exemplars of what James Scott famously described as ‘weapons of the weak’.

But let us step back from the details of the argument to look at what is happening here methodologically. In telling these stories, Megan is doing something slightly different from what we might expect of a reporter or even a novelist. As political theorists, we are often excited by stories that don’t seem to fit the theoretical categories and received wisdoms with which we have been taught to make sense of the world. But we aren’t satisfied with simply narrating the stories we have heard: often we are driven by an ambition to draw some larger meaning out of them, to construct new theoretical claims that might better or differently do justice to the world. It is this reconstructive theoretical ambition, necessary as it is, that is fraught with pitfalls. Sometimes this takes the form of speaking for, or over the heads of, those who are represented, as if the theorist could see something larger, deeper, more abstract than represented subjects in all their embodied particularity could ever do.

Megan writes with too much care and humility to do this. But in her case, I wonder if this reconstructive ambition takes a different but equally risky form, namely the temptation to extract out of a bleak story a silver lining that her subjects have not themselves found. Thus, not content with reading the subversive practices of jineterismo as forms of aesthetic self-creation that resist subjectifying power at an individual level, she suggests that ‘new possibilities for solidarity and community may be emerging, both across and within borders, and taking pleasure as their core’. There is an interesting contradiction in the argument, which, on the one hand, reads jineterismo partly as a function of increasing individualism and consumerist desire and recognises that the search for pleasure individualises and autonomizes, while also suggesting that it creates potential for connection and new forms of community between people and across borders.

I’m not sure what the source of this optimism is. If the stories convey an overwhelming impression, it is one of what can only be called affective precarity, not simply because all love is precarious, but because this love is especially so given its stigmatisation by state and society alike, the almost inevitable hierarchies of race/class/gender that characterise love between a young Cuban and a wealthy tourist, and the enormity of what is at stake at least for the Cuban party to the relationship. I imagine many of Megan’s subjects worry about how long their relationships will last. I don’t wish to valorise longevity and I can see that fleeting moments of pleasure can offer crucial resources for survival and resistance. Indeed I have a different sort of worry that goes to the heart of Megan’s claim that jineterismo may be forging new kinds of community. At the risk of generalisation, much of what Megan has told us in this book suggests that ‘success’ within the terms of jineterismo is measured through the achievement of stable and enduring coupling. But ‘solidarity’ and ‘community’, in the way we usually understand them, gesture at wider and less exclusive affective structures.

(I wrote this before yesterday’s exchange between Megan and Patrick in the comments below her post, but since my query about community resonates with Patrick’s first two questions, I want to pick up on that exchange. In her reply to Patrick’s very similar question about how she understands the nature of communal resistance that might be emerging through practices of jineterismo, Megan speaks of a sense of rejection shared by participants in the sexual-affective economies of tourism in Cuba that generates a loose and informal sort of sympathy amongst people who were taking similar risks. One of the striking insights of Scott’s Weapons of the Weak is the claim that the unorganised resistance of the weak is individualised but that its effects may be collective. In an evocative and oft-cited image, Scott suggests that ‘just as millions of anthozoan polyps create, willy-nilly, a coral reef, so do the multiple acts of peasant insubordination and evasion create political and economic barrier reefs of their own.’ What is significant here is that while insubordinate actors might think of themselves as acting in an isolated and unorganized fashion (particularly in the absence of explicit consciousness raising), the cumulative effect of their actions can produce a perception of collectivity (‘conspiracy’) in the eyes of the state and other opponents. Is this, perhaps, the way in which jineterismo is producing community? A community of effects even if not of intentions?

I’m not sure. Elsewhere, Scott writes of weapons of the weak, in a quote that Megan uses, that ‘if they are open they are rarely collective, and, if they are collective, they are rarely open.’ The genius of jineterismo is that it is too messy to fit into the categories that Scott offers us. As Megan describes it, much of jineterismo is indeed driven by individual aspiration, ambition and action; but it is crucially enabled by cooperative acts of solidarity, dissimulation, and sharing of spoils (and things are more complicated and less easy to valorise when we acknowledge that some of this ‘sharing’, especially between pimps/chulos and jineteras, is far from egalitarian); and while some performances of jineterismo are open, others are indeed hidden (as when jineteras take precautions not to be seen leaving clubs with white men or to have their names recorded in the registry books of casas particulares). In making these observations, I don’t wish to disaffiliate Megan’s work from that of Scott, but simply to suggest that the stories she tells are an invaluable complication of the framework he provides.)


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