CHILDREN in Havana use them as slingshots. At birthday parties and concerts they are makeshift balloons. Women use them to secure their ponytails. Drivers use lubricated ones to shine the dashboards of their vintage Chevys. Revellers sneak them into nightclubs, filled with rum. Fishermen use inflated ones as floats. Winemakers stretch them over the necks of large glass bottles, which they use instead of oak casks. An erect one means fermentation is still producing carbon dioxide; a deflated one means that the process is complete.
Condoms have lots of uses in communist Cuba, where many essential goods are in short supply. Islanders claim, implausibly, that during the “special period” of hardship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, people used them as pizza toppings.
Cubans are ingenious in their use of condoms in part because they are cheap. Subsidised by the government, a pack of three costs ten pesos (four cents). The subsidy is one manifestation of the government’s keenness on family planning and sexual health. Cartoons shown before some film screenings emphasise the importance of safe sex (there is no commercial advertising). Nightclubs that attract mainly gay men show videos promoting safe sex, a way of avoiding trouble from officialdom. HIV infection rates in Cuba are among the lowest in the Americas, though they nearly doubled between 2010 and 2016 for reasons that are unclear. Cuba’s birth rate of 1.6 per woman is well below that needed to keep the population from shrinking.
Other forms of birth control, such as the pill and injectable contraceptives, are hard to find, so people rely on condoms. That does not mean they are popular. Moments and Vigor, mostly made in India, Malaysia and Indonesia, are the most readily available brands. “Their scent is unforgettable, and not in a good way,” says a young woman in Havana. When friends or relatives go abroad she asks them to bring back Durex, an American make, specifically “the ones in the purple box”.
But even Moments can be hard to find. In 2012 a shipment of several million arrived bearing labels with expiry dates in the same year. After testing some, the supplier realised they had been mislabelled and would be good until 2014. Because Cuba could not afford to waste so much stock, the government relabelled the boxes by hand. That took nearly two years, at which point the sell-by date had come and gone. The data do not show that Cubans had more children as a result of this supply glitch. So they probably caught fewer fish.