Havana hookers, etc.

There’s much evidence that Havana has become the Bangkok of the West. Sex for sale. Lots of it.

It’s not just your average prostitution, which consists primarily of professionals. Apparently, a significant percentage of normal Cuban women, those with jobs as secretaries, hotel receptionists, you name it, sell themselves on the side. To tourists. Capitalism at work.

You can’t keep an ambitious woman down. Or, in these cases, you can.

Walking the streets of Old Havana it was not rare to see old coots from afar like me accompanied by young Cubanas.

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This is the second of two posts. The first is here.

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I was approached a few times when my wife was not directly at my side.

One of the other visitors in our guesthouse was a man from Barcelona, a good-looking guy in his late 40s.  He told us he visits Cuba about ten times a year!

When asked what he did for a living, he told me he “had businesses” back in Barcelona. And he’s married.

Suzette the maid whispered to us one morning that he brings a different girl to his room every night.

An interesting look at this Cuban issue, and others as well, can be found in Mi Moto Fidel by Christopher Baker, published over a decade ago, so sex-for-sale isn’t new in the communist paradise.

* * * *

Night strolls

Old Havana borders the bay.  Heading west you’ll get to “downtown” Havana, more of a “commercial” district, using the term loosely, and if you continue that way you’ll get to the once-nice residential area of Vedado, which is where we stayed.

Most nights after supper at the small, brand-new, privately owned and excellent restaurant in the next block, the oddly named Shamela’s Bar because it had no bar, we would walk the neighborhood, peeking into open doors and windows.  Nosy Parker tourists.

There were few street lights.  The homes were large and still showed the elegance of the past.  Most appeared not to have seen paint since Castro shot into town, but some had been painted inside.  Most had not.

Mostly, the area was subdued.  For a nation’s capital, there is very little traffic in Havana.  In the day, traffic is light.  At night, it’s almost nonexistent.  Few people walk outside, and those who did passed us glumly.

In the daytime we would walk the couple of blocks to a major street, Calle 23, to hail a taxi.  If there’s one word to describe the neighborhood nighttime or day, it’s this:

Joyless.

There was one exception.  One old and big residence was full of people sitting in rows in the living room.  All was brightly lit.  There was a small stage where a man and two women sat in chairs.  A woman in the audience was standing and speaking with unbridled enthusiasm.

We watched and listened from the dark sidewalk, though the words were unintelligible.  A young man arrived and paused before entering, asking if we’d like to come in.

We asked what was going on.  It was a meeting of Evangelicals.  We thanked him for the invitation and declined.  It was about the only friendly interaction we experienced during the whole week that did not involve the tourist industry.

* * * *

Dictatorship?  What dictatorship?

What sane person goes to a dictatorship for vacation?  And yet Cuba, primarily Havana and Varadero (the Cuban Cancún), is overrun with tourists.

My conclusion is that most are unclear on the concept.  Dictatorships have steel-helmeted soldiers goose-stepping down the avenue, right?

Or there are parades in huge squares where troops, tanks and rockets on wheels are observed from on high by fish-faced, old men in overcoats, right?

You see none of that in Cuba, so people can assume it’s not a dictatorship, but something else, something unlike where they come from, surely, but not so bad after all.  Plus, there’s that “free” health care and schooling.

I put “free” in quotes because one pays with the lucre of Liberty.

Tourists don’t know that internet access is prohibited because they brought their own laptops, iPods, iPhones, you name it.  And I am sure the money-hungry regime sees to it that they’re connected.

The tourists aren’t arrested for publicly denouncing the government because tourists don’t denounce the government.  The beach sand is too sweet and mojitos too good.

They don’t think much about the lack of voting rights because they have no interest in voting in Cuba. They don’t notice the lack of contrary opinions in the news stands because there are no news stands.

They don’t notice that Cubans are mostly trapped on the island because they, the tourists, can jump on a plane and go home, no sweat.

You don’t notice what doesn’t touch you personally.

