Whorehouse of the Caribbean

Castro promised to clean up Cuba, but the new poverty has driven many to sell what they can, including their bodies.

Topics: Sex, Sex Work, Cuba, Love and Sex,

Whorehouse of the Caribbean

A female prostitute in Havana is rather descriptively known as a jinetera, or jockey. A male hustler there is not a jinetero, but a pinguero, which translates as something like penis professional or dick worker.

Officially, there are jobs for all in socialist Cuba. But the average monthly wage is equivalent to $8. To survive, plenty of people are on the make. So depending on his preference, the tourist to Cuba has no trouble at all finding someone to ride his little race horse or perform professional action on his dick.

Besides kicking out the Yanquis and redressing the island’s extremes of wealth and poverty (the wealth is all gone now, and everybody is poor) Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution set out to purify the people’s behavior. Cuba would no longer be the “whorehouse of the Caribbean.” Female prostitutes were offered training as drivers and secretaries; those who demurred got holidays in prison. Homosexual men were spared the retraining programs and sent directly to jail — or to forced labor in the sugar cane fields.

To Reinaldo Arenas, the outrageously queer Cuban novelist whose memoir “Before Night Falls” has just been made into a film directed by Julian Schnabel, this official homophobia had a paradoxical effect. “There was never more fucking going on than in those years, the decade of the sixties,” he wrote (as he was dying of AIDS in New York, in 1990), “which was precisely when all the new laws against homosexuals came into being, when the persecution started and concentration camps were opened, when the sexual act became taboo while the ‘new man’ was being proclaimed and masculinity exalted.” And according to Arenas, it wasn’t only faggots who sought the solace of male flesh. “Many of the soldiers who marched, rifle in hand and with martial expressions, came to our rooms after the parades to cuddle up naked, and show their real selves, sometimes revealing a tenderness and true enjoyment such as I have not been able to find again anywhere … There was, moreover, no prostitution. It was pleasure for pleasure’s sake.”

Cuba’s official repression of homosexuals has ended, although other forms of repression remain; you cannot, for example, purchase Reinaldo Arenas’ books there. Officially, prostitution has been eliminated, but the wrecked economy forces many people to sell their bodies. Effeminate men are no longer denounced and sent away, but there is still no permission for anything vaguely resembling the public gay institutions Americans take for granted.

That does not keep Havana’s gays from gathering openly, at places like the broad sidewalk in front of the Yarra Cinema. On weekend evenings, snappily dressed, hot-to-trot gay boys in the hundreds congregate outside the Yarra. They are joined there by all sorts of others drawn to the fissure of cultural free space that these men, in their brazenness, crack open; other people whom, in the very loosest sense, and in the context of a police state, we might also call rebels and queers. There are bored teenage girls and boys, in from the dreary high-rise Stalinist suburbs, showing off their platform shoes and piercings; willowy model wannabes in teensy ensembles of day-glo Lycra; motorcycle outlaws who only lack the bikes. The sidewalk outside the Yarra is where you go for word of mouth on the evening’s floating party or transitory drag show, or perhaps to make a connection for marijuana or cocaine. You can also go there — or to any of the city’s other gay hangouts — to pick up a pinguero.

It was in one of those gay hangouts — the south end of Havana’s Central Park — where I met a fetching hustler one afternoon when I was there recently for my work as a travel writer. He was perhaps 30, enticingly mature but quite degenerate — golden-skinned, with the lean and hungry look, a thick moustache and several days’ growth of beard on his handsome face, his furry chest clearly visible beneath his soiled tank top — just my type of mildly rough trade, as it happens, though I wasn’t actually looking. I didn’t need my finely-tuned gaydar to know that he was gay, when I came upon him lounging splay-legged on a bench. His instincts obviously told him the same about me. I sat down beside him. He immediately offered me sex for money. But I just wanted to chat about conditions for gays. Really.

In the course of the conversation, a friend of his showed up. This was a small, lithe, sweet-faced 18-year-old from the town of Holguin. He said he was bisexual, had a pregnant wife at home, had come to the city to find work in construction but couldn’t get hired because he didn’t have a local address. Now he was living on the street, trying to turn tricks but having little success because — so he claimed — he didn’t have any nice clothes and thus couldn’t work Vedado, a classier neighborhood. He explained all this in a whiney tone — Jesus, who wouldn’t? — which itself would have turned me right off, had I been in the market for a dick worker. Anyway, youngsters don’t do it for me; he aroused my protective instincts, not my pinga.

