Day One: Cuba Teaches Us Lesson Number One

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HAVANA -- It was just after midnight and although the last of the parade’s floats for Carnaval had already finished the route, the party was still popping with people dancing and drinking in the streets, all along the famous Malecon street, where all jiniteros’ eyes were on us.

Jiniteros probably best translates as hustlers, although even the most rookie hustlers on Havana’s streets make our hustlers look like Mickey Mouse, our streets like Disneyland. They’re non-violent; hustling foreigners and pimping is what they do best, and their hoes, or jiniteras often double as their girlfriends. Depending on each jinitero’s level of success, they’re usually dressed fresh-to-death with stylish sunglasses, ironed pants, silk shirts, shiny shoes and clean-cut fades. Some sport gold chains, a few have diamonds in their ears.

My traveling mate Marcos and I had our feet on the Communist island for about an hour before we met our first jinitero, Enrique, in the street. We already knew that the jiniteros could serve many purposes, but we wanted one to show us around, take us to the hot spots, for a fee of course, which we were willing to pay. Enrique fit the jinitero bill from his kicks to his hair. We figured that in exchange for his knowledge, he’d want some drinks or cigarettes from of us, and probably make a little dough on the side. But you can’t hustle a hustler, Marcos and I thought. We both speak Spanish, we’re both well traveled (he guides tours in Latin America for a living) and we both always consider ourselves confident on the streets of the countries we’ve known.

But neither of us had been to Havana, where the jinitero is lecion numero uno.

Enrique took us to a bar he thought we’d like. Before we knew it, we were at the table with mojitos in our hands and Cubanitas in our laps. Although the Cuban government strongly denies prostitution even exists on the island, everyone knows that there’s a thin line between whores and amor in the world of communism, if ever there’s a line at all. The beautiful woman in my lap, however, was obviously more after my wallet than she was my heart, as became not-so-painfully obvious when she got up to leave with her jinitero boyfriend, a competitor of Enrique’s.

It was time to make things clear for our jinitero. Although we weren’t passing judgment on the world’s oldest profession, we weren’t in Cuba to support it, either. Couldn’t we just go somewhere and meet some women who don’t sell their bodies?

“Of course,” Enrique told us. “Just let me go pay the bill.”

It wasn’t until after we left the first bar that we realized that although $2.50 seemed like a good deal for mojitos and $2 a bargain for a pack of smokes to a couple of buzzed Yankees who’d just gotten off the plane with $1,200 worth of Euros (which are taxed much less than the dollar in Cuba) in their pockets, more of that money went to Enrique than it did to the establishment that provided our drinks.

Our guide took us to another bar, where we had some more drinks and met some more people, including a couple lovely ladies, “friends” of Enrique’s. Next it was time to buy a bottle of rum and bring some of our new friends to an after party, Enrique suggested, but in Cuba’s casas particulares (bed and breakfasts) it’s strictly forbidden by the government for tourists to bring Cuban nationals back home, Enrique explained, the women weren’t jiniteras, he told us, but if we wanted to keep partying together, we’d have to go to his uncle’s house, and if we did so, we’d have to give his “uncle” about $40 for the inconvenience. We’re weren’t paying for the women, Enrique assured us, just for the room in which we want to spend time with them.

Gracias, but no gracias. Enrique already had cost us $30 more than the drinks and smokes that we bought should’ve cost. But it was a cheap price for lecion numero uno: Don’t trust the jiniteros.
-- Luke Turf

Westword staff writer Luke Turf traveled to Cuba for a week and encountered pimps, prostitutes and an irate mute with a nasty uppercut, to name a few. This is his tale.

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