A few weeks ago, when I checked Twitter and saw that Fidel Castro had died, the news felt strangely distant. True, Fidel was a giant of the twentieth century rather than the twenty-first, but I think that feeling of observing the news of his death from afar had more to do with the fact that we (Cubans and Cuba-watchers, journalists, scholars, beret-wearing backpackers) have already been living with the spectre of his death for so long. And, as he has faced death so many times through the years, the mere fact of his death – now material, tangible – seems hardly enough to stop him from living on.
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).
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.