From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the Twenty-First Century

Author: Megan Daigle
Publisher: Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015. 276p.
Reviewer: Corinne Schwarz | May 2016

In From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the Twenty-First Century, Megan Daigle explores the relationship among intimacy, identity, and surveillance in present-day Cuba. Daigle uses the concept of “jineterismo”—a complex, intimate economy between Cuban citizens and foreign nationals from Europe and North America—to guide her research — interrogating the ways race, class, gender, and sexuality shape young Cubans’ experiences in a changing economic and political climate. Jineterismo is locally understood as comparable to prostitution, an immoral sexual practice that trades physical, romantic intimacy for increased financial stability and material gain. Since it is stigmatized as such, jineterismo is subject to increased scrutiny from the state, particularly from police, and carries the threat of “rehabilitation” and incarceration. Jineteras, women who engage in this form of intimacy, are particularly vulnerable to police intervention, while their male jinetero counterparts are afforded some degree of leniency due to the stereotype of the sexually voracious Cuban man. Through the lens of jineterismo, Daigle demonstrates the relationship between socially constructed stereotypes of Cuban identities and the material impacts of these tropes on real citizens’ lives and livelihoods.

Daigle uses over fifty interviews with Cuban men and women who have engaged in relationships with yumas, or foreigners. Though many of these participants share similar demographic characteristics—young, heterosexual Cuban women from eighteen to thirty-five years old who partner with white, foreign men—they present different forms of intimacy that push back against the stereotype of the jinetera. For example, Daigle introduces Yakelín, a twenty-three year old Cuban woman of color dating Jean-Claude, an older French tourist. On the surface, their large age gap, Yakelín’s race, and Jean-Claude’s wealth fits the jinetera narrative: Yakelín receives monetary compensation in exchange for her companionship and sexual availability. However, this is far too simplistic for how Yakelín understands her relationship, which she sees as a long-term, emotional connection based on a chance encounter, not a financial exchange that she actively pursued. Daigle writes, “[h]er current relationship is stable and based on mutual affection, whereas jineteras are thought to be young women who specifically seek out yumas and who flit from one man to the next both frequently and easily” (75). Though Yakelín views her own relationship as stable and exclusive, the jintera model reframes her own identity as an opportunistic, sexually aggressive figure of Cuban immorality.

Daigle begins From Cuba with Love by tracing the development of jineterismo through Cuban history, beginning with the figure of the mulata, who comes to serve as both a feminine ideal of Cuban beauty and sexual impropriety. In Chapter 1, Daigle describes Cuba’s colonial past and its influence on modern social norms regarding sexuality and identity. As Spanish settlers began to control more of Cuba—and bring in African slave labor for their plantation economy—and the indigenous Cuban population dramatically decreased, the Cuban national identity emerged as an attempt to establish a dominant, “pure” white class in the face of racial others. This emphasis of purity was most salient through cultural understandings of women’s sexuality: white Cuban women were to be isolated and protected while women of color were stereotyped as shameless and sexually voracious. Cuban men were not held to these strict standards, as their sexuality was constructed as a biological imperative, a natural instinct that could not be tamed or targeted exclusively onto the socially desired white Cuban woman. Thus, as a range of interracial relationships produced children, the mulata emerged as both a biracial identity category and a mythic figure “who transcends borders […] characterized by innate beauty, sensuality, and licentiousness” (31). These stereotypical understandings of race, gender, and sexuality have persisted throughout the Cuban revolution, and influenced modern state building efforts to eliminate sex work and erase jineterismo.

Chapter 2 delves deeply into the experiences of young Cubans who fit—and frequently contradict—the jineterismo framework. Daigle compares how men and women negotiate their identities in the face of economic pressures, pervasive stereotypes, and “real” desire. The case studies she presents in this chapter illustrate the variety of relationships and intimate encounters that exist as part of jineterismo. For example, Daigle interviews Nadia, a young mother who formerly pursued relationships with male tourists during her time as a university student. European men would take Nadia and her friends out for nice meals, clothing, and money to supplement her meager student stipend. Her experiences align closely with the label of jinetera, yet she never faced increased police scrutiny or surveillance because of her status as a white woman. Because her racial identity carried an assumed purity and innocence—in contrast to the negative, aggressive sexuality attributed to women of color—Nadia emerged from her encounters without the stigma of jineterismo. When compared to Yakelín, whose aforementioned story is addressed in this chapter, Nadia’s privilege is starkly apparent. However, even without the carceral interventions that frequently mark the jineterismo narrative, Nadia still feels stigmatized, refusing to tell her family or friends, seemingly internalizing the stereotype of jineteras as “bad,” damaged women. She says, “I had low self-esteem back then. It stays with me” (78).

Daigle spends Chapter 3 describing the multiple levels of violence associated with jineterismo, from the rhetorical violence of the derogatory jinetera label to the real threat of police violence and human rights violations. Prostitution stings and arrests are legally afforded by Articles 72-74 of the Cuban Código Penal, which provides police officers with a great degree of discretion in determining which citizens may be creating a “dangerous state” through immoral “antisocial behavior” (119). Unsurprisingly, suspected jineteras can be subject to arrests, detention, and even rehabilitative institutionalization, regardless of what behavior they present to fit or contradict the jineterismo narrative. Additionally, as police scrutiny intensifies, some women turn to—or are aggressively coerced by—chulos, i.e., men who serve as a middleman between jineteras and yumas. If a chulo is violent or takes a woman’s money or goods, the latter are frequently left without recourse, as admitting her status as a jinetera might make her vulnerable to forms of carceral violence.

