The deaf prostitute took my hand in hers and traced "20" on my palm with her finger. When I look back on all my nights out, it's a moment more depressing than even a wet Tuesday in Torquay, England, could muster. I'd bumped into her down on the corner in front of Havana's faded Hotel Nacional, former stomping ground of Sinatra, Hemingway, and Brando—plus, host to the infamous Mafia conference in 1946 that Coppola recreated in Godfather II. All I'd done was ask her for directions. I shook my head and tried to mime: "Sorry for wasting your time."
It wouldn't have been the first time a foreigner in Cuba was assumed to be in the market for transactional sex, and now that the USA and Cuba are friends again there'll be a whole lot more of it. Thanks to the travel ban currently in place, only around 60,000 Americans visit Cuba each year. Jay-Z and Beyonce caused a minor diplomatic incident when they went this summer, and they're the closest things America has to infallible royalty. The US figure is dwarfed by the 150,000 Brits and more than a million Canadians who are drawn there by the promise of sun, rum, and hot, steamy salsa dancing.
But when it comes to sex tourism in Cuba, the girls on the corner outside the Hotel Nacional only tell half the story. It's the young Cuban men in the salsa clubs who are getting most of the action. If you take a garishly painted vintage Chevy down the Malecón along the seafront from the Hotel Nacional, after about ten minutes you'll hit 1830, a famed outdoor salsa club which attracts scores of tourists from the UK, Canada, Italy, and Spain who are looking to, ahem, get their groove back.
It's a weird sensation to go halfway round the world to wind up seeing someone who could be your grandma grinding up against a guy who looks like he's auditioning for a part in a Step Up sequel. It's probably not just a fling, either. In Canada, where most of the country's tourists come from, the majority of applications to bring their new Cuban spouse back home with them are filed by middle-aged women.
The phenomenon has become so widespread that, earlier this year, Canada's CBC broadcast Love Under Cuban Skies, a documentary that followed the relationships of several older women with young Cuban lovers. Paula Warren, an American in her 60s, married a 23-year-old Cuban named Andy.
"This is like the second chapter in my life," she told documentarian Wendy Champagne. "I mean, I was a professional, I worked hard... everything was all this intellectual stuff and I did that and I did it well but I'm through with that. So now it's time to go out and enjoy life. To some women they have to have a man with money. To some women they have to have a man who's educated. Whatever. To me, in my heart of hearts, it had to be a Cuban."
A Canadian Women's Studies professor named Jill Arnott summed up the appeal of the men who refer to themselves as jineteros ("jockeys" or "hustlers"). "Cuban men are notoriously charming," she says. "They're very good-looking, as a generalization, and can dance like nobody's business. They're very appealing, but they've got game. They've got game like I've never seen."
Unlike male sex tourists, women rarely just straight-out pay for sex. It's more common for holiday romances to start off with long, moonlit walks on the beach and end up with the women paying for dinners, mojitos, cigars, new clothes, household repairs, visas, flights, satellite TV subscriptions, and pretty much anything else the jineteros can't afford on their local wages, which average $20 a month.
Then comes the long-distance relationship and, often, marriage—despite a lengthy immigration process which can take up to two years. Champagne's documentary concludes with several women who fly their Cuban husbands to live with them in America or Canada. Some—but not all—of the couples end up separating shortly after the jineteros arrives safely over the border.
At 1830 I get talking to Aleida, a dancer who makes the mistake of hauling me onto the dance floor and consequently has to suffer my painfully bad attempt at a salsa. A single mom whose daughter has a European father, she's well versed in the pitfalls of long-distance relationships. She points out that in a country as isolated as Cuba, where both foreign travel and internet access is severely restricted, Europeans and North Americans can be seen as rare tickets to the outside world. There's a lively contradiction between how trapped Cubans can feel on their island with the pride they have in their country. Her eyes light up when she mentions that she's met Fidel. She calls him "the most beautiful man in the world." I bet he can salsa better than I can.
So, while Obama probably wasn't imagining himself rounding up an old folks' home into Air Force One and letting them loose at the Mustang Saloon, his decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba could pave the way for a lot more international relations than he bargained for. That'll make a lot of jineteros in Havana very happy. And, if your aunt takes a sudden interest in salsa lessons, you'll know why.
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