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Latin America
Women & Children at Risk
 
Concerned about prostitution, Mr. President?  Try Reno
Bush, Electoral Politics and Cuba's "Illicit Sex Trade"
 
Author: Nelson P. Valdes
Publisher: Counter Punch
Publish Date: 2003-10-18/19
 

"Fraud and falsehood only dread examination."
- Thomas Cooper

On October 10, 2003 President George Bush spoke to about 100 rightwing Cuban exiles at the Rose Garden. There he stated his commitment to bringing about "regime change" in Cuba. At one point during his brief speech he stated that, "A rapidly growing part of Cuba's tourism industry is the illicit sex trade, a modern form of slavery which is encouraged by the Cuban government. This cruel exploitation of innocent women and children must be exposed and must be ended. " He used the accusation as the reason to make travel to the island as difficult as possible.

This article will examine the charge and respond to it by noting that although Cuba is not a serious case of prostitution or illicit trafficking of women and children, the United States is.

First, however, we should be conscious of the lack of clarity in the presidential declaration. The statement conflated prostitution and the trafficking of women and children for sexual purposes, as if they were one and the same thing. The disingenuous phrase "illicit sex trade" suggests that sexual prostitution and the "sex trade" are the same thing, which they are not. Prostitution (or sex work) could be consensual. The world wide trafficking in women and children, using force and coercion, is a profoundly different phenomena.

Moreover, the statement accuses the Cuban government of "encouraging" both. But where is the evidence of government "encouragement"? None was presented by the White House, which apparently wants us to assume that the mere existence of prostitution implies "encouragement." If that is the case, then we would have to say that the US government, and all state and city governments in the United States, encourage prostitution -- and that's not even counting Nevada, where the "oldest trade" is legal!

It should be noted that in Cuba prostitutes are not considered criminals, but those who foster, benefit or help prostitutes are considered participants in a criminal activity. In August 1997, for example, the Cuban government adopted legislation to confiscate the property of pimps, madams, and others who rent space out for prostitution activities - hence targeting the commercial interest involved. Procurers and drivers were also targeted. ("Cuba to crack down on abettors of prostitution," Reuters, 20 July 1997). Prostitutes themselves are not charged with criminal activity. Cuba's policy was in line with the 1949 the United Nations which proposed the decriminalization of the activities of prostitutes. In other words, the United Nations position was not to target the victims - the prostitutes themselves. From 1959 to 1961, the Cuban revolutionary government carried on a concerted and systematic effort to do away with the institutions involved in prostitution while removing its social causes as well. After that, prostitution -- which was a primary source of income for unmarried women prior to 1959 --largely disappeared, and was not a significant or growing phenomena in Cuba again until 1991. After the disappearance of the Soviet bloc, prostitution became a survival strategy for a small segment of the Cuban population, particularly in some urban areas.

However, the trafficking of women and children for sexual purposes did not re-emerge as a social problem in the island. Moreover, at no time did the Cuban government promote or recognize the development of institutions that would be involved in prostitution. The fact that government did not criminalize the behavior of the prostitutes themselves did not mean that it approves of prostitution, much less encourages it. Many governmental, women's and grass-roots institutions seek to combat and eliminate this phenomenon, but through education and consciousness-raising, not repressive measures.

It is true that some women (and some men) opted for a prostitution strategy to earn income at a time of economic crisis. However, Cuban prostitution is certainly minor in comparison with the other islands in the Caribbean, not to mention the rest of Latin America, or even some cities like New York . In his speech on October 10th George Bush II spoke as if the United States did not have the social problem of prostitution or as if the US government did not promote it. However, if the existence of prostitutes is evidence of government consent, as he seems to be charging in the case of Cuba, then let us look at the evidence here in the United States.

The U.S. National Task Force on Prostitution (an organization representing prostitutes) has reported that more than one million U.S. citizens have been prostitutes. [The report did not estimate what the number was for non-citizens. The sexual abuse of young women brought into the US to serve as maids, nannies and sweatshop workers seldom comes to light because the exploited women are afraid to protest. See today's San Jose Mercury News for a prime example: a young Guatemalan woman working as a maid in a California family's home was regularly "permitted" -- one might assume, forced -- to have sex with the family's teenage son, who got her pregnant and then beat her badly. The 26 year old woman has been charged with unlawful sexual contact with a minor!]

