HAVANA, Cuba — On this island of constant shortages and scarcities, the latex condom has uses that stretch far beyond the bedroom.
At baseball games, concerts and other entertainment events, Cubans blow them up and bat them around the crowd like beach balls. When Cuban parents can’t afford birthday party balloons or can’t find them, they unfurl a few “Vigor” brand prophylactics and start puffing. The latex is so strong and supple that kids can even draw faces on them.
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The latex prophylactics can work just like a wineskin. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)
Likewise, a casual visitor to the city should not be alarmed at the sight of ruptured sheaths littering Havana’s streets in the summertime. They’re more likely to be the leftovers of a water balloon fight among neighborhood kids than a responsible encounter between adults.
Condom wrappers. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)
The Cuban government sells the Chinese-made rubbers three-for-a-penny at pharmacies and snack bars, cheap enough for anyone to afford. The island has shortages of just about everything else though, thanks to five decades of U.S. trade sanctions and a ruinous state-run economy. It should come as no surprise, then, that enterprising Cubans have found all sorts of recreational and industrial applications for their condoms that have nothing to do with birth control.
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Love Guard is a common Chinese-made brand sold in Cuba. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)
There are some whose livelihoods depend on the lubricated durability of the versatile little devices.
“It’s amazing how strong they are,” said Michel Perez, a young fisherman along Havana’s Malecon sea wall who had fashioned six inflated condoms into a large hexahedral shape that he held in the breeze over the water, like a kite. A strand of fishing line with a baited hook was tied to the core of this contraceptive bouquet, and as soon as it hit the surface, the current began pulling the white, rubbery apparatus out to sea.
Cuban fisherman use condoms as floats. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)
“We use them a lot this time of year, during the snapper run,” Perez explained, letting out his line from a homemade wooden spool. With a good breeze, the floating condoms can carry the hook hundreds of meters out into deeper waters, far beyond casting distance, he said. Not that Perez has a fishing rod anyway.
“When the fish takes the hook, the line pulls free,” he explained, “and you start reeling in.”
Fishing with condoms is easier at dusk — during the day the sun can burst the latex. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)
Cuba’s communist government is so paranoid about illegal departures to the United States that it strictly controls who can own or use boats, and Cubans who fashion crude watercraft out of scrap wood and Styrofoam face steep fines, or worse.
And so, living on an island but unable to have a boat, the fishermen use the cheap condoms to get them closer to the prized fish they wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. A good-sized red snapper may weigh six to 10 pounds and sell for $10 to $20 on Havana’s black market. In a country where the average wage is less than $20 a month, it’s no wonder contraceptive sales surge during peak fishing periods.