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Condoms: not just for sex in Cuba

Cubans use condoms for fishing, as balloons and to sneak alcohol into clubs.

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)