Canadians are major customers in Cuba’s child sex market
Canadians are major customers in Cuba's child sex market
Canada is lax when it comes to stopping its sex offenders from going to
Cuba and preying on underage prostitutes.
Most tourists are drawn to Cuba by the sand, the sunshine, and the
culture. But a few tourists – including some Canadians – are drawn by
something far darker.
By: Robert Cribb Jennifer Quinn, Julian Sher Toronto Star, and Juan
Tamayo El Nuevo Herald, Published on Sat Mar 16 2013
HAVANA—Set against a backdrop of gutted buildings and faded hope,
Michael is all smiles.
He's fiftysomething, sports a greying moustache last in fashion in the
'70s, and stares out from beneath a ball cap emblazoned with a red maple
Sauntering into a downtown Havana bar, his left arm wound tightly around
the waist of an attractive young Cuban woman, he's in his element. She,
meanwhile, is working.
The Vancouver Island native flashes a grin at two European mates who,
like him, have come to regard Havana as a second home. The bartender
welcomes him like an old friend. Everyone here, as the song goes, knows
"There's a lot worse places to be," Michael says, in a toast to shared
good fortune. "This is the promised land."
Havana resident Mara says she pulled on a miniskirt and began working as
a prositute because money was short. Canadians are major players in the
country's sex trade, which involves many underage girls. zoom
Canadians are travelling to Cuba in surprising numbers to sexually
exploit young people trapped in this socialist country's underground sex
tourism industry, a joint investigation by the Toronto Star and El Nuevo
Herald, the Spanish-language sister publication of the Miami Herald, has
Havana's conspicuous scenes of street-level prostitution are the public
face of a hidden, sordid trade in children as young as four. Many
prostituted children in Cuba are second- or third-generation, following
in the footsteps of sex-worker mothers to earn money for families
complicit in their exploitation.
Cuban authorities deny the problem. And Canada's lax oversight suggests
any self-proclaimed moral obligation to protect children from abuse
stops at our own borders.
". . . it's the illusion that you can get ahead if you prostitute
yourself . . . the illusion of leaving the country, the illusion of a visa."
Convicted Canadian sex offenders face little scrutiny leaving the
country, little prospect of having foreign authorities warned of their
arrival and little chance of being flagged by border authorities upon
arrival back in Canada.
Canadian border authorities have no access to the country's sex offender
registry and limited access to Canada's criminal record database.
In an exclusive interview with the Star, Public Safety Minister Vic
Toews acknowledged shortcomings, saying the travel of convicted sex
offenders is "one of the very significant issues that does need to be
addressed" through better monitoring.
"Are there additional steps I would like to see taken?" he said.
"Absolutely. Am I encouraging the government to move in that direction?
Canadian men, generally between 40 and 60 years of age, are among the
most numerous sexual predators in Cuba, according to internal government
reports, international experts, diplomatic cables and on-the-ground
The RCMP, in a confidential 2011 report on child sex tourism obtained by
the Star through access-to-information requests, lists Cuba as a top
destination in the Americas for Canadian sex tourists.
"The issue of Canadian travelling child sex offenders is likely greater
than previously thought," the report concludes.
And one of the key drivers behind any flourishing child prostitution
market is "an established and active sex trade."
Cuba easily meets that definition.
For sex tourists, the island holds unique allure. It's closer and
cheaper than destinations such Thailand and Cambodia. HIV rates are
dramatically lower than in most countries. And a trip to Cuba for single
male tourists is free from the social stigma associated with Phuket or
Furtive negotiations with pimps, cabbies and staff at high-end Cuban
hotels can easily procure meetings with young boys or girls, according
to undercover conversations with Cuban insiders and hotel security staff
"That's prohibited here in the hotel," a security head at one of
Havana's large hotels told a reporter posing as sex tourist.
That's because young Cuban girls appearing at the city's high-end hotels
in the company of men are instantly flagged by security staff, who often
demand payment to allow their entry.
But he carefully described the process for accessing underage girls.
"The young girls aren't on the street. They're in houses waiting for the
call from pimps."
The secure — and surreptitious — environment for meeting them is a
private lodging called a casa particular, where tourists can rent rooms
for about $10 a night.
"They don't care what you're doing there," said one hotel security
guard. "Whatever you want. Orgies, anything."
