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Last month a member of Governor George Ryan's delegation in Cuba complained that he'd been bitten on the arm by a prostitute with whom he had struck up a friendly conversation. The Sun-Times reported that he ended up paying the woman $10 to go away.

That $10 could probably feed the prostitute's family for a month, says Pedro Miguel Gonzalez Pulido, a sculptor and activist from Havana whose current show, "Cuba Seeing Red: The Agony of Seduction," is at the Aldo Castillo Gallery in River North. Pulido says prostitution may be the only viable method to earn a living for thousands of women and girls in a country where the average worker earns about 250 pesos (approximately $15) per month. Their ranks include desperate girls too young to remember the ideals of the revolution and educated businesswomen unable to find work to feed and clothe their families.

Pulido, who's 57, says he's seen an alarming reliance on prostitution before: as a young boy in the days prior to the revolution of 1959, he watched U.S. marines cavort with local women. He claims the revolution did away with all that, until pressure from the U.S. embargo and the fall of communism in Russia and eastern Europe combined to send the country into a spiraling economic crisis.

In Havana, Pulido and other activists organized a community task force to combat prostitution. "Most of the women said they were hungry and needed the money," he says. "So we told them that the old women in Cuba were suffering too and weren't selling their bodies. There was no reason for them to become prostitutes." To get the youngest girls off the streets, the task force contacted their parents, many of whom were unaware of what their daughters were doing. This "tattler tactic" worked for a while, according to Pulido, but it didn't put food on the women's tables.

Pulido is luckier than most. As a young boy who showed signs of artistic talent, he was strongly encouraged by his parents and their friends to study art. At 16 he enrolled in Havana's San Alejandro School of Visual Arts. Today he teaches at his former school and is a designer and graphic artist as well as a sculptor, earning about $40 a month plus whatever his commissions bring in. Pulido also receives special treatment from Cuba's cultural ministry, which hopes to bolster tourism to the island by promoting its artists abroad. Since the government considers art to be educational material, it allows Pulido to travel and sell his work. Several of his large pieces are in collections in Italy, Australia, and the United States.

But just because the cultural ministry is supportive of artists in general doesn't mean there aren't miles of red tape involved when they travel. Pulido waited for several months for his visa to arrive and paid all the expenses for his two-month trip, including a $700 airline ticket. To ship his clay sculptures up here he'd have to go through Mexico, which would cost about $2,000, so he packed ten pieces in his bags and created the rest in Chicago.

Each of Pulido's jineteras--a slang term for prostitutes that also refers to riding a horse--are in a seductive pose in the middle of disrobing. Yet some of their clothes contain sharp spurs, which, he explains, suggest strength or an advantage, like the razors put on a rooster's feet to give it an edge in cockfights. He conveys the harsh reality of Cuban street life by placing the sculptures on an oversize chessboard--not to represent specific game pieces but to symbolize the strategy of seduction and the potential for demise. Each square shows the face of Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill. If the name of the game is money, irony wins: Cuban prostitutes usually ask for $50, Pulido says, but never seem to get it. They often sell themselves for far less--a new pair of panty hose or a meal.

Pulido's stay in Chicago has given him a rare opportunity to visit his daughter, a printmaker, and check out the city, where he has noticed the disparity between the rich workers in the tall buildings and the poor begging on the streets.

A free opening reception for "Cuba Seeing Red: The Agony of Seduction" will be held tonight from 5 to 9 at the Aldo Castillo Gallery, 233 W. Huron (312-337-2536). The show runs through December 4.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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