In Chapter 4, Daigle brings state actors to the forefront, interviewing officials from Cuba’s national sexual education office and women’s organization. These interviews were challenging to obtain, requiring Daigle to navigate multiple bureaucracies; but they yield important insights on the relationship between Cuban institutions and identities. Though the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (CENESEX) advocates for a fairly liberal, comprehensive sexual education curriculum, their ideas about jineteras reflect the stereotypical idea of jineterismo as socially immoral, damaging to women, and synonymous with prostitution. Daigle interviews Julia, a CENESEX official, who defines jineteras as women who “aren’t doing productive work, work that’s good for society or even for themselves” (154). Comparably, Yuris, a high-level official with the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas (FMR), indicates that jineteras work against the progress earned during the Cuban Revolution: “[…] Cuban women are better developed, educated, with opportunities. They don’t need to do what they do” (167). Both organizations take a firm stand against prostitution—and, by their organizational ideologies, jineterismo—as part of setting the parameters for a female Cuban identity.

Daigle uses theoretical frames of agency and resistance in Chapter 5 to demonstrate how Cubans coexist with and reframe the terms of the jineterismo narrative. By serving as a counterpoint to the biopolitics that shape Cuban life and state-sanctioned role, jineterismo carries a radical subversive potential. It is an embodied way to exist “outside of the formal economy and make a life that does not depend on state care” (196). Even with the knowledge that jineterismo can lead to increased surveillance, carceral punishment, and violence—and the state-perpetuated narrative that the Cuban Revolution has no need for this kind of informal economy—Cuban men and women engage in this intimate practice, making jineterismo a national open secret.

The absence of LGBTQ Cuban perspectives is noticeable across Daigle’s research, though she notes this is not for a lack of LGBTQ Cubans in relationships with foreigners. Rather, the limited stereotypical identities that fit within the narrative of jinterismo erases the potential for queer Cubans to be legible within this framework. As Daigle explains, “there are only four permissible roles within this system: the black/animalistic man, the white/masculine man, the white/virtuous woman, and the black/sensualized woman” (15). Since jineterismo assumes heterosexuality as the default, any Cubans operating outside of male-female pairings are not read as participating in this system, even if their behaviors reflect other aspects, such as the commercial exchange of money or goods for sex or companionship or the desire to use such a relationship to leave Cuba. Though Cuba initially appears to be more welcoming of non-normative sexualities, its efforts to combat jineterismo runs counter to this ideology of acceptance and non-discrimination. Jineteras and jineteros are performing a queer sexuality that runs counter to Cuba’s ideologies of heteronormative, monogamous—and productive—sexuality, an ideology that is also imposed onto LGBTQ Cubans, limiting the space for gender non-conforming or non-monogamous identities to exist without surveillance or punishment.

Throughout the text, Daigle pays close attention to the ethical implications of her work, how the disclosures of her participants could place them at risk of increased police surveillance or even incarceration. She is transparent about her own social location as a white, Canadian woman, a privileged position within Cuba that allows her to evade the scrutiny of police and reframe her relationship with her interview participants. For example, at the end of Daigle’s interview with Ricky, a self-described former jinetero now married to an English woman, the two are stopped by a police officer as they leave a café. As Ricky shows the officer his identity card and marriage certificate, Daigle is misread as Ricky’s girlfriend. He is a young, attractive black Cuban man and she is a young, white Canadian tourist—thus, by the police officer’s logic, he is a jinetero. The two evade the officer’s scrutiny, as he leaves them with a rueful comment: “What’s your secret, man?” Daigle writes, “The officer clearly assumed (without evidence) that there must have been a sexual relationship between Ricky and me—why else would a woman (especially a white foreign one) walk out of a café with a man (especially a black Cuban man)?” (93).

This example contrasts with Daigle’s interview with Evan, a white, Canadian man. Evan spent time in Cuba as a student, witnessing firsthand the power of police intervention with suspected jineteras. While walking on a public street with his then-girlfriend Teresa, the two were intercepted by police officers who attempted to detain Teresa in a prostitution sting. Even though both were students—and their relationship did not fit the jineterismo narrative—their visible identities as a foreign man and a Cuban woman marked them as subject to surveillance and punishment. Since this experience, Evan has taken precautions with his new girlfriend, Karla. She carries a copy of his passport and a letter detailing their relationship like “a sort of talisman to keep her safe when she is questioned by the police” (118). Karla’s encounters with the police are inevitable because of her identity and the connotations of her relationship with Evan; she must qualify and validate their relationship in a different way because of the power of the jineterismo narrative. Since the privilege of evading police scrutiny is not extended to Karla and many of the other Cubans she interviewed, especially black Cuban women, Daigle is careful to maintain her subjects’ anonymity without sacrificing the integrity of their narratives.

Daigle writes, “This project is meant to trouble disciplinary norms” (23). She has succeeded — crafting an engrossing, complex text that will be useful for scholars across a wide range of disciplines: women and gender studies, sociology, political science, criminology, law and society, and international studies. Additionally, her strong methodological focus is a useful guide for students beginning fieldwork with hidden populations or engaging controversial topics. Though Daigle focuses on the creation of identity within Cuban politics, her rich findings call for comparisons across global boundaries.

Corinne Schwarz is a PhD candidate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and a Graduate Research Assistant with the Anti-Slavery and Human Trafficking Initiative (ASHTI) at the University of Kansas.

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