Whoremonger David Strecker, who goes by the alias “Cuba Dave,” is locked up in Costa Rica for promoting sex tourism. Strecker’s case raises questions of free speech in Latin America.
You would think free-speech debate would originate in totalitarian governments like Cuba or Venezuela. However this story comes from one of the region’s most advanced economies and an aspiring member to the business-friendly Pacific Alliance.
Costa Rica is one of Latin America’s most affluent countries. According to the World Bank, those living in poverty and extreme poverty make up less than 5% and 2% respectively.
Costa Rica is a tax haven with an orthodox economic policy which has overseen sustained growth for decades and turned the country into a leading retirement and tourist destination.
Costa Rica ranks just behind Uruguay, Argentina and Chile in nominal GDP per capita. Given those three are Southern Cone countries, Costa Rica is a marked outlier for being located in Central America.
Costa Rica is also Latin America’s top sex tourism destination. It even has its own Wikipedia page. To venture a hypothesis why Costa Rica leads the region, I’d guess its advanced economy and relatively safe cities combine with its proximity to prostitute-producing countries like Colombia and the Dominican Republic (and Costa Rica itself) as well as the short flight from Florida and Texas to attract the gray-haired gringos looking for a good time.
However things changed in 2013, when Costa Rica passed the “Law Against Human Trafficking,” from which Article 162-B reads:
Any person who promotes or establishes programs, campaigns or advertisements through any medium on a national or international level to project the country as an accessible destination for commercial sexual exploitation or prostitution of people of any gender or age shall be punished with imprisonment of four to eight years.
The law seems to have come across the expat-community radar only after Cuba Dave was jailed last September for promoting prostitution in Costa Rica. According to The Tico Times:
The Key West, Florida man was arrested on Sept. 4 while attempting to depart Juan Santamaría International Airport just north of the capital. Investigators from the Judicial Investigation Police, who had been following Strecker for nearly a year according to a spokeswoman, confiscated a laptop and a digital camera with pictures of women.
Strecker was jailed in what is called “preventive detention,” a standard procedure in Latin America where governments don’t have the resources to give you a speedy trial, or catch you again if they let you go. So they often hold people charged with serious crimes until the trial.
Cuba Dave’s website has been scrubbed of its pictures, testimonials and articles about prostitution in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. The site has been converted to a fundraiser and news site for his legal battle to be freed from the San Sebastian prison in San Jose.
A passage from an article on Strecker’s lifestyle before being jailed:
David Strecker is a skinny former softball pitcher who lives in a modest Key West duplex and maintains a healthy head of fine, sandy-colored hair. He prefers tank tops that show off his muscular biceps. He is also a connoisseur of Caribbean prostitutes and has slept with more than 2,500 women under age 25. He has no plans to stop. His scheme, though, is complicated by time, possibly the only cruel mistress Strecker has ever encountered.
This self-described sex addict is 62 years old.
At that age, it isn’t easy to keep up with two or three women a day for weeks at a time. Chemical assistance is required. Strecker downs estrogen blockers daily, injects his buttocks with testosterone monthly, and consumes Viagra as the situation requires. A grueling P90X regimen is obsessively adhered to, and a bench press occupies the position of a TV set in his living room. The excessively tanned senior might eat a chicken caesar salad if you really goad him, but he generally subsists on protein bars and 5-hour Energy drinks. Sex might be Strecker’s only vice; the native Minnesotan doesn’t drink or smoke in order to ensure maximum performance with his chicas.
So that’s what we know about Cuba Dave. Regardless of whether you think he’s cool or a tool, his case deserves a second look because the Costa Rica law carries troubling implications for freedom of speech in Latin America.
Tourism is vitally important to the Costa Rica economy, and sex tourism makes up a big part of that. One article explains how sex tourism has made Jaco the wealthiest beach town on the coast, immune from seasonal fluctuations.
However, Costa Ricans understandably do not want to be known as the sex tourism capital of Latin America. Not only for reasons of national pride, but to protect its ecotourism, fishing and beach tourism as well. To be honest, I would not bring my wife and children there. I don’t even know if the prostitution is so rampant it’s obvious or if one would not see any of it on a weekend of daylight family outings. I just wouldn’t take the chance.
