In the past few years Quito has become inundated with Cuban immigrants. It is hard to know the exact number because the vast majority of them are “illegal,” living in the shadows of civil society. It is easy to recognize them though due to their strong accents: they speak incredibly rapidly, loudly, and swallow the last part of their words. They are also distinctive because most of the Cubans I’ve met in Quito are of a mixed African descent. They especially stick out in Quito where the majority of the population is of mixed indigenous ancestry. The Cuban neighborhood is situated in North Quito next to the airport. There are also many Cubans living and working in the central tourist zone, La Mariscal, also in North Quito where much of the city’s nightlife can be found. I have seen many Cuban restaurants and street vendors selling rice and beans to bleary-eyed revelers late at night. Rice and black beans are a novelty here as they are not part of Ecuadorian cuisine. Ecuadorians eat lentils and red beans, but black beans do not exist. Furthermore, in contrast to many other parts of Latin America, beans are simply not a staple of Ecuadorian diet.
The Cubans are the most recent arrivals in a massive wave of immigration to Ecuador. For the first time in its history, Ecuador has become a prime immigrant destination attracting people from all over the world including Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Cuba, Senegal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China. Ever since Ecuador’s government adopted the American dollar as its currency in January 2000, it has become an attractive location for potential employment. Even though people are paid very little, they are still paid in dollars. Since entering the United States or parts of Europe is no longer an option for most people, many come to Ecuador, known for its stability. Indeed, it has always been known as the “island of peace” located between Colombia and Peru, both of which have histories of violence (especially Colombia whose refugees have poured into Ecuador over the past few decades). Given Ecuador’s loose border policy in which, until very recently, when too many immigrants have begun to arrive, anyone could enter and stay indefinitely.
I am familiar with Cuban immigration because many of the sex workers I work with have “negocios” (business) with them. Cuban men come to the red-light district looking for Ecuadorian women to marry to obtain their visas. Perhaps it is mostly Cuban men who do this because Colombians can usually obtain refugee status. Most of the Cubans offer to pay about $200 upfront in cash. The “new couple” goes to the civil registry, signs the contract and after two months of marriage the Cuban becomes a legal citizen and then they get divorced. They don’t have to live together or provide any proof of their relationship; they can literally be complete strangers who met the day before, which is often what occurs. It is a simple process compared to many other countries, especially to the United States which involves an infamously complicated, lengthy and arduous process to help deter these types of arrangements. Perhaps the Ecuadorian government will change its laws once they catch on to the thriving marriage business between its citizens and foreigners, but for now it’s an easy way for newly arrived immigrants to get better jobs and receive more civil rights. Although $200 is not a lot of money for such a transaction, many of these women are desperate to pay certain debts and therefore leap at the opportunity. Cuban men probably target sex workers in particular for this reason, because they are a vulnerable population who are more likely to accept whatever meager amount offered. For some reason, I’ve only heard of Cuban men who do this; as of yet, men from other nationalities do not seem recruit sex workers for this reason (perhaps that will change…)
Complications can arise though, as my sex worker friend C., experienced. She met a Cuban last year and he offered $400 to marry her. She went through with the transaction, received her money, and all was well until suddenly, her new Cuban husband disappeared. She heard rumors that he had returned to Cuban which is problematic because they had agreed to a divorce after six months of marriage. Even though it is fairly easy to get a divorce, both of them must be present to sign the legal papers. C. says if he doesn’t reappear in the next year she will be forced to hire a lawyer to have the marriage annulled, something she would like to avoid because of the legal fees involved. C. tells me that some Ecuadorian sex workers continually marry and divorce Cubans, one after the other, to earn money. Without a doubt, the legal authorities will catch on to their business (sooner or later) and make it more difficult for foreigners to get their Ecuadorian citizenship via marriage. In the meantime, it’s a way for sex workers to augment their salaries, despite the legal risks involved. Obviously the legal risks involved are arguably still less than the health and safety risks involved with working in the sex industry.