That advice mirrors the findings of the 2011 RCMP report, which says
child sex "facilitators," including "taxi drivers and/or hotel staff,
can sometimes be used to arrange discreet meetings with potential child
A Cuban casa particular provides a safe zone where child sex offenders
"access children and locals who are willing to facilitate crimes against
children in return for financial compensation," says the report, titled
Canadian Travelling Child Sex Offenders.
"Poor or dysfunctional families may be particularly willing to open
their doors to foreigners with the hope of reaping some financial
benefits or so they can receive food or material items. Offenders can,
and often do, capitalize on this vulnerability to gain sexual access to
U.S. diplomats documented the same money-for-child-sex system operating
with the knowledge and permission of families in a 2009 cable to Washington.
"Some Cuban children are reportedly pushed into prostitution by their
families, exchanging sex for money, food or gifts," it reads.
The cost of forbidden youth is startlingly cheap: as little as $30 for
Manuel, a lean, 30-something lawyer from Mexico City, is flanked by two
scantily clad young prostitutes outside a Varadero hotel as he proudly
whispers to an undercover reporter in English: "I got them both for $40.
We're going back to (a casa particular) in Havana. Do you want to stay
with us in our house with girls? Come with me. There's so many!"
Exploitation thrives where poverty exists, and in that respect, Cuba is
no different from Cambodia or Thailand.
Ivan Garcia, a dissident blogger and journalist in Havana, says the
young girls and boys in the trade are typically poor, hopeless and
desperate: "For these people, 'future' is a bad word."
Parents who usher their children into the sex trade are motivated by
something much bigger than money, he says. The real goal, he says, is
the hope of securing marriage to a wealthy foreigner.
He knows two 12-year-old girls currently working the streets.
"They see that this girl married some Italian and now she's dressing
nice, fixing up her mother's house — it's the illusion that you can get
ahead if you prostitute yourself . . . the illusion of leaving the
country, the illusion of a visa."
That illusion most often ends in exploitation and tragedy.
In 2011, three Italian men were sentenced to between 20 and 25 years in
prison for murder and corruption of minors after the body of a
12-year-old girl was dumped in Bayamo, a city in eastern Cuba.
The girl — Lilian Ramirez — was a 12-year-old prostitute the men hired
for a party along with two 13-year-olds and a 14-year-old, says Laritza
Diversent, a dissident Cuban lawyer who worked on the case.
The government handles such cases "with a lot of care and closed
trials," says Diversent.
Diversent considers child prostitution in Cuba "a serious matter because
of what I see every day on the street — very young girls and boys with
much older foreigners."
In her own Havana neighbourhood growing up, she recalls, she had a
nine-year-old friend who "was groped lasciviously" by adult men for cash.
"There's a moment when they dedicate themselves to prostitution and
there's somebody who uses them, usually someone from their own
Prostitutes under 16 can be charged with "pre-criminal dangerousness"
and be sent to youth interment camps But foreigners caught with
prostitutes older than 16 rarely face arrest, she says. And it's alleged
that police accept bribes from prostitutes and pimps to look the other way.
The Canadian government keeps secret how many Canadians have been
prosecuted in Cuba for sex crimes.
Concern for the privacy of the Canadians charged or convicted in the
Cuban sex trade is the government's stated rationale. So few have been
prosecuted for the crime that releasing even aggregate figures could
identify them, the government says.
But there's no question that some Canadians have been prosecuted for
exploiting young Cubans.
"A number of tourists, including Canadians, have been convicted of
offences related to the corruption of minors," the Department of Foreign
Affairs and International Trade notes on its website about Cuba.
And a study on Cuban sex tourism by the global monitoring group End
Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for
Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) found "much of the literature points to
Canadians as being high on the list of offenders."
In 2003, ECPAT reported that a 53-year-old Canadian man had been
sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl.
Another Canadian man was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the sexual
abuse of a 15-year-old.
James Cason, the top American diplomat in Havana between 2002 and 2005,
says Canadians are among the most enthusiastic customers of the Cuban
child sex trade.
"The ones pouring in were Canadians and Europeans, and that's where I
saw the problem (of child prostitution)," Cason said in an interview.
While Cuban government action against sex tourists appears to be rare,
U.S. cables, released by the activist group WikiLeaks, suggest vigorous
punitive actions are taken against victims of the country's underage sex
"Police occasionally rounded up women and children in Cuba's sex trade
and charged them with vague crimes," reads one 2009 cable. "Adolescents
found in prostitution were sent to either juvenile detention facilities
or work camps emphasizing politicized rehabilitation."
