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 island.