Sleeping With the Enemy?
Tourism and Gay Cuba’s Changing Face
Gay City News,
February 14, 2003
487 Greenwich St., Suite 6A, New York, NY 10013
By Michael Luongo
It was the giant red star that so intrigued me, a remnant of Cuba’s ties
to the Soviet Union. Forty long years ago, that connection nearly brought the
world to nuclear war, but now the star is faded and chipped, barely hanging
onto this government building.
I was only a block or two from Coppelia, the ice-cream palace made famous
by the 1994 gay Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate. It was Coppelia that
grabbed the attention of most of the tourists on La Rampa, as a sign of what
Cuba is becoming. Its reputation as a local gay hangout draws tourists here
looking for more to lick than an ice-cream cone.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw several jineteros and pingueros, the men
who offer services to tourists, leaning up against the fence surrounding
Coppelia. Some tried to catch my attention, but on my first day in Havana, I
preferred to walk around the city. This was supposed to be an architecture
But then a young man stepped behind me and said, “This is the government
information office, but it’s closed now.”
Of course I knew what it was—I could read the sign—but also realized it
was probably the easiest thing he could say to start a conversation.
I hadn’t intended on hooking up with anyone that night, but I figured why
not let him keep talking so I could see what the city was about. His name was
Angel––which made me laugh a little––and he claimed to be a student at
the University of Havana in the same department as my hostess, Laubel Pimentel,
a professor there, but he had no idea who she was.
In fact, Angel looked more like a tourist himself than a local, light
haired and blue eyed. He wore the granola gear of a Vermont vegetarian, a
burlapy shirt, loose pants, a Guatemala belt, and Birkenstocks. He was hardly
the image I had in mind of a suave Havana lover.
Angel kept trying to hold my hand as we walked along, which worried me, far
away as I was from Chelsea.
“Can you do this?” I kept asking. “We’re in Cuba.”
To which he simply answered, “But this is Havana.”
That made some sense to me, though Reinaldo Arenas’ stories about
official repression nagged at me from the back of my mind.
We arrived at the decrepit house of an old ballet star who rented a room
for people seeking short trysts. His living room was small, dirty, and
cramped, but adorned with photos of his days as a star. He was handsome then,
but it was hard to see the same face in him now, so many decades of life
later. He never told me his name, but Angel said you can look at old pictures
of Havana theaters and there he is on many a marquee.
This was all in the 40s and 50s, the man said.
“Before Castro,” I added, as he nodded, petting a small dog he had
chained to the chair in which he sat.
When we were done with our business in the man’s house, Angel said he was
buying new schoolbooks the next day that were very expensive. Would I be able
to help him out? I also needed, he told me, to leave a little something for
the old man.
I left feeling more than a little dirty, especially when Angel said he
could not be seen exiting the house with a foreigner, that he’d be shaken
down by the police. That certainly wasn’t his fear earlier when we strode
past policemen while holding hands. Angel said he would look for me the next
day at Coppelia. I hoped we wouldn’t see each other again.
Real gay nightlife in the American or European sense doesn’t much exist
in Havana. But if you look, you can find gay parties virtually every night of
the week. The easiest way to do this is to head to the “Corner”
and––no surprise––it’s near Coppelia.
The intersection of La Rampa, or 23rd Street, and L in Vedado is one of
Havana’s busiest hangouts, gay or straight. On one corner is the enormous
Hotel Habana Libre, formerly the Havana Hilton. Having opened just months
before the Revolution, it was one of the first American properties Castro
seized when he came to power. Now the building is full of Spanish and Italian
tourists looking for the decadent lifestyle that made Cuba famous under
Castro’s predecessor, Batista. People drink mojitos in the lobby and shop in
the adjacent mall for hip-hop sneakers and imported perfume while starving
women in ripped clothes beg for milk for their babies outside.
On another corner is the 1950s Yara Cinema, which was playing Minority
Report. Frankly, Tom Cruise was not what I had expected in Havana. In front of
the Yara in the evening, you can almost always find dozens of young gay men
and women chatting, hanging out, and making plans for the long night ahead in
a secret location miles and miles away.
This ain’t your father’s Cold War Cuba, I quickly realized.
One evening I headed to the Corner looking to make some new friends.
Fortunately, I instantly fell in with a trio that included Magdelena, who
defined herself by saying, “I look like a woman but I think like a man.”
She struck me as very daring in her high hair, heels, low halter, and make-up.