“The country has to protect its image as a tourist destination,” former justice minister Fernando Ferraro, who sponsored the law, told the Tico Times. “Obviously to associate [Costa Rica] with activities like prostitution, to associate that with the country as a reason for tourism is negative and can affect whether people come here or not.”
I understand the desire to shed the sex-tourism image, but the way Costa Rica tackled the issue may create more problems.
The World Bank calls Costa Rica an “upper-middle-income” country. Being on the cusp, everything the Costa Rica government does can be judged by whether it is moving toward an upper-income country like the United States or Germany, or if it is still acting like a middle-income country like Colombia or Peru.
Jailing gringos for publishing information about a legal industry, however undesirable the industry, is a throwback to totalitarian Latin American backwardness. While the intention behind the law is to make Costa Rica a more progressive country, restricting speech and not allowing a web-savvy gringo to participate in domestic industry is a step back.
A particularly annoying tactic employed in Latin America when countries are desperate to change something about their national image is demanding silence or sweeping it under the rug. See no evil, hear no evil, even if the evil is in plain sight on the ground.
This is a backwards approach. A modern country tackles its problems by effecting change. You don’t change your image by insisting people keep quiet, much less jailing them. The only way to change the image is to change the country.
Colombia is the world’s top cocaine-producing country, and many Colombians despise that image. However, the only way to change that image is to stop being the world’s top producer of cocaine. Certainly not easy, but it is the only way.
Upper-class Peruvians hate the image of being a country of backwards Indians. But just as Colombia is the top cocaine producer, Peru is very much a country of backwards Indians. Again, not easy to change, but you can’t silence people.
The United States has the perception of obesity and fat people. I can argue all day for the popularity of CrossFit, its fitness addicts and the most successful athletes of the world. But none of that changes the fact that there are many overweight and obese people in the United States. The reputation is deserved. To change that, you have to change the United States.
How to change Costa Rica
While Costa Rica can’t change only its image, and certainly not by locking gringos up, it can change the country. Interestingly, Costa Rica’s problem is probably much easier than Colombia’s cocaine, Peru’s backward Indians or America’s obesity.
Restricting speech can be employed to a point. In the United States, it is illegal to advertise tobacco on television. It used to be illegal to advertise spirits. There may be a push to prohibit television advertising of prescription drugs.
But controlling speech via a state-regulated medium is a different animal than restricting speech on a private website. The Costa Rica law smacks of censorship. And to make it worse, they are not levying fines as if a television company broadcast an ad for cigarettes. The state has jailed somebody.
I am a pro-business guy, but there are reasonable degrees of state restrictions for industries which present a public danger or health risk. In the United States we see common-sense restrictions in industries ranging from guns to alcohol to industrial chemicals. There are rules in how food companies must present the nutritional content of their products on labels. Buying, owning and driving a car involves a plethora of documentation and state fees.
An interesting article in The Economist talks about how the United Kingdom has made it too easy to obtain alcohol. The slightly streamlined distribution channels had amplified effects in the population, whose increased drunkenness created a public health problem. The article called for a return to increased red tape and legal barriers for the alcohol companies.
Instead of jailing foreigners who speak about the nature of an industry, Costa Rica should change its industry. And if any legal industry should be regulated, it is prostitution. A modern country would reduce sex tourism by making prostitution less accessible.
Most obviously, Costa Rica could make prostitution illegal. We know the world’s oldest profession won’t be eradicated, but occasional raids and forcing the business underground would certainly lose its luster in the eyes of the gray-haired, “no habla español” crowd. While making it illegal would come with consequences, it would achieve the stated goal of changing the image.
Costa Rica could raise taxes on brothels to increase the price to consumers – think 100% hikes. Tax liquor sales, food sales, rooms, everything. Create a new regulatory scheme to establish a legal brothel, and make it expensive and difficult. The idea is ultimately to make legal prostitution more expensive than in the Dominican Republic or Colombia.
Establish tolerance zones well outside the city’s main tourist districts. If you refuse to change the industry, maybe you can move them to where no ecotourism or fishing tourists will ever see them.
