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Andrew Brett

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Andrew Brett is a queer activist in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewbrett

Toronto Star makes up facts in exposé of sex tourism in Cuba

| March 17, 2013

"There is truly no prostitution healthier than Cuba's," said Fidel Castro in 1992. Or so claims the Toronto Star. But did he really?

Not at all. Castro actually said, "There is truly no tourism healthier than Cuba's."

This just scratches the surface of the fact-free reporting of the Star in its new series The Ugly Canadians, an exposé of a supposed epidemic of Canadians travelling to Cuba for child sex tourism.

"Canadians are travelling to Cuba in surprising numbers to sexually exploit young people," the first article in the series says. Just how surprising are these numbers? Well, they can't say. The same article admits that they don't actually know, because the Canadian government doesn't reveal the number of Canadians prosecuted in Cuba for sex crimes.

The only facts they can point to are in a 2011 RCMP report that lists Cuba as "a top destination in the Americas" for sex tourism. No, not the top. One of them. In the Americas. And where does Cuba rank in this list? The article doesn't say.

So why have they decided to highlight sex tourism to Cuba instead of, say, the actual top destination?

Why do the Cubans quoted happen to be a "dissident lawyer" and a "dissident blogger"?

Why did the article print a fabricated pro-prostitution quote attributed to Castro?

The series on Cuban sex tourism is not being published by the Star alone. Its partner in the series, El Nuevo Herald, is the Spanish-language sister publication of the Miami Herald, known for editorializing against the Cuban government and for employing journalists paid by the U.S. government to disseminate anti-Cuban propaganda.

Could this joint series actually be a deliberate attempt to stigmatize the Cuban tourism industry, a backbone of the Cuban economy? A modern-day, liberal version of the "red scare"? In 2004, President Bush similarly warned about child sex tourism to justify his government's travel restrictions on Cuba, without any evidence to suggest the problem is more prevalent on the island.

With close to one million visitors a year, Canadians are the primary market for the Cuban tourism industry, a major source of funding for the Cuban economy. If anyone wanted to target Cuban tourism, the Canadian market would be the place to start.

Whatever the intention of playing fast and loose with the facts, it raises questions about the editorial influence of the Herald on this series, and whether the remaining articles will be based on evidence or just conjecture of opponents of the Cuban government.



Thanks for your article, Andrew.  I completely understand your point and agree with it, that this article appears to have a hidden agenda beyond simply exposing sex tourism.

As a woman and feminist, I'm happy to "make alliances" with pro-feminist allies like Andrew, because I don't like it when feminism is co-opted by hidden right-wing agendas.

In Cuba, jineterismo is a category of illegal or semi-legal economic activities related to tourism in Cuba. These activities include prostitution and pimping, as well as other forms of hustling, such as selling black-market and counterfeit goods. The term derives from theSpanish jinete ("horserider").[1] A jinetera is Cuban slang for a female sex-worker. —Cynthia Pope, "The Political Economy of Desire: Geographies of Female Sex Work in Havana, Cuba," Journal of International Women's Studies 6, no. 2 (June 2005): pp.101

"Female sex work has increased despite the government’s enactment of gender equity laws and re-training of sex workers in the early years of the Revolution (Strout 7; Smith and Padula 168). Indeed, to distinguish the current sex workers from the previous generation, Cuban lexicon does not label these girls and women as “prostitutes,” as that connotes victimization and gender subordination. Instead, they are referred to as jineteras, which means “jockey” in Castilian Spanish. This connotes sexual control during intercourse (Paternostro), although this article questions whether being a sex worker is truly empowering. Sex work is one outcome of the Cuban administration’s promotion of the nation’s women as a natural “asset” to attract international tourism, much like the sun, sand, and sea (Schwartz 10). In fact, the Cuban government invited Playboy magazine to photograph a spread in the 1980s, resulting in the worldwide distribution of posters of topless Cuban women on pristine beaches (Cabezas 79). In an (in)famous 1992 speech to the National Assembly, Castro even defended prostitution, “provided it satisfied the needs of tourists” (qtd. in Paternostro). He continued: “We can say that they are highly educated jineteras and quite healthy, because we are in a country with the lowest number of AIDS cases…Therefore there is truly no tourism healthier than Cuba’s” (qtd. in Paternostro). Jineteras may be one of the primary reasons that the number of international tourists to Cuba increased from 300,000 in 1990 to over 1.7 million in 1999 (Aagesen and Paluch 47) and 1.9 million visitors in 2003 (Comellas).6 It is impossible to quantify the number of sex workers in the country as they operate outside the formal, government-regulated economic sphere. Shortly after his 1992 speech, Castro called for the Special Troops to crack down on prostitution, and “rehabilitation” of jineterasfollowed. Jineteras went from officially being the pride of Cuba to unwelcome deviants, albeit naive at heart: “It hurts too much that a country that has done so much to dignify women, that a foreigner can come to trick her, fill her with vices...to corrupt her,” he lamented (qtd. in Paternostro)."

