April 27, 2007 / 6:08 PM / 10 years ago

WITNESS: Dollars can still buy love in Cuba

<p>People enjoy a day on the beach in Havana, August 12, 2006. Foreigners have come to Cuba for years seeking escorts for nights out and sex in exchange for gifts or cash to help the family. Cubans dub them "yumas", a term adopted for Americans after a 1957 western set in the town of Yuma on the U.S. border with Mexico.Claudia Daut</p>

Catherine Bremer is a Reuters correspondent based in Mexico City since 2004 with occasional reporting trips elsewhere in Latin America, covering everything from elections to mudslides. She previously worked for Reuters in Paris, Brussels and London.

By Catherine Bremer

ISLE OF YOUTH, Cuba (Reuters) - Grease dribbling through his fingers, the Italian gobbles up two fried lobsters while the girl, young enough to be his granddaughter, picks at some rice and waits.

Facing them, I picture his chubby hands on this pretty 20-year-old mulatta and think about the thin wall between their bedroom and the one I've just rented in this Cuban family home.

I know this goes on everywhere from Brazil to Thailand, but I still feel like telling this leathery old man, with his big gold chain, vest and shorts, that he's a creep, and finding a hotel.

I bite my tongue though, and while the girl watches a Brazilian soap opera, I pour some rum. On the terrace, the man tells me he's a retired Sicilian executive who spends half the year here enjoying the young women.

"Is that so?" I say, trying to look as if I find this an admirable way to spend one's golden years. "That must be quite a few girls."

"Eighty," he smirks. "Well. At least 40 or 50.

"Cuban girls are different from you Europeans. They aren't prudish. In bed, they do everything. If she's not interested, I kick her out and get another one."

When I remark on his age, somewhere over 60, he springs to his feet, beats his chest and flexes his arms.

"I'm a lion! I have the body of a 40-year-old. In bed, I'm 25," he cries. "I don't even need Viagra."

Foreigners have come to Cuba for years seeking escorts for nights out and sex in exchange for gifts or cash to help the family. Cubans dub them "yumas", a term adopted for Americans after a 1957 western set in the town of Yuma on the U.S. border with Mexico.

Traveling here a decade ago, when Cubans were going hungry from the loss of Soviet aid, I saw countless beer-bellied foreign men smooching young women, and mid-forties women with hot young Cuban guys.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro hates sex tourism. After the 1959 revolution, he razed the brothels that had flourished under strongman Fulgencio Batista and he outlawed underage sex and pornography.

The government has also cracked down on hustlers, known here as "jineteros", in recent years, and the trade is now less visible.

But tourists are still like walking bank vaults in the two-tiered economy of Cuban and convertible pesos. The dollars I brought for a three-week stay equate to eight years' of state peso wages -- hence the torrent of romantic propositions.

MINI ECONOMY

On the sleepy Isle of Youth off Cuba's south coast, the Italian calls his girlfriend. She flounces out, a cinnamon-hued goddess in a tight "Italia" T-shirt and tiny pink shorts, and flashes me a smile.

Draped in gold jewelry, she is halfway through a law degree, but her yuma has brought her family more wealth in a few visits than several years on a Cuban lawyer's wage would.

"In my country you'd have a boyfriend like Brad Pitt," I joke. She giggles. The Italian slaps her thigh.

"She does not have the head of a European," he says. "She has the T-shirt of Italy but in the head she is Cuban. Right, sweetie?"

With everything from clothes to CD players out of reach of most Cubans, a wealthy tourist is still a tempting prospect for many.

Our hostess appears and fawns over the Italian. "He is one of the family," she coos. "The whole neighborhood loves him."

Rent-paying foreigners have made a palace of her house, with a paved garden, garish china ornaments and a stereo player.

Neighbors share the leftovers from our dinner. One asks the Italian for some coins. Like a Godfather, he's driving a mini-economy and loving it.

While the lovebirds head for bed my hostess shows me photographs of her daughter's "quinceanera", or 15th birthday, which marks a coming of age for girls in many Spanish-speaking countries.

"She's pretty," I say, admiring the showy ball gowns and skimpy outfits in the photos. "Will she get a yuma one day?"

"A yuma?" the mother snaps. "I would kill her."

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