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    Tourism was Cuba’s way out of lean times

    Tourism was Cuba’s way out of lean times
    It’s anybody’s guess how locals will handle changing relationship with US
    Sat, Jan 31, 2015, 01:00

    Cuba’s new tourism was the child of despair.
    For most Cubans, malnutrition is no distant memory. Its sugar economy
    went south overnight after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The loss of its
    Russian “sugar daddy” subsidy triggered years of shortages. Public
    transport was – and remains – elderly and groaning. Prostitution
    returned in force.
    Things have loosened since Raul Castro took over in 2006, even over the
    last two years. But at the drop of a hat, Cubans tell you about the
    1990s “Special Period,” when they starved. “I went to bed with a job but
    awoke with sugared water for food.”
    Or “Luckily, I found a pig and ojalá, she had piglets.”
    Without oil, horses were a rural family’s lifeline. They still dominate
    the roads as hardworking family retainers, sometimes in quirky hats.
    Tourism was the only answer. As former president Fidel Castro once said,
    Cuba has it all: bays, beaches, mountains, rich farmlands, music, dance,
    art. But Cuba has been isolated by the US embargo. It is a place where
    things often don’t work – no spare parts, very little wifi – and where
    educated people earn €20 a month.
    By partnering with Spanish Melia hotel group and other big chains, Cuba
    introduced sun, sand and salsa in “all-inclusive” luxury resorts in the
    Mafia’s old watering hole on Varadero. This is a peninsular cayo; Cubans
    were nervous about tourists mingling with locals. Worried about their
    staff’s inexperience and lack of customer relations savvy, they brought
    in Spanish and Austrian trainers.
    ‘Camp Fidel’
    Now 35,000 tourist beds are available, and host three million tourists
    annually, of whom two million are from Canada, Europe, and Latin America.
    By the mid-1990s, Canadians were flocking to “Camp Fidel”, swapping snow
    for bottomless mojitos and the Buena Vista soundtrack. At 500 Canadian
    dollars (€350) for a weekend with all the rum you can swim in, it’s
    irresistibly win-win.
    Cuban families holiday in Varadero as well, so it’s possible to chat and
    interact with them as they, eager to try out their English, are pleased
    to see you.
    What do they talk about? The low wages of doctors and engineers and the
    difficulty of getting travel visas.
    These days the highest earners are the bands serenading in the
    restaurants and bars with Chan Chan and Guantanamera, selling CDs and
    scoring tips. Artists earn in CUCs or tourist bucks.
    Restrictions were relaxed as more visitors came to Cuba, and homestays
    with families (casas particulares) and home dining (paladares) became a
    cottage industry.
    When my college anthropology class comes to Cuba, it’s under the “P to
    P” licence, or “people to people citizen ambassador” programme which was
    begun by Bill Clinton, then blocked by George W Bush, and later revived
    by Barack Obama.
    This waiver was to encourage contact, giving American educators a chance
    to get around the US embargo.
    Our last trip studied roots of Afro-Cuban religion, the syncretised mix
    of saints and old santeria gods of Africa.
    We visited a babalawa or santeria priest again this time, and travelled
    1,000km to study rural cultures. In remote El Guijito near Baracoa at
    the eastern tip of Cuba, we met resourceful villagers part-descended
    from Taíno indians and Haitian slaves.
    Their water is from wells. Food is cassava or yukka and pigs or chickens
    running around the village, where historian Theresa Roger helps revive
    old-school French-influence dances. Theresa rediscovered the steps and
    songs from archives, and also helped fashion the smock-style 19th
    century dresses.
    After they politely asked us to dance, Theresa’s village hosted a
    banquet in coconut shells. At another village, we went to see Tumba
    Pompadour, a dancing troop in their late 80s and over. Arriving late, we
    discovered they’d gone home to nap. “Come back again,” they said. “But
    Sacred baseball shirts
    Most Cubans are Catholic or santeros or both. At Virgin of Caridad del
    Cobre shrine, shirts of baseball heroes are kept sacred by the candles.
    An underweight baby in yellow with a tiny cross in her bonnet was being
    taken for intercession. We took nuggets of copper for sexual health. To
    a Cuban, this is not an odd confluence of prayer.
    Our homestays were in Remedios, a sleepy town celebrating its 500th
    anniversary, where the usual horse-traps, pedicabs, Plymouths and Dodges
    in jelly-baby colours, bicycles and hysterical dogs lined up to greet
    us. Next day, a dozen gleaming new jeeps joined them.
    At New Year’s Eve Mass in its newly restored church, we took in the
    blend of santeria and Christian icons. Then, with host mothers Imaida
    and Paloma, we went to nearby Sorgueta, where an enormous parranda
    fiesta or New Year’s Eve mock-battle was under way. Rival teams had
    built floats in secret, stockpiled fireworks, mustered drumming
    cabildos. The fiesta went on till late and we danced ourselves into a
    This intimacy may change soon. Already Carnival and Princess cruise
    ships are poised and jostling to dock.
    I gave two small boys a sandwich at a Pina Colada stall. They were about
    eight and six, and said “somos pobres” to me, eyeing my phone.
    “To share,” I said, and they began splitting it carefully into three,
    handing me a piece. Lovely kids. Hungry kids. How will they handle the
    new changes?

    Source: Tourism was Cuba’s way out of lean times –

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