Cabezas, Amalia. “Between Love and Money: Sex, Tourism, and Citizenship in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society29.4 (2004): 987-1015. ---.

“Discourses on Prostitution: The Case of Cuba.” Global Sex Workers: Rights,Resistance, and Redefinition. Ed. Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Doezema. New York and London: Routledge, 1998. 79-86.

Clancy, Michael. “The Globalization of Sex Tourism and Cuba: A Commodity Chains Approach.” Studies in Comparative International Development 36.4 (2002): 63-88. 

Díaz, Elena, Esperanza Fernández, and Tania Caram. “Turismo y prostitución en Cuba.” Paper presented at the 21st annual conference of the Caribbean Studies Association, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Havana: Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, May 1996.

Fernandez, Nadine. “Back to the Future? Women, Race, and Tourism in Cuba.” Kempadoo 81-89.

Sheller, Mimi. Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies. London and NewYork: Routledge, 2003.


Well Andrew, I'd be happy to provide you with some proof. But really, I thought the burden of proof rested with you as the author of the post. I challenged your assumptions and the nature of YOUR proof and I've had no answer at all but dismissal and defensiveness. But I'll get to work on my proof right away. Thanks for the motivation.

Sorry rasmus but Andrew Brett's responses to the concerns raised by hysperia and Sairen have been entirely disingenuous. Their criticisms are entirely reasonable and not a "bald misrepresenation" of the article.  And for all the supposed "myth-busting" Brett's piece was remarkably short on facts.  

Cuba is a leading tourist destination for Canadians and most of the criticism was directed at Canadians not the Cuban government. These concerns can't be dismissed as simply an attack on Cuba.  

LP, that's kind of a pointless comment. The arguments in the piece stand on their merits whether or not the author responds. And the arguments in the comments stand on their merits. And people are entitled to correct bald misrepresentations of what they have said.

I just don't see how it's that hard to see that I'm responding to your post and to your comments Andrew. The fact is, you haven't responded to ME or the the other objector here. I think your post IGNORES the real fact of sex tourism in Cuba, the problems it causes and Canadian responsibility to protect Cuban girls from SEX OFFENDERS. I think your piece focuses on what is, in my opinion, some rather mild offences against the country, at the expence of the issue. You don't provide any data to back up what I perceive as an implication that sex tourism isn't a problem in Cuba - or not one that deserves our attention. My point, and I have made it several times now, is that you defend Cuba at the expense of the safety and security of little girls. There is no pressure exerted on Cuba to resolve any issue here - the pressure is on Canada. Where it should be. I protest any effort to minimise the crimes that Canadian sex offenders commit when they sexually abuse under-age women in any foreign country. And that most definitely includes Cuba. Perhaps one day it will include Venezuela too, much as I admire the late Huge Chavez. If you're going to protest the size of the problem and the numbers offered by The Star et al, please tell me the RIGHT numbers because you really have no grounds to demonstrate that those given are wrong.

I think it's generally better when the writer doesn't feel so defensive about what they've written...either it stands for itself or it doesn't.

I don't know to whom or what you're responding. No one here has said what you are arguing against, and you are ignoring the points that were actually made below.

"Otherwise it's falling into the same trap of "honour killings" and pinkwashing, pretending as if these problems only exist in certain places."