We all talked for a while, and I took my leave. But the two of them came after me, to beg money. I gave the older one $5 in exchange for a rather satisfying leer. After the younger one said his train ticket home would cost $12, I gave him $15, extracting a promise that he would return to Holguin the very next day. He practically kissed my feet in gratitude. More fool me: I encountered him the next Friday night in the throng on the sidewalk outside the Yarra Cinema, where he followed me down the street bleating abject apologies.

I don’t know whether the numerous other gay men with whom I locked eyes and exchanged wordless intimations of desire, in my rambles around the city, would have wanted to go with me for my money, or perhaps for a restaurant meal, or for my perfect body alone — because I didn’t actually talk with any of them. Anyway, I would have had no place to take them. The successful sex tourist to Cuba must stay not in a hotel but in a rented room in a private home, because Cubans are not allowed to go upstairs in tourist hotels. Few Havana residents have any private space of their own, and the alternative is an hourly room in a funky love motel. In the lobby of the five-star joint where I was lodged, I watched the ever-present, grim-faced security team bust a pair of Italian men who were trying to smuggle a couple of jineteras into the elevator. The tourists didn’t get into any lasting trouble. I don’t know what happened to the girls after they were escorted out the front door. Actually the johns’ error might have simply been the failure to offer a bribe. It’s said that anything can be had in Havana, for dollars.

So my experience of pingueros is admittedly small. But I met many people who were prostituting themselves, if not sexually. One day, a charming retired printer approached me as I was photographing a monument, offering to be my guide to the city. He insisted that he just wanted to be my friend. But of course, he also wanted me to pay him; this idea of friendship was a fiction he needed to maintain, to avoid humiliation. Could he make ends meet on his pension? No, he leaves home every morning and spends the day hustling one way or another for extra money.

The taxi dispatcher in front of my hotel turned out to have once worked in the Venceremos Brigade, a program that used to bring American New Leftists on work trips to Cuba. It was through that group that I made my first visit there in 1970 when I was — naively — a supporter both of Fidel and gay liberation. (The young men who were rounded up for forced labor then were described as criminals and degenerates, not as the homosexuals they mostly were, and I believed it.) After he and I discovered this rather dim connection (we were participants in the Brigade in different years), and after I gave him a $2 tip for having called me cabs over the course of several days, he made a big shit-eating show of greeting me every time I went in and out: “How are you today, Johnny, don’t you need some taxi?” His business card identified him as holding a doctorate in economics. On the cruise ship on which I traveled to Havana, the dining room staff were all Cubans — among them doctors, architects, a physicist. The Cuban government takes 80 percent of their salaries, but it’s still worth it to them — they get to keep the dollar tips.

Arriving one day at an inexplicably locked art exhibition, I met another frustrated viewer who turned out to be a journalist on the staff of the official government daily Granma. He eagerly offered to chat, to “exchange ideas” with this fortuitously encountered North American colleague. Uh oh, I thought, here comes the Party line, but we went for coffee. I asked him why the streets are so full of people all day long; don’t they have jobs? He explained that nearly everybody has one, but they don’t bother to go because the salaries are worthless and they’re doing other things to survive. Including selling their bodies — which he had never done himself.

But had I given him an opening? In the next breath, he told me he earns the equivalent of $10 a month, and that he needed $9.50 to buy his kid a pair of shoes. Could I help him out? My gaydar is as sensitive as a smoke detector; this guy was no smoldering queen. Then what was he asking me for, exactly? A handout? Nobody wants to see himself as a beggar — certainly no working professional does. Money for sex, then? Was that why he’d brought up the question of prostitution? In his circumstances, it might have actually been the more dignified option: At least it would have meant an exchange. I suppose there are some gay travelers who would have savored the powerlessness of a heterosexual like him feeling coerced into sexual service, especially at such a bargain rate. He was a nice guy, and I felt sorry for him. And I didn’t have the heart to ask him to clarify what he was asking of me. I bought his coffee, but I didn’t give him any money, either; I was still feeling foolish and ineffectual over my philanthropy toward the boy from Holguin.

Poor Fidel. He tried to rout the Yanquis; 40 years later, the U.S. dollar is the only currency in Cuba with any value. He beat the tar out of the faggots, and look at them now, in their irrepressible hundreds and thousands, shaking their bon-bons on the public pavements. He made honest women of the hookers, and now every other person you meet is some kind of whore.

Jonathan Lerner lives in Atlanta. He is the author of the novel "Caught in a Still Place" and the oral history "Voices from Wounded Knee."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>