Praise indeed for the way prostitution is organised in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. The Cuban sexologist Mariela Castro Espín is pleasantly surprised by the facilities that exist for window prostitutes in the Dutch capital.
This is an entirely different message to the warnings issued by Amsterdam police and politicians about the human trafficking that goes on behind the scenes of the red-lit windows.
“Having seen all this, I can only say how impressed I am by how sex workers can go about their work in a dignified manner and command respect,” says Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuba’s leader Raul Castro, after a tour through Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District.
Ms Castro listens closely to health workers and former prostitutes explaining how things are organised in Amsterdam. She is told that the local authorities offer health checks, that the rights of the prostitutes are protected as much as possible and that, since prostitution was legalised, the prostitutes have to pay taxes like everybody else.
Meanwhile window prostitution is under attack. Shortly before Ms Castro’s visit, Lodewijk Asscher, the relevant city councillor, even went so far as to say that Holland should consider banning prostitution if the situation in Amsterdam’s Red Light District doesn’t improve rapidly now prostitution has been legalised. According to Mr Asscher, many sex workers are the victim of human traffickers.
“I understand why some people are suggesting that window prostitution should be stopped because the prostitutes are being abused. That they should be given the chance of a better life, of improving themselves. On the other hand, I also realise that ending window prostitution will create other, maybe much greater, problems for the people who have to earn a living that way,” says Ms Castro.
Mariela Castro Espín is in the Netherlands to give a lecture at the University of Amsterdam. In her capacity as director of CENESEX, a government organisation for sex education, she will explain Cuban policy on sexual matters.
What is the situation with regard to prostitution in Ms Castro's homeland? When her uncle Fidel Castro came to power on the island in 1959, there were approximately 100,000 prostitutes in Cuba. They were the victims of twofold exploitation: as women and as prostitutes.
“Then a law was introduced that made pimping a legal offence. A male or female sex worker is seen as a victim of exploitation.”
This still applies today: prostitution is not prohibited, but pimps are subject to prosecution. Since the hard-hitting economic crisis of the 1990s, an increasing number of prostitutes have begun working for themselves. They include men and women with a high level of education. Some are even graduates who have been unable to find suitable employment.
They can be found on the boulevard in Havana, relatively inconspicuous but willing to tag along to a club with live music, with the possibility of continuing the evening at a room in the neighbourhood.
The principle is the same, but the circumstances are different, says Mariela Castro. Her main objective is to find alternative ways of dealing with prostitution and she is keen to exchange experiences. Whether in the Netherlands or Cuba, for her the most important thing is to be able to discuss the issue freely and to ensure that those who choose the profession can live healthier and more dignified lives.
While acknowledging that the Netherlands is a source of inspiration for Cuba, she also believes that Cuba has plenty to offer the Netherlands. One particularly promising field in this regard is sex change surgery. Mariela Castro’s visit to a Dutch transgender clinic may well form the basis for a scientific exchange between the two countries in this field.