Plus, Cuba is quiet and peaceful.  You can walk the streets without worry.

The citizens are cowed.

I recall my two visits to Haiti years back during the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, another very peaceful place.

Cuba is quiet too, in the same way.

* * * *

Shamela’s Bar

Just up the street from our Vedado guesthouse sits La Pachanga, the kind of eatery you could easily find in the United States.  It serves burgers and fries, etc.

The prices, however, are in regular Cuban pesos, which we never had, so we didn’t eat there.

Peephole

The building is a former residence, it appears, and brand new, just a couple months old. The business, that is. The customers looked like a pretty well-off crowd, obviously Cuba’s One Percenters. They were not tourists.

While we did not eat at La Pachanga, we did walk through it to enter a back room with a Speakeasy air. That’s where you go into Shamela’s Bar, the bar with no bar. You pass thorough a door that has a peephole and knocker. La Pachanga and Shamela’s are two faces of the same small enterprise.

At the street entrance stands the muscle.  Two big, polite, black dudes in black attire with Security and Seguridad  (both languages) written on their backs.

Shamela’s is small and dimly lit. The walls are painted black, and a lighting system shoots stationary dots of rainbow colors all about. The count of little tables is about eight. It’s a cozy, privately owned restaurant.*  On the walls are flat-screen televisions with a constant video of swimming tropical fishes.

There’s a nice, soft-spoken man in a suit who greets the customers and keeps an eye on things. The waitresses are young and delightful and, one hopes, not hookers on the side.

The food was elegant, tasty and reasonably priced at the convertible peso. We dined there every night of the week and a couple of times for lunch to boot. We never spotted a tourist in either side of the place.

* * * *

The old woman

Some years back, I wrote a satire that made fun of the foreign residents of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, something that’s a hoot and not difficult to do.

Among the billions of photos online I found something I thought appropriate.  I shamelessly stole the photo and inserted it into the satire.  Here it is again.

One afternoon while we walked past a wildly popular tourist trap called La Bodequita de Medio  in Old Havana, there was the woman, smoking her stogie and posing for photos.

Imagine my surprise.

* * * *

*  One example of Cuba’s slowly emerging private enterprise.

35 thoughts on “Havana hookers, etc.

  1. Did you see any of the blue-eyed, blonde peeps of European ancestry among the citizenry of Cuba?

    • Carole: I did not notice that specifically. As you likely know, the population of the Caribbean islands has a huge black and mulatto element.

      • Hubby said their guide told them that there are Spanish (from Spain) who still come to the island to honor deceased ancestors in the cemetary in Habana. The cemetary obviously dates back to the conquistadors and much of it is destroyed from hurricanes. H’canes are the OTHER thing that scares the bejeezus out of Cubanos.

        • Carole: As a former resident of the Gulf coast in both Texas and Louisiana, I share their apprehension. One of the great things, weather-wise, about where I now live here on this mountaintop is that hurricanes don’t get here.

  2. Felipe, what you are not mentioning is that before Fidel, Cuba had Batista. And he was a dictator too. The thing is that he was propped up by the US government….so does that make him more acceptable??? People suffered terribly under Batista. I am not condoning Castro. I just think we need to remember that for most people life has never been rosy in Cuba. Capitalism wasn’t working too well for the majority then either. Perhaps the slight loosening currently happening will open more and the Cubans will be able to participate in a capitalistic system from the ground up when all people have the opportunity to benefit and not just the rich.

    Right now there is Fidel Castro, and standing right behind him is Raul. He must be an old man as well, so who is there to step into the void when he is gone? That will probably be when the whole house of cards falls down.

    I have struggled to voice how I feel about Cuba. I loved it, it is beautiful. There are no end of problems. Joyless would be the best description.

    • Oh, Joanne, you must have missed part of what I have written, mostly in a couple of comments in the previous post. Surely, Batista was a first-class pendejo and a dictator without doubt. And propped up by the U.S government? Of course, as were many Latino despots. Shame on us.

