Traveling to Cuba for Pleasure

Cuba vacations are known for sensuality and sexuality along with gorgeous beaches, weather and people. Seeking more sensual things to do in Cuba, many foreigners experience all the island has to offer through salsa dancing. Many of the Havana dance clubs and Cuban resorts have live music, often with dance lessons enabling more intimate connections with locals, while sheltering tourists from the country’s poverty. Cubanos have a chance to showcase their moves for visiting touristas in a bid for a longer term relationship. Foreigners might find love and companionship in Cuba, whether they are looking for it or not. Researchers have studied the Cuban love scene to reveal that the art of picking up touristas is a cultivated skill going beyond salsa. 

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) had a documentary about sex tourism about the time I visited in 2013, called Under Cuban Skies. Sex tourism usually implies men using their economic power and privilege to exploit men, women and children in poorer countries, using a colonial oppressor and victim narrative. This type of transaction still occurs in Cuba, usually between foreign men and local women. Jineteras, female prostitutes, see it as a way to quick money rather than true love or a ticket out of Cuba. As children are particularly vulnerable to sexual trafficking wherever they are, Cuba has stiff penalties for tourists caught with minors having sentences ranging from 7 to 25 years. 

More recent research suggests that this binary relationship of victim/oppressor is too simplistic to explain relationships between consenting adults, especially when there is not a direct fee for service. The documentary presents a different context of travel in Cuba for sex tourism where the lines blur between who has the power in the relationship and if anyone in the exchange is exploited. Foreign women don’t often identify their relationships with local men as sex tourism. Romance tourism might be more accurate for what happens in Under Cuban Skies.

Women from Europe and North America have economic power over the locals as they vacation in Cuba, purchasing companionship, whether they intend to or not. Friends and family warn their girlfriends and sisters against “falling in love”, though it’s hard to resist the charms of Cuban men. None of the locals picked me up, perhaps, because I look like I’m from the Carribean rather than a tourist. Fair assessment given my mother is from Trinidad and Tobago, though I fully admit that Cuba has a special energy. While I was there on a volunteer trip, counting bats far away from the tourist zones including Havana, I left the country with a new acquaintance. 

The film follows a handful of women through their relationships with Cuban men, some more successful than others. One of the women commented that Cuban men have “game”, which includes devoting plenty of time to providing foreign women with a loving experience. What she may not know is that these men have many opportunities to hone their charm to give emotional support to female companions. According to Dr. Valerio Simoni, this is an intentionally well-developed skill as Cuban men have limited time to convince a foreign woman to extend a relationship beyond simply fun in the sun. Marrying a foreigner can provide a ticket out of poverty. Many times after becoming a citizen the marriage dissolves. 

While all relationships contain an element of emotional risk, in Cuba, the Cuban government can arrest locals they suspect are engaging with foreigners. The policy makes Cuba safe for single touristas, but detrimental for Cubanos as the prison terms could be years. Dancing at a club, the police can request identification usually from black men in the company of foreign women. On the flipside, a friend lived in Cuba working for an international company. Falling in love with a local woman, he couldn’t hold her hand in public for fear of what could happen to her. A simple gesture of affection might cost her, her government position. 

Simoni spent years following young Cuban men in their 20s and 30s. I can appreciate that as a foreign woman, even if I was a legitimate researcher, I could have a negative impact on the lives of the Cubanos. I’m still jealous and want to be part of Simoni’s research team on the ground, in Cuba. Growing up in a small town and going to university in the Bible Belt, I missed the memo that said, “Social Scientists study how gorgeous, Cuban men pick up touristas”. I have a hard time thinking about who would fund such a study, though I firmly believe in repeating research to capture how life in Cuba may have changed for the tourists and the locals. As a dancer myself, I could study the role dancing plays in successful Cubano/tourista encounters. Still don’t know who would fund that study either.

My interests lean more towards using business models for social impact. As a business venture, maybe Cuban men could come up to Canada to teach people how to communicate better. We all want to be heard and feel loved without judgment, which is a key component of their strategy when wooing touristas. And really who doesn’t love a good dancer? With all of our smartphone and social media preoccupations we have lost ways to authentically give and receive messages to anyone except maybe a therapist. In Cuba, at least when I went to Varadero, the Internet was scarce making it easier for people to mingle. Havana might be different or have more creatives working on Internet access, because apparently many couples keep in touch via Facebook or other online means. 

Simoni’s paper Sex, Seduction and Care for the Other discusses how Cubanos related to touristas in a more intimate way to establish long term relationships; instead of just one night stands. While great sex may get a woman interested, the men invested significant amounts of time listening to their foreign girlfriends to respond with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. 