I don't think that's fair comment. While The Star's series focused on Cuba, other sex tourism destinations were mentioned. If it had focused on Thailand would you really have been happier? Is this just about defending Cuba? Anyone who does any work on this issue at all knows that it is the women and children of the global south who are most affected by sex tourism. While Cuba has escaped some of the difficulties of Latin American poverty it certainly hasn't escaped all of them. One of the problems it is most vulnerable to is the exploitation of women and children, especially from tourists - those people it needs so badly to escape the difficulties imposed on its economy as the result of the fall of the Soviet Union and the US blockade and attempts to assassinate or otherwise remove its leaders. The status of women has improved in Cuba and is better than it is in many countries, fair enough. But talk to Cuban women and Cuban feminists and you will hear them voice deep concerns - it's not just The Toronto Star. We cannot say that Cuba has improved the lives of women and children through its stellar education and health care programs so we don't care that it has left them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Surely not? If some people demonize Cuba or are gleeful about these problems because they are counter-revolutionaries, that's easy enough to deal with, without minimising the problem.

Andrew, in my previous comment, I wrote:
"Yes, it is also a big problem in Haiti and other caribbean destinations, but for the past few years the problem has escalated greatly in Cuba."

Yet you responded:
"But if you're going to suggest that it happens disproportionately in one country out of all tourist destinations, it should be supported by facts (and the limited facts provided suggest otherwise). Otherwise it's falling into the same trap of "honour killings" and pinkwashing, pretending as if these problems only exist in certain places."

Comparing this to honour killings or pinkwashing is missing the point. It would be great (in a perfect world) if the media did a giant expose on ALL of the countries where sex tourism crimes are being committed. Right now they are focused on the problem of a LARGE number of these sex tourists who happen to be *Canadian* men (thus this is of interest to Canadians) who are abusing girls/children and women in Cuba, a country where more Canadians holiday than any other tropical destination. Hopefully, this will create some change - it is desperately needed.
And hopefully, this will lead the way in getting more press coverage for sex tourism crimes in Haiti and other places, too. I look at this current bunch of reporting - even if incomplete - as a huge step in the right direction and hope it will start to crack the whole thing open re: sex tourism in all Caribbean countries. But this is what we have right now. I applaud it.

Andrew: It's a real and big problem in Cuba. As in other places. Which were mentioned. It makes total sense to me that the series focused on Cuba. Why not? Because the facts are in error? Specifically, how do you know? What are your figures? I'm just hoping not too many people read this post. Unless you'd care to put the emphasis where it belongs. I think you wrote it in a hurry and didn't consider exactly what you were doing. It's fair enough, indeed, to point out inaccuracies and real or potential biases. It is not fair at all to pretend that sex tourism is not a real and growing problem in Cuba. I love Cuba. But Cuba is not exempt from patriarchy, not in the slightest. At the moment it appears that you are not exempt from it either. If we appear to care more about left-revolutionary politics than we do about the lives of girls and women, I believe we are seriously off course. Are alliances with women and feminists of no value to you?

By all means, raise awareness about child sex tourism. But if you're going to suggest that it happens disproportionately in one country out of all tourist destinations, it should be supported by facts (and the limited facts provided suggest otherwise). Otherwise it's falling into the same trap of "honour killings" and pinkwashing, pretending as if these problems only exist in certain places.

Thank you Hysperia. You wrote: "Now can we actually talk about "sex tourism" and the thousands and thousands of children and women whose lives are damaged by it? Please?"
That IS the issue here - this is NOT about a rightwing conspiracy against Cuba.
The media coverage on the problem with sex tourism with underage prostitutes is long overdue. Yes, it is also a big problem in Haiti and other caribbean destinations, but for the past few years the problem has escalated greatly in Cuba. As someone who has travelled to Cuba numerous times, I could tell you stories that would make your hair curl - well, really - that would make you sick to your stomach. Canadian men - in larger and larger numbers - are choosing Cuba as a sex tourism destination with very young prostitutes because there has been a crackdown in Thailand. When in Cuba these men are blatant about what they are doing. It is obvious to us normal tourists who are just trying to enjoy a quiet holiday. It has reached the point where deals are actually being arranged from the Canadian end (there are people in Montreal who are setting up the liaisons before these reprobates' trips to Cuba). And there are many more deals made with pimps - right on the grounds of the resorts. I have seen far too many men with 12-15 year old girls (children) on their arm. Many of us who travel to Cuba regularly have gotten together to try to organize a way to get the Canadian government to make good on their promises (which look so good in writing) which they made in 1997 to haul these creeps in, charging and imprisoning them once they set foot again on Canadian soil. The current media coverage gives us some much needed traction. So no, I don't give a flying eff about these claims about Cuba being singled out by rightwing media - what IS important is that the Canadian media is finally exposing the dark underbelly of childhood prostitution in Cuba, perpetrated by Canadian men. I encourage the media to report more about this - as it will get the authorities here to look far more closely at the issue and hopefully prosecute a ton more of these awful Canadian men. Also, the press coverage will likely encourage more "regular" tourists to report the sex crimes that we have witnessed on our holidays. It's win: win.

