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1950s Havana: Imperialist sexploitation

Lavender & red, part 89

Published Feb 11, 2007 7:34 PM

For 400 years of Cuba’s history, the social organization and state regulation of the sexes, gender expression and sexualities was—as among all occupied and colonized peoples—in thrall to the brutal systems of exploitation by semi-feudal landlords, capitalist bosses and imperialist finance capitalists.

By the mid-20th century, the impoverishment sweeping the island was the outgrowth of imperialism’s conversion of the economy into sugar and citrus plantations and nickel mines that shackled the rural laboring population to the soil and the earth below it.

Havana exerted a gravitational pull on those who cut cane from sunup to sundown. By the 1950s, the promise of jobs attracted hundreds of thousands of impoverished peasants of all sexualities, genders and sexes to the urban capital, the largest city on the island.

Many tens of thousands whose sexuality or gender expression had made them publicly vulnerable and without privacy in rural towns and villages found employment in Havana. Capitalist organized crime bosses ran an interlocking directorate of large-scale prostitution, tourism, gambling and drug distribution in the capital city.

In the 1950s, McCarthyite repression in the U.S.—including the Puritanical purges and state repression carried out under the banner of fighting a “Lavender Menace”— spurred the expansion of this lucrative offshore capitalist sex-drugs-gambling industry in Havana for the rich and powerful to escape the Cold War climate.

“Not surprisingly, then,” researchers Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich stressed, “Cuban homosexuals had preferential hiring treatment in the Havana tourist sector in order to meet the demands” of U.S. businessmen and brass.

Arguelles and Rich published their extensively researched report, entitled “Homosexuality, Homophobia, and Revolution: Notes Toward an Understanding of the Cuban Lesbian and Gay Male Experience,” in the summer of 1984.

The two researchers added that the illegal prostitution industry was also created for the patriarchs and scions of the Cuban elite, who sought feminine male-bodied youth and adults.

In the towns and villages, sexuality, gender and the organization of the sexes were in the servitude of patriarchal feudal social relations. In the urban capital, sex was reduced to the nexus of patriarchal capitalist relations.

Arguelles and Rich explained: “Even in the Havana of the 1950s, everyday life was not easy for the working-class or petty-bourgeois homosexual. Unemployment was high and had been steadily increasing throughout the decade. The scarcity of productive occupations demanded a strictly closeted occupational life. For all women, and especially for lesbians, employment almost invariably entailed continual sexual harassment.”

Men who had sex with men and women who had sex with women were caught up in the dragnet of the illegal economy.

Arguelles and Rich noted: “Apart from employment realities, social pressures made thousands of pre-revolutionary homosexuals part of this underworld. Even homosexuals such as students (who were differently placed) were integrated into this subculture through the bars that they frequented: the St. Michel, the Dirty Dick, El Gato Tuerto.” Most of these bars were owned by crime bosses.

The researchers emphasized, “The commodification of homosexual desire in the Havana underworld and in the bourgeois homosexual underground during the pre-revolutionary era, however, did not produce a significant toleration of homosexual life-styles in the larger social arena.

Homosexual and gender/sex variant Cubans met with violence and harassment in the above-ground industries and within the patriarchal family structure. “If legal sanctions and official harassment were rare,” Arguelles and Rich explained, “this tolerance was due less to social acceptance than to overriding considerations of profit and the economic interests of the underworld that dominated the Cuban political apparatus.”

“The consumer structure of the Havana underworld never spawned a ‘gay culture’ or ‘gay sensibility’ even in strictly commercial terms, due to its isolation from the mainstream of social life and the degree of guilt and self-hatred afflicting its members.”

Arguelles and Rich concluded that Santería—African-Cuban religious beliefs and practices that challenge the colonialist and imperialist sex/gender and sexuality systems—has been a “favored form of gender transcendence for many Cuban homosexual men and lesbians.”

Next: Cuban Revolution defeats imperialist mega-giant.

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