Do Women in Cuba Have Reason to Protest?

Women in Cuba. Photo: Yariel Valdes


By Claudia Padron Cueto*

HAVANA TIMES – Travel is sometimes the way you get to understand what is happening back home. When I travelled from Cuba to visit Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, I found a city center filled with women’s stories, distributed on flyers and posters.  Activism seemed alive here. Dozens of women were camping out at the Congressional Plaza demanding the decriminalization of abortion.

I saw these protests and my mind went back to Cuba. There, the idea of so many people organizing and mobilizing to demand their rights is unimaginable.

“Chiara Páez, 14 and pregnant, beaten to death by her boyfriend,” read one poster stuck on the marble wall of a typical French-style building in central Buenos Aires. Her awful story – Chiara’s bruised body was found buried, curled in the fetal position – reminded me of that of a Cuban teenager, Leidy Maura Pacheco. In 2015, the 18-year-old from Cienfuegos, mother to a small baby, was raped by three men before being murdered.

But hers was the only story of a woman’s brutal murder I can ever recalling reading about in the Cuban state press. Even then, the media did not call the crime by its name: femicide, the violent death of women on gender. This is not an offense that appears in the Cuban Criminal Code, and the official media rarely uses the correct term when telling these stories. Maybe if it’s not in the news, it does not exist.

In Cuba, there are no public statistics on femicide or any other gender-based violence. It is impossible to confirm whether Leidy’s murder was an aberration. In Argentina, 290 femicides were committed in 2017. Cubans have no way of knowing how close or far we are from the Argentinian context.

The partial results of a national survey by the Women’s Studies Institute is the closest we can get to official figures on gender violence in Cuba. According to the study, 39.6 per cent of interviewees claimed to have been attacked by their partner at some point in their life. This number is particularly significant, since there must have been many interviewees unwilling to admit to having suffered domestic abuse.

Women in Argentina. Wikimedia Commons

In Buenos Aires, I walked down the Avenida Rivadavia, which locals boast is the longest street in the world. Protests in Buenos Aires often take place along here, like the dozens of women’s marches in recent years calling for an end to gender violence.

Their slogans –  #NoEstamosTodas (“We’re Not All Here”) #NiUnaMenos (“Not One Less”) – reflect the toll such violence has had on women’s lives.

One poster left on a wall on Avenida de Mayo is intended as an “escrache” – a public unmasking – of a taxi driver from Buenos Aires province who in 2017 was accused of beating so badly she nearly died. His trial is ongoing. 

This year’s International Women’s Day, on March 8, saw 200,000 women marching from Government House to the National Congress calling for equality.

What a contrast to Cuba. As far back as I can remember, March 8 passes more or less unnoticed, apart from the sale of flowery cards exalting women’s role in socialist achievements.  It was the same this year, apart from a statement or two from the Cuban Bertha Cáceres Equality Space of the Philosophy Institute and the “girl power” initiative, an exhibition of 15 feminist drawings to be tattooed on women to declare sovereignty over their own bodies.

It would appear that Cubans have no reason to march. And in theory, at least, we are supposed to be living in a much more enlightened reality.

Since 1959 the revolutionary government has aligned itself with the premise of equality of rights and opportunities for all. Extended maternity and paternity leave were granted. The state also found equitable solutions to disparities in political, labor, sexual, educational, health and land rights. This does not exist anywhere else in Latin America. If we look closely, from Mexico to Brazil from Argentina to Chile where women have recently raised their voices and have gone out in their thousands to protest, they are still struggling to legalize abortion; Cuba stands out as an example of a country where women are free to choose. If only we could really lead the way in defeating machismo.

Women in Cuba. Photo: Yariel Valdes

Yet we live on an island, where as Cuban researcher Ailynn Torres Santana wrote, women are “underrepresented in the state sector of the economy, which provides the best income; we have the largest working load at home; we have a precarious [health] care infrastructure; and the current transformation process is revealing unequal empowerment between men and women”.

There is global condemnation of the invisibility of the unpaid work women do at home. In Cuba, the double day, as it’s often called, is not factored into GDP or any other economic indicator. According to this logic almost half of women of working age in Cuba are not productive.

In Cuba, we are victims of constant harassment on the streets (with no public policies to prevent it). We live in a machista country where female sex workers are sent to prison, but male sex workers are not, where victims are still blamed and violence against women is justified or considered natural. You often hear the excuses that “she did something to deserve it” or “he’s not like that, he was just having a bad day”. It is a country that does not recognize equal marriage and will not contemplate the legal existence of any independent feminist association. At the outset of the new order, the Federation of Cuban Women was created to channel all demands. And still, the only organization that can represent women is run by the state.

The editors of Alas Tensas, the only national magazine that defines itself as feminist, are constantly harassed and intimidated, with their ability to travel abroad arbitrarily regulated. Alas Tensas’ only crime is to promulgate a Cuban feminist agenda without the government’s supervision. No transparency is permitted in journalism.

In Cuba, we continue living day to day without anyone marching to say something is wrong. The problem is not that we are worse or “better than the rest of Latin America, the problem is that we do not know what we are. The problem is apathy and silence.

*First published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

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16 thoughts on “Do Women in Cuba Have Reason to Protest?

  • Yet, here in the pages of Havana Times LaMaestra, one can be criticized for not demonstrating a sense of humour when criticizing the Castro regime. There is nothing funny about communism for those who suffer under it.

  • Fidel had great expertise in the promotion of delusion Bob. Examples include his Constitution which for example supposedly enabled Cubans to enter hotels, but which right was denied in practice – I know!. He supposedly removed racism, but the MININT State Police goons continued to actively practice it – I know!.
    As you point out in your response to my comments, Fidel supposedly promoted women’s rights, but stopped well short of providing them with positions of power as illustrated by his selection of Ministers (similar to the shortage of blacks) although he did pay heed to Celia Sanchez as an adviser during their long relationship and even although Dalia Soto de Valle had borne him five sons, did not marry her until Celia died of cancer in 1980.
    You comment that: “Cuban women are one of the countries greatest achievements and Fidel is primarily responsible for that.”
    As you may know, a full two thirds of professional positions in Cuba are occupied by women. But that is a consequence of their own endeavors in competition with the men, not Fidel and is true of the structure of the regime itself – being predominantly male continuing to reflect him.

  • I also apologize. It is easy to take things literally when comments come from men.
    Men should be careful when commenting on women issues. It is similar to whites making comments about blacks. They have the right to an opinion, but don’t expect that, after all this history of discrimination, (1) blacks have to take it lightly. or (2) the statement has to be taken the way it was intended. There is nothing funny about injustice.

  • Sorry, sometimes the humor doesn’t come through. I thought the comment was so off the wall that it deserved a compliment (tongue in cheek).

  • It is not a great answer, and I am saddened to read that a tolerant editor like Circles Robinson thinks that way.
    It is not a great answer for the following reasons. Arildes does not own a country, and Carlyle is not “Americans,” and even less Americans trying to attack supposedly Cuba with something “nasty” like “American feