HAVANA -- It's early evening on the Malecon, Havana's beautiful seaside boulevard. The young miniskirted girls are out in the moist pink-blue air, tugging at the male tourists, flirting, offering to spend the night with men old enough to be their grandfathers in exchange for a six-pack of Coke, entry to a discotheque and $6.
Lisa, a pretty, 13-year-old bleached blond, personifies this city's return to the decadence that Fidel Castro's revolution was supposed to eliminate more than three decades ago.
She is barely 5 feet tall, weighs less than 100 pounds and is dressed in lemon hot pants and a black halter top. Her merry eyes are rimmed by thick mascara as though she were a child experimenting with her mother's makeup.
"What country are you from?" she asks a foreigner, tugging at his sleeve. Flirting in her childlike way, she tells the foreigner he is handsome, intelligent. She wants to be with him.
Lisa is not an aberration in the current phase of Mr. Castro's troubled revolution. She is an important handmaiden in the service of attracting desperately needed currency to her bankrupt country. She is one of the hundreds of pretty young Cuban girls and women who have turned Havana into an attractive fleshpot for foreign tourists.
During a two-hour stroll down the Malecon on a Friday night, one foreign visitor was propositioned 43 times by pimps and prostitutes (male and female).
Cuban men are resentful of what has happened. But the government does not seem bothered. Indeed, there are ways in which the authorities seem to be encouraging it.
Every day, dozens of men arrive at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport to begin their sex vacations with girls like Lisa.
Cuba has advantages over other fleshpots, such as Thailand's Bangkok and Manila in the Philippines. The country is relatively free of AIDS, with only about 700 reported cases, all of them quickly isolated. It is also cheap, and the women themselves have an innocent quality.
"This place is a paradise," says Ernesto Lara, 48, a Mexican engineer on his third vacation to Cuba. "The women here are among the most beautiful in the world. They are completely open, almost naive."
Lisa has a carefree attitude about what she is doing. She is driven partly by the desire to obtain cash in a place where $6 is a lot, but also by a desire just to have fun in a country that offers little entertainment outside places that are closed to her unless she is on the arm of a foreigner.
"I don't think I am doing anything wrong. I just want to have a good time," she says. "Life here is so hard, so serious."
The financially hard-pressed Cuban government, facing an anticipated $4 billion trade deficit by the end of the year, has turned a blind eye to the prostitution in hopes the dollars the prostitutes earn will help overcome the island's worst economic crisis in this century. It encourages prostitution by requiring foreigners to have "a date" before entering state-owned discos.
At the Tasca disco in the Marina Hemingway resort, foreigners are told to pick a date from the young Cuban women outside. The women are prostitutes allowed into the guarded resort only for this purpose.
A nearby store sells perfumes, lingerie and other wares that the foreigners are expected to buy for dates. The store is open until 4 a.m.
An executive at a hotel in the Varadero resort area noted that his liquor sales increased 300 percent after the government permitted Cuban "hostesses" and "dates" to enter his disco.
The government's acquiescence is at odds with one of the principal aims of the revolution: ridding the country of the vice that had turned Havana into the sin capital of the Western Hemisphere, back in the days when casinos, cheap rum and sex attracted thousands of Americans to the Caribbean island.
Now there are more prostitutes than before Mr. Castro took power in 1959, says Elizardo Sanchez, a prominent human rights activist.
Ironically, the moral decay symbolized by burgeoning prostitution in Cuba has reincarnated another former enemy of the socialist state. A religious revival has taken hold, especially among Cubans who feel that the revolution has betrayed its ideals.
A Cuban couple talks with concern about the possibility that their daughter is among those hustling on the Malecon and elsewhere.
"She is only 15 years old, but she lives a life of her own and dresses better than we can afford. We hardly ever see her," says Elena Maldanado, who earns $6 a month as a factory worker -- the same amount that Lisa earns in a night.
Mrs. Maldanado and her husband, Luis, recently welcomed a Roman Catholic priest who made a "clandestine" visit to their apartment.
"I nearly fell off my chair," Mr. Maldanado said. "We had a chance to talk about our lives, about how the Malecon has become a place of prostitution. Here in Cuba, the family is disintegrating, and nothing is a bigger symbol of that than the whores."
