|Central American University - UCA
Number 208 | Noviembre 1998
Cuban Women's History--Jottings and Voices
There are those who people believe that the most profoundly transforming task carried out during the early years of the Cuban revolution was the one undertaken for and with women. There are others who think that the still-pending task for the revolution that packs the biggest wallop has to do with women. Perhaps it is time now to tally up and take stock. What defines Cuban women today? And what direction is the discussion of gender taking in Cuba? These journalistic jottings and a chorus of Cuban womens voices help sketch out the picture and tell the history of what has been done and what is being done today.
María López Vigil
THE WAY WE WEREWomen's efforts to achieve equal rights with men have a long tradition in Cuba. Their struggles were almost always linked to larger patriotic and political causes, which sought to give form to a nation "of all the people and for the good of all the people," like the one José Martí dreamed of.
The rootsOctober 1868: the wars of independence in Cuba begin with honorable white landowners freeing their black slaves so that united, black and white, they can fight the Spanish. As early as April 14, 1869, Ana Betancourt de Agramonte asks the House of Representatives of the Republic in Arms to grant women in independent Cuba the rights they do not have but deserve. The slaves are freed, she says in her appeal, "now women should be free." Thus, both liberations, of blacks and of women of all colors, are already on the table as the Cuban nation is born.
Racism, a disease inherited from the slave-owning colonial system, is rooted deep in the soil of Cuban nationality. Machismo also stems from the deepest part of Cuban culture. An older and even more resistant disease, it has accompanied human civilization from the start. "The revolution took both evils head on," Juana, a sociologist, tells me, "but while it couldn't have done any more about racism than it did, more could have geen done about machismo. We reached a certain point—a very high point, it's true—then didn't go any further." Crises lower the defenses against disease: in the current Cuban crisis, new forms of machismo, never rooted out, are cropping up, while racism has also reemerged from where it lay stalking among the folds of the culture.
The defining stamp During the first 40 years of independence, Cuban women waged an ongoing battle to change the laws that defined their rights and the rights of their children, regulated marriage and divorce, penalized adultery inequitably, did not require support payments in case of separation, classified children as legitimate and illegitimate. . . In 1923, Cuba was the first Latin American country to hold a National Women's Congress. The pre-revolutionary Constitution of 1940 contained a bunch of rights that testified to the women's efforts, including the right to vote and be elected to public office.
"Although there were a lot of holes in it, the 1940 Constitution was very progressive for its time. But it cost us so much that when it came out, it was as though women had been completely worn out by the effort. We demobilized. Many went to work in the traditional parties, which created `women's sections' so we could serve the coffee! What brought us together again to struggle for an ideal, a national goal, was the Martí Women's Civic Front in 1952," one of the women who participated in the front told me.
They dissolved in January 1959, a few days after the triumph of the revolution. "Mission fulfilled," they said then, as they turned in their flags. "Tremendous mistake," some say today, as they analyze the history that followed. When I ask why, I'm told that the majority of leadership positions in the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), a creation of the revolution in 1960, "were filled not by women from the Martí Front or the brave young women in the Women's Section of the 26 de Julio Movement, but by members of the Popular Socialist Party, the PSP, which had been Cuba's communist party before the revolution. These were very capable women, experts in Marxist theory, but their idea of women's liberation was based very strongly on the texts and practices of real socialism." The women of the PSP would imprint their particular stamp on the FMC from the start. Nonetheless, since Cuban women had so many shackles and chains to free themselves from, the negative effects of this stamp were barely noticeable in the early years of the revolution. Only with time did they became more and more visible.
The nationWhile thousands of women glued themselves to the radio tearfully following passionate, interminable radio soap operas—which were born in Cuba—other women, mostly from Havana, dedicated themselves full-time to the urban underground fight against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (1952-1958). According to a survey that studied 675 cases, these women were predominantly white, under 30, single, with secondary or university education, middle class, children of working families who were more socially and politically aware than their mothers and willing to risk everything, conscious of the changes that Cuba, and Cuban women, urgently needed. They played a decisive role in the revolutionary triumph.
The women who fought against the Batista dictatorship—like those who had fought against the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado thirty years earlier—did not raise feminist flags and made no specifically gender-related demands. In the survey, 77% said they were not even aware of the existence of women's organizations in Cuba in the 1950s—though of course such organizations existed, the Martí Front among others. Some 94% said they fought "for all Cuban people," believing that the fight "for democracy, freedom, respect for human rights and human dignity" mattered. It was worth jail, worth even their lives. "Cuba always came first and in those years we didn't see clearly enough to link our demands as women to the demands of the nation," one of these women reflects today.
José MartíJosé Martí is, beyond a doubt, the father of the Cuban nation, a nation nurtured in the wombs of millions of anonymous mothers. He is cited by people on all sides, in favor and against divergent ideas. Was Martí a feminist? In 1889, in the United States, seeing the education that women were given in the tumultuous turn of the century, he wrote: "Women must be educated so that they need not sell kisses in order to buy bread, and can row alone in a turbulent sea, but...it should not be deduced from this that women should be raised as men, and doves made into grasshoppers, since a society needs both sexes, as does a family, and a society without a woman's soul, or with barmaids for wives, would live like a hoard of mercenaries or a Chinatown And the solution, according to the colleges of Smith, Wellesley, Wells, is to educate a woman so that she can support herself honorably, if afflicted by the misfortunate of being alone, but with lessons and habits that are appropriate to the beauty and fineness of her sex.... Above all she should be educated to be married.... Married by the mind as much as by sex, and capable of understanding and rewarding the motives and sacrifices of her husband's toil, of sitting by his side at night to think together, to lift the tribulations from his brow, to build a home."
Was Martí antifeminist, then? I ask the Cuban historian Sonnia Moro. She answers firmly: "Don't look for either feminism or a gender perspective in Martí. When he went to the United States he was stunned to see the `masculinity' of American women, since woman to him meant the Camagueyan Carmen Zayas Bazán, the woman he had left embellishing his house. And in the United States he found women walking in the streets with briefcases, wearing suits. . . These office women clashed with the image of that languid woman he loved. But there was more in Martí than this surprise. He loved a very capable woman, so when he wrote letters to his beloved daughter María Mantilla, he said, `My child, do you think about the world's truth, about knowing, about loving—about knowing in order to be able to love well—to love willingly and with affection? Do you think about free and virtuous work, so that good men will desire you, and bad men respect you, so you will not have to sell the freedom of your heart and your beauty for a meal and a dress?' So let's not get into what Martí couldn't say or use him to hang back on this issue."
UnderdevelopmentAt the time of the revolutionary triumph, women made up only 12-15% of Cuba's economically active population. They were mainly schoolteachers, nurses and criadas or maids, as domestic workers were called. Professional women stood out as exceptional. Prostitution was notoriously widespread. In 1959, in a country of six million people, there were between 90,000 and 100,000 prostitutes, 95% of whom came from the countryside.
An image of the pre-revolutionary Cuban woman is offered by Elena, the flighty female lead in the extraordinary film Memories of Underdevelopment by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Sergio, the middle-class male lead, describes her, superimposing the deepest symptoms of another disease that afflicted Cuba: "Elena proved to be totally inconsistent. She jumps from one thing to another, doesn't relate things. That's one of the signs of underdevelopment: the inability to relate things, to accumulate experience. It's difficult for a woman to be produced here in Cuba who has learned from her feelings and culture. The environment is too soft. A Cuban's talent is entirely wasted in adapting to the moment. People aren't consistent and always need someone to think for them."
That was 1961, 1962. The revolution just getting underway was going to produce the prodigy, to make what was soft, firm. It was going to give the nation and the people consistency, to shape another kind of woman.
THE REVOLUTION CHANGED OUR LIVESStarting on January 1, 1959, from the cape of San Antonio to the point of Maisí, Cuba began to change. The lives of Cuban men and women were rapidly transformed. It was not just the overthrowing of a dictatorship, much less a change of government, or the Latin American reflection of the Cold War or the geostrategic bid of one superpower to destroy the other. It was the construction of a whole other world. And women shared the leading role in this endeavor, alongside men.
Open doorsFor women's lives to change, the first thing they needed was a chance to study, to work, possibilities, opportunities. The children's circles, which took care of the children of women who were stepping outside the doors of their houses for the first time to go work and study, were the first bricks in the building of change. These playgroups began to sprout up all over the island, even before the Federation of Cuban Women was founded. And when the FMC was established in 1960, the first task that Fidel Castro himself charged it with was to continue spreading these new "kinders," as they were called, to put them within everyone's reach.
Thousands of women students left the cities to do literacy work in rural areas. After that, thousands of newly-literate young women left the farms to study in the cities, to learn that the world was larger than the villages they had left behind. Women were 59% of the over 100,000 literacy teachers and 55% of those who learned to read and write in 1960-61. The literacy campaign was followed by training courses in polytechnic schools and universities for the most marginalized women: farmwives, housewives, maids and prostitutes. Little by little, women who bore increasingly less resemblance to Elena began to appear in all spheres of life. And little by little, men who bore increasingly less resemblance to Sergio became aware of this change, and began to change too.
Numbers speak"A revolution within the revolution" is how Fidel described the promotion of women that began in Cuba in 1959. All indicators show that this revolution was a success. Twenty years later, in 1980, the life of Cuban women had changed radically: they were massively present in society and in the world of work, educated and able to decide how many children they would have.
In the first 20 years of the revolution, from 1960 to 1980, the female workforce more than doubled and the fertility rate dropped to just over half of its previous level. After the birthrate increased from 1961-64, it began to decrease in the 1970s.
In 1981, nearly 60% of urban women between 20 and 45 years of age worked outside the home. This percentage was even higher for rural women.
Between 1970 and 1981, the proportion of city women of fertile age with a secondary education level doubled: from 30% to 61%. In rural areas it tripled, surpassing 30%.
These achievements held up over the years that followed. Over 400 million women in the world today are illiterate, but not one is Cuban. And over 100 million children do not begin primary school. None is Cuban.
Rapid and far-reaching changes in the street, far fewer changes in the home. Women took on much more responsibility in the public sphere than men did in the private sphere. In the mid-1970s, concerned that very few women were nominated and elected to positions in the structures of Popular Power, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) did a survey that revealed the different amounts of time that men and women devoted to housework. The film Portrait of Teresa was based on one of these studies. Thus women's double workday, made even heavier by their rapid social integration and the lack of laborsaving devices to lighten housework, became patently clear. The double day was already viewed in those years as a problem—for some, one to be confronted, and for others, accepted with resignation. When Teresa's mother hears her daughter complain about her husband's lack of solidarity, she says fatalistically: "They can say what they will, but women will always be women and men will always be men. God wants it that way. Not even Fidel can change that!"
Federation of Cuban WomenIn 1960, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) was created to bring together all Cuban women over the age of 14 and encourage their personal development—studies, training, orientation, workshops, reproductive health care—and their participation in the tasks of the revolution: voluntary work, militias, internationalist missions. . . More than a few people feel that the FMC's achievements in the early years of the revolution were the most surprising of all the revolutionary organizations. Two examples of these achievements: the FMC virtually eradicated prostitution, giving women who had worked as prostitutes other opportunities to study and work; and it boldly cut down the ancestral machismo of peasant culture by teaching all rural women to read and write.
In the 1960s and 1970s the interests of the majority of Cubans coincided with the proposals of the revolution. They formed two converging paths. Women's issues were dissolved in social issues. The FMC fully represented the interests of Cuban women, it responded adequately to their demands and proposed tasks and goals that helped them grow. But as time passed and women grew, their demands changed and the colors of their dreams became more diverse. From the mid-1980s, the paths became more clearly defined and without becoming divergent, they no longer coincided as much. In 1991, in the huge public opinion survey that provided the inputs to prepare for the IV Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, a significant percentage of women proposed that the FMC be dissolved because it no longer served their needs. The FMC survived, but without changing much. Today, it still represents 97% of Cuban women, over three million women who, despite whatever divergence or distance they feel, continue to punctually pay their monthly quota of 25 cents.
The triple dayThe double day of women who not only work outside the house but also, before going out or after coming home, have to wash, iron, cook, clean and take care of the children, has a prominent place in any analysis of women's situation. The paid workday and the workday that is neither paid nor valued weigh heavily on hundreds of millions of women around the world—Cuban women included, despite so many years of revolution. A 1988 survey showed that in 81% of the homes in an urban municipality of Havana, in 83% of those in a suburban neighborhood of Cienfuegos and in nearly 96% of those in a rural area of Oriente, women continue to do all domestic work alone.
Since the very first years of the revolution, the most typical situation in Cuba has not been the double day but rather the triple day: domestic work, paid work and community work, which is demanded of women by their valuable, significant and multiple revolutionary commitments. Without dropping any of their existing responsibilities, women took on new ones. In addition to their work on the job and at home, all women, in one way or another, became enthusiastically involved in the life of the community: they collaborated in the schools, organized grandparents' circles and youth circles, became social or cultural workers or health brigade workers in the numerous and often festive tasks designed by the Committees to Defend the Revolution.
The familyThe 1970s were the years in which the revolution was institutionalized. The goal was to "put order" into the profound transformations made during the preceding years. In 1975, the Family Code was approved. It stipulates that family relations should be based on love, mutual respect, reciprocal help and shared responsibility. And it presents one version of the family as a norm: the nuclear family, with a father, mother and children.
All studies on the family in Cuba—which were rather late in coming and for a long time fairly simplistic—have tended to present the nuclear family as a point of reference and even an ideal. This is strange because, given the high divorce rate and housing problems, nuclear families have not been particularly prevalent in revolutionary Cuba. This is only one of the criticisms made of the code today, "a piece of legislation that gave great importance to the family, but didn't cover the real problems that exist outside that legal scope," one Cuban researcher told me. Other critics point out that the law devotes more space to regulating divorce than to regulating the family. Some criticize the code for identifying the rights of women with their rights as mothers, as did the labor legislation of the same period, although that identification was a step forward from the pre-revolutionary period. By the end of the 1970s some studies on the family finally began to appear that considered it "in crisis." These studies, at first highly quantitative, highly demographic, have increased today, since the whole of Cuba is in crisis. Some analysts believe that the study of the Cuban family requires going very deeply and very seriously into the topic of race, which has yet to be done. Despite all the code's limitations, one Cuban feminist told me: "The code could be a thousand times better, but I think it helped create a good deal of awareness, in men and women too, of everyday machismo. It wasn't a law that forced anyone to wash dishes at home, but it did make many men aware of the idea that they have to wash the dishes. . . And it taught a lot of women that washing dishes is a men's thing too!"
DivorceCuba has one of the highest divorce rates in the world today, and the figure has increased year after year: from 0.6% of marriages in 1961 to an average of 23.5 divorces for every 100 marriages over the course of the 1990s. Getting marriages just for kicks, or at a very young age—one result of widespread sexual freedom—and the lack of housing, which complicates a couple's life from the very start, play a part in these high rates. Cuban women marry for the first time at the average age of 18.4, the youngest in Latin America.
When they get divorced, Cuban men are legally obliged to pay the woman a monthly support pension. But it is very small and not always given. In the 1980s, the FMC did a study on the issue and found that over 200,000 men did not give a cent to their former wives. The study concluded that the number of irresponsible men was no doubt even higher, but that many women did not denounce them because they were working, felt capable and did not want to have to thank their former husbands for anything.
Heads of householdSingle women—single mothers, widows, or separated or divorced women—head a third of the households on the planet. In Cuba, the percentage is somewhat higher: between 33% and 40%, depending whether the source is official data or not.
In Cuba, unlike in many other Latin American countries, the statistics on the number of households headed by women are not explained only by male irresponsibility, poverty and unemployment. Other, even stronger factors are women's economic independence and educational level, their increased life expectancy and the ease of obtaining a divorce. In addition, more highly educated women insist more on relationships based on affection. With the revolution, the number of consensual unions based on mutual agreement, which are fully recognized by law, also began to increase. By 1987, for every five married women between the ages of 15-49, four others were living in consensual unions.
The education of childrenThe Children and Youth Code was passed in the late 1970s. It recognizes the role and authority of the family in the physical, moral and spiritual development of the young, without failing to emphasize the state's responsibility in their education.
The revolution broke up Cuban families. It dispersed them. The massive exile separated thousands of families and still keeps them apart. The internationalist brigades, also massive, created deep fractures. The scholarships for adolescents and young people from the provinces and so many other "tasks of the revolution" have created a far more diverse family than in other Latin American countries. Cuban sociologist Manuel Calviño makes this comment on the family's responsibilities in educating children: "Cuban adults were called upon to take leading roles in society of such importance that this limited their possibility of focusing on family life: fathers separated from their children for long periods of time to carry out unavoidable tasks; mothers who work, attend meetings and take part in agricultural activities in the countryside—this is not the traditional prototype." And he adds a fundamental point that helps explain the logic of the Cuban family forged in the revolutionary process: "Here, a man can be paid for 14 hours of work a day, but no one ever asks about his children. The reaffirmation of Cuban men, and women too, is not for their participation in the family but rather for their participation in society. I don't know a single leader, worker, or doctor, male or female, whose efficiency has been questioned because of a lack of attention to family."
The world of workIn the 1980s, women's participation in world of work was a reality evident to anyone. Women were present in all areas of the economy, and one out of every three women was already a technician or professional, a very high figure in the Latin American context. Over ten years later, 60% of the country's technicians, professionals and scientists are women. They can be found in every field: engineers, miners, geologists, economists, biotechnologists. . .
The professional training was of a very high level and covered thousands and thousands of women. But that was not enough. They worked, but not everything they had learned was made use of. They worked, but they did not lead. They worked, but they continued to be "inferior." In the 1980s, journalist Mirta Rodríguez Calderón, a pioneer in the application of a gender focus in Cuba, compiled into a book various reports she had written for Bohemia magazine following up on a wide number of different cases. "I wanted to use them to show how women were discriminated against at work," said Rodríguez, "how they were mistreated by their bosses, how some were even abused, and how they received preferential treatment if they were pretty. And I wanted to show it emphasizing that although it might happen in any country, in Cuba it was nothing short of scandalous."
"How is it possible that in work places where the majority of workers are women, all of the bosses—or almost all of them—are usually men?" she asked.
According to her book, women made up 98% of the work force in the textile industry in those days, yet all of the bosses were men. Many young women did not want a career because they were sure they would end up in jobs that were completely unrelated to their studies. For example, Mirta talked to a female chemical engineer who specialized in sugar technology but was frustrated to see her male colleagues find jobs in keeping with their professional training while for her and her female colleagues their engineering qualifications never made it past their diplomas. In those years the Sugar Industry Ministry had 1,378 workers: 769 men and 609 women. The 6 vice-ministers and 32 directors were all men, as were 96 of the 108 heads of department, a situation that did not change greatly over the years. Despite having so many possibilities and so many opportunities to study, only 4.6% of all female Cuban workers occupied managerial positions when the crisis started in 1990.
Today it is obvious that women workers form the majority in the service sector (they account for 61% of the total work force) and in the administrative sector (88%), demonstrating that the universal tendency for women entering the job market to find work in areas that reflect what they already do at home is also true for Cuba.
In the decision-making worldIn 1997, women occupied 30.5% of the managerial posts in the state's central administration. Their participation was higher at the middle and lower managerial levels. The same pattern was true of union posts, where 56% of grassroots union leaders were women, but the percentages dropped on the way up the ladder: 41.6% at the municipal level, 32.7% at the provincial level and 26% at the national level.
Alba Aguirre, a Cuban official working for the United Nations Population Fund made the following comment on her return from the 1996 Beijing Women's Summit: "The situation in Cuba projects a self-confident woman armed with knowledge and abilities, which are the very qualities defined in the Summit's final document as the necessary conditions to enable women to participate in development. But are we fully participating in Cuba? Are we present at those levels where policies are designed and decided, where the government is organized or where public life is determined?"
In the political worldAccording to the United Nations, Cuba ranks fifteenth in the world and first in the American continent in terms of female representation in political posts, thus demonstrating that the concept of joint democracy is being put into practice. The highest numbers of women who ran for and were elected to seats in the Popular Power Assemblies were recorded in 1986, a year of great stability, but by the 1997 municipal elections and the 1998 provincial and national ones, the numbers had fallen off. In 1998, 17.2% of the representatives voted in to the National Assembly of Popular Po
wer by the Cuban people were women; five years earlier the figure was 22.7%. In 1991, women accounted for 16% of the PCC Central Committee and 12% of its Politbureau. In October 1997 the Bureau was reduced to 25 members, only two of whom are women. Even so, these figures are high compared to other Latin American countries. The average percentage of women in Latin American legislative bodies is 10%, while a mere 3% of the region's women hold posts with effective influence over decision-making processes.
"The figures are better than those of other countries," a female Cuban political analyst granted, "but besides being disappointing, because if we had a revolution here it was to change things, the figures are also deceptive. When women get to parliament, they tend to ape the positions taken up by their male colleagues when they speak—if they speak. I've never heard any of the female representatives talking from their own experiences as women. They talk from a position of power, and you can only tell they're women from their voices. They talk from a male position, alluding to the revolution or the matter under discussion, but without bringing a woman's perspective to the issue being debated. And this happens because most Cuban women are still not very familiar with the concept of gender."
Another analyst also questioned the impact of the figures: "Yes, they get into power, but once there they don't contribute to designing policies that would give greater numbers of women access to power, real power. They are authoritarian and imitate the men. I call them mustachioed women."
Reproductive HealthOne of the first slogans that accompanied the transformation of the lives of Cuban women at the beginning of the revolution proclaimed that "Children are born to be happy." Since then, childbirth has ceased to be a risk for women. Children began to be born into a safe world where they were guaranteed the foundations of happiness. The indicators improved with every passing year, and today they compare favorably to those of the world's most developed countries.
All pregnant Cuban women are guaranteed between 11 and 15 free prenatal check-ups and 99.9% of them give birth in appropriately equipped maternity wards.
The maternal mortality rate is now 2.6 deaths for every 10,000 live births, one of the lowest in the world. The infant mortality rate is 6.9 deaths for every 1,000 live births, placing Cuba among the 25 countries with the lowest rates, alongside Germany and Switzerland.
Subsidies are legally guaranteed during pregnancy, maternity and breast-feeding. Women are also provided with ongoing and organized preventative health care.
The possibility of family planning has been a priority, and now 85 of every 100 women of a fertile age use some kind of contraception. All women have the right to terminate their pregnancy up to the third month and abortions are safe and free.
Concern is now mounting about the problem of adolescent pregnancies in Cuba. In 1997, 14% of women who gave birth were under 20. This is the result not of poverty or lack of education, as in other Latin American countries, but of an intensity of sexual relationships—some would call it promiscuity—that has been encouraged in Cuba by everything from playgroups to scholarships to the so-called "country schools" for secondary and pre-university students. Inadequate or nonexistent sexual education and organizational and functional problems have encouraged unequal exchanges of love for sex, or more equal exchanges of sex for sex but involving a degree of irresponsibility or superficiality. The tendency is for adolescents to have sexual relations from an early age.
Has the education system failed them? Has the state not instilled values in the children? There are no easy answers. According to a sociologist friend of mine, "There is an area of individual behavior that only the family can influence and, as the state didn't trust the family, it did everything possible to weaken it and took on all education responsibilities to guarantee complete loyalty. The high rates of early pregnancy are one expression of the price we've had to pay for this policy."
Adolescent girls also frequently resort to abortion, which has become a common form of birth control. "They arrive at the hospital alone, quite calm. It's a very quick process. I saw dozens arrive in a couple of hours and watched two buckets fill up with placentas," I was told by a foreigner who got ill in Cuba and had the chance to see this daily reality firsthand.
New proposals are beginning to emerge. I heard the following from a young woman radio announcer on one of Radio Rebelde's Sunday programs: "The sex education that is being given is too anatomical, too superficial. Sex, the sexual act, needs to be given a more spiritual connotation." The language accompanying the message is still too rigid and schematic and further debate is needed where doubts and contradictions crop up, but it is an important first step.
ViolenceThe conviction that hitting a woman "is not manly" has been incorporated into Cuban machismo for a long time now, but only because women are seen as "weaker." Perhaps this subtle form of machismo has protected Cuban women from the high and alarming levels of physical violence suffered by women in other Latin American countries. The revolution added further containing walls to this one, erected by traditional machismo itself, by unleashing massive educational and cultural processes among men and women. The macho violence most common in Cuba is more subtle and is expressed in the possessive relations that men establish over women, and in the consequences of the violence, largely psychological, that grows out of this possessiveness.
Although there are certainly expressions of physical violence, sexual abuse and incest in Cuba, they are not reflected in the mass media, which only report on the worst cases, and with no traces of sensationalism, understanding that the media are not the right places to publicize this kind of tragedy.
Homosexuals and lesbiansRight from the start, the Cuban revolution rejected any manifestation of homosexuality, especially among men. In the 1960s, homosexuals or suspected homosexuals were interned in "special units" so they wouldn't "contaminate" the ranks of the army, and men who were considered effeminate or affected were rounded up in the streets. Manuel told me that homosexuals in workplaces and study centers were expelled in "authentic Roman circuses." He now tearfully regrets having participated in such inquisitions in the school of architecture. Over the years, such intolerant attitudes have slowly been rectified, but the Party and party youth still keep gays and lesbians at arms length, considering them inept or incapable of upholding the exemplary image demanded of the militant vanguard.
Cuban society has become increasingly tolerant since the distant and intolerant 1970s depicted in the film Strawberry and Chocolate. When so much is invested in educating people, millions of neurons trained in new synapses will lead society towards a greater tolerance of those who think or act differently and towards greater respect for social diversity. In several municipalities, the cultural sectors of popular power now include enthusiastically applauded drag shows as part of their presentations. The film El último bolero, about lesbianism, is now premiering in Havana and is a box office hit. The director of the nighttime radio program "Casa de Cristal" is a lesbian, which everybody knows because she openly says so. "The revolutionary process has not been static, it has undergone change," she commented one night. "It has been demonstrated that the roots of homophobia don't go all that deep in Cuban soil. This also shows that we're ready for change."
The triumph of LucíaIt is impossible to measure the most profound gain made by women as a result of the many transformations that took place during the first three decades of the revolution. Along with high education levels and the body of laws governing equality, Cuban women also collectively and massively came to feel both their own value as people and their responsibilities within society. They developed in the worlds of work and of politics, and at home they became freer to choose and to leave their partners, they enjoyed their sexual relations more and they won control over their own fertility. On what scale is such a colossal advance measured?
The film Lucía by Humberto Solás painted an unforgettable picture of male-female love, of feminine sensitivity and of women's position in society through its depiction of three "Lucías" in three defining moments of Cuban history: 1895, 1927 and 1960.
The Lucía of 1895, when Cuba was still a Spanish colony, breaks out of the confinement imposed upon white bourgeois women who only prayed and sewed, to wander insanely through the streets of Trinidad, betrayed by a married man who denounced her brother, an independence fighter.
The Lucía of 1927, a middle-class woman of mixed race, works in a tobacco factory in Cienfuegos. Her political consciousness and her love for a man committed to the fight against the Machado dictatorship lead her to conspire and put herself at risk, but she is unable to balance an unequal relationship and ends up alone.
The Lucía of 1960 is a peasant woman who works, learns to read and write, enjoys her relationship with her partner, fights with him and is capable of confronting him and demanding egalitarian love from him. The laughing little peasant girl at the end of the film represents confidence in the future: Lucía will win the fight against machismo.
Was the child wrong? Was the feeling that Lucía could triumph just an innocent dream from the first heady years of the revolution? How many battles have women and men actually won against machismo in Cuba? The crisis has served to reveal the great advances made... and just how much remains to be achieved.
THE HEROINES OF THE SPECIAL PERIODWhen the walls of Eastern Europe began to fall in 1989 and the USSR began splitting up into separate republics, everything in Cuba began to enter into crisis. There is nowhere on earth today where people are not talking about crises; the century is drawing to a close amid crises in the financial stock exchanges and in ethical values. The crisis in Cuba is known as the "special period" and it is indeed special, not in any festive sense but rather because it is so particular to the island. Suddenly everything--or almost everything--changed for a population that was used to acceptable standards of living, personal security and social stability. Above all, the special period means uncertainty. In 1989 the majority of Cubans viewed the past with pride, the present with security and the future with optimism. But overnight, food, electricity, water, transport, work, salaries, even the straight line of the horizon began to waver. It is generally agreed that women bear the main daily burden of this prolonged crisis, and that their sacrifices, solidarity and creativity have been most responsible for cushioning its impact.
Sacrifices for family and countryWomen have been forced to give up their permanent or temporary jobs to tackle the crisis at home, and many of those who continue to work can only do so because there is another woman at home helping out. A lot of women are retiring before the age of 55 or putting aside their professional aspirations in order to improvise some kind of breakfast, lunch and supper at home, queue for hours to buy what there is whenever it becomes available, work out how to deal with the shortages and care for old or disabled parents and in-laws on shrinking resources.
Perhaps the most "special" thing about this crisis is that the majority of Cuban women are making all these sacrifices not only for the survival of their family and their children—as is the case in any country—but also for the survival of the revolutionary project.
Working and unemployed womenAlthough Cuba's economic adjustment is "special," it has resulted in structural unemployment, just like in other countries. Many factories have shut down and the country is fighting hard to maintain quality levels in health care and education. Since women were traditionally a minority among laborers and the majority in the health sector (80% of mid- and higher-level technicians) and in education (87% of primary school and 54% of secondary school teachers), they have been less affected by unemployment. The high level of their participation (42%) in the priority sectors of tourism and research has also helped restrict female unemployment. Most women who are currently unemployed were associated with various sectors of the country's light industry. Women are 46% of the "available" workers, as the unemployed are known in Cuba.
I read a pertinent and worrying report from a concerned journalist in a February 1997 edition of Bohemia:
"Although I've been looking for some time, I have been unable to find a particular figure for the analysis of the current relation between women and work: how much of the nation's general salary fund is paid out to women? I have concluded that, as vice-minister Mayra Lavigne had already assured me, the National Statistics Office doesn't have such a figure and that in fact it does not exist.
"Nonetheless, it seems to me a very important thing to know. Some time ago the theoretician Kate Young, a specialist in this area, defined the categories of condition and position. They are illuminating when applied to a gender-based analysis of employment: it may be true that 42.3% of women have the condition of being workers, but what positions do they hold? How many are bosses of organizations, directors or presidents; how many have their own offices and make it up onto the political rostrum? This is something you can tell from the salary, so the figure is well worth knowing. It is generally known that men and women receive equal salaries, but I'm not so sure that women occupy an equal number of the best paid positions."
She also pointed out that it is also almost impossible in Cuba to find out what percentage of food is produced in the countryside by women, nor has any willingness been expressed to quantify in the country's Gross Domestic Product the unpaid work done by women.
The most impoverishedOne of the economic changes that the Cuban government decided to make when it could no longer guarantee full employment among the working population was the authorization of self-employed work. Excessively regulated, stigmatized by official ideology and subject to continuous fluctuations over the past four years, the cuentapropistas, as those who work for themselves are known, have been able to "get by." In February 1997, women made up an estimated 30% of the self-employed overall, and were an indisputable majority in the area of food preparation as well as among those selling foods door to door, sometimes illegally.