Just in the state of Nevada alone, the Nevada Brothel Association has disclosed that two years ago there were 365,000 "legal paid sex acts". The gross income generated by brothels, which paid taxes, was $50 million dollars annually in the 1990s. Yet, the United States president has not addressed this matter, despite the fact that the present governor of the state of Nevada is Kenny Guinn, a Republican. The state of Nevada has decriminalized as well as legalized the institutional business of prostitution. In the 2000 Presidential elections George Bush campaigned in that state and not once mentioned his opposition to the business of prostitution. Needless to say, he carried the state. Of the 17 counties in Nevada he carried 16. Mr. Bush and his "family values" supporters did not discuss how many of those counties had brothels connected to tourism and "the pleasure" industry.

Interestingly enough, prostitution seems to be an unusual concern of the current State Department. The conservative publication National Review on May 21, 2003 had an article written by Prof. Donna M. Hughes ("Cat Calls: U.S. State Department showcases legal prostitution for international visitors"). The article disclosed that, "Last week, the State Department took a Southeast Asian delegation for a tour of a brothel in Nevada. As a part of the International Visitor's Program, nine people from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia visited the Moonlite Bunny Ranch and heard lectures on legal prostitution. In case there is any doubt what "services" the Moonlite Bunny Ranch provides, pornographic photos of the women available for prostitution can be viewed on the website of the Nevada Brothels Network." This, apparently, is a bipartisan practice among different administrations. Prof. Hughes writes that, "In August 1999, I gave a presentation on trafficking of women and children for prostitution to a group of U.S. Information Agency visitors from East Asia. They told me they too had visited a brothel in Nevada as part of their tour. " Although the U.S. government claims that the "show and tell" tours have the intent of combating the trafficking of women and children who then end in brothels, Prof. Hughes has written that, "One might conclude from the program of a visiting brothel and a pro-prostitution organization that the State Department is telling international visitors that legalization of prostitution is a solution to trafficking."

The trafficking of women and children with the intent of placing them within prostitution networks is a widespread global phenomena. But the "supply side" aspect, which the present Republican administration is targeting, forgets a significant component: the recipient countries (i.e. the "demand" side).

The main recipient of such illegal trafficking happens to be the United States. It has been estimated by the United Nations that somewhere between 45,000 to 50,000 women and children are trafficked yearly to the United States alone, to work in sweatshops or in brothels. In Miami, in just one month, in 1997, 15 Chinese children were smuggled to be sold to a pedophilia ring. (Brad Knickerbocker, "Prostitution's Pernicious Reach Grows in the US" Christian Science Monitor, 23 October 1996; "Chinese women 'forced into prostitution' in US," BBC, 3 March 1998)

Last year the US Department of Justice revealed that, "Inside the United States, children are moved from state to state or city to city for sexual exploitation, the making of pornography, and prostitution. U.S. pimps use the same manipulative and coercive techniques to recruit and control children as they do in transnational trafficking." [See: Protecting Our Children: Working Together To End Child Prostitution, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 13-14 December 2002, Washington, D.C.] Rather that continue to accuse the Cuban government of allegedly promoting, encouraging or benefitting from prostitution or the trafficking of women and children, the <U.S.president> should take a closer look at his own backyard. He might find that within the State Department, in Republican controlled states, in the cities were he enjoys the support of rightwing Cuban exiles (such as Miami and Union City), there is prostitution. In cities all across the United States prostitution has been institutionalized, sometimes it is called "tanning spas" or "massage parlors".

The Mayor of Washington, DC., Anthony A. Williams, just last July declared, ""Yes, there is a prostitution problem in this city." To this should be added the underground sweatshops, the illegal commerce and sexual exploitation of foreign women and children. Perhaps we ought to be addressing our own problems before we go about accusing others, inventing or exaggerating problems where there might be none that equal the magnitude of our own.

Nelson Valdes is a professor of sociology specializing in Latin America at the University of New Mexico. He can be reached at: nvaldes@unm.edu