The two men with Magdelena were her butch foils––Reinaldo, whose eyes
were constantly scanning each new tourist, and his slightly older and very
handsome uncle, Fernando. They were fascinated by the fact that I was a
journalist writing about gay life, but I wasn’t their first. Only a few
months earlier, a writer from Madrid had spoken with Fernando. Later, Fernando
would proudly show me the Zero magazine article he helped the Spaniard with.
It wasn’t just young gay men and the tourists who loved them on the
Corner though. There were several policemen who played a game, shooing us away
when the crowd became too thick. Sometimes that game results in some of the
locals spending a night in jail.
But Magdelana mostly ignored the police, and held my arm as she introduced
me to other friends. Many were handsome but slightly rough men in their early
20s. A few seemed on the make, eager to meet tourists as I had been told would
be the case. Still, others were just crazy club kids, wearing J-Lo sunglasses
and tight shiny outfits, the same as guys their age at the Roxy back home.
Special taxis lined up around the Corner, and the drivers all knew the
secret location of the evening’s gay parties. Getting into a cab was not a
simple matter though. My new friends spoke with the drivers, but avoided the
glare of the police as they did so, and when it came time to hire a cab, we
made a mad dash away from the police to another street. The police in pursuit
began whistling and waving to stop us from getting in a cab.
“It’s like a joke” explained Magdelana, when I asked her about the
police once we were safely on our way. “At times it’s too much, but I
think, honey, we have the real power.”
But later, stopped at a roadblock in the middle of nowhere, just shy of the
party, the police forced the driver to get out, show his ID, and answer
questions for several minutes. Even as Fernando kept his arm around my
shoulder, making me nervous once again, the police were signaling that they
had the upper hand. They obviously knew where the “secret” party was, and
we were given access at their discretion.
The party was in a courtyard between some small houses, and in time,
hundreds of locals and tourists were dancing to music I could have heard at
home––Whitney and Britney, with some Latina divas thrown into the mix. A
few men wore U.S. flag bandanas on their head, which Fernando said could get
them arrested. I asked Magdelana why people living in the complex didn’t
call the cops.
“If I pay you, you say nothing,” she responded.
My friends tried to introduce me to the man who ran the party, but when
they told him I was a journalist, he refused to talk to me.
We left at 4 a.m., returning to the Corner to hit the bar La Arcada. Though
Fernando said many tourists in Cuba are disappointed when they can’t find
the sorts of gay bars they’re used to at home, this place comes close. The
odd thing is that it’s owned by the government.
Gays used to hit a bar called Fiat on the heavily traveled Malecon nearby,
but its visibility was proof that homosexuality existed in Cuba, so something
had to be done. As long as gays stay inside the cramped, smoke-filled Arcada
on a dark side street, the police are happy. When I asked the waitress about
all the gays in a government-owned bar, she responded, “They come in, they
buy drinks, what’s the problem?”
Each night I returned to the Corner, I would see the same thing. The police
would periodically clear the streets, hauling unfortunate young men away for
the night. Officially, they were never taken away because they were gay, but
rather because they did not have their ID cards with them. Fernando said many
of his friends had spent a night in jail.
But every gay person I met assured me that life improved in Cuba after the
release of Strawberry and Chocolate. I wondered how bad it must have been
before and also how the movie ever got made. Then again, the movie sure serves
as great publicity for Castro in the rest of the world.
Yet, in spite of the terrible harassment I saw, I also encountered other
contradictory signs throughout Cuba. When meeting me, many Cubans in fact
would mention Strawberry and Chocolate, seeming to invite me to come out to
them. For ordinary Cubans, even in some of the smaller towns, it seemed to be
I even found the contradictions at institutions run by the government. The
explicitly homoerotic art in the Fine Arts Museum was unexpected. A drawing by
Luis Peñaluer on the second floor shows two men having sex while a woman
jumps over them. The mood is very Basic Instinct and a knife lies under them.
A painting of a Cuba versus the U.S. boxing match depicts the American down on
the ground, his head just at the crotch of the Cuban, as if performing oral
sex. There’s also a multi-media work by a group of artists called Los
Carpinteros with peek–a–boo openings showing wood carvers casually working
in the nude, their penises just inches from each other’s mouths.
