Teen prostitution reveals failure of Cuba revolution Lure of sex used to bolster economy

July 12, 1992|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Staff Writer

HAVANA -- It's early evening on the Malecon, Havana's beautiful seaside boulevard. The young miniskirted girls are out in the moist pink-blue air, tugging at the male tourists, flirting, offering to spend the night with men old enough to be their grandfathers in exchange for a six-pack of Coke, entry to a discotheque and $6.

Lisa, a pretty, 13-year-old bleached blond, personifies this city's return to the decadence that Fidel Castro's revolution was supposed to eliminate more than three decades ago.

She is barely 5 feet tall, weighs less than 100 pounds and is dressed in lemon hot pants and a black halter top. Her merry eyes are rimmed by thick mascara as though she were a child experimenting with her mother's makeup.

"What country are you from?" she asks a foreigner, tugging at his sleeve. Flirting in her childlike way, she tells the foreigner he is handsome, intelligent. She wants to be with him.

Lisa is not an aberration in the current phase of Mr. Castro's troubled revolution. She is an important handmaiden in the service of attracting desperately needed currency to her bankrupt country. She is one of the hundreds of pretty young Cuban girls and women who have turned Havana into an attractive fleshpot for foreign tourists.

During a two-hour stroll down the Malecon on a Friday night, one foreign visitor was propositioned 43 times by pimps and prostitutes (male and female).

Cuban men are resentful of what has happened. But the government does not seem bothered. Indeed, there are ways in which the authorities seem to be encouraging it.

Every day, dozens of men arrive at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport to begin their sex vacations with girls like Lisa.

Cuba has advantages over other fleshpots, such as Thailand's Bangkok and Manila in the Philippines. The country is relatively free of AIDS, with only about 700 reported cases, all of them quickly isolated. It is also cheap, and the women themselves have an innocent quality.

"This place is a paradise," says Ernesto Lara, 48, a Mexican engineer on his third vacation to Cuba. "The women here are among the most beautiful in the world. They are completely open, almost naive."

Lisa has a carefree attitude about what she is doing. She is driven partly by the desire to obtain cash in a place where $6 is a lot, but also by a desire just to have fun in a country that offers little entertainment outside places that are closed to her unless she is on the arm of a foreigner.

"I don't think I am doing anything wrong. I just want to have a good time," she says. "Life here is so hard, so serious."

The financially hard-pressed Cuban government, facing an anticipated $4 billion trade deficit by the end of the year, has turned a blind eye to the prostitution in hopes the dollars the prostitutes earn will help overcome the island's worst economic crisis in this century. It encourages prostitution by requiring foreigners to have "a date" before entering state-owned discos.

At the Tasca disco in the Marina Hemingway resort, foreigners are told to pick a date from the young Cuban women outside. The women are prostitutes allowed into the guarded resort only for this purpose.

A nearby store sells perfumes, lingerie and other wares that the foreigners are expected to buy for dates. The store is open until 4 a.m.

An executive at a hotel in the Varadero resort area noted that his liquor sales increased 300 percent after the government permitted Cuban "hostesses" and "dates" to enter his disco.

The government's acquiescence is at odds with one of the principal aims of the revolution: ridding the country of the vice that had turned Havana into the sin capital of the Western Hemisphere, back in the days when casinos, cheap rum and sex attracted thousands of Americans to the Caribbean island.

Now there are more prostitutes than before Mr. Castro took power in 1959, says Elizardo Sanchez, a prominent human rights activist.

Ironically, the moral decay symbolized by burgeoning prostitution in Cuba has reincarnated another former enemy of the socialist state. A religious revival has taken hold, especially among Cubans who feel that the revolution has betrayed its ideals.

A Cuban couple talks with concern about the possibility that their daughter is among those hustling on the Malecon and elsewhere.

"She is only 15 years old, but she lives a life of her own and dresses better than we can afford. We hardly ever see her," says Elena Maldanado, who earns $6 a month as a factory worker -- the same amount that Lisa earns in a night.

Mrs. Maldanado and her husband, Luis, recently welcomed a Roman Catholic priest who made a "clandestine" visit to their apartment.

"I nearly fell off my chair," Mr. Maldanado said. "We had a chance to talk about our lives, about how the Malecon has become a place of prostitution. Here in Cuba, the family is disintegrating, and nothing is a bigger symbol of that than the whores."

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