Condoms: not just for sex in Cuba

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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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.

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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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Cuba condoms
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.

Cuba condoms
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.”

Cuba condoms
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.

Cuba’s government-run stores and pharmacies don’t ration the condoms or limit their purchase, but fishermen say they try not to overdo it. It’s OK to buy 10 or 15 at a time, they say, but not 100.

The island has the lowest HIV rate in the hemisphere, according to the World Health Organization, and one reason is the ubiquitous availability of inexpensive prophylactics.

Cuba’s public health programs promote safe sex and condom usage in public service announcements, and their heavily subsidized price indicates the government is committed to making sure condoms are available, even if their end use may not be epidemiological.

Some, for example, are emptied in the bathrooms of Cuba’s most popular state-run bars and nightclubs. Budget-minded Cuban men have learned to fill them with rum, like wineskins, and sneak them past the bouncers in their underwear.

Latex condoms can stretch to hold an entire bottle of rum. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)

“If you only have $7 and the club has a $5 entry fee, you don’t have any money left over for drinks,” said Felo, a 24-year-old Havana resident. “So you pay the $5, and once you’re inside, you buy a can of cola for $1. You drink half, then go to the bathroom, open the condom, and pour the rum into the can.”

“It works great,” he said. “As long as the condom doesn’t break.”

Cuba condoms
Overfilling increases the chance that the condom could break. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)

Other uses are still more obscure. Cuba’s pigeon coop hobbyists like to clip the condoms into flexible rings they can use to tie messages to the legs of their messenger birds. Makers of homemade Cuban moonshine — another lucrative black-market business here — use them as gauges on their distillery jugs. They know the fermentation process is complete once the condom swells to a certain size. Other Havana residents said they’re useful for keeping their money dry when they go swimming at the beach.

Cuba condoms
A packet of three condoms costs the equivalent of one penny U.S. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)

“Do you know what the first condoms were made of?” Jose Luis Diaz quizzed his fishing buddies on a recent evening, near a trash-strewn river mouth in western Havana. In the fading light, their floats looked like glowing little zeppelins, coasting along the surface of the darkening waters.

“Pig intestines,” Diaz said. He’d heard it on TV. His friends winced.

Javier, a big, burly fisherman in flip-flops, opened a few fresh packets of Love Guard-brand condoms and baited a new line. “It’s a matter of necessity,” he said flatly, admitting he’d rather use condoms out here than in the bedroom. “We’re Cuban, so we have to come up with things that nobody’s ever thought of.”

Cuba condoms
The floating condoms can carry a baited line hundreds of meters offshore. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)