The "Recommendations for Cuba" detailed in the same memo reads:
"Acknowledge that child sex trafficking in Cuba is a problem; provide
greater legal protections and assistance for victims; develop procedures
to identify possible trafficking victims among vulnerable populations;
increase anti-trafficking training for law enforcement; and, take
greater steps to prevent the trafficking of children in prostitution."
That advice has most certainly fallen on deaf ears inside the Cuban
government. A request by the Star for an interview with the Cuban
Embassy in Ottawa was ignored.
Led today by Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul, Cuba continues to
officially deny that sexual predators are among the sun seekers and
families pouring into the country.
The numbers of arrests and prosecutions for child exploitation are
tightly protected, and Cuba restricts the presence of international and
Official denial reaches beyond mere marketing. It is an expression of
deeply felt revolutionary pride.
Fidel Castro cracked down on prostitution after the 1959 revolution and
boasted his country would no longer be the American brothel.
"There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner,
to a tourist," he said in 1992. "Those who do so do it on their own,
voluntarily, and without any need for it. We can say that they are
highly educated hookers and quite healthy, because we are the country
with the lowest numbers of AIDS cases . . . Therefore, there is truly no
prostitution healthier than Cuba's."
The sex marketplace in Cuba's cities and resorts began to emerge after
the Soviet Union's collapse meant billions of dollars in annual
subsidies from Moscow dried up.
Today, the influx of foreign money may well make prostitution among the
most profitable jobs in a country where the average monthly salary
officially stands at less than $20.
Cuba's well-educated sex workers include a young woman who calls herself
Chachi. Cherubic and young, her face is devoid of anything that suggests
the broken life that brings her to Havana's main prostitution strip —
the seaside Malecon boulevard — at midnight.
She was born and raised in a neighbouring province and attended
university for two years, studying to become a veterinarian. Then she
Now, with a three-year-old boy to look after, Chachi rents a Havana
apartment for a month at a time, spending her days and evenings with
male tourists like Michael.
"I can cook, I can do dishes, I can clean the house," she says through
an interpreter. "I can do whatever you want."
Over a beer, she opens up about her humiliation having to walk the
streets and the reasons she does it.
"He is beautiful," she says of her little boy, who remains living with
her mother in her hometown. "I am here for him. I wait for money from
tourists so I can send it to him and my mother."
The U.S. State Department consistently classifies Cuba as a "Tier 3"
country — the worst in its rankings — when it comes to combating sex
"Cuba is a source country for adults and children subjected to sex
trafficking and forced labour," the State Department warns in the 2012
edition of its annual review of global human trafficking. "The country's
laws do not appear to penalize prostitution of children between the ages
of 16 and 18."
The report concludes that the Cuban government has made "no known
efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex."
Teresa C. Ulloa Ziaurriz, Mexico-based director of the Coalition Against
Trafficking in Women in Latin America, says the problem of exploitative
predators from Canada and Europe is likely to grow as Cuba opens its
doors to ever more tourism.
"All the Caribbean islands are really a paradise for child sex tourism,"
she says. "We call sex tourism inverse trafficking — instead of taking
the victims out of the country . . . the demand travels to where the
"Why are they coming to Latin America and the Caribbean to buy sex from
those who are in more vulnerable situation? This is the merchandisation
of the bodies of women and girls."
Back in Havana, Michael certainly appears to be having a marvellous
trip. Ask him about the city's surprisingly open prostitution industry
and he'll launch into an X-rated Frommer's guide to the most promising
marketplaces for women in the city.
"If you go to places like the (club) Cecilia, then you're going to see
top-of-the-line girls, but they're going to be charging top-of-the-line
prices," he notes. "I prefer places like the Hotel Deauville where
they're accessible . . . Whores galore."
The retired British Columbian spends up to six months a year in Havana,
a place he's been visiting for two decades.
"It's hard not to be inspired by this," he says as he directs his eyes
to the young prostitute accompanying him this night.
"And that," he adds, his eyes visually pointing to one of several other
young prostitutes in the bar with whom he shares warm banter and
With more time on his hands, his travels have been expanding of late to
a more well-known sex tourism destination — Cambodia.
"The Cambodian people just impress the f— out of me," he says.
"They're extremely nice. And you can get a really f—— sexy woman.
The sex is great. The beach is fantastic. The food, because it's got the
French influence in it."
His travelogue complete, Michael smiles once more and extends his hand:
"We're all Canadians."
The Ugly Canadians is a series produced jointly by the Toronto Star and
El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister publication of The Miami
Blogger and journalist, Havana