      Before World War II we did it for economic reasons simply because we could. After World War II we did it more due to an apoplectic, anti-communist obsession which, given the global-political landscape of those times, was not so absurd then as it appears now in retrospect.

      Communism ruled a huge chunk of global real estate, was very imperialist in nature and made no bones about it. Ask Trotsky.

      Dictatorships were common in Latin America for a long time. In virtually every Latin American country save Cuba, however, they have now moved on to democracies of one stripe or another. I think Venezuela is a questionable case as a democracy, but Hugo Chávez will tell you he got elected, and maybe he did. Shame on the Venezuelans. I think they have seen the error of their ways.

      Some of Latin America’s new democracies are left-wing. Bolivia and Brazil come quickly to mind. And that’s the best way to go Left, in my opinion. Put it to a vote.

      If I recall correctly, Fidel is 85 and Raul is 80. It won’t be long till they’re pushing up daisies, and if Cuba wants to stay on a leftward course, let them do it by the ballot. Personally, I hope they do not, of course.

      I read somewhere recently (perhaps in one of those three Economist articles I linked to) that Batista’s Cuba was not really so bad compared to other Latin American nations of his time. I think I recall that it was about 20 percent of the Cuban population who lived in dire poverty. In other parts of Latin America it was considerably worse.

      Yes, joyless. And sad.

  3. “The food was elegant, tasty and reasonably priced at the convertible peso. We dined there every night of the week and a couple of times for lunch to boot.”

    Details are greatly appreciated on this important aspect of Cuban culture.
    Please?

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

    • Oh, Don Cuevas, what is to be done with you and this grub thing? But to answer your question, keeping in mind that I am no foodie, it was not Cuban cuisine. Just excellently prepared pastas, veggies, chicken, beef, etc., dishes with some original side dishes of unknown origin to me.

      I just know what I like, and I liked eating there.

  4. There was a small pasta and pizza joint down the street from our Varadero hotel, Their pizza was excellent and we enjoyed it many times. There was a story about Cuba and pizza that I never heard the end of but I think it was during one of Cuba’s food shortages that some country, probably the Soviet Union, donated hundreds of pizza ovens as it was a way to stretch the food supplies. The pizza tradition continues in Cuba.

    I have to say I did not personally come into contact with the hooker trade but I know it exists. A friend of our son’s is being fleeced by one “hotel secretary” he met in Cuba and to whom he is sending thousands of dollars to help acquire a visa to visit him in Canada. Everyone but him can see through it. I must admit to being part of the minority that does not see prostitution as such a horrible thing. I have advocated for it’s legalization here in Canada for a long time.

    • Croft: A pizza without anchovies is not an honorable pizza. That’s what I think.

      As for hookers, I would choose about any other profession were I a woman, but I don’t generally think laws should be based on sanctimoniousness.

  5. Gracias, Don Felipe. I am pleased that you had fresh, well prepared meals and did not have to subsist on beans and rice alone.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

    • Don Cuevas: Sorry I could not be more enlightening but, as I said, I’m no foodie. As for beans, I did enjoy black beans there once, and it was pretty good. Beans are beans.

  6. When you write of joylessness of the Cuban people, that’s a good word to describe what I felt from them last year when I visited Cuba. I described it at that time as despair, that I felt immediately upon arriving.

    I was surprised to see TV news without censorship. I watched the initial problems in Libya as did any Cuban. World news from China in Chinese, from Russia, Canada and the UK. I thought perhaps the Party would worry that the Cubans would get the idea to rebel, but they are so dispirited I don’t think that will happen for awhile.

    I met tourists from 28 countries while there. Only 4 from the US that were on a religious “let’s build a building for 3 days” kind of holiday. The embargo is misplaced and hopefully will be rescinded by Obama, when he needs a boost in popularity.

    • Patty: As I mentioned, I did not actually watch television while I was there because the TV in our room, oddly, did not work. Everything else did.

      I did see the channel listing, however.

