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 traveling 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 4, 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 1 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.”
Exploitation thrives were poverty exists, and in that respect Cuba is no different from 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 9-year-old girl who “was groped lasciviously” for cash.
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.
“The police and other officials appear to treat sex crimes, particularly those against children, seriously and professionally,” noted the RCMP report from 2011, obtained by The Toronto Star.
But the government’s news monopoly has published almost nothing on underage prostitution. Cuban diplomats in Washington did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
“They treat this issue as a matter of revolutionary purity,” Garcia said.
Former ruler Fidel Castro cracked down on prostitution after he seized power in 1959, and boasted his country was no longer a U.S. brothel. But the sex market blossomed again after Moscow cut off its subsidies and plunged the island into crisis in the early 1990s.
Cuba’s response was to throw its doors open to mass tourism. Travel agencies made no bones about the island’s attractions: white sand beaches, cheap prices, hot weather and dark-skinned women.
A Spanish airline advertisement for travel to Cuba showed two black women in bikinis with a white baby who sang, “mulatas … take me to my crib.” Complaints from a Spanish consumer group forced the airline to pull the ad.
But Cuban officials never complained publicly about the ad, and Castro himself seemed to accept sex tourism in a 1992 speech.
Cuban women are not “forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist. Those who do so do .without any need for it,” he declared. “We can say that they are highly educated hookers and quite healthy, because we are the country with the lowest numbers of AIDS cases. … Therefore, there is truly no prostitution healthier than Cuba’s.”
One State Department dispatch on underage prostitution in Cuba from 2009, also made public by WikiLeaks, lists the following “Recommendations for Cuba.”
“Acknowledge that child sex trafficking . is a problem; provide greater legal protections and assistance for victims; develop procedures to identify possible trafficking victims among vulnerable populations; increase anti-trafficking training for law enforcement; and, take greater steps to prevent the trafficking of children in prostitution.”
That advice has clearly fallen on deaf ears, and Raul Castro, who succeeded ailing brother Fidel in 2008, continues to officially say nothing about the sex predators among the more than two million tourists who visit the island each year.
The shocking death of the 12-year-old girl in Bayamo, for instance, generated no coverage in the national media and only a couple of brief reports in the provincial media announcing the sentences imposed on the three Italians and 10 Cubans.
Cuba meanwhile jailed Spanish journalist Sebastian Martinez Ferrate for 18 months when he returned to Havana following the 2008 release of his television documentary, Cuba: Child Prostitution.
The documentary reported that he easily found 15 Havana prostitutes under the age of 16. It showed four girls, provided by one 16-year-old pimp, talking frankly about their sex work and swimming topless in a private pool, as well as cops and teachers who took bribes to facilitate the encounters.
Martinez said he was convicted on charges of incitement to child prostitution because his documentary showed that “everyone knows Cuba is a brothel.”
Detective Sgt. Kim Gross, who heads the Toronto police’s sex crimes unit, has been investigating the case of 78-year-old James McTurk, convicted in 1995 and 1998 of possession of child pornography that he filmed in Cuba.
One of his victims was estimated from photos to be 4.
Gross said Toronto police want to reach out to help McTurk’s victims. In Canada, authorities can make sure that the abuse stops and that the victims receive counseling and other social services.
But Cuba’s political system makes it nearly impossible to cooperate with the police or other authorities without triggering fears of possible reprisals against the families or even the victims themselves, she added.
“I can’t help them when I’m here,” Gross said. “We have to find a nonprofit group working there who are familiar with the problems to get them the help they need. I’m not convinced they’ll get it through the police.”
Cuba does not allow nongovernment organizations to operate on the island, but U.S. diplomatic cables list the government ministries and groups that on paper are supposed to address the issue.
The Interior Ministry, which includes police and border guards, has the lead in criminal cases while the Communist Party, Federation of Cuban Women, Union of Young Communists and Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, can provide various types of support.
Three government-run sexual abuse treatment centers “reportedly provide state-of-the-art care and counseling to child sexual abuse victims and child witnesses, some of whom may be trafficking victims,” one U.S. cable noted, giving no further details.
Cuba’s well-educated sex workers include a pretty young woman who called herself Chachi when she approached two foreign men out for a night stroll on Havana’s seaside Malecon boulevard.
Born and raised in a neighboring province, she attended two years of university, studying to become a veterinarian. Then she became pregnant. Now she rents a Havana apartment for a month at a time so she can be available for tourists.
“I can cook, I can do dishes, I can clean the house, I can do whatever you want,” she tells the two foreigners. Like Michael the Canadian, Chachi did not give her last name.
Over a beer, she opens up on why she walks the streets.
“He is beautiful,” Chachi says of her 3-year-old boy, her eyes welling up. “I am here for him. I wait for money from tourists so I can send it to him and my mother.”