Here boys - no focus on Cuba in this article. Now can we actually talk about "sex tourism" and the thousands and thousands of children and women whose lives are damaged by it? Please? Please just once could this be the topic of conversation? And might it be possible for someone to consider the work of feminists on these gendered forms of exploitation? Or is defending Cuba more important? To be "fair", Andrew's post didn't alert anyone to the real problem. The Star's series does that. 



Well, to be fair, I don't think the blog post is arguing that it's not a problem or that it shouldn't be investigated. It's simply pointing out that the Star/Herald article is based on identifiable errors and an absence of actual facts, and quotes dissidents as its sources. This, combined with the Miami Herald's known bias on Cuba, is enough to raise questions about the intentions of the article and whether it was written in good faith or to serve another agenda (one in which I assume the Toronto Star is only a rube). Especially since we know George W. Bush, among others, has already used sex tourism as an argument for travel restrictions on Cuba, while not arguing for such restrictions on any other country (e.g. Thailand) on similar grounds. In fact, according to Stats Can's 2010 figures, the top three destinations for Canadians in Latin America are Mexico, Cuba, and Dominican, with 1,354,000 visits, 1,010,000 visits, and 753,000 visits respectively. Yet, as the Star concedes, Cuba is not even the top sex tourism destination. In fact, the article gives us no way of knowing whether sex tourism is a bigger problem in Cuba than in Mexico, Dominican, or anywhere else for that matter. The facts or lack of facts in the article are also consistent with Cuba managing the issue better than other countries, given the high volume of tourism. But we have no way of knowing, because there aren't enough facts in the article. That's the problem. It is an article without the facts necessary to make this assessment, yet it creates the impression of the problem in Cuba being worse than elsewhere. Which is why it is necessary to question its purpose. 

Well, I disagree. There is some bias against Cuba in the series and I think it's important to point that out. But I find that your response badly minimises the damage done to young women and girls through the exploitation of prostitution. It makes sense to me that a series such as this would focus on Cuba since so many Canadians tourists visit the island easily - and it's a much cheaper trip than Thailand. I feel that your piece co-opts feminist values in pursuit of a left-wing political agenda. I also have a left-wing agenda but as a feminist, I prefer The Star series to your post - and until those interested in the transformation of capitalist patriarchy figure that out they will too often find women/feminists cannot make alliances with them.

Thanks, hysperia. I agree that we shouldn't overlook any exploitation happening in any country, and I am sure it is happening in Cuba, just as it is happening in all tourist destinations. My concern here is with the series focusing on one country, claiming that child sex tourism is more prevalent there without any evidence to back it up.

It's not only a failure in journalistic standards, but the participation of the Miami Herald reeks of a manipulative campaign that co-opts progressive values in pursuit of a right-wing political objective. Just as I'm wary of right-wingers who claim to support feminist and gay causes only in certain countries, I'm wary of right-wingers choosing to highlight exploitation only when it happens in Cuba.

Let's not throw out the girl babies being prostituted with the revolutionary bath water here. I agree that the Miami newspaper The Star partnered with in this investigation is right wing and not to be trusted with respect to its Cuba bias. The numbers might be off with respect to the problem of sex tourism. But I have no doubt that the prostitution of under-age girls and of women who have reached the age of majority is a problem that isn't being dealt with. By the CANADIAN government. The Cuban Revolution was not a feminist revolution. Women in Cuba have oppportunities that they did not have before the revolution and the status of women in Cuba puts Canada to shame in many ways. But it is still a patriarchal system and women are still vulnerable in Cuba to the oppressions of patriarchy and to exploitation. Everyone I know who has been to Cuba in the past several years has commented on the growing numbers of very young women accompanying old white guys in resorts and hotels. Granted, that is not a scientific study. But it would actually be odd if increasing tourism in Cuba didn't result in the sex tourism common in other countries. While I agree that it is suspect and unnecessary to single out Cuba and to write a series that more than once suggests that the problem is revolutionary socialsim, it is important to note the ways in which the revolution is incomplete and liable to allow the exploitation of women by tourists from countries that have even less interest in the liberation of women.

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