No embargo on sex

Contributions to a collection about Cuban Studies explore the sex trade on the island alongside its medical diplomacy


Una ventana a Cuba y los Estudios cubanos/A Window into Cuba and Cuban Studies
Edited by Amalia Cabezas, Ivette N. Hernández-Torres, Sara Johnson and Rodrigo Lazo
2010, Ediciones Callejón
299 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

JUST AS WE should not be shocked by the way the industry in sexual services emerged rapidly in Cuba during the Special Period, nor should we be shocked by the hypocrisy that this generated both in Cuba itself but also in its nemesis, the US.

Examples of this hypocrisy can be found in Andrei Codrescu’s “socio-erotic journey” through the country during this period, in which the former exile from Ceauçescu’s Romania encountered Americans on the one hand either taking advantage of Cuba’s desperation for foreign currency in order to buy sexual gratification, sometimes with minors, or on the other evangelising against loose morals.

Indeed, hypocrisy pervades the US stance on Cuba: from the inevitable impact on levels of poverty, and hence prostitution, caused by the US embargo against the island by which Americans are officially banned from visiting it but do so anyway, to the accusations made by the US government in this period about Cuba being a centre of vice and sex-trafficking, one fed by their own citizens.

Sex trade

The sex trade in Cuba remains a key theme of both academic study and journalistic narrative in the US – not least because Cuba’s tourism industry remains such an important source of investment – and is the subject of a fascinating study by Karina Lissette Céspedes as part of the bilingual collection Una Ventana a Cuba y los Estudios cubanos.

Céspedes examines the narratives that developed around the growth of sex tourism in Cuba during the Special Period and, among other things, refers to Codrescu’s loaded’s and unsympathetic work and in particular his efforts to understand the fascination of foreigners with Afro-Cuban sensuality. One of Codrescu’s stories that she cites, for example, is of a 15-year-old girl maintained with a monthly remittance as the “fiancé” of a US citizen who was a friend of his.

In her essay “Runaway Jineteras and Addicted Pingueros: The Narrative Crafting of Special Period Heroes and Deviants”, Céspedes also examines anthropological work analysing the growing phenomenon of gay male tourism on the island and how this is fuelled by commodification and the addictive obsession of pingueros (gay male sex workers) for brand-name clothing. José Quiroga returns to this theme later in this collection with his analysis of homosexuality on the island.

The most realistic assessment of shifts in sexual behaviour and identities in this period appears to have been conducted by Coco Fusco, who interpreted this as less of an addiction to commodities and more a response to hunger. It was destitution that was the primary factor influencing people to enter into arrangements in which sex tourists were invited into their homes. At one point, for example, Fusco’s informant, when explaining what Cubans thought about when their women brought tourists home, responds: “The men didn’t see a tourist, they only saw a chicken, beans, rice – a full fridge”. This led Fusco to conclude his narrative that women sex workers were in fact “heroic providers”, a key theme of this essay.

Other contributions to Una Ventana a Cuba y los Estudios cubanos include Julie Feinsilver’s examination of Cuba’s medical diplomacy through which, since the revolution, the country has provided high-quality medical assistance to other countries and which, because of rising oil prices and the support of the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, have been greatly enhanced in recent years.

Since 1961, Cuba has conducted medical diplomacy with 103 countries and by April 2008, over 30,000 Cuban medical personnel were collaborating in 74 countries across the world. Added to that, Cuba has provided free education and training to more than 50,000 developing country medical personnel in Cuba or abroad. Cuban medical aid, quite simply, affects for the better the lives of millions of people in developing countries each year.

These programmes are not without risk and costs to Cuba, not least the problem of defecting doctors – one greatly exacerbated by mischievous US policies to entice away medical professionals with fast-track asylum processing.

Nonetheless, as Feinsilver demonstrates, the benefits to the island of medical diplomacy of this kind are enormous, improving relations and providing a vast reservoir of goodwill. Moreover, there have also been concrete economic benefits to this form of diplomacy, particularly in the case of the exchange arrangement with Venezuela whereby oil has been swapped for medical aid. Overall, Cuba earned more than $2bn from medical services in 2006.

Other contributions to this collection include the section on race, prompted in part by the 100th anniversary of the massacre of black Cubans during the “Guerrita del Doce”, and interesting reflections on the evolution of Cuban studies as a discipline by Jorge Marturano and Rafael Rojas. Marturano observes how nationhood and the narrative of nationality continues to provide a master framework within which the study of Cuba is ordered, and hence has a far-reaching influence on efforts to chart new directions in research on popular culture and identity on the island.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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