      I am skeptical that there is no censorship. Just because you saw a bunch of stuff does not mean there is no censorship. Was there CNN or any American programming? I bet not.

      I get the impression that, like the tourists, much of the world really doesn’t see any big deal with the Cuban situation, sadly, and much global programming would reflect that.

      Yes, the U.S. embargo is dreadful. But you can bet your life that Obama is not going to end it. The huge Cuban population in Florida, a state that’s a major player in the electoral college, would go berserk, which is why no party has ever ended the embargo, I firmly believe.

      Only a lame duck president would touch that issue.

  7. I don’t like Mexican beans (frijoles if you like). I’ve had Mom’s beans, Grannie’s beans, Aunty Margarita’s beans, Hermana’s beans and more than 26 yrs of everybody else’s Mexican beans and they all ask the same question, Roberto, ¿Que Tu piensas? (with an upside down question mark). My brain says, tell ‘em they taste like mud, my heart says, Muy bien, I lie and I hate myself for it. Brown beans with a chopped up weiner and a healthy dose of molasses accompanied with a hunk of garlic toast, now, them’s beans.

  8. I find it hilarious that the woman smoking stogies exists and you saw her! By the way it’s one of my favorite satires. I read it months ago and can picture the scene, especially having just been in Mexico, and I laugh.

    • Andean: To say that I was surprised to see her is an understatement. The website where I currently have that piece is not its original home. I wrote that at least two years ago. I now remember that it said something about Cuba at the get-go when I copied the photo, but I had completely forgotten it because it was not relevant at that time.

      She hasn’t changed a lick.

      • I’m with Andean. I think it’s hysterical you saw her, though I’m disappointed you didn’t post your own snap of her afterward.

        I did a quick Google Image search of “La Bodequita del Medio old woman” and found more shots of her. Apparently she is a fixture there and likely knows she’s famous.

        Saludos,

        Kim G
        Boston, MA
        Where, after years of doing this, fear we are running low on snappy taglines.

        • Kim: Like a number of hustlers in Old Havana she’s there to charge tourists for photos of herself. I didn’t want one bad enough to pay her, especially since I already had the one shown here.

          As for your running out of taglines, I suggest you start a blog. You might title it (rather long, I admit):

          How I dreamed of moving to Mexico till I dropped dead at age 90 in my Boston home.

  9. I enjoyed this blog post, thanks for sharing it. I just saw a photo of that woman for the first time last week. What a coincidence.

  10. I visited Russia not long after the collapse of Communism. I found a profound sense of grim hopelessness among the population. The one percenters were running around with nice cell phones and fancy cars. The same strange quality existed in big cities out of Moscow, with old, ugly tenements, no traffic or very light traffic even in the day time. I didn’t see the hookers, but I was not in Moscow much. I do know that a woman that I befriended in my month long stay managed to arrange for herself a way out of that intolerable place by marrying a man from the US that she met on the internet. In a way, that’s prostitution. She gained economically by providing service, but it was done “legally.”

    • Laurie: Communism never works. Socialism doesn’t either. It’s simply a lighter, more circuitous route to the same dead end — as much of Europe is presently discovering.

      I would not call what your Russian friend did prostitution. I would call it smart.

    • Lots of women are in, or remain in, marriages because of finances. Do you think all women in the past who relied on men for support were prostitutes? My husband supports me and takes me on international vacations. I’d best inform him he’s my John! Meanwhile, the rest of you ladies have fun at the office while I’m retired in my 40s. Poor me, I’m oppressed by the man.

  11. She married someone she did not know. I knew her well enough to know she was only interested in gaining entrance to the US or UK. She wanted no children. It was just a brokered deal. Celeste, does that describe your marriage. I hope not.

      • No. :) But I am supported by my husband and many frown on that. And after 18 years as a psychotherapist, I know that many women stay in marriages for financial reasons. That’s why I have college degrees, so I have choices. Your friend didn’t have our choices. I met a woman on St. Lucia who would have loved to get off that island, but the govt won’t let them leave.

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