Prostitution in Cuba
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    My Friend, Where You From?


    8 Oct 2008
    My Friend, Where You From?

    By Daniel Fitzgerald

    * jiniterismo
    * havana
    * dan fitzgerald
    * cuba

    Daniel Fitzgerald has been hustled in over 31 countries on four
    continents and can safely say that if hustling were an Olympic sport,
    Cuba would dominate the dais
    It may surprise you to hear this, but is not the most
    popular person in Cuba. Nor is , for that matter, or Hugo
    Chávez. And nor are any of the members of the Cuban baseball team, even
    though they recently humbled their US rivals at the Beijing Olympics 10-2.

    It's actually me. They love me there. I can't explain it, but on a
    recent visit to Cuba I was the centre of attention. The guys all wanted
    to take me out drinking. The girls all wanted to dance with me. I only
    had to walk down the street and people would shout at me from every
    corner offering premium cigars. I know that this was a country that
    Hemingway called home, but I had no idea that all writers were treated
    like royalty.

    That's how it starts. That's how it always starts when you're a visitor
    to a country where tourists are relentlessly pestered: there's those few
    days where you don't mind the attention, the feeling a bit like a
    celebrity, the belief that you can handle it if it gets a bit too much.
    Then, before long, you find yourself swearing at perfect strangers and
    cursing the under-classes for having the gall to be so poor.

    In Cuba it's a serious business. I've been hustled in over 31 countries
    on four continents and can safely say that if hustling were an Olympic
    sport — and, if synchronised swimming gets a look-in, one might wonder
    why it isn't — Cuba would dominate the dais. It's such a way of life in
    Cuba that it's got a special name: jineterismo.

    For the blessedly uninitiated, jineteros and are hustlers who
    make a living out of attaching themselves to tourists and extracting
    money, meals or a good time. Travel guides on Cuba are filled with
    cautionary advice on how jineteros will approach you on the street
    apparently to simply be helpful and tell you about "a great
    nearby". The price of your meal will subsequently be jacked up to
    include the commission demanded by the jinetero.

    However, as I and my travel companion, Doug, would soon discover,
    jineterismo is far more than just fodder for the Fodors. Rather, it's
    indicative of a wider sense of desperation that seems to pervade a
    country which is ever falling further behind in a globalising world.

    Jineteros, it should be pointed out, are not beggars. A true jinetero
    would never resort to anything so crass as begging; they would far
    prefer to charm the charity out of you. The traditional technique is to
    approach with an innocuous conversation-starter. They will get you
    talking about where you're from or what you plan to see in the city,
    before moving onto business by saying something like "oh, you don't want
    to go there, it's far too touristy, I'll show you a place that's
    authentically Cuban".

    Simply being a gringo and walking through a crowded area is enough to
    set off any lurking jineteros. Those that aren't interested in steering
    you towards a trap are usually selling black market cigars —
    invariably the cigars which companies like Real Partagás palm off on
    their employees after they fail to meet the company's stringent quality
    standards for sale to wealthy foreigners. Those with limited English
    will simply shout at you as you walk by, "Cigar, my friend? Cohiba,
    Montecristo?" These people are infinitely preferable to those who
    masquerade as merely curious Cubans, asking you about your trip and how
    long you plan to stay in Cuba, before segueing into "I have a sister who
    works at the cigar factory…"

    Eventually I grew so weary of the bogus amity from this variety of
    jinetero that my responses to the classic openers (usually "what are you
    looking for, my friend?" or the ubiquitous "hey, where you from?") grew
    progressively less civil (respectively, a terse "nada" and "Australia.
    F*ck off.").

    Some jineteros on occasion become angry themselves. One man who sat
    himself at our table in a 24-hour cafeteria one night became so
    chagrined at our refusal to change a clearly fake Australian $10 note
    into Cuban pesos he declared "You don't have a heart. Fuck you". (He
    didn't, however, leave the table, leading Doug and I to conclude that
    this was some wildly unconventional negotiating tactic). Another
    exchange, where a Santa Clara man repeatedly offered me five cigars for
    the shorts I was wearing — what did he expect me to wear home? — ended
    in a similar fashion.

    Even sadder than the jineteros, however, are their female counterparts:
    the jineteras. In these instances, the line between jineterismo and
    prostitution is not so much blurred as non-existent.

    While the sexual liberation of the average Hispanic woman seems to dwarf
    that of their antipodean counterparts — or maybe that haircut I got in
    Peru was just really working for me — I found the aggression on show
    from the jineteras enough to make the gender role reversal nothing less
    than disturbing.

    Making what was our first (and what would prove to be our last) visit to
    a nightclub in Habana, Doug and I were immediately set upon by a group
    of girls (not women, girls) who dispensed with the formalities of
    conversation and immediately commenced groping us below the waist.
    Another girl began shouting at us "I suck your dick, I suck your dick",
    emphasising the point by sticking her thumb in her mouth. Feeling a bit
    like we were at the Cuban equivalent of a NRL team's Mad Monday, we
    retreated to an empty corner for some respite, before giving up and leaving.

    Another hot night, we attempted to spend the evening in a Vedado beer
    garden, but were repeatedly interrupted by a group of girls who would
    try to get my attention by rubbing my neck. Eventually, we gave up and
    hailed a cab to head back to our casa. Halfway there, our driver
    gestured to the stunning young woman in the front passenger seat and
    asked if either of us were interested in taking her home with us.

    These weren't isolated incidents. Night after night, the streets were
    festooned with girls who would hiss at us and make offers that nice
    young boys from the Shire don't accept. Or not without first being
    romanced with some beer.

    Jineteras aren't prostitutes per se: money doesn't tend to change hands
    and the game is mainly based on opportunism. It's likely that most of
    the girls who so aggressively propositioned us in that nightclub had
    never encountered a gringo in one of their locals and simply sensed an
    opportunity to score themselves a taste of Western largesse by spending
    the night in a nice . Sadly, they weren't to know that Doug and I
    were tightarse backpackers who would never be seen in anything which
    cost more than $15 a night.

    One of the obvious flow ons of jineterismo, of course, is that genuinely
    interested and friendly locals get treated with suspicion or contempt.
    One such man who approached us in Habana and chatted amiably for 10
    minutes simply wanted to practice his English as it transpired but I
    spent the duration of the conversation with my arms folded and eyeing
    him critically, thinking "What's it going to be this time? Cigars, taxi
    tour, an hour with his sister?"

    I'm the first to admit that I'm a card-carrying snob when it comes to
    travel and pride myself on trying to infiltrate the local culture when
    I'm abroad. When anyone who attempts to do so is preyed upon and
    constantly treated as a "mark", it's not hard to see why most visitors
    to Cuba opt to isolate themselves in the Caribbean splendour of resort
    towns like Varadero or Cayo Coco.

    The real tragedy of jineterismo is not that it can ruin your holiday but
    how it represents a country which prides itself on being the last
    vestige of socialism in the modern world.

    One can't help wonder just how free Cuba is when many of its citizens
    will so readily prostitute themselves for the foreign dollar.

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