In 1964 Cuba’s fledgling movie industry collaborated with Soviet filmmakers to create Soy Cuba (I am Cuba), a dizzying expressionist tale of four Cubans whose problems were ameliorated by the revolution. One vignette features María, a young prostitute abandoned by her boyfriend after he finds her entertaining a US businessman.1 The film insinuates that sex workers, once victims of US imperialism and capitalism, were rescued and reeducated by the government campaign against prostitution.2 However, Soy Cuba received a cool reception on the island. Moviegoers and critics rejected the dream-like aesthetic of the film and demanded more “realistic” depictions of their revolution.3 This perceived disconnect between cinematic representation and revolutionary reality parallels the disjuncture between the official discourse on prostitution and the complex experiences of female sex workers in early revolutionary Cuba. [End Page 125]
The Cuban government and the standard historical accounts both describe the campaign to rehabilitate prostitutes as one of the great successes of the revolution, a monolithic movement that supposedly originated at the top and was implemented uniformly across the island.4 But this story obscures the lived experiences of state officials, provincial reformers, and sex workers who participated in a campaign that was complex, diverse, and conflictive. The campaign officially lasted from 1959 to 1965, during which time officials in the Department of Social Ills (Departamento de Lacras Sociales) at the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) decided policies, as did regional government officials and members of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), and other state organizations. Policies to combat sex work were initiated in all of the country’s six provinces, and while some provincial reformers acted on their own initiative, efforts at reeducation (reeducación) ultimately complemented the rehabilitation efforts of high-level government agents.
This article examines the revolutionaries’ initial attempts to rehabilitate the island’s thirty to forty thousand sex workers, paying special attention to the rhetoric and strategies deployed by reformers outside of the capital city of Havana.5 It argues that members from groups such as the FMC and National Revolutionary Police (PNR) helped initiate the antiprostitution campaign, often operating without official interference until 1962, when federal officials assumed greater control over the campaign and when penal work farms became a tool of reform. During the first six years of the revolution, official discourse transitioned from viewing sex workers as victims to categorizing them as counterrevolutionaries. Key to this analysis are the methods used to identify prostitutes (prostitutas). Rather than seeking confirmation that women exchanged sex for money, reformers identified sex workers according to their attire, behavior, race, place of residence, and sexual partners. I also demonstrate that the revolutionary campaign adopted a broad and flexible definition of prostituta, one that allowed government officials to target the behavior of all Cuban women, not merely that of those who identified as sex workers.