Dance Floor Deals
On an illicit trip to Cuba, a young American loses his innocence.
It is my first night out in Cuba, and already I’m surrounded by women who want to sell themselves to me. I just don’t know it yet.
We follow a 39-year-old Danish man to a mansion-cum-nightclub on the outskirts of Havana. He brought along two young Cuban women — girls, really — he’d met earlier that day. The high-ceilinged room is dark and steadily filling up with locals. Judging from the $10 all-you-can-drink cover — a month’s wage for some Cubans — they must be better off than many of their countrymen.
The Dane, with spiky, dyed-blonde hair and tattooed forearms, already told us about his role in Denmark’s bloody “biker war” in the mid-1990s, when he supposedly shot at rivals and dynamited their homes. Now he tells us another story. He met a Cuban woman at a club the night before. They danced and kissed, then went to his place and had sex. It seemed obvious enough to him — a one-night stand — but in the morning, she asked for $80. Of course, this could have been a communication error, since his Spanish skills were limited to “Hola” and “Cuanto cuesta?” But I doubt it.
“Did you pay her?” I ask.
“Yes, of course,” he said, sounding not like a motorcycle warrior but a helpless child. “I had to.”
Like thousands of other Americans, my friend Christian and I traveled to Cuba illegally last year. It was as much an act of curiosity as rebellion. The U.S. embargo against Cuba includes a travel ban for tourist, and like the deviant child of strict parents, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
We spent our days walking the dilapidated streets of Havana, occasionally being accosted by jineteros — men working for tips or commissions who illegally tout cheap cigars, rooms and paladares, in-home restaurants. At night, we danced or sat around our casa particular — a home with a license to rent rooms — watching TV and chatting with our hosts. One night, while President Fidel Castro was delivering one of his epic speeches — he denounced the U.S. government, occasionally pounding his fist to punctuate a point — our hosts, a married couple, introduced us to their teenage daughter. We greeted her in passable Spanish. Then she disappeared, and the couple, in plain language, asked if one of us would like to spend the night with her. Blushing, we declined.
“We have girlfriends in the United States,” I lied.
“Sí, claro,” they said, obviously disappointed. “Esta bien.”
Their nonchalance gave me the courage to mention how, during several nights out, women had approached us and offered sex for $80.
“Do all young Cuban women sleep with tourists for money?” I asked.
The man didn’t even blink. “Yes,” he said, nodding in concert with his wife. “All of them.”
When you earn around $10 a month, even food rations, free healthcare and subsidized housing don’t suffice. Tourism is Cuba’s number one industry, thanks to almost 2 million visitors per year, and the quickest way for young women to earn money is to prostitute themselves.
It’s risky, though. The penalty can be as severe as four years in prison, and pimps can get as much as 20 years. But law enforcement in Cuba is an inexact thing. One day, a sweep can pick up dozens of innocent women. At other times, known prostitutes might be allowed to work undisturbed.
Minutes after we dropped our backpacks in a casa particular in Trinidad, a beautiful mid-sized town near the beach, the owner came upstairs and began promoting her daughter, a dentist in her late 20s. “She doesn’t have a husband,” she said. “She doesn’t have a boyfriend. She doesn’t have anyone.”
Was she selling her daughter? Trinidad seemed an unlikely place for prostitution. It was laid-back and untouristy, with cobblestone streets and colonial facades painted in crisp pastels. Maybe the owner was just hoping a rich foreigner would fall in love with her? Either way, she was talking to the wrong guys. At $15 a night, our room had already eaten up half of our day’s budget.
Though the proprietor’s intentions were unclear, those of other women in Trinidad were not. We didn’t see traditional big-city prostitution, with streetwalkers or pimps. Rather, young women would go to clubs and flirt with male tourists in hopes of getting free drinks and cigarettes. If all goes well, maybe the women would offer to go home with him — for $80, of course.
In Trinidad, we went out and danced to American and Latin pop songs, and meet women who flirted with and, yes, kissed us. Being imperfect, we kissed back. Over and over, out came that figure — $80. It was quoted with such astonishing consistency that I wondered if some regulatory agency was setting the rate.
We only saw the Dane once, that first night in Havana. One of the girls he’d brought to the club, a 17-year-old with fire-truck-red hair, soon sat on his lap and started making out with him. Neither spoke the other’s language. At one point, while she was in the bathroom, he turned to me and correctly noted, “She’s young enough to be my daughter.”
As our cab dropped us off in central Havana late that night, the redhead’s equally young friend offered herself to Christian. His line about having a girlfriend hardly discouraged this short, plump girl, who started at $80 but dropped the price by $20 each time Christian said no. Finally, as though making an irresistible concession, she said he wouldn’t have to pay a thing. That he still declined was too much for her. She cupped her hands to her face and started bawling right there in the street. We tried to console her, but she broke free and trudged off alone, dwarfed by the city’s crumbling buildings, zigzagging to avoid the deep potholes.
The Dane and the redhead followed several paces back. They were dead silent, having exchanged just a few sentences all night. But there was no need for words. His arm around her shoulder said it all.