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 the night.
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 goes on.
• 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.”