It is still not clear what Fidel Castro’s death will mean for Cuba. Already relations with the US are thawing and American tourists have joined the hordes of Canadians and Europeans who visit the island every year.
Tourists are, for the most part, welcomed on the island, for the foreign currency they bring and the window onto a world that has been closed to Cubans for decades. Until recently, there was an effective ban on emigrating. Even without these restrictions, few could afford to leave. In Cuba, as with many of the Caribbean islands, marriage is often the only ticket out.
So Santiago, a 30-year-old drop-out with a winning smile, was intrigued when he bumped into a friend on the arm of a foreign girl. “I asked him how he did it,” he says. “And he told me, it’s easy. You just have to let your hair grow a bit and change the way you dress.”
Sitting in an airy apartment in west Havana, Santiago is wearing a black t-shirt with a logo, ripped and faded jeans and a pair of pale blue converse. “Before I was a rapper, so I was wearing baggy clothes, typical North American style. But girls who come to Cuba aren’t interested in that. They are looking for something simpler, more alternative. So I changed the way I dress.”
The afro was swapped for dreadlocks; the gold and silver chains for beads and leather bracelets. “It was a radical change,” he laughs.
He also learned some English — “that is really important” — and read books to become more cultured. Other jineteros — as they are known in Cuba — explain the importance of knowing about local history and customs, in order to play the well-informed tourist guide. Then it is just a matter of hanging out where the tourists are and asking them to dance.
It is a crowded market. Any female tourist to the island will attest to the number of propositions they get. But Santiago is an attractive guy and never seems lacking in takers. “You show them you’re a good dancer, a good conversationalist; that you’re intelligent, and they can have a good time with you, and a relationship will come out of that,” he says.
He prefers Spanish to English women, who are, apparently, complicated. “I don’t know if it’s the climate, but the higher up you get — it’s the same with the Germans, Eastern Europeans — they are all complicated. I wouldn’t say cold, everyone has their good points, and in bed they’re not at all shy,” he laughs.
Santiago guesses he has slept with 400 women over the past five years, all of them foreign. A few times he has got heart-breakingly close to getting married, but things have fallen through at the last minute. The girl has got cold feet, her parents have stepped in, or more often she has found out about his many other girlfriends.
When we meet, he has a complicated life. “At the moment I have about three girls. In France, Spain, Germany, who visit me, one from the States,” he remembers. Added to which, he shares the flat we are in with another, very understanding Spanish girlfriend who is studying in Cuba.
These girls will visit at various times during the year, and sometimes coincide. “Then you’ve got a big problem,” Santiago says seriously. “You have to decide which one you are going to spend your time with.” The one most likely to marry him? “Exactly.”
It is quite a feat to develop a relationship from dancing in a bar to a point where women will cross continents for you, in the space of a two-week holiday. So how does he make them fall in love with him?
“I don’t do anything. If they think they’ve struck gold, what can I do?” He grins and you see a flash of the charm that reels these women in. “Normally they come looking for it. A bit of tenderness, attention, good sex.” He trails off and the only sound is the tinny music coming from his Spanish girlfriend’s computer. A siren wails five stories down on the Havana street.
The girl he lives with knows the score, but do the others know it is all a matter of securing a visa and getting off the island? Santiago lights a cigarette. “At first they don’t realise. Because you don’t present it in that way. We fall in love, like you would fall in love with anyone. But after a while, they start to understand the situation. Once they’ve been in the country for a bit longer, they realise how things work.”
He says some feel used, and tell him as much. “But others no; others you use and they use you as well. They want a Cuban boyfriend, with dreadlocks, I don’t know, someone black, people like me, who you don’t normally get in European countries.”
He protests that he never feels bad about what he does. “I don’t think I use anyone. I give what I have and as much as I can give. I don’t give any more because I don’t have anything. If I had money, I would share it with them.”
It sounds callous but for Santiago and hordes of other men in Cuba it is a matter of survival. It is very hard to earn a living wage legally — the average salary is $20 (£13) a month — so many people rely on money they can extract from tourists or other illegal sidelines.
Santiago sees some of his girlfriends as clients, and his relationships as work. But he does not consider himself a prostitute. The exchange of funds is never quite direct. If he is going out with a foreign student staying in Havana, he lives with them and they “share”. When his girlfriends visit from abroad, they pay for him and put him up. Sometimes they bring gifts — a computer, music, an iPod — which get sold after they leave to pay for food and cigarettes. Sometimes Santiago sends them requests for money; once he received a surprise gift of 300 euros through the post.
While the gifts keep him above water, he says he has to leave the country to earn enough to support his family. He has a son in Havana and a desperately poor extended family in the East of Cuba. His sister has already married a Spaniard and moved to Barcelona, and sends money home. But, Santiago says, it is not enough and his family practically depend on him leaving.
Over the past five years, he has watched his friends gradually dwindle as they have found European wives and moved abroad. “We were a big group, now there’s only a few of us left.” Some of the guys have stayed with the women but Santiago admits that, “others just used them to leave”.
He is vague about what he will do if he ever manages to join them. “When you get there, you don’t need any of this,” he says. “You’ve achieved your goal; to get to the ‘First World’ to work and earn money. You don’t need to fall in love with anyone for money or a visa. From there you can choose what you really like.”
Author’s note: This article was written long before Fidel Castro’s death. Santiago subsequently married the Spanish girlfriend and moved to Spain. If this proves popular, I will seek him out to find out how he has adjusted to life in Europe.