The Personal and the Political

Armando Chaguaceda

HAVANA TIMES — The past weekend I learned — from a friend who lives on the island — about a public statement signed by several members of UNEAC sounding an alert about the need to combat violence against women.

As an example of this detestable evil, the message referred to the case of writer Angel Santiesteban, who was convicted and imprisoned on charges of domestic abuse against his wife. In the public statement, those who signed it fully assumed — based on their friendship and knowledge of the aggrieved spouse — the author’s guilt and they also made clear their opposition to the positions of solidarity expressed towards him.

A few hours after reading the document, I had a frank and respectful e-mail exchange with one of the promoters of the statement. This is someone who — I’m taking this moment to emphasize — I recognize as an honest person, whose decency and work as a professional I respect.

Personally, I agree 100 percent with protests and actions against all forms of violence, whether it comes from a writer who abuses his wife, mobs who abuse women on the street or countries that invade others, violating their sovereignty with a thousand and one spurious excuses.

I’ve made this known in several articles and public statements, signed individually and in concerted collective action along with fellow members of the Critical Observatory Network.

What’s happening in the particular case referred to is that there are too many conflicting views of those involved – including people who are undermining themselves in the adversarial process. To these must be added various pieces of evidence (graphics, videos, expert testimony) that allude to poor procedures in the legal process, elements which in any case would imply the need for a retrial.

As I said in a previous post, this should not mean an a priori assumption of the innocence of the writer or the unreserved defense that this is a common case manipulated for political reasons. If this claim seems unprecedented to someone, let me emphasize that matters of similar seriousness — and their resolution through the law — exist in the form of recent examples.

In Mexico, the French citizen Florence Cassez was detained for several years as a presumed kidnapper. However, when it was proven that the legal process had been flawed, she was released from prison, even though there was widespread suspicion as well as aggravated parties and supposed evidence of her guilt.

What is being demanded in the case that confronts Santiesteban and his former partner is that an abuser doesn’t go unpunished (if the accused actually was guilty) nor that the shortfalls of the legal process produce a new victim (if he was innocent). This, without trusting blindly in my vocation of solidarity with the writer or of the gender solidarity that many people commendably feel with his partner.

If in this case there were procedural errors that warrant a new trial, this is something that should be of interest to all parties involved.

If suspicions were confirmed tomorrow that officials stuck their fingers into the process, wouldn’t this involve the victims and the perpetrators? Moreover, with regard to this supposition, wouldn’t the attitudes of those who have sympathized with the alleged victim (his wife) fall into the crossfire when there’s another alleged victim (the writer) presumably affected by the government’s intrusion?

I’ll move on to a second theme now, a longer-term one. The statement — which was originally considered an essay for reading at a cultural activity, and not something for publication, as was subsequently corroborated on several official sites — has all the connotations of the type of document (a manifesto, a declaration, etc.) that are made by public intellectuals.

The signers didn’t limit themselves to timely expressions of solidarity with an aggrieved friend; instead, they advanced laudable general conclusions about violence, the need to reject it, etc. This is fine and well, however they mention only a part of our known and everyday reality, causing their initiative to sin due to its bias.

If I’ve learned anything from my feminist friends it’s that the personal is political.[i]  And if a personnel position (and decision) was made by those who signed, making Angel’s case an example, it’s also that — as several critics point out — the public statement of its promoters has omitted speaking out on the systematic and collective state of violence exerted on those women of the opposition, week after week, marching through Havana’s streets peacefully demanding their rights and those of others.[ii]

Nor did they speak out on the known and repeated instances of the mistreatment of young prostitutes on the Malecon, committed by corrupt police agents and officers. To address the core issue (the manifestation of the rejection of all violence) by invoking a specific example without referring to other assaults on the physical and moral integrity of women introduces at least an unbalanced bias, especially when the evidence of beatings and mistreatment of these individuals are public and notorious.

One may or may not agree with the personal views of these females, but I don’t think anyone decent can support a woman be subjected to mob violence or the violation of her dignity without the chance to receive, in front of law enforcement agents, adequate recognition and defense. On this issue, there is more than abundant oral testimony, writings and graphics for the signers to say they didn’t know anything.

Nevertheless, the announcement by the signatories about the drive for gender-related legislation and oversight that will be given to the problems of Cuban women is a laudable initiative that we all must support.

From now on, if we want an initiative like this one to be successful, there must be monitoring, advice and support given to all female victims of personal or institutional violence, be they wives of writers, female dissidents or low-income women who see their rights violated by their male peers.

This is needed so that it doesn’t become like the “culture of peace” now in fashion — fostered by various Cuban NGOs — where home and community violence is recognized while ignoring the many forms of violence (not just physical) employed by officials against the citizenry.

In the end, it seems that in this case we’re facing a minefield with different types and degrees of domineering practices that overlap. We need to speak loudly and clearly for everyone, without giving privileges to some or ignoring others.

When one knows a little about the history of feminism, it’s understood that in the concrete struggles (for the body and rights) all perspectives, in addition to ideologies, have crossed and sympathized. Likewise, the political regime and the social practices of our country (and those that may come under a foreseeable restoration of capitalism) are increasingly sexist, authoritarian and mercantilist in relation to human life.

I think that feminists have a big job ahead of them in the Cuba of today, and they’ll have an even bigger one in the future. I say this because the great social achievements in legal equality, social mobility and personal emancipation achieved within the revolutionary process seem increasingly besieged by growing inequalities associated with the market and the advance of conservative thoughts and attitudes noted in the talk about religious education and restrictions on abortion, that are more frequent.

Any feminist knows that one cannot differentiate the symbolic from the concrete, or gender emancipation from political liberation, or the struggle for democracy and equality between genders from the struggle for political democracy for everyone.

The relationship of the personal and the political is one of the foundations of feminist discourse and struggle – which doesn’t admit bias. Either it is assumed once and without distinction, or it mortgages the struggles of the future.


[i] In this regard, I have much to thank for what I’ve learned from my friends in the Nicaraguan women’s movement. I addressed their experiences in a recent article: “El movimiento de mujeres y las luchas sociales por la democratizacion en la Nicaragua postrevolucionaria (1990-2010),” pp. 39-62, Encuentro magazine, Universidad Centroamericana, No, 89, Managua, 2011.
[ii] These — because of problems of transportation, communications and “the struggle” around everyday life that affects our citizens — we know are not essentially the result of people’s spontaneity. What common citizen — or, even more so, what masses of them — can dedicate time and energy to get to a given point in the city to participate in a protest campaign except through an expressed decision and state resources?