Establish earlier hours. Close the brothels down at midnight. If the city is less rumba-friendly, maybe the industry will slowly move to another country in the region where the tourists can party all night long.
Establish a more difficult visa process for prostitute-exporting countries like Colombia and the Dominican Republic. Modern, upper-income countries do not allow easy entry of any and all who can afford a plane ticket. Making it a little more difficult or expensive to get into Costa Rica will constrict the supply of prostitutes.
A friend in Costa Rica estimates the sex industry’s labor force is 75% Costa Rican, 15% Dominican and 10% Colombian. While the government could never eliminate supply given its own domestic sex workers, containing supply could form one part of a multi-pronged strategy to curb prostitution.
These are just some ideas from an outside observer. There must be dozens of other policies which could be employed.
A couple years ago I wrote an article titled “Does Sex Tourism Save Lives?” The point of the article was that, while poverty and economics certainly play a role in prostitution and sex tourism, poverty and economics are not the only determinants.
The extent of prostitution in a society does not have a linear relationship with poverty, which is why the upper-middle-income Costa Rica produces plenty of prostitutes while, say, Peru’s Andean highlands of abject poverty do not.
Colombia has one of those cultures which does produce a high rate of prostitution. I have never been to San Jose but I hear that renewed security in Colombia is increasingly moving the sex-tourism industry to Medellin, a more natural habitat for prostitutes.
Beyond Colombia, there are other countries near Costa Rica which might benefit from a sex-tourism industry. I have heard that Nicaragua, one of the region’s poorest countries, also contributes its fair share of sex workers. According to my friend, the Dominican Republic exports more prostitutes than Colombia and has the beaches to boot.
Costa Rica is positioned to shed the sex-tourism image by instituting policies that lead to the industry’s transfer to somewhere else. If that is what it truly wants, adopting those policies makes a lot more sense than locking up elderly gringos.
Implications beyond Cuba Dave and Costa Rica
Will Costa Rica stop at Cuba Dave? He is not the only gringo who got in on the sex-tourism industry. There is a popular web forum whose publishers probably live in Costa Rica. And what about the hotels catering to gringos? If their website features a picture of a girl who turns out to be a prostitute, could that be legally interpreted as promoting prostitution?
According to my friend in Costa Rica:
I heard first hand they are shitting all over themselves. [One hotel owner] is a wreck and trying to sell out of everything … In private conversations they are all scared. Most of these guys don’t speak Spanish and wouldn’t have the resources to defend themselves if they came head to head with a defamation lawsuit.
You may not care about gringos profiting from the Costa Rica action. But what about somebody else?
What if Costa Rica tries to arrest or even extradite somebody for publishing something about its sex-tourism scene? What if Costa Rica requests the extradition of a journalist who wrote an investigative piece about it?
In this article, I have pointed out that Costa Rica is a safe, affluent country with a thriving prostitution scene catering to gringos. So under this law, have I promoted sex tourism in Costa Rica? Could Costa Rica request my extradition from Peru? And what would Peru say?
Oppressive government policies are often cloaked in good intentions. This policy, while it may have good intentions, is an attack on free speech in Latin America.
The state of free speech
In my home state there was a university protest over racism on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia. A blockade of protesters and even professors blocked a journalist’s entrance to the public quad. Some insisted he did not have the right to take their picture, and a communications professor (!) shouted the journalist down and out.
The incident caused the dean to resign once the Mizzou football team threatened to boycott a game. In the aftermath, campus police will now respond to calls and document reports on racial slurs and similar acts which are not illegal.
The dean of Claremont McKenna was pressured to resign recently over an unbelievably trivial email she sent to a Latin student.
The University of Oklahoma expelled a fraternity member for singing a racist song. He received a (deserved) national public shaming, but for a state institution to expel him was most likely illegal.
For a relatively young right in history, free speech is easily taken for granted. Even in its birthplace of the United States, it is being chipped away at by good intentions.
In the United States, the ACLU defends Nazis’ right to demonstrate. These are people wearing the flag of a political party which went to war with the United States and implemented a genocide. But in the United States, they have the freedom to express whatever absurd notions they want.
Some of that spirit is needed in Costa Rica and greater Latin America.