Travel Notes: The dancing pigeons of old Havana

THE GIRLS are back. In tight, bright Lycra, the jiniteras have returned to Havana Vieja, old Havana. The male version - jiniteros - offer cigars. Jiniteras offer themselves for the night, the week, whatever. "De que pais? Tienas chica?" their sibilant patter goes. Black, mulatta, honey and vanilla white, college students or high-school teachers, they are a less than secret tourist attraction in Cuba.

For years Havana Vieja presented a parade of unlikely May and September couples, red-faced visitors from Hamburg and Bath with beautiful, nearly miniature Cuban girls. The authorities used to assert that with the Triumph of the Revolution there was no prostitution, which was like standing in the middle of the Piazza San Marco and claiming there were no pigeons. And, if there were, they said that Cuban jiniteras weren't real prostitutes because they were genuinely loving.

Then this spring friends and I were sitting in the Plaza de la Catedral sipping mojitos and listening to the languid strumming of a guajiro band when we noticed something odd. It was midnight - early by Cuban time - and there was hardly a jinitera in sight. In fact, except for the musicians and waiters, there were hardly any Cubans at all.

I looked around and noticed behind me a pair of police not wearing the usual blue baseball caps of the Policia Nacional de la Revolucion but in uniforms with snappy berets. Then I noticed there were more of these new gendarmes in ever corner of the plaza demanding IDs from everyone but tourists. We were surrounded, protected from sin no doubt, also isolated from Cuba in general.

Street crime had been rising, true. Also, crackdowns on crime are popular around the world and offer a chance to round up political dissidents as well as the violence prone, an opportunity Fidel has not missed. But the boys in berets, his new incorruptible corps of police, are especially recruited from outside Havana and paid twice the salary of a university professor for one larger purpose, to preserve Fidel's grand contradiction, the premiss that he can revitalise the economy by luring tourists to Cuba and at the same time keep them away from all but the most innocuous and politically correct Cubans. Which is why the locals are barred from tourist beaches at Varadero and why the Maximum Leader loves tourist destinations like Cayo Largo, an island resort with more Italians than Cubans.

Havana is different. Havana is full of dark streets, smoky cafes, music that invites confusion. The cadres in berets harass young Cubans, blacks especially, in the Plaza de Armas, detaining them overnight on the vague charge of "pre-delinquent behaviour". (The behaviour locals indulge is asking the country-boy police for directions just to hear their "duh".)

There is still too much of Havana to patrol completely. Jazz lovers meet downstairs at midnight in a club called "La Zorra y El Cuervo". Sunday afternoons the devotees of rumba gather at the Callejon de Hamel, an alleyway of extravagant Afro-Cuban murals. And there are beaches at the Playa del Este only a dozen miles out of Havana where younger visitors and Cubans lay their towels on the sand side by side.

As for the crackdown, last week I returned to the Plaza de la Catedral. The soft music, mojitos and smooth cigars were still there. And at a nearby table was a trio of sweaty European males with three brown girls, possibly inflated in white Lycra. Lubricity charged the air. Out of the shadows of the cathedral marched a pair of public guardians in berets.

A year ago the jiniteras would have stared the police down. A month ago they wouldn't have dared be seen. This time the girls discreetly turned their eyes away until, at a certain midway point, as if they had run out of revolutionary steam, the police hesitated, shrugged, retreated. And when the music began the girls rose and moved to a beat that would have raised Lazarus.

Martin Cruz Smith is the author of `Havana Bay' (Macmillan, pounds 16)

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