The fourth post in our mini-forum on Megan’s From Cuba With Love.
Megan Daigle’s from Cuba with Love: sex and money in the 21st century is a crisply written treatise on what is often narrowly understood as “sex work” and “sex tourism” in contemporary Cuba. Set largely against the backdrop of the Malecon in Havana, Megan explores the complex practice of jineterismo in From Cuba. Jineterismo or “jockeying” is “the practice of pursuing relationships with foreign tourists” that has resulted in the creation of what Megan calls a “sexual-affective economy” in Cuba in the post Cold War era, specifically in light of the US economic embargo.
Megan’s interactions with the young Cubans she interviews and speaks with at length, highlight the abject failure of labels such as “sex work” and “prostitution” to capture the myriad and variegated bonds that these Cubans form with their Western benefactors, or more aptly, partners. She grants them agency as actors and decision-makers who get into relationships with foreign men for reasons that include and transcend material gain.
With equal sensitivity and nuance, Megan also maps the raced, gendered and classed dimensions of the reactions which reactions? these relationships engender, focusing in particular on the multiple levels at which these young women are subject to violence; most notably meted out by the socialist state and its affiliated institutions. The state’s disparaging dismissal of this economy of love, if you like, is both predictable and curious. On the one hand, jineterismo is construed as a consumerist impulse that must be crushed in order for the citizens of Cuba to remain true to the ideals of the revolution. On the other, the relative sexual freedom young Cubans enjoy is something of an anomaly that is owed at least partially, to the propagation of women’s rights through the (admittedly problematic) Federation of Cuban Women (FMC).
Megan provides us with an incisive ethnographic and richly detailed account of the lives of her interlocutors. She particularly perspicaciously invokes the body as both a vector and a site of power, foregrounding the governance, disciplining and surveilling these bodies are subject to, at the hands of the state, of the police force, and also of themselves and their friends. What I would have liked Megan to do is to probe deeper into the subjectivity (or its lack thereof) of the category of jinetara that she dismisses as having no fundamental essence. For Megan, the jinetara does not exist – the women that fall under this label have multiple experiences and attach vastly different meanings to the phenomenon of sexual jineterismo. Some embrace the label but not its connotations, others find it offensive and inapplicable to their relations, whilst still others problematise the category of the jinetara, critically analysing its inability to grasp the workings of love, sex and money in contemporary Cuba.
Thus there is no intersubjective meaning attached to jineterismo; subjectivity is fractured and nebulous. While I take this point, I wonder if this is analogous to Spivak’s argument that the subaltern cannot speak, not because s/he’s fundamentally incapable of being heard and understood but because there is no subaltern, only a position of subalternity. Perhaps there is no jinetera as Megan argues, but her positionality in the world of jineterismo may still have similarities and salience, even as the personal experiences remain diverse and variegated. I suppose, what I’m suggesting is that the distinction between jinetara used as a signifier and as a very precise identity could be more fully fleshed out.
Interestingly, and as a slight digression, the racialised jinetara as a symbol is remarkably redolent of the figure of the terrorist, best understood in psychoanalytic terms through Lacan’s objet a: she is both intrinsically suspicious and immanently desirable. “We” are taught to be afraid of her and what she represents to our sense of order, but we also desire her. The estado peligroso, the pre-emptive act based on suspicious behaviour is reminiscent of “terrorism prevention” acts put in place in the U.S. in its war against terror.
To go back to the substance of From Cuba my principal cavil would be the lack of explicit situation and upfront theorisation. Instead we are confronted with a host of interesting theories and theoretics, but towards the end of the text. Foucault, Scott, Deleuze, Butler and Bhabha all provide fascinating and viable theoretical frameworks to explore jineterismo but more upfront theoretical framing, as opposed to a somewhat ad hoc inclusion of different theorists would have made the book a smoother read, providing a neater segue into the lived, material and gritty realities of world of jineterismo that Megan conjures.
I have a couple of minor quibbles (reflecting my own interests and biases), one of which involves the almost exclusive centring of the experience of cis-gender jinetera. This is obviously outside the remit of the text, but I can’t help but find the absence of the transgender community conspicuous. What does transgender “sex work” look like in present day Cuba? The second, even more minor quibble concerns the slight contradiction with regard to the understanding and perception of the jinetara by “society at large”. This may have been deliberate, but I failed to get a sense of what other young people, those not associated with jineterismo thought of this phenomenon. Has it been mainstreamed enough to be part of the daily existence of those unassociated with it? And what do they make of it outside the vilification of the police and the state?
None of this detracts from what is a hugely enjoyable text that unpacks with excruciating care the economies of love and sex, and of bodily disciplining and surveillance that define the social and political landscape of urban Cuba. She also (counter)intuitively reinterprets the sexual affective relationships Cuban women have with foreign men (and less often vice versa) as posing a radical challenge to the discourse of prostitution that continues to be the primary lens through which these relationships have been made sense of. Finally, Megan delivers a swift blow to the leftwing romanticism of the Cuban state, that I must proclaim I had hitherto been guilty of.