The book ‘MONIKA KRAUSE QUEEN OF CONDOMS Memoir of a Sex Educator in Revolutionary Cuba’ documents the life of Monika Krause, a former East German introduced to Cuban society through her marriage to Jesús Jiménez Escobar, a Cuban sea captain she met and married in Rostock, East Germany in 1962 when in her early twenties. Monika’s story offers insight into a segment of the political and human dimension of the Cuban Revolution during the second part of the twentieth century.
A Foreword to the book by Professor Jacqueline Loss recalls the quote about Cuban male sexuality and the AIDS pandemic that first brought Monika to Loss' attention: 'the one area revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries have in common is homophobia'. The reasons for the labelling of Krause within Cuba as 'The Queen of the Condoms' don’t become apparent until late in the book, when she discusses her rise to more powerful positions within Cuba's bureaucratic public health system during the 1970s and 1980s.
Beyond the book's Foreword, the first chapter recounts the author's escape from Cuba in November 1990, by which time she's totally dismayed at the direction taken by the Cuban Revolution; as such, the book can be read as a chronicle of disillusionment. Monika is initially hopeful Cuba’s social experiment will radically transform Cuba into a true paradise, about which both she and her husband were 'fantasizing, talking, debating, and feeling we were participants in a truly revolutionary and humanistic process.' The author’s initial openness to the experience included learning to respect the rites of santería, ‘the syncretism of Catholicism and African religions, showered during the Revolution with Marxist-Leninist jargon’. But initial enthusiasm for life in Cuba falls flat. Monika found (to borrow a line from a Saul Bellow novel) that ‘the outlook and psychology of officialdom in the Communist world’ left much to be desired. Regular food shortages throughout the country placed pressure on the household budget and family palates, with the market on occasion offering nothing but eggplant. ‘We ate rice with eggplant, eggplant with rice, fried eggplant, grilled eggplant, or eggplant in vinegar. I had had it up to my ears with eggplant.’
Even more difficult was adapting to what the author portrays as a ‘Cuban herd personality ... having to think and act in plural (the use of “we” was institutionalized)’, thus becoming ‘a person with a collective opinion, who followed Party guidelines’. Monika’s antidote was to frequent the beach. Few could eavesdrop there amidst the crashing of the waves, and it became her salvation. ‘When I needed to speak of things that were prohibited and no one should hear what my friends and I were saying, we went swimming offshore and beyond, without witnesses, changing the world, conversing until we wore ourselves out, happy and content.’
The birth of Dictys, her first son, opened Monika’s eyes to Cuban medical shortcomings. In the cubicle beside her, a young woman who'd had an illegal abortion was surrounded by family members, as well as by the police. Family members were urging her for the name of the abortionist; the police demanded it. ‘She had injected hydrochloric acid to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy and was now mutilated, at the age of eighteen, and unable to be a mother. This was my first experience with the problem of abortion. Many years later, the subject of abortion would become one of the key issues in my work.’
Giving birth to her second child proved just as traumatic. Due to inadequate hospital medical attention, Dani nearly died during delivery. Exacerbating the experience, their journey home by taxi was a nightmare in ‘a car from the fifties, totally dilapidated’ through which the road was visible through a hole, covered with cardboard, in the floor. ‘The owner offered to transport us, but not before warning me not to sit next to the left door, as the lock was broken and it could fly open. He kept the right door held shut with a length of sisal rope, undoing the knot only to let the passengers out.’
Conditions in the country continued to deteriorate. Monika and her husband found it necessary to fall back on comforting cliches, the likes of ‘The Revolution is made by human beings. Human beings make mistakes. There is no absolute justice.’ Nevertheless…. In 1970 Cuba experienced ‘The Year of the Ten Million’, which to Monika’s mind was proof — if any was needed — or how poorly the government was managing. ‘All men with two good hands — from hairdressers to eminent surgeons — were sent to the fields to cut cane. They joined the army of macheteros who were struggling to harvest enough sugarcane to produce the proposed record of ten million tons of sugar. The barber shops, the shoe-repair shops, the tailors’ workshops, the few Chinese laundries that had survived until then: everything was closed.’ In a none-too-subtle allusion to Orwellian Doublethink, Monika wryly refers to Fidel Castro’s line, ‘We shall turn setback into victory’, noting that ‘to this day “setback” and “victory” are synonymous in Cuba’.
Finding herself in a situation where her education and linguistic abilities were in demand, Monika took up employment within a government department. This opened the way to a position of authority working with a small group of ‘experts’ in the fields of sex education and women’s reproductive health. The work interested her, but was not without distractions. Philosophical debates on current issues and work practices were ‘cloaked in the terminology of Marxism-Leninism, which, if you dug down a little, showed that we were all slaves of our past, of traditions, of beliefs full of deficient knowledge, fraught with errors, prejudices, and anachronisms.’ Nevertheless, Monika found the work wholly satisfying work — dedicated to sex education, counselling and therapy, and eventually earning her the nickname “Mónica, La Reina del Condón; Mónica, Queen of Condoms.” With the lack of a modern understanding of sex education throughout the country, Monika took on the task of tackling teenage pregnancy and its consequences, ‘girls dropping out of school, indiscriminate use of abortion as a contraceptive method, marriages between immature couples, and girls giving birth without being prepared for motherhood.’ Poor quality Chinese condoms, lacking in lubricant, were readily available throughout Cuba at the time. Through her department’s initiatives, the introduction and widespread use of better quality condoms from overseas — considered revolutionary at the time — became the norm.
1989 reshaped Monika’s world. The Berlin Wall fell. Her marriage dissolved, and her ex-husband planned to remarry. Combined with disillusionment with Cuba’s revolution, these provided catalysts for Monika's decision to take flight and return surreptitiously to the country of her birth. ‘It took two more decades for the castle of dreams, delusions, and wishful thinking to collapse, for us to become aware that we had spent our energies, intelligence, and strength—had sacrificed our lives—in a futile effort to construct a society based on dreams, ideals, and infantile desires, exempt from realistic, objective, and rational considerations,’ she lamented.
Monika returned to a life in Europe with her two sons. She died in 2019, too early to appreciate Cuba’s efforts at managing the Covid epidemic or view from afar its struggles with the country’s biggest-ever anti-government protests in July 2021. Her book documents three decades of life in Cuba (from the early 1960’s through to 1990) from the viewpoint of both an outsider and an insider and is well worth the read.
(Ralph Wessman is a parent, partner, and publisher, and lives in Tasmania)..