Cuba has made economic changes without accompanying them with specific, gender-based policies. Neither the inevitable structural unemployment nor the authorization of self-employed work took sufficient account of women. When at the end of 1996 the government hiked the taxes on cuentapropistas, food preparation was one of the most heavily taxed sectors. Did nobody link the hike with the high percentage of women in that category and high percentage of women who are heads of household? Then in 1997 high taxes were established for people who rented private rooms to tourists. Again, had any cross-connections been made it would have been obvious that the majority of people renting rooms were women, many of them single.
As a result of the avalanche of economic adaptations that the island has been forced to make, the idea of a feminization of poverty, which is such a talking point in the rest of Latin America, can now also be applied to Cuba for the first time, although admittedly to a lesser extent.
Homeward boundFor those who do work, the crisis has made the double day harder and more complicated. There are shortages of electricity, water and soap, and when such things become available people are already worrying about the next round of shortages. Although men—especially retired grandfathers—now help out more, home is also a breeding ground for machismo in both its cruder and more subtle forms. At the same time, the triple day has become either extremely complicated or been abandoned. Women's political and social participation has dropped since it demands a tremendous degree of personal sacrifice.
"Nowadays, if a woman is offered a position of responsibility she won't accept it, not even in jest. With so much to do in the house we've got enough on our hands; it wears us out and we can't even cope with everything that has to be done at home, let alone take on any more," said one woman who since 1994 has turned down any responsibility outside her own four walls.
According to another, "When I vote, I vote for men as popular power delegates because they have more time to dedicate to the job, they have greater possibilities. I know that a woman can't do that, and if she's my friend I certainly won't vote for her. I'm not going to do her the disfavor of electing her because I know that she can't do it!"
ProstitutionThe Cuban economy has been trying to adapt to the new global situation since 1989. It has made a great effort on all fronts. Every day Cuba wins some battles and loses others. The only way out is to open a closed and guaranteed economy to the uncertainties of today's world economy. First-world investors, businesspeople and tourists who were once rejected are now welcomed to the island with open arms because their dollars, projects, firms and contacts are absolutely crucial if Cuba is to survive and continue developing. Around these foreigners who now enjoy a position of privilege, a world of prostitution has evolved which, although predominantly female, also involves males.
The prostitutes, or jineteras, are now one of the most visible and controversial signs of the Cuban crisis. The FMC and official discourse tend to interpret this reality as a minority expression of a crisis in moral values. "We're told that there's no reason for jineterismo to exist because people are guaranteed all their basic necessities: health, housing, education, a plate of beans... But it's very difficult to tell young people in Cuba that this is enough. Maybe it would be for the girls in Latin American shanty towns, but here it's just not enough," I was told.
Other unofficial, more complex interpretations refer to the jineteras as the protagonists of a very particular survival strategy in which they—unlike other Latin American women—maintain control of the situation. They use their work to provide them not only money for their families and even others in their neighborhood, but also a romantic adventure, a knife to cut through the special period's drudgery and shortages, and a pass to the hotels, discos, beaches and luxuries of the tourist-based apartheid system. Not only does the community not reject the jineteras, it sometimes openly supports and even admires them, while they themselves maintain a high degree of self-esteem.
After a few years of "unorganized jineterismo," the main problem now is the pimps who have created their own prostitution networks around these girls. According to official figures, 60% of the jineteras have one or more pimps. As with other areas in Cuba, prostitution provides various comparative advantages or opportunities. As sociologist Aurelio Alonso put it, "I don't know what hope there is for the thousands of prostitutes in Bogotá who live in misery. I think that we can treat the challenge of prostitution in Cuba with more lucidity than other social systems have been or will be able to attempt."
Lost battlesThe biggest change taking place in Cuba can't be expressed by figures, indicators or analysis. "Everything we have built up could fall apart," a worried friend told me. "My granddaughter said yesterday that she wanted to marry a foreigner... so she could have pretty things. The mere fact that this has even crossed her mind is a warning sign. Today, little boys want to study to be tourists when they grow up and little girls think that the jineteras are the most beautiful young women. Today these little girls want to be like my mother was, rather than like me. They want to get married and play the contented pretty wife to a man who maintains them. They're losing the battles that we won, and without even realizing it!"
The FMC's official discourse appears terribly flat in the face of such developments. It isn't taking on the complexity, the twists and turns of the social labyrinth that makes up Cuba today. The declaration of the V Plenary session of the Federation's National Committee, which took place in February 1998, stated that: "After 1959, Fidel gave us women the privilege of being the first to advance... We are now worthy, complete, educated and free: that is the greatest victory that we have attained through the revolution... In the past we were excluded, subordinated and oppressed, and our work always went unnoticed, but now we are the visible protagonists of a heroic exploit..."
But it is no longer enough simply to applaud heroism. Women are the most affected by the loss of many of the revolution's achievements. Although this is not openly talked about, it is something that needs to be discussed, and it should be Cuban women themselves who voice the many things that need to be said, the many things that they have still not said.
MUCH REMAINS TO BE DONEThe Cuban economy hit rock bottom between 1992 and 1993. Those were the bitterest months of the crisis. Factories were paralyzed, blackouts were continuous and cuts were made in the rations of all of the products obtained with the "booklet." The countryside was unproductive and there were shortages in the cities. There was a surplus of uncertainty and a deficit of food. Stress was a national, collective phenomenon. Absolutely everyone lost ten, fifteen or twenty pounds in weight. The combination of little food and a whole lot of bicycling meant that people who had been growing fat in their sedentary lifestyles became slender again while most everybody else was reduced to skin and bones. The shine went out of people's eyes and it became harder to smile. Through the back door of this misery entered a previously unknown epidemic. Peripheral neuropathy weakened the body's motor system, creating temporal disability and affecting eyesight. The number of cases increased across the island and in all sectors until some 40,000 people were suffering from it. Although no definitive, official explanation was given for this illness,
there was no need to look for strange causes. The neuropathy was the result of a highly deficient diet, almost completely lacking in proteins, vitamins and minerals. The vitamin compound distributed by the government to all Cubans several months later was enough to force the epidemic into retreat. Yolanda tells me of her experience with this dreadful debility. "I was one of the many women who suffered from periphery neuropathy in 1992. I had spent a long time eating very little, and what little there was in the house I put aside for my son. My husband ate at work, but when he got home he wanted more. So I gave it to him and ate less and less. I ended up falling on the floor, dragging myself along; I didn't even have the strength to switch on the radio. I felt like I was going to die. And it was in this shattered state of weakness that I realized just how much I had renounced over so many years, even for years before the special period started..."
The neuropathy will remain as a painful symbol of the moment the Cuban crisis reached its worst point. But when you touch bottom, the only way is up. Maybe very slowly and little by little, but up nonetheless. And while the neuropathy affected 40-year-old Yolanda's brown eyes, it also served to open them so she could better understand her life.
The special period has been a great eye-opener, truly revealing for the Cuban people. Among the many revelations, gender should be given a central place in the ensuing debate. More and more voices are beginning to be heard: the voices of revolutionary women, of members of the FMC, women who, while they recognize how far they have come, are also insisting that there is still a long way to go. And though these voices may be disorganized and impetuous, we should listen to them as they first appear to us: the primal lava from which life itself springs.
"Yes, we have guaranteed health and education. We have laws, we work, we participate in the economy, we don't die in childbirth. . . And that's great, isn't it? Not all women in the world have that, right? But one isn't always sick, isn't always studying, isn't always giving birth! How are we going to be satisfied with that if we made a revolution, if we've won much more? We know that the problems of women in Latin America are tremendous: women are illiterate, they don't have clean water, they don't own their own bodies, they die in childbirth, they have no way to do family planning. . . For us that's prehistory! Compared to them we have a lot, but why compare ourselves with other countries? Let's compare ourselves with us! If we've struggled 40 years, we ought to have achieved much more!"
