Sex Tourism in Cuba: Second of three parts
How Cuba became the newest hotbed for tourists craving sex with minors
HAVANA -- These stories are the result of a joint investigation by
Toronto Star reporters Robert Cribb, Jennifer Quinn and Julian Sher, and
El Nuevo Herald reporter Juan O. Tamayo.
The 50-something Canadian steps inside a downtown bar, his left arm
wound tightly around the waist of a young prostitute as he flashes a sly
grin. A winking bartender welcomes him like an old friend.
"It's hard not to be inspired by this," Michael says, looking over his
companion for the night. "And that," he adds, his eyes pointing to one
of the other young women in the bar. "This is the promised land."
Michael, a retiree from Vancouver Island, spends up to six months a year
in Havana, where he says he has discovered easy access to young women
willing to ignore age differences — in exchange for as little as $30 for
Foreign tourists, especially Canadians and Spaniards, are travelling to
Cuba in surprising numbers for sex — and not just with adult
prostitutes. They are finding underage girls and boys, a joint
investigation by The Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald has found.
Havana's conspicuous scenes of street-level prostitution are the outward
face of a hidden prostitution trade in minors, some as young as four,
some with families complicit in their exploitation, the newspapers found.
Cuba holds unique allure for Western sex tourists. It is closer and
cheaper than other sex destinations, such as Thailand. And HIV rates are
lower than in other Caribbean sex tourism hotspots, such as the
Dominican Republic or Haiti.
While the size of the island's underage sex market remains a mystery —
the communist government denies it is a problem and fosters the image of
an island free of the social ills that plague other nations — it clearly
• A confidential Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report in 2011
showed Cuba was one of the main destinations in the Americas for
Canadian sex predators, along with the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Brazil
and Mexico. More than one million Canadian tourists visited Cuba last year.
• Cuba's government "made no known efforts to reduce the demand for
commercial sex," noted the 2012 version of the U.S. State Department's
annual report on global Trafficking in Persons (TIP).
• The 2003 version noted that some officials of Cuban state enterprises
such as restaurants and hotels "turn a blind eye to this [child]
exploitation because such activity helps to win hard currency."
• A dispatch by U.S. diplomats in Havana in 2009 noted that "some Cuban
children are reportedly pushed into prostitution by their families,
exchanging sex for money, food or gifts," but gave no overall numbers.
Pimps, cabbies and tourist hotel staffers can procure discreet meetings
with underage prostitutes, according to the RCMP report.
"That's prohibited here in the hotel," a security chief at a Havana
hotel told a journalist posing as a tourist in search of underage girls.
But, he added helpfully, they can be found "in houses waiting for the
call from pimps."
Clients can take them to private homes, known as "casas particulares,"
the security man noted, where tourists can rent rooms for $10 a night
and do "whatever you want. Orgies, anything."
Exploitation thrives were poverty exists, and in that respect Cuba is no
different than other destinations for sex tourists.
Ivan Garcia, 43, a dissident Havana journalist who has written several
articles on prostitution, said the underage prostitutes are typically
poor, hopeless and desperate. "For these people, 'future' is a bad
word," he said.
Today, prostitution may well be the most profitable job in an island
where the average monthly salary officially stands at less than $20 and
a bottle of cooking oil costs $3.
But Garcia argues that there's more to prostitution on the island than
poverty — that most Cubans dream of meeting a foreigner who will take
them away from the island's grinding isolation.
"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," he said.
Garcia said he knows two 12-year-old girls currently working the streets
and has heard of 11-year-olds. Havana lawyer Laritza Diversent said she
knew of one nine-year-old girl who "was groped lasciviously" for cash.
Age of consent
The State Department's TIP report has classified Cuba as a "Tier 3"
country — the worst of its rankings — when it comes to combating sex
trafficking every year since 2003.
Cuban laws "do not appear to penalize prostitution of children between
the ages of 16 and 18" and prostitution for those 18 and older is legal
though pimping is outlawed, the 2012 edition noted.
The age of sexual consent on the island is 16 but girls can marry at 14
with parental approval, Diversent said. Foreigners caught with
prostitutes older than 16 are usually not arrested but the minors can be
sent to youth detention centers, she added, although police often take
bribes to look the other way.
Most Western countries, including the United States, as well as some
international agreements proscribe tourism for sex with anyone under the
age of 18, regardless of the laws in the destination country.
Cuban laws are tough on those convicted of sexually exploiting girls or
boys 14 and younger — if the government chooses to prosecute. They can
get up to 30 years in prison and even death by firing squad if there are
aggravating factors such as the use of violence or drugs.
Three Italian men were sentenced to up to 25 years in prison for murder
and corruption of minors after the 2010 death of a 12-year-old girl
during a sex party in eastern Bayamo. Court records indicate that the
girl was asthmatic and died accidentally.
