My Friend, Where You From?
8 Oct 2008
My Friend, Where You From?
By Daniel Fitzgerald
* dan fitzgerald
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 Fidel Castro is not the most
popular person in Cuba. Nor is Raul Castro, 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
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 jineteras 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 restaurant
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
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 tourist 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.
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
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 hotel. 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.