"We've let ourselves atrophy here. Look at what Roberto Robaina said in his closing speech for 1993. . . that `our mothers have been a stellar rearguard, silent heroines who carry out the small domestic feat of serving our table each day. . .' Our mothers, our women! Our, our, our! The official discourse is ultramachista. And it calls us a `stellar rearguard.' What rearguard if we're the very tip of the vanguard right now, if we are the resistance!? Doesn't he know that without the `small domestic feat' of eating everyday he wouldn't be on his feet, that without us he wouldn't be functioning? And the worst thing is that nobody is aware of it or says it to him!"
"We women are snowed under by the daily tasks, by survival, thinking about what to cook, about how the stove is broken and whether a cyclone is coming. . . They say that people are getting more selfish every day. No, don't be silly, there's a lot of solidarity. When the special period is studied, it will be seen that those who once again saved this revolution are the women. If the women hadn't `invented' everything, from making an old dress over into a new one to going by bicycle with your kid hanging on behind to take him to the circus, it wouldn't have resisted. We're still the ones who eat the chicken's crest and give the good pieces to everybody else. We're the ones who go to the parents' meetings, who know what's going on with the children, who are talking care of the elders. . . We women are all stressed out today. It isn't easy. . ."
"Listen, a joke about stress, to lower the pressure. . . The husband calls the nut ward to explain his wife's insanity symptoms to the doctor. `She goes around all day,' he tells the doctor, `shouting from the balcony: "I'm the waitress from the National Hotel! I'm the waitress from the National Hotel!" What's wrong with her, doc? `What your wife is suffering from,' the doctor calmly explains, `is called delusions of grandeur. Her problem is that she can't accept that she's just a neurosurgeon.'"
"What has never been accepted here is feminism. Feminism in Cuba has always been something dangerous, suspect, unnatural. Feminist? That's a woman who rejects men, who wants to do away with them altogether, who speaks of no longer wanting to `sleep with the enemy'. . . And it's not just against men who don't understand, there are a bunch of women who are accustomed to thinking: how am I going to be a feminist if I believe that we can't live without men? Feminism? Many people also see it as the exact same thing as lesbianism; they don't differentiate. There's a lot of ignorance. . ."
"I'm doing my thesis on how gender equity is reflected in socio-labor conditions. I'm finding a lot of human understanding among my colleagues, but very little comprehension of the concept. They don't know what gender is. Gender? It's interpreted in Cuba simply as equal rights. I haven't been able to put together a team for my work; they don't understand and I don't know how to make myself understood."
"One speaks of feminism, tries to create awareness, and they say to you, `Hey girl, what else do you want? You have a career, you work, you got a divorce when you felt like it, you planned and had the children that you wanted, you wear your hair short, you go around in pants and ride a motorcycle. . . What more do you want?"
"We exist and we don't realize it. We're here but we don't see ourselves, we aren't seen. . . In a 1988 investigation headed up by the Federation it was demonstrated that only one woman was included in the news for every ten men who appeared. And when women did show up in the news, it was either in their home or in the street or in the shops, whereas men appeared in the work centers or in the political spaces. By 1991 the proportion had improved: a woman was included for every four men, but the settings were the same as before."
"Take a look at all the patriotic messages of the revolution. Patriotic messages are almost invariably linked to virility, to manhood. The revolution always gives `virile responses' to Yankee imperialism. Here the only merit is to `have balls'. . . Look at this billboard, look at the flagstaff: it's a phallus."
"Here, look at these data: in the last electoral process, 98% of all electoral propaganda was geared to men and drafted only in masculine language. . . The federation only prepared 2% of the electoral messages to be directed to women. How does that grab you?"
"Socialism liberated women by putting them to work. Done deal. If you were salaried, you were liberated; if you worked productively, you had already broken your chains. In the socialism that we learned, everything was so easy, everything went in a straight line: society emancipated itself from capitalism and was now happy; everything was now functioning. Women emancipated themselves economically and were now free. The family subordinated you; work liberated you. What sheer foolishness, gentlemen!"
"The Cuban Federation of Women ended up hanging way back. The Federation's logo is a woman carrying a small child and she has a rifle slung over her shoulder. Its discourse makes a lot of references to mothers, to `our' sons, to `our' responsibility in our children's education; it talks about `mother and family'. . . But the family doesn't belong to women! Women and family, no; women and society! The official discourse has been getting more and more conservative, unrelated to what has happened in Cuba."
"Is the question whether the Federation is now just an empty shell? The answer varies a lot from block to block. It depends a lot on the composition of the group, on how well the women in the neighborhood get along, how much affinity there is. On the day of the Federation's party you can see three blocks that are all dark and a fourth one full swing into a great party. Perhaps one of the most solid projects that the Federation has today is the Women's Centers, which are organized by municipality, by neighborhood. Some offer yoga, others aerobic exercises. They also help resolve marital problems. They no longer suggest only political activities, like at the beginning."
"Well, for me the Federation is empty and doesn't even have a shell! I'm 37, born in 1960 when the revolution was, and went to the Niños Mártires de Chapultepec children's circle and the Lenin School. I ate red flag and shat hammer and sickle; I was formed in that stuff and learned to respect everything about the revolution. I recognize that the Federation did a lot of great things, but today it no longer resolves anything for you, not even the playgroup. Everything changed in Cuba. And that's why people leave, why they commit suicide or why they keep quiet, but I'm not going to leave or kill myself, and I'm sure not going to keep quiet!"
"Did the revolution change the historical construction of sexuality or leave it like it was? That debate has yet to happen in Cuba. Nothing is said about it. The revolution modified that very little; it didn't get into that issue. In Cuba machismo is the natural thing, the unchangeable thing, something genetic, atemporal, an attribute of Latin men, their right, their duty. . . The most one can aspire to is to moderate it a bit in conversation, above all if we women are present. They only manage to curb their ridiculing tongue a little bit, but cut putting us down out of their lives? Impossible!"
"Cuban society is very permissive and liberal, and at the same time very conservative with respect to sexuality. It's very contradictory. If one hears that some research was done in Costa Rica showing that some percentage of women don't have orgasms, it creates a major stir here because: us? No, that doesn't happen to us! It never happens to even one of us! But how do we know? If they put a French movie on TV in which you can see everything, no problem, but if a girl in a Cuban movie unzips the man's fly, everybody's commenting by the next day that children shouldn't see that. . . This society is very contradictory, and we have to figure out why we're like that. There aren't enough studies about Cuban sexuality."
"What there is here is an institutionalized double standard. It has long been an institution in this country, and continued to be after the revolution, which didn't touch such things. Here, when a man went off to the war in Angola, if the Party knew that his woman who stayed in Cuba had another partner, it went and told the man when he came back and put a lot of heavy pressure on him to divorce her. And if he didn't do it, he had to give back his party membership card. A hero of the Ministry of the Interior or the Revolutionary Armed Forces couldn't lose his image, he couldn't allow his woman to have cheated on him. But nobody in the Party got upset if he came back from Angola having had I don't know how many partners there and left kids sprinkled all over the place. That didn't matter. The woman had to behave herself in Cuba like a vestal, waiting for him with a chastity belt on. And the man, total liberty. It sounds medieval, doesn't it? But that happened only a few short years ago."
"So many changes in public life, in society, didn't guarantee equal changes in private life. Those two worlds were divorced from each other. The social recognition of women in public life didn't mean that we were given equal recognition in private life. The men were revolutionaries in their workplace, in the nucleus, in the union, but they walked into their house and were no longer revolutionaries. A load of reactionaries, conservatives! I call them machista-leninistas!"
"It's not that men don't understand what feminism is, what gender is, what all that stuff means. Women understand it less, and nothing helps them understand it. I think that the Federation doesn't want them to understand. As if equality between men and women were already achieved, as if equality could be taken for granted. And it's at a standstill!"