I asked the employees whether there had ever been controversy over such
exhibitions and they said the idea that works of art would be repressed was
unthinkable. Bringing culture to the masses was one of Castro’s premiere
desires, they said, a cornerstone of the Revolution. Indeed, in a temporary
exhibit I saw in Old Havana, one of the largest pieces showed the island of
Cuba with a giant wall around it. In the waters between Cuba and Florida,
there were dozens of people in tubes and rafts avoiding sharks. It was clearly
a stab at Castro, but there it was.
Officially, tourism is used to further the aims of the Revolution, that
nearly crumbled with the collapse of the Soviet Union. My hostess Laubel told
me of the terrible times the country suffered in the early 1990s, which are
well documented in exhibits at the Museum of the Revolution at the former
Presidential Palace. Opening the country to tourism was a way to bring in hard
currency for healthcare initiatives and educational programs, two of
Castro’s bona fide achievements.
To the tourist with an open mind, many examples of the social benefits of
this approach are evident throughout Habana Vieja, the city’s colonial core.
Tourist taxes are used to build low income housing throughout the area, as
well as to provide funding for a maternity clinic. Contrast this with
redevelopment of Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, where revitalization forced out
“[The poor] have the right to live in that part of the city,” according
to Rafael Rojas, director of the Master Plan for Old Havana. “I believe that
the social ideas will remain, to change things for the better.”
Rojas argued that limited capitalism can go hand in hand with socialism,
and discussed the Benetton on San Francisco Plaza as a good use of a
capitalist store to pay for the cost of preserving a building. Someday, he
said, Gaps will be all over former shopping areas like Paseo del Prado,
transforming them into thriving hubs like Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road. But
the poor will remain in the apartments above, their living situations vastly
improved by this influx of money.
Yet tourism has created instability at odds with socialist values. Luis, a
guide for one of my tours, explained that his family had all been doctors. But
now, with prostitutes able to make in ten minutes what it took his father a
month to earn, the profession no longer garners the respect it once did.
Doctors and professors, often with larger than average homes, have opened
up casas particulares, private apartments for tourists. This helps them so
much financially, it’s hard to see them continuing to dedicate time to their
fields. How many students and patients will suffer then, damaging the
Revolution’s two most important achievements?
In some ways, society under tourism is beginning to replicate the problems
of Batista, when foreigners ruled the country. Except, it’s not sugar
that’s for sale anymore, it’s the people themselves. To see examples of
two worlds co-existing, however awkwardly, stand outside of the restaurant El
Conejito in Vedado. This fancy restaurant is across from a row of
half-collapsed slum dwellings. The residents sit on their porches looking
longingly at the rich crowds of tourists waiting to get inside.
Or head to El Floridita in the city center, an expensive restaurant made
popular by the mystique of Hemingway’s time in Cuba. You’ll see several
women with push-up bras and tight skirts pressed against the glass, hoping a
tourist invites them inside.
Many say that coming to Cuba only helps Castro maintain his power, that
touring this country supports totalitarianism. I am not sure that I agree with
that assessment. As American and European music and movies are rapidly
introduced into the country, the locals are being exposed to new ideas. I felt
privileged, as an American journalist allowed to travel to Cuba legally, to
witness the country and speak with its people directly, unfiltered by our
media and the opinions of exiles in Miami.
As a gay man and a writer, I believe that new ideas can change Cuba.
Fernando had never heard of the rainbow as a gay symbol. When I gave him a
rainbow necklace and told him that hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians
take to the streets in New York every June, many wearing things like this, it
was completely unfathomable to him. I also gave him an HX and a Next to take a
look through. He is a 32-year-old man, yet his eyes widened like a child’s
as he looked at the photos inside.
How long can a regime last when the dreams of its people are unleashed this
It was legal for me to visit Cuba as a journalist, but there are other
legal entrees as well. Cuban-Americans may visit family each year, and
doctors, writers, artists, and various other professionals also may obtain
travel licenses under certain circumstances. Visit www.ustreas.gov/
offices/enforcement/ofac/speeches/traveltocuba.html for further details and a
list of authorized travel agents.
It’s also possible to go to Cuba on guided educational programs. The
Center for Cuban Studies arranges trips with various themes throughout the
year can be contacted at 212.242.0559 or www.cubaupdate.org. The Center has a
large research library, so it’s worth a visit before your trip.
For gay specialized educational tours of Cuba, I recommend Coda Tours. They
run several every year, and their itinerary includes Havana and other cities.
Contact them at 212.741.5040 or www.coda-tours.com.
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