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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own