"Although some things are now established. . . My generation knocked itself out in individual struggle in the home; and my daughter now has another mentality, machismo doesn't get inside her so easily. Girls now are better than their mothers. And machismo has retreated: more fathers picking up their children at school, more fathers taking their children to the doctor. Things aren't so serious among young people as they were in our time, and there's more equity."
"But it's the special period that has jumbled everything up, with advances and setbacks. You've seen how religiosity has taken off, haven't you? And the religions are quite machista. I dont know much about other religions, but in the abakuá religion the man is everything. Absolutely everything. It's the height of machismo. We women can't even belong to that religion."
"Everything is telling us that something's wrong, that something is failing. One reads any political document and finds nothing anywhere that reflects the specific perspective of women. It's not just that in the language no one ever says los cubanos y las cubanas; that's not the point. It's not always necessary to go after the `os' and `as' in every word. It's that were not taken into account, we're not seen, we don't see ourselves. We're not only not in the language; our specific sets of problems aren't ever talked about. And this society has already diversified so much that you have to talk about specific problems. We Cuban women have specific problems in this crisis. I say that starting to change the language we use to talk about reality would be a first step, and a revolutionary step."
MAGIN: VOICES FOR A HISTORY All these voices were already being heard in Cuba, sharply, insistently, in higher or lower tones, when this history took place. It is the history of a revolutionary step taken by revolutionary women within the revolutionary Federation of Cuban Women.
In 1993 a group of Cuban women got together, joined forces as a group and began to take original and unheard-of initiatives. They created the Association of Women Communications Workers and called it Magín, a word in old Castilian that means intelligence and inspiration, talent and imagination. Image. The image of women. For three years Magín was an exceptional experience, one that made the profile of women, the many changes that the revolution accomplished in women and the still-pending changes, evident to the women who participated in it--and to the circle of people it reached. In September 1996, Magín was dissolved by the decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba in the name of national "unity." In a system like Cuba's, the immense majority of society never even learned that Magín had been born, much less that it grew and that it died--or was "deactivated" to use the word of the women who belonged to it. It's time to tell its story. I'll try to do it through the voices of a group of women who participated in that experience.
"In February 1993 the First Ibero-American `Women and Communication' Congress was held in Havana. Many women communications workers from all over Latin America and other countries came. We heard them speak of `gender,' and analyze `from the gender perspective.' We Cuban women were there without a good idea of how to talk or what to say... We realized we had to bring ourselves up to date. Magín grow out of that congress. In Cuba, of course, all that new `gender' language, which contained a new vision, already existed, but it was for an official elite and for export. In the United Nations and in international events the women who represented Cuba's official delegation were already speaking about gender and their analyses were based on it, and there was already a pile of materials in the Federation center that talked about gender. But at the level of the Fed eration's base, nothing about nothing..."
"At that congress a group of us who participated realized not that we women were missing out on some spaces, because we already know that. What we realized is that we hadn't conceptualized those holes very well, that we still hadn't given form to so many of the things yet to be done."
"We may know about some realities intuitively by being intelligent, but lack the conceptual apparatus that helps one be more conscious of that reality. That was what happened to us. Really this gender thing is the simplest theory in the world, because when you assimilate it your blindfold falls off and you can go full speed ahead. The sooner you rip it off the faster you can run if you're a woman. You can read all the tomes of Marx and Engels and never become a Marxist, but not with this; this is really easy to understand. . ."
"In any policy of the Cuban revolution you can find a clear willingness to achieve equality between men and women. That equity is the ideal of the revolution. But willingness runs up against reality, against the culture. And culture doesn't change all that fast. That's why we thought it was important to work toward that cultural change through the media, and with women who were already inside the media. We founders of Magín were doing daily news reporting, interviews, programs, soap operas, spots. We were talking to a lot of people every day. We would be able to massify the gender perspective. Cuba already has all the potential to make that effort successfully."
"In creating Magín we decided to begin through the media, but starting from a very broad concept of `media.' We didn't want only journalists, radio broadcasters, publicists... We also began to bring in teachers. Who's a better multiplier of messages than them? And family doctors, who also multiply messages. And popular power representatives and academics and researchers. . . The task we gave ourselves was to discover the concept of gender and apply it to the work that each one of us was already doing."
"We in Magín were the ones who began to point out that you can't just put headlines with masculine articles in the newspapers; we were the ones who insisted that Cuban television couldn't be `white' because the Cuban population is multiracial. . . There had never been research in Cuba into sexist bias in the media, but many women work in the media. About 54% of the television technicians are women, 40% of the radio workers are women, 13% of the film directors. In the newspaper Granma, 26% of the reporters are women; in Juventud Rebelde 30%; in the magazine Bohemia 39%. Women are 45% of those who work in the National Information Agency, as are 50% of the Social Communication students. Despite all that, the majority of all these women communicators, many of them with management posts, had no gender consciousness. The field for work was huge."
"We set up several teams; one to study the image of women in the media and start enriching it; another to prepare communication products that would reflect the variety of races in Cuba; a team to promote audiovisual initiatives; a gender and ecology team; one to procure `quality with tenderness' in health services; another to produce gender spots for radio and TV; a team to start moving the issue of domestic violence from the private plane to the public one; a team to prepare materials on feminine sexuality; another to do investigative journalism on the changes occurring among Cuban women in the different stages of the revolution. We planned a series of publications: on culture for the crisis, on self-esteem, on women without history and women with history. . . We had a lot of projects."
"What was the Federation doing when we created Magín? In those years its propaganda was all about the crisis we were in. The FMC wasn't yet thinking about propaganda to get women moving, to give them what we now know is called empowerment or self-esteem. Its propaganda and its initiatives weren't prepared from a gender perspective. The propaganda was very institutional: it only put out what the Federation was doing, and how well it had done it. That was part of why many professional women found in Magín a way to go forward. That was Magín's secret and its magic: we would bring the women's issue into the ideological terrain through the professional abilities of each one of us."
"Look at one example. We have a quality public health system in Cuba. Magín's project spoke of `quality with tenderness.' Why? In Cuba a woman who decides to have an abortion does so with total freedom and safety, but she may not find a gentle hand beside her. It's the same for the woman about to give birth: she has the best equipment, but may lack a soothing word at her side. And at times she needs that gentle hand, that soothing word from other women, and they don't do it. . . What's going on? What's happened is that the subjective factors have always been ignored; there's always been a disparaging of the subjective and of the individual. So that also became our terrain."
"And not only the subjective. Our health system has always had objective holes. Gender gaps aren't taken into account, for example. All the conditioning that makes women get sick more isn't taken into account, like the fact that they give the food to the children, to their husband, that they're overburdened and stressed out with all the domestic work. . . At the level of primary attention, for example, the clinical histories lack any gender vision, to such an extreme that if you cover up the patient's name on the sheet, you don't know if you're dealing with a man or a woman, because no specific questions are asked in the questionnaire that allow you to know. When we discovered this, something as simple as this, and explained it to our colleagues, it caused a major impact and they began to design changes. It seems impossible to imagine, but nobody had ever thought of it."
"We also decided to look at television programming with a gender eye. The soap opera. There's one scene in which the man is sitting down and the woman comes and serves him coffee. Why don't we ever put in a woman sitting down and have a man bring her a cup of coffee, so that millions of people would say, `Wow, a man bringing a woman coffee?' It's a small message, but it gets into the subconscious and stays there. Let's look at another scene, from an adventure program: a boy and a girl get to a cave and the girl doesn't go in, just the boy. . . And why doesn't she enter first, why isn't she ever braver than he? After we did that investigation, one Magín member, Xiomara Blanco, wrote the TV series Tierra Brava, which became so popular in Cuba. She was constantly sticking little things in. It was a soap opera in which men cried and gossiped. . . Three times a week this program turned into a massive gender workshop watched by millions of viewers. Xiomara told us: `I had done many things intuitively before, but with Magín I'm doing them consciously, I know what I'm doing, what dose to use, how I can balance the characters.' And it wasn't just soap operas; we invented some programs for television, others for radio, we rewrote some. . ."
