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The young woman takes a drag on her cigarette and slides off her slippers. The rickety wooden chair she sits on wobbles. A bare light bulb dangles above. I'm with them out of necessity. In Cuba, prostitution has become a tourist trade like any other, only it pays better. Young women cluster outside the Riviera Hotel, home to a trendy salsa club. They sit in fashionable restaurants. They amble down the Malecon, the seafront promenade, advertising their availability with tight ultrashort skirts.
The Italian magazine Viaggiare recently raved about Cuba as a sexual playground for tourists. The island - which closely controls the spread of AIDS - ranked first in the magazine's sex-destination survey, surpassing even brothel hot spots like Thailand and Brazil.
For a country that took great pride in stomping out prostitution after the revolution, it's a distinction the government could do without. Vilma Espin, head of the Cuban Federation of Women, recently railed against prostitutes in Cuba, calling them a "great embarrassment" to the country. Her speech, widely publicized in Cuba, did not sit well with the island's women, who skewered Espin for ignoring reality. One Havana woman argued that prostitution in Cuba now is much more disturbing than it was before the Communist takeover in because it is more blatant.
The revolution has created this. A few days after the speech, the young prostitute seated in a two-room apartment smirked at Espin's words. Nobody thinks that a morality breakdown is driving Cuba's flourishing prostitution trade, she said. Among most people in Cuba there is no condemnation, only an implicit understanding: You do what you must. And I have my son and my mother to think about. Prostitutes, who generally work for themselves, are routinely fined by police for "sexual contact" and are detained for a short time.
But in reality, prostitution is a game between client, prostitute and government workers. Finding a prostitute is not difficult. They linger outside hotels and inside expensive restaurants. The clients wine and dine them, and the women agree to be their sex partners during their stay in Cuba, usually a week or so.