A 2003 report on Cuban sex tourism by the global monitoring group End
Child Prostitution and Trafficking noted that one Canadian had been
sentenced to 11 years for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl, and
another was sentenced to 25 years for abusing a 15-year-old.
"Sources agree that Cuban authorities are very severe in cases of
solicitation or having sex with children under the age of 14," noted the
U.S. diplomatic cable in 2009, made public by the Wikileaks web site. It
added that Cuba cooperates with Interpol to keep known pedophiles out of
"The police and other officials appear to treat sex crimes, particularly
those against children, seriously and professionally," noted the RCMP
report from 2011, obtained by The Toronto Star.
But the government's news monopoly has published almost nothing on
underage prostitution. Cuban diplomats in Washington did not respond to
requests for comment on this story.
"They treat this issue as a matter of revolutionary purity," Garcia said.
Former ruler Fidel Castro cracked down on prostitution after he seized
power in 1959, and boasted his country was no longer a U.S. brothel. But
the sex market blossomed again after Moscow cut off its subsidies and
plunged the island into crisis in the early 1990s.
Cuba's response was to throw its doors open to mass tourism. Travel
agencies made no bones about the island's attractions: white sand
beaches, cheap prices, hot weather and dark-skinned women.
A Spanish airline advertisement for travel to Cuba showed two black
women in bikinis with a white baby who sang, "mulatas … take me to my
crib." Complaints from a Spanish consumer group forced the airline to
pull the ad.
But Cuban officials never complained publicly about the ad, and Castro
himself seemed to accept sex tourism in a 1992 speech.
Cuban women are not "forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner,
to a tourist. Those who do so do …without any need for it," he declared.
"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."
A shocking death
One State Department dispatch on underage prostitution in Cuba from
2009, also made public by Wikileaks, lists the following
"Recommendations for Cuba."
"Acknowledge that child sex trafficking … 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 clearly fallen on deaf ears, and Raúl Castro, who
succeeded ailing brother Fidel in 2008, continues to officially say
nothing about the sex predators among the more than two million tourists
who visit the island each year.
The shocking death of the 12-year-old girl in Bayamo, for instance,
generated no coverage in the national media and only a couple of brief
reports in the provincial media announcing the sentences imposed on the
three Italians and 10 Cubans.
Cuba meanwhile jailed Spanish journalist Sebastian Martinez Ferraté for
18 months when he returned to Havana following the 2008 release of his
television documentary, Cuba: Child Prostitution.
The documentary reported that he easily found 15 Havana prostitutes
under the age of 16. It showed four girls, provided by one 16-year-old
pimp, talking frankly about their sex work and swimming topless in a
private pool, as well as cops and teachers who took bribes to facilitate
Martinez said he was convicted on charges of incitement to child
prostitution because his documentary showed that "everyone knows Cuba is
Detective Sgt. Kim Gross, who heads the Toronto police's sex crimes
unit, has been investigating the case of 78-year-old James McTurk,
convicted in 1995 and 1998 of possession of child pornography that he
filmed in Cuba.
One of his victims was estimated from photos to be 4.
Gross said Toronto police want to reach out to help McTurk's victims. In
Canada, authorities can make sure that the abuse stops and that the
victims receive counseling and other social services.
But Cuba's political system makes it nearly impossible to cooperate with
the police or other authorities without triggering fears of possible
reprisals against the families or even the victims themselves, she added.
"I can't help them when I'm here," Gross said. "We have to find a
non-profit group working there who are familiar with the problems to get
them the help they need. I'm not convinced they'll get it through the
Cuba does not allow non-government organizations to operate on the
island, but U.S. diplomatic cables list the government ministries and
groups that on paper are supposed to address the issue.
The Interior Ministry, which includes police and border guards, has the
lead in criminal cases while the Communist Party, Federation of Cuban
Women, Union of Young Communists and Committees for the Defense of the
Revolution, can provide various types of support.
Three government-run sexual abuse treatment centers "reportedly provide
state-of-the-art care and counseling to child sexual abuse victims and
child witnesses, some of whom may be trafficking victims," one U.S.
cable noted, giving no further details.
'I'm here for him'
Cuba's well-educated sex workers include a pretty young woman who called
herself Chachi when she approached two foreign men out for a night
stroll on Havana's seaside Malecón boulevard.
Born and raised in a neighboring province, she attended two years of
university, studying to become a veterinarian. Then she became pregnant.
Now she rents a Havana apartment for a month at a time so she can be
available for tourists.
"I can cook, I can do dishes, I can clean the house, I can do whatever
you want," she tells the two foreigners. Like Michael the Canadian,
Chachi did not give her last name.
Over a beer, she opens up on why she walks the streets.
"He is beautiful," Chachi says of her 3-year-old boy, her eyes welling
up. "I am here for him. I wait for money from tourists so I can send it
to him and my mother."
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