"For example, look at these dialogues from Tierra Brava. Captain Nacho says to Sylvester angrily, `Sewing on buttons is women's work! And Sylvester explains, `No, sewing on buttons is work for anyone whose button fell off and who has a needle and thread! In another scene, when a man complains that women babble like parrots, his female companion retorts, `Need I remind you that parrots come in both male and female varieties!'"
"Magín united a wide variety of professional women, including some who were quite famous: cinematographers, radio personalities, artists, designers, soap-opera scriptwriters, television directors, journalists and academics. In other words, women didn't join Magín to make something of themselves. They joined to create something new—a space to share their experience. In the beginning, in order to agree on what to do, we first needed to get to know each other. The historians didn't know the radio women, the radio women didn't know the doctors or psychologists, who didn't know the traffic officer, who didn't know the assemblywoman, etc. And although we originated in Havana, our work became nationwide. We had branches in various provinces, and the beginnings of a group in Santiago de Cuba and in Pinar del Río. We organized between 300 and 400 women throughout the country, some of whom worked more systematically than others, but all of whom identified with Magín and to this day still call themselves magineras."
"One of our first priorities was to meet in what we called individual growth workshops. For the first time in Cuba there was mention of the individual. How revolutionary! Some months we had workshops, others no. Sometimes we had four workshops a month, lasting a whole day each week, with thirty or forty women participating in each workshop. We began these workshops in the hardest years of the special period, when women in general were feeling very depressed. We brought in national and international experts. We all came to learn and to share a project, a common task. For the first time, we spoke of our independence and self-esteem. We talked about menopause, diet, sexist and racist language, sexual fantasies and about the jinoteras. We talked about things we had never talked about before. When we spoke about domestic violence, we realized just how many of us present—all professional women—had been sexually assaulted or, in some cases, had actually been raped. We had never imagined. . . Specialists came to speak to us about women's consciousness, sex roles and communication. Dennie Eagleson, a well-known US photographer, spoke to us about how women's images are manipulated in her country. We didn't even have time to touch on the subjects of religion or sexual preference. Lesbian friends from other countries asked us what we thought about the latter, wanting to know if Magín planned to do any work in this area. We just didn't have enough time to deal with everything."
"We informed the Party of everything Magín did. In the beginning, the Cuban Women's Federation was on our side. We were well respected, we were a part of them, and there were no problems. We invited them to everything and shared our materials with them. Also, we always said: `If we have been able to get to the point of creating Magín, it's because of all we learned in the Womens Federation. If we've grown exceptionally fast, it's due to everything we previously did with the Revolution.'"
"The idea that we wanted to compete with or replace the Federation was inconceivable. All of us were active and responsible members of the Federation. Magín was something else entirely: a group of professionals who got together to meet with our own agenda—an agenda for ourselves, for women, and for society in general. Yes, maybe we also wanted to revitalize the Federation, make it more integral, but this is understandable. In Cuba, there's not a single group of women professionals. There's no association of women teachers, or women doctors, or engineers or journalists. All professional associations are made up of both men and women. And in some professions, where women are actually the majority, and where it's women who define the profession, it's still men who represent us."
"As to the men we were able to reach, we found them quite prepared to understand what gender is. Our projects encountered many well-informed Cuban men—truly revolutionary men. Because this is a joint effort—women, men, all of us. We know very well that women, as well as men, can be machista. And we know that both women and men should be feminists."
"In March of 1996, the Party's Politburo came out with a very tough, very restrictive and disturbing ideological document. All of a sudden, women from the Federation who had come to our workshops and participated in all our activities drew away from us. It was a sign of things to come. They had gotten the message to cut themselves off. In September, the Party's Central Committee called a meeting of its executive committee and Magin's steering committee. The purpose was to disband Magín. While it was a friendly and respectful meeting, as opposed to a trial, it was nevertheless clear from the beginning that if we resisted we would be subject to party disciplinary measures."
"They recognized our abilities and valued our projects, but used as their argument the danger of the two-track US blockade policy—whose strategy is to make us battle a Trojan Horse at home in the form of social organizations rather than them declare all-out war on Cuba. The committee explained to us how many people had been seduced by the enemy, with how many scholarships and how much money. They told us that 70% of the cooperation organizations have subversive motives, and that they always expect political dividends in exchange for their cooperation, etc., etc. All of this to conclude that, in Cuba, the priority is to safeguard unity, that existing organizations have successfully done this, and that Magín would never receive recognition as an organization. They told us that, although our objective was justifiable, justifiable did not always mean appropriate, and that each of us could continue working in the same way, but within the already existing mass organizations—in this case, the Cuban Women's Federation."
"In Cuba it is illegal to form an association that would compete with or `duplicate' an already existing one. They told us that we were partially duplicating the Journalists Union and the Advertisers Association, and partially the Federation of Cuban Women. We said that we disagreed because Magín's specific purpose was to change the image of women in the media by introducing the concept of gender, and by means of self-esteem workshops—things that nobody else was doing. They didn't accept that argument. In Cuba, there's a real fear about duplicating organizations, but there's an even greater fear of women mobilizing independently. And there has been a great reluctance to take on the gender issue."
"It was clear that behind all the arguments was a basically machista line of thinking: `you, naive little ladies, can be easily seduced by the enemy's bait, unaware that they want to buy you off with money, with different ideas and with individualism. We, big strong men, understand how politics work, and must save you from temptation . . .'"
"Maybe they knew unconsciously that a movement like Magín reduces their power. In Cuba, as in the rest of the world, men know that they have to give up power. They also should know that that in order for this or any other society to grow, there must be equality among the entire population, and that women's perspective is needed to make better decisions. And in the case of Cuban women's perspective, even more is involved: competence, intelligence, culture . . ."
"All of us expressed our frustration and our disagreement with the arguments they used to disband us. We said that Magín as a project was both justifiable and appropriate, and that we had the right to continue with it. We defended what we did, as well as its importance. We said that the Party needed to ask itself why it is that a group of talented and revolutionary women had so much to say and do in Magín, and why they hadn't encountered this anywhere else. We said many things; nobody held back. However, we all wound up accepting the Party's decision—out of discipline and out of respect for the Party. Also, we really had no other choice. There's not much you can do in a case like this, unless you want to be considered a dissident and find all the professional doors in Cuba closed to you. But we warned them that if the Party couldn't fill the voids that we had been filling, the enemy they spoke about would, because there were very real voids that needed filling."
"They dissolved our organization, but many things have remained. First of all, Magín succeeded in redeeming the term `feminism,' which in Cuba had come to be viewed with disdain, although it is difficult to know whether this redemption has yet filtered down to the masses, to society as a whole, including both men and women. And we went even further: we put the word `gender' out in the streets, even though there had been a lot of resistance and reticence in the Federation. We have obliged them to bring the official line on women somewhat up to date. Gender was an uncommon word in Cuba a few years ago, and now it no longer is. This was, to a large extent, Magín's work. And I believe that each and every maginera, with the training and conceptual framework she received in Magín, continues working for this cause, wherever she may be. This cause lives in three or four hundred women who are not fools, who are involved all over, and who are multiplying . . . Isn't this a dynamite achievement?"
"I believe that Magín will return sooner or later. My vote is on the future. These ideas need to get out. Hopefully the Women's Federation will take on our work. That would be stupendous. But, does this type of work have a place in an organization as large as the Federation?"
"What is the future of the ideas we developed in Magín? Will the Cuban Women's Federation accept the challenge that we posed as women, as members of the Federation and as revolutionaries? Will Cuban men accept it as both men and revolutionaries? In the meantime, as Martí says, `We're heading down our road.' Martí also told us that `the proof of each human civilization is found in the kind of man and woman produced in it.'"