It may surprise you to hear this, but Fidel Castro is not the most popular person in Cuba. Nor is Raul Castro, for that matter, or Hugo Chávez. And nor are any of the members of the Cuban baseball team, even though they recently humbled their US rivals at the Beijing Olympics 10-2.
It’s actually me. They love me there. I can’t explain it, but on a recent visit to Cuba I was the centre of attention. The guys all wanted to take me out drinking. The girls all wanted to dance with me. I only had to walk down the street and people would shout at me from every corner offering premium cigars. I know that this was a country that Hemingway called home, but I had no idea that all writers were treated like royalty.
That’s how it starts. That’s how it always starts when you’re a visitor to a country where tourists are relentlessly pestered: there’s those few days where you don’t mind the attention, the feeling a bit like a celebrity, the belief that you can handle it if it gets a bit too much. Then, before long, you find yourself swearing at perfect strangers and cursing the under-classes for having the gall to be so poor.
In Cuba it’s a serious business. I’ve been hustled in over 31 countries on four continents and can safely say that if hustling were an Olympic sport — and, if synchronised swimming gets a look-in, one might wonder why it isn’t — Cuba would dominate the dais. It’s such a way of life in Cuba that it’s got a special name: jineterismo.
For the blessedly uninitiated, jineteros and jineteras are hustlers who make a living out of attaching themselves to tourists and extracting money, meals or a good time. Travel guides on Cuba are filled with cautionary advice on how jineteros will approach you on the street apparently to simply be helpful and tell you about "a great restaurant nearby". The price of your meal will subsequently be jacked up to include the commission demanded by the jinetero.
However, as I and my travel companion, Doug, would soon discover, jineterismo is far more than just fodder for the Fodors. Rather, it’s indicative of a wider sense of desperation that seems to pervade a country which is ever falling further behind in a globalising world.
Jineteros, it should be pointed out, are not beggars. A true jinetero would never resort to anything so crass as begging; they would far prefer to charm the charity out of you. The traditional technique is to approach with an innocuous conversation-starter. They will get you talking about where you’re from or what you plan to see in the city, before moving onto business by saying something like "oh, you don’t want to go there, it’s far too touristy, I’ll show you a place that’s authentically Cuban".
Simply being a gringo and walking through a crowded area is enough to set off any lurking jineteros. Those that aren’t interested in steering you towards a tourist trap are usually selling black market cigars — invariably the cigars which companies like Real Partagás palm off on their employees after they fail to meet the company’s stringent quality standards for sale to wealthy foreigners. Those with limited English will simply shout at you as you walk by, "Cigar, my friend? Cohiba, Montecristo?" These people are infinitely preferable to those who masquerade as merely curious Cubans, asking you about your trip and how long you plan to stay in Cuba, before segueing into "I have a sister who works at the cigar factory…"
Eventually I grew so weary of the bogus amity from this variety of jinetero that my responses to the classic openers (usually "what are you looking for, my friend?" or the ubiquitous "hey, where you from?") grew progressively less civil (respectively, a terse "nada" and "Australia. F*ck off.").
Some jineteros on occasion become angry themselves. One man who sat himself at our table in a 24-hour cafeteria one night became so chagrined at our refusal to change a clearly fake Australian $10 note into Cuban pesos he declared "You don’t have a heart. Fuck you". (He didn’t, however, leave the table, leading Doug and I to conclude that this was some wildly unconventional negotiating tactic). Another exchange, where a Santa Clara man repeatedly offered me five cigars for the shorts I was wearing — what did he expect me to wear home? — ended in a similar fashion.
Even sadder than the jineteros, however, are their female counterparts: the jineteras. In these instances, the line between jineterismo and prostitution is not so much blurred as non-existent.
While the sexual liberation of the average Hispanic woman seems to dwarf that of their antipodean counterparts — or maybe that haircut I got in Peru was just really working for me — I found the aggression on show from the jineteras enough to make the gender role reversal nothing less than disturbing.
Making what was our first (and what would prove to be our last) visit to a nightclub in Habana, Doug and I were immediately set upon by a group of girls (not women, girls) who dispensed with the formalities of conversation and immediately commenced groping us below the waist. Another girl began shouting at us "I suck your dick, I suck your dick", emphasising the point by sticking her thumb in her mouth. Feeling a bit like we were at the Cuban equivalent of a NRL team’s Mad Monday, we retreated to an empty corner for some respite, before giving up and leaving.
Another hot night, we attempted to spend the evening in a Vedado beer garden, but were repeatedly interrupted by a group of girls who would try to get my attention by rubbing my neck. Eventually, we gave up and hailed a cab to head back to our casa. Halfway there, our driver gestured to the stunning young woman in the front passenger seat and asked if either of us were interested in taking her home with us.
These weren’t isolated incidents. Night after night, the streets were festooned with girls who would hiss at us and make offers that nice young boys from the Shire don’t accept. Or not without first being romanced with some beer.
Jineteras aren’t prostitutes per se: money doesn’t tend to change hands and the game is mainly based on opportunism. It’s likely that most of the girls who so aggressively propositioned us in that nightclub had never encountered a gringo in one of their locals and simply sensed an opportunity to score themselves a taste of Western largesse by spending the night in a nice hotel. Sadly, they weren’t to know that Doug and I were tightarse backpackers who would never be seen in anything which cost more than $15 a night.
One of the obvious flow ons of jineterismo, of course, is that genuinely interested and friendly locals get treated with suspicion or contempt. One such man who approached us in Habana and chatted amiably for 10 minutes simply wanted to practice his English as it transpired but I spent the duration of the conversation with my arms folded and eyeing him critically, thinking "What’s it going to be this time? Cigars, taxi tour, an hour with his sister?"
I’m the first to admit that I’m a card-carrying snob when it comes to travel and pride myself on trying to infiltrate the local culture when I’m abroad. When anyone who attempts to do so is preyed upon and constantly treated as a "mark", it’s not hard to see why most visitors to Cuba opt to isolate themselves in the Caribbean splendour of resort towns like Varadero or Cayo Coco.
The real tragedy of jineterismo is not that it can ruin your holiday but how it represents a country which prides itself on being the last vestige of socialism in the modern world.
One can’t help wonder just how free Cuba is when many of its citizens will so readily prostitute themselves for the foreign dollar.
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