Gender Stereotyping in Cuba’s Health Missions Abroad

Irina Echarry

Cuban doctors working in Venezuela.

HAVANA TIMES — Margarita had always wanted to be a doctor and had been willing to practice anywhere in the world, even in Havana’s Calixto Garcia Hosptial, where she’s been working for several years now. “It’s like a relative one watches deteriorate slowly and progressively,” she says to me when I ask her about the hospital’s reportedly poor conditions.

Shortly after graduating, she travelled to Venezuela to work on a government sponsored internationalist mission. It was her opportunity to get to know other customs, places and people.

There, she would learn quite a lot indeed, particularly how to treat diseases she hadn’t seen here in Cuba. She worked with families affected by gang warfare and even assisted a delivery. The one painful memory Margarita has involves living with other Cuban doctors.

She shared a house with four other doctors (aged 45, on average), renowned professionals with proven experience in their fields.

As she was the only woman there, everyone took for granted she would be doing the cooking. Margarita, who had been cooking for her younger sister ever since their mother died, took on this task without complaining. Her time began to be consumed entirely by meetings, patriotic functions, consultations and improver’s courses on practically every topic.

Margarita felt exhausted. She didn’t have anemia and wasn’t even sick, but she always felt tired. She started to think, to look for something that could explain why she was constantly tired…and she found it.

It so happens that Margarita didn’t only cook. She also cleaned and tidied up the house, did the dishes, hauled buckets of water when necessary and even did the groceries. She came to her senses and immediately called a meeting with other doctors in the house.

Not everyone came. Some had more pressing matters to attend to, like buying a bottle of rum for the weekend or “picking up” some Venezuelan woman that could make them forget their distance from home. The two who went to the meeting, after suggesting that what she said was a hissy-fit, a bit of female hysteria, agreed to pitch in part of their earnings for the things around the house.

Of course, this didn’t last long. One way or another, Margarita continued to pay for everyone’s food for another week…until she got fed up. She called another meeting and only one person showed up (there’s so many hissy-fits a person can take, after all).

The only person who claimed to understand her (though still didn’t pitch in any of his own money) told her about how lonely he felt and what this was doing to him. He tried to convince her he could take her side against the others, help her – the only thing he needed to know was whether she would consider alleviating the pain of being away from his wife.

Immediately, Margarita asked to be moved somewhere else. Since they wouldn’t, she decided not to cook for others anymore. She stopped cleaning the house and caring whether it looked messy or not. She concentrated on the room she slept in and, sometimes, the bathroom.

Margarita spent four years of her life living next to these “selfless” health professionals. An unforgettable experience – she tells me – which she would rather not go through again.

The news proudly tells us that half of Cuba’s doctors working abroad are women. Some articles describe comradeship, the fulfillment of duty or their work as professionals. But who talks about this other side to the whole story?

The vast majority of female doctors working in missions abroad continue to endure gender stereotypes. Their compatriots carry their male chauvinist prejudices with them to the farthest corners of the earth and they continue to enable them. Those who speak up tend to have a much harder time. This is the reason Margarita has no interest in going to work in Brazil (currently with 4,000 positions for Cuban doctors).

2 thoughts on “Gender Stereotyping in Cuba’s Health Missions Abroad

  • I’m glad Margarita finally took a stand. Seems like the only solution to this situation is to either (a) “go on strike” as far as cleaning and cooking are concerned and (b) if no resolution, moving to a more suitable environment–which is just what Margarita did! After 40 years of mommy–and then their wives or lovers–doing everything for them, it is unlikely these doctors could ever change their behaviors. The only option, really, is to take action and refuse to continue to play the role of victim. Probably an all woman household is best. I suspect that in the case of an all male household that the men would soon find other women they could exploit.
    I once lived in a communal apartment where only two of us (one woman and one male) did any of the cleaning and dishwashing. We, too, went on strike. Eventually, the place degenerated to such a pig-sty that we moved out! Another time, when I was in grad. school, some roomates kept stealing my food. Exasperated, I finally took action: I made a casserolle and, after baking, placed it up in the attic for a couple of days (it was summer in Annapolis), then back in the refrigerator, but with a note taped to the top: “DO NOT EAT!” Unfortunately for him, the food thief disregarded my message and, the next several days had to make frequent and urgent trips to the bathroom. Fortunately, he didn’t die!

  • Ms. Irina Echarry, thank you for this article. Unfortunately, it isn’t so suprising. Such cultural sexism is widespread. i remember Americans returning from the Venceremous Brigades in the 1970’s with stories of similar struggles among both the Cubans and the Americans. In the US, it was the left and the growing women’s liberation movement that did the most to raise and oppose these issues. Of course it is mostly men who exploit this imbalance, but sometime as your story suggests, the women heasitate. If the arrangement of work at home and work is openly discussed and voluntary, much progress can be made. Also, it is clear that a person or a country can be progressive in some areas and not (yet) in others. Why would Cuba be an exception? If you are still in touch with Margarita, please let her know she is not alone. It is a world wide struggle, and each of us only gets to be a part of it.

    Irina Echarry

Comments are closed.