“Yoanni—another Afro-Cuban man in his early twenties—… when talking to foreign women was to say things that could touch them deeply, in their most intimate feelings, surprising them with profound remarks and compliments they had never heard before. This, according to Yoanni, was also a way to show his maturity and caring personality, particularly important points when dealing with women who were older than one was, and who could be weary of engaging with muchachos, inexperienced youngsters. The idea, as Yoanni put it, was to find the keys to “unlock” the woman, touch her weak spot, the detail that “killed” (la mata) and ultimately conquered her” (Simoni, 2018)

The men would avoid their usual spots and friends to focus on their new foreign girlfriend and avoid competition. At clubs they would point out less sophisticated types of escorts, who might have been too pushy or not putting the woman first. In return for their attention, they can access expensive clubs and a lifestyle that wouldn’t normally be available to them, given the amount of poverty and government surveillance.

In another research paper of Simoni’s Approaching Inequality and Intimacy in Tourism, he examines different scenarios. Cubans as victims of tourism, subversive tricksters taking advantage of tourists as well as agents that embrace tourists and tourism in a claim for equality. All three co-exist within the social fabric of travel in Cuba creating complicated exchanges between locals and tourists. Another friend was at a Cuban all inclusive resort talking to some other Canadians about what they had been up to during their stay. An older gentleman bragged about sleeping with a young Cuban woman, which sounded more like economic exploitation than love. The CBC documentary pointed out that many foreign women might end up with the same Cuban boyfriend as they are only on the island for a few weeks at a time, where as he lives there to entertain others in their absence. The men in Simoni’s study seemed to authentically care about the women with whom they initiated relationships.

Marriage is tough for anyone, especially on an island with limited resources and the state’s unnerving surveillance culture. Then add immigration costs, legal fees, documents and sponsorship. Canadian sponsorship can take over a year and if the spouse wants to visit, a visitor visa is needed, plus the cost of flights. Coming to a new country with different weather, languages, customs and norms away from family and friends is difficult. A relationship might not survive the stress as one person deals with the financials in hopes that eventually her partner will be able to contribute, once he adjusts to life outside of Cuba.

Despite all the risks, couples marry, though Cuba has some of the highest the divorce rates in the world. It’s hard to know if the relationship is one of economic convenience for one of the partners or one of caring for the wellbeing of the other person, until the couple is together in the new place. Away from the Cuba vacation, women have to work and assume responsibility for their new family rather than spend time with their spouse. Depending on the location, the man’s skillset and willingness to work, finding a job might prove to be difficult.

Age differences can play a role too. In the documentary, an American woman significantly older than her husband was fully aware of the judgment she and her husband would face in San Diego. From the wedding footage, they faced harsh judgment in Cuba too. In addition to the cost of a wedding and immigration, she helped her new mother in law (who might have been younger than her) make thousands of dollars in improvements to the home in Cuba. When the husband made it to San Diego,  he managed to land a job at a dance studio because of his dance skills opening up the opportunity to pursue his dream of acting.  

In Simoni’s study, the three men were well aware of the reputation Cuban men had abroad, including being lazy and unfaithful contributing to hesitancy around foreign marriages. The Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board in 2014, found a Cuban man’s marriage to a Quebec woman was a sham and ordered him deported. The man claimed that he couldn’t work because of a bad back, but had no problem dancing up a storm with his new girlfriend. To remain in Canada he claimed he was tutoring his girlfriend’s kids in French. Given he doesn’t speak French well, the court didn’t accept his reasoning. She’s far from alone. These issues were brought up in the CBC documentary, citing a quarter of marriages to Cubans may be fraudulent. 

On my Cuba vacation I met a Canadian man and his father at the airport. We were all heading back to Calgary to meet with family and friends at Christmas. As usual I was short on local currency and couldn’t change any at the airport to buy duty free rum, when I saw a Canadian couple with some pesos. Knowing people aren’t supposed to take currency out of the country, I decided that I didn’t need rum after all; instead, I started talking to their friend, Dexter. 

Comparing notes about our trips, while I wished I had had an extra week to learn Spanish and time to continue exploring the vast underground caving networks Cuba has to offer, he had the typical Cuban resort experience, drinking and probably hooking up with other tourists for a solid two weeks. He mentioned that he had made it to Havana, whereas I didn’t have a chance to go. Boarding the plane drunk, I was shocked when he texted me the next day after sobering up. I confessed to buying rum in Canada for a Christmas cake, which he reminded me that I could have bought three times the amount for a fraction of the price at the Cuban airport, if I had currency. We spent some together, going to see a couple movies, before he went back to the oilfields. Nothing serious, but fun.

If you are a nerd like me and want more information, below are references to the articles I used for this post.

Under Cuban Skies

Hooking up in Cuba

Marrying and Sponsoring a Cuban Citizen

Getting A Divorce in Cuba is Routine

Quebec Marriage Scam

Sex, Seduction and Care for the Other

Approaching difference, inequality, and intimacy in tourism: A view from Cuba