The daughter of Cuba's most powerful man is publicly discussing a bold proposal to combat prostitution: penalize the clients who pay for sexual services.
“We have to act. We can’t simply say that we are against sexual exploitation as a form of sexual work. We cannot say that we want to protect our children and adolescents from sexual exploitation. It's not just wanting it, but breaking our heads to find a way to do it,” Mariela Castro said recently on the nationally televised Cuban program Mesa Redonda, which discussed the International Symposium on Gender Violence, Prostitution, Sexual Tourism and Human Trafficking held earlier this year in Havana.
Castro may be publicly discussing the issue to gain academic support before taking her idea to the legislature.
Castro, daughter of Cuban ruler Raúl Castro, also serves as director of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX by its Spanish acronym) and is a member of the National Assembly of People's Power. During the TV broadcast, she spoke about measures adopted by other countries to battle prostitution, including going after the clients, a strategy practiced by Sweden since 1999 and more recently adopted by France.
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But in Cuba, where prostitution is not officially illegal, many experts agree that the island’s macho society and its socio-economic reality may impede any efforts to implement laws that punish sex seekers.
In the short term, some say, it is more likely that the issue will continue to be discussed in academic circles or, as Castro herself said on the TV program, maturing until it gets “from yearning to implementation” of measures to bring prostitution to a halt.
During the symposium, Castro also discussed other measures, such as those implemented by the Netherlands and Belgium, where prostitution has been legalized as a form of work. But she said she favored the Sweden approach for Cuba because “becoming a sexual commodity takes away people’s rights,” according to a report by the Inter Press Service.
CENESEX did not respond to questions from el Nuevo Herald about the alleged proposal and said press queries must go through the Cuban Embassy in Washington. The Embassy did not respond to emails from el Nuevo Herald.
Amir Valle, author of the book, Habana Babilonia or Prostitutes in Cuba, said that since 1993, when he began his five-year research, experts already had been touting the idea of penalizing the client without taking into account that solutions are only implemented when the government recognizes there is a problem.
The Cuban government, even thought it has all the information and field studies at its disposal to position itself, has never really accepted the social reach of the phenomenon.
Amir Valle, author and journalist
“The Cuban government, even though it has all the information and field studies at its disposal to position itself, has never really accepted the social reach of the phenomenon,” Valle said, adding that the government also does not recognize the proliferation of prostitution in its various manifestations — “jineterismo” directed at tourism, masculine or transsexual prostitution, or increasing national prostitution.
In this sense, the symposium could be considered a step forward, as the discussions covered male sex workers and some even raised their voices about the censorship on the subject in academia and the complexity of addressing the issue of prostitution “because of moral prejudices and ideological divergences.”
In an interview with Inter Press Service, Cuban researcher Rosa Campoalegre praised the “academic and civic audacity of the symposium” because it allowed for a healthy debate and controversial viewpoints. Reached by phone at her home in Havana, Campoalegre declined to answer questions from el Nuevo Herald.
The symposium and subsequent Mesa Redonda program also brought up the question on whether prostitution in Cuba is legal, concluding that the person who practices prostitution is not committing a crime under Cuban law. However, there is legislation against pimps, sexual exploitation of minors and pornography.
Valle said that although prostitution is not directly condemned, legislation does label it as a “dangerous” act because of its “antisocial” conduct.
Punishments, Valle said, include heavy fines against those who engage in prostitution in the province where they are from. Those caught outside their native provinces are sent home. In the late 1990s and early 21st century, prostitutes were placed in detention centers where they were “reformed.” Those centers closed between 2002 and 2003, Valle said.
Ted Henken, a sociologist, author and professor at Baruch College, believes that Cuban society, which he defines as “machista-leninista,” is not ready to go after clients who pay for sex.
[Prostitution] is just better hidden and those interested know how to find it.
Ted Henken, sociologist, author and professor
“Prostitution in Cuba is part of tourism,” said Henken, adding that although authorities have taken action to clear the streets of the trade, “it is just better hidden and those interested know how to find it.”
Although prostitution always existed in Cuba, the 1959 Revolution prohibited businesses that involved sex work. But after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba lost its main economic benefactor and a crisis hit the island hard, forcing it to open up to international tourism, which resulted in the proliferation of prostitution as a means of survival.
Alberto Roque, a well-known activist for LGBTQ rights on the island, said that the discussion to penalize the client is still at an academic level, but that “the institutions and civil society can influence” the debate so that the proposal reaches the legislature.
Roque, who is also a doctor and a member of the Cuban Communist Party, supports CENESEX’s proposal to penalize the client, but he told el Nuevo Herald that it is not enough to pass a law while the population continues to view prostitutes as individuals with a “negative” value.
“I do not think the people are ready,” Roque said.
Follow Abel Fernandez on Twitter: @abelfglez