For the first time since the Marxist government's bloody anti-church crackdown in 1961, the Havana archdiocese has begun making pastoral visits to homes -- and the priests have been warmly received.
One prominent Catholic official here noted that only 7,500 people were baptized in the Havana archdiocese in 1978. The figure increased to 33,474 last year.
But the church is working against the consequences of desperate economic conditions. The Castro government -- in what is known as "legalizing reality" -- is using the dollars earned from prostitution and other illicit business to help overcome the economic catastrophe caused by its own mismanagement, the demise of its Soviet ally and the U.S. trade embargo.
Prostitution seems to be one of the more successful aspects of that policy, judging from the number of Latin Americans and Spaniards cruising the Malecon.
"I would say the majority of my clients going to Cuba are Mexican men who want a sex vacation," says Alicia Teran, a Mexico City travel agent. "I think it's sad that so many girls are being exploited because of the desperate times."
"A bunch of single guys coming in from Canada are not here just to work on their tans. They want sex," says the Varadero hotel executive. "You can't have a tourist business without sex."
Amanda, an 18-year-old University of Havana student, comes to the illicit arrangement with an astonishing air of practicality.
One night, as the beautiful teen-ager awaits her "date" -- a paunchy 64-year-old Spanish executive who has promised to take her to the Havana Club disco -- she coolly measures her advantages.
"I can earn more in one night than my mother can in five months," she says, smoothing her sequined mini-dress that the Spanish executive paid for.
"If it wasn't for the dollars I earn this way, I couldn't afford to continue my studies," she said. "I can make about $35 a night, eat a good meal and have a swell time."
What does her boyfriend think?
"He knows what I am doing. But we look upon this as an opportunity to get ahead, as a phase in our lives. It's no big deal."
Lisa and Amanda confront a choice between the glittery world of hard currency against the drab world of the average Cuban.
The hard-currency world of cars, tourist shops, restaurants, swanky discos and resorts is off-limits to 99 percent of the Cuban population -- even though Article 42 of the Constitution specifically forbids such a segregated arrangement.
But a pretty Cuban girl can break the barrier with a foreign tourist and briefly escape the harsh living conditions of her mother, who earns practically nothing and endures a monotonous diet of beans and rice.
The government gets its reward as practically anything worth buying -- from jeans to shampoo -- can be found only in state-owned stores reserved for foreigners.
Cuba's economic crisis is particularly troubling for young people who cannot afford to have a good time or buy a pair of running shoes without resorting to illegal activities that bring them dollars.
With 46 percent of Cuba's 11 million population under the age of 25, the nation has a substantial pool of disenchanted young people thirsting for the material goods enjoyed by relatives in the United States.
While criminal statistics are scarce, a recent statement by the Third Option, a group of mostly young intellectuals, noted that the country has 20 juvenile reformatories; 35 years ago it had only one.
The illegal activities include selling bootlegged cigars, money-changing, purse-snatching and sex.
Not all Cuban men are as tolerant as Amanda's boyfriend. It is a source of resentment among Cuban males, who cannot compete for attention without dollars, a prominent University of Havana professor says.
"Maybe it was OK when people couldn't buy anything at the tourist dollar shops, but when women are essentially becoming part of the wares for sale, then it's a different matter," he says.
Jose Hernandez, a 19-year-old University of Havana student, says he "feels powerless and worthless because I have nothing to offer a girl."
"Even if I could get dollars, the law forbids me from having them. Despite the official rhetoric, the dollar is king, and a king always has a harem."
Another swing around the nightclubs puts the conflict in focus.
Rene, Jorge and their childhood friend, Berta, a stunning 17-year-old girl, have been invited by foreign visitors to make the rounds.
By the end of the evening, Rene is offering the sexual services of Berta, who, he said, "was saddened you don't like her."
During the ride home, the taxi driver, a young veteran of the Cuban forces that fought in the Angola war, angrily slammed his fist into the roof of the cab.
"I didn't fight for my country to be banned from some lousy disco, so that we would be treated like second-class citizens and our women reduced to whores," he said.
TOMORROW: Disenchantment with Fidel Castro growing.