Tag Archive for 'cuba'

My Ethnographic Study of Cuban Socialized Medicine

Note: Presentation contains mild blood and guts pictures.

My friend Evan lost a finger to a barracuda. Observing the entire course of his treatment, from emergency care to reconstructive surgery, was a great opportunity to observe the Cuban health service at work. The experience highlighted the differences between the care tourists experience (competent and lavish by Cuban standards) and the care most Cubans experience (competent but very bare bones).

When I presented this work I discussed most of my research orally and I was hesitant to post photographs here without extensive explanation. I’ve been asked repeatedly though, so here they are.

Regarding the blurry boundary between Free Love and Transactional Sex in Cuba

the malecon

the malecón photo by Isaac Holeman.


The other day I passed part of the afternoon walking alone along the malecón, the seawall pictured above. Built in 1901 by the U.S. during one of their occupations of Cuba, it covers most of Havana’s sea shore and is a hub of people watching and sea sprayed dallying for locals and tourists alike. On one particularly popular stretch I walked past a fairly attractive young woman wearing a modest tank top and long skirt. She was sitting with one hip and a hand on the broad seawall, and I happened to look over right as a gust of wind blew her skirt almost up to her waist. She saw my embarrassed smile and called me back, “hey amigo”.

She was friendly and more forthcoming than most Cuban women I’ve met, particularly after she discovered I’m from the US. Before long she asked me if I had a girlfriend (American women are always asked by Cuban men “do you have a boyfriend?” If yes, “do you have a Cuban boyfriend?” The question is slightly less common from women). No I said, and she smiled and said she was single too, so we could start dating if I liked. She knew I only had 3 weeks left in Cuba, but said we could pasar un buen tiempo (have a good time). I was more than a little stymied, fearing to respond in case I had misunderstood, though I was certain I hadn’t. It got worse when she said, as if to clarify, “quieres quedar conmigo?” The word quedar has various meanings, some of them specific to Cuba, so she might have been asking if I wanted to stop and sit on the seawall with her, if I wanted to start dating her, or if I wanted to sleep with her. After consulting Cuban friends, the last interpretation wouldn’t have been literally accurate but possible as an innuendo, and the second was the most likely, but I had no idea at the time. She then told me about a nice bed and breakfast (casa particular) by the national hotel that would rent a room for $20, did I have 20 dollars? she asked. This is significantly more money than non-famous Cubans my age have for leisure spending in a month, or even a year. As I drifted away, feeling rather odd, I tried to stammer something about not knowing her very well – it almost came out in English.

Here’s a list of my general perceptions about the conversation, including the nonverbal cues.

  • She was interested in having sex with me, pronto.
  • This would have been part of engaging in a relationship, not just a one night stand (one afternoon, in this case).
  • My nationality and her associated expectation of my relative wealthiness played a significant role in her interest.
  • If I had pursued this relationship, she would have expected me to spend money, take her places, and buy her things that were not otherwise available to her.
  • If I had agreed to the relationship but later refused to spend money on her, she would very likely have ended the relationship, but wouldn’t have argued that I had incurred a debt that needed to be paid.
  • She did not consider the proposal a transaction or a purchase.

Again, this is the way it looked from my perspective, they are not indisputable truths about the situation. I am quite confident that she was not a jinetera (prostitute), but I definitely got a bad vibe that felt more sinister than promiscuous and forward behavior alone. This experience left me with more questions than answers. Here are some of the questions.

  • If there were a spectrum of behavior with transactional sex on one end and free love on the other, where the heck would this encounter register?
  • Could I have ethically pursued a romantic relationship with her (not necesarily including sex), knowing that she was probably as interested in my economic status as in me?
  • In this specific instance, would it have felt empowering to her that she could use her attractiveness to satisfy her physical desires AND have material benefits, or would she have felt that this use of her body was an unfortunate only option? Basically, was she going against her morals?
  • Was my impulse to get away from her rooted in an unfair gender bias – an expectation that Cuban women should act more prudently than Cuban men?
  • Did my response to this situation result from an unfair bias regarding her nationality and my assumptions about her economic status?

The second to last question needs more explanation. Young Cuban men are constantly intimating to my female American friends that they would like to have a sex with them. This can be frustrating but it’s “normal” here. My female friends are really put off by this dynamic (I would be too), but it doesn’t cause them to reject every person outright; if they did they wouldn’t have any friends. They just deal with it and remember that they need to be careful about initiating relationships on their own terms.

If this woman had been a man and I a woman, her actions would have been relatively very forward, but not to the extent that they would merit immediately viewing her as much less appealing than any other random stranger. While she definitely did say some things that made it clear she was in the market for a sugar daddy, it’s hard for me to dissect how her nonconformity with the typical gender role might have cauesed me to (in the spur of the moment) focus on the financially motivated comments (creepy) more than any genuine interest in casual sex (not my thing, but not as repulsive as sex for money). It’s probably pertinent that she must have been more aware of Cuba’s gender biases than I, and her words were probably intended to honestly convey all of the things she was interested in. Nonetheless, I don’t like the idea of applying this gender bias when I make decisions. This is one of the dilemmas of being in an environment where I feel like the only norms I can use to interpret the social significance of various interactions are those of a culture that I can’t participate in fully enough to challenge.

As for the last question. There are a lot of gold diggers in the states too. I’m definitely not a fan of them, but I tend to think of it as shallow rather than borderline transactional sex. I don’t think this girl was looking to me to help her meet basic material necessities. At the same time, if she is like most Cubans she probably has almost zero material pleasures beyond those necessities, and very little chance of improving her situation through her own labor (there just aren’t economic opportunities in Cuba). While intertwining sex and material gain may not exactly be driven by desperation in this case, it likewise doesn’t seem quite the same as a person in the US who has access to economic opportunities and is choosing not to pursue them because it’s easier to seduce a rich person.

Overall, it was a pretty strange experience, one that I wouldn’t have been capable of understanding (linguistically or culturally) a few months ago. It’s nice to feel that my Spanish and understanding of Cuban society have improved that much, but at the same time I feel like gaining some insight has left me with more unanswered questions than I had before. Please post a comment if you have ideas about any of my questions.

Important note: Although I have read that sex tourism is often less formal in Cuba than in other places, I have not thoroughly researched the topic. This post is meant to describe some individual responses to economic and social differences. Please do not think I am claiming that everyone who comes from or visits Cuba responds the same way.

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