"I'm not a whore, or a prostitute, or a trapo, or a jinetera. I'm not a cuero, a meretriz or a ramera. (...) I'm a worker. I'm a sex worker." Thus did Elena Reynaga, Executive Secretary of the Sex Workers Network of Latin America and the Caribbean (RedTraSex) begin her remarks at the Forum on Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV in 2003. The event was held in Havana with the late Fidel Castro on hand - though in 1968 the leader had declared prostitution in Cuba eradicated.
Elena Reynaga was born in Argentina in 1953 and got started in sex work before the age of 20 under the Perón government.
"I started working at the age of 10 in different things: I was a maid, a nanny, I worked in factories (…). Then I got married very young, I had my two children, and I started working as a cook. One fine day I got tired of earning a pittance and working 10 or 12 hours a day, and feeling like I was nothing (…). I started working as a dancer at a cabaret, and then I decided to work the street, because at the cabaret they exploited me; they kept part of what I made while, on the street, working independently, what I earn is mine," Reynaga told DIARIO DE CUBA.
That was back under the military dictatorship in Argentina, and Reynaga spent an average of eight months a year in jail, for merely standing on a corner. That is why she decided to work in Spain. She returned to her country in 1991.
"In 1992 I decided not to go to Spain anymore because it was very difficult for me to work with condoms. I was the 'condom girl' and work had really fallen off. Argentina was making a comeback, economically. But the police were always after us."
While she was in a cell, with a couple of fellow sex workers, she decided that they had to do something. "Because the same people who enable us to work, in exchange for money, security personnel, were the ones who dragged us, kicking, to the police."
Thus, they began to organize, in 1994, so that they would stop incarcerating them, and the Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de la Argentina (AMMAR) was founded. In 1997 Reynaga was a founding member of the TraSex Network, which includes sex workers from 14 countries.
Cuba is not part of the Network. Cuban sex workers are not organized to defend their rights.
"In Cuba there’s a denial, to this day, of sex workers. And all that denial does is harm sex workers even more. I've spoken with many people there and they say 'here it's not allowed, it's not conceived in Cubans' culture, and, more than anything, by their rulers, because Cuba is excellent in terms of education.' I met sex workers who were psychologists, doctors..." Reynaga recalled.
"Cuba is very macho," according to the Argentine, for whom "one thing is the Revolution, and another thing is el machismo."
"El machismo is at its peak in Cuba. So, they told me 'it is fine for them to be organized in Latin America, because they're poor, because they're not educated, because they have needs.' But Cuban women also need to live under other conditions, to work freely, and so that no one takes their money."
"I told a colleague from the labor union there in Cuba. But hey, until there are colleagues who take up the fight, one Argentinean woman cannot go and tell them what to do; whether it's Cuban women or the Cuban government. I will never speak ill of Cuba. The big problem it has is the blockade," Reynaga said.
The problems suffered bys, Cuban sex worker however, are not very different from those of their counterparts in Latin America. In the era of Covid-19, their difficulties increased.
"During the pandemic we all found ourselves between a rock and a hard place, because police persecution against us increased. While beaches, bars and restaurants were allowed to open, we were prevented from even going out," Sandra, a sex worker and single mother of two daughters, told DIARIO DE CUBA in February.
During the pandemic the TraSex Network was able to provide help to many sex workers in the countries that make it up.
"All the money that we usually spend to do political advocacy work at the regional and global level, travel, do face-to-face workshops in some countries, monitor; in short, everything that the Network does, was divided equally and sent to the institutions of the 14 countries that form part of the Network," Reynaga explained.
"They did two things: first, buy goods, food and things for everyone they could. We couldn't give to them all, because there are thousands of sex workers in each of the different countries, and it was economically impossible. Then we hired a communicator to teach the women to use social media."
"What for? Well, first of all, to alert the whole world to the fact that there was no government in Latin America and the Caribbean that had any public policy that protected sex workers, and how much damage secrecy has done and does to the lives of sex workers."
"The women used the networks to campaign in their countries to continue collecting, until today, goods from organizations, male and female representatives, people who (...) know the struggle that we are engaged in."
"And we continue to train women leaders, intensively. What we did before in person, today we do remotely." We also "continue to actively participate in the OAS (Organization of American States), ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) and in the different forums where we do political advocacy; with some difficulties, of course."
"Before, I would run into a foreign ministers, or OAS foreign ministers, in the corridors, and you could talk to them there, influence them. Now, remotely, that's not possible. There, I think we regressed, not only sex workers, but all social movements, because we didn't have the opportunity to speak with governments."
Sex workers' difficulties will not end when the pandemic does. They will continue to be forced to work in hiding, and be persecuted by the police.
"What we do is sell a sexual service. We are women and men of legal age who are doing this profession of our own free will. Illegality subjects us into profound inequality, profound injustice. Thanks to the non-recognition of sex work —I speak from what I am familiar with in Latin America— the police rape my colleagues, and take their money. We pay 'taxes', which is what we pay to the police, but they're never going to impact public policy."
"We say 'yes' to the recognition of sex work as a form of work; we want to pay taxes, but for this to really translate into public policies for us."
Elena Reynaga does not consider herself a victim , or feel guilty. "I'm not going to say that I did this out of necessity, because I was poor, because I'm not a hypocrite. I'm a sex worker because between going to work as a cook, or washing dishes , and doing this, I decided to be a sex worker because I could rent a house, live alone with my children, and have what any worker in this country aspires to."
In 2009 the Buenos Aires Legislature recognized Reynaga as an Outstanding Figure in the Fight for Women's Rights. In 2014 the Argentine Senate recognized her leadership in the fight against discrimination and stigma, and in 2016 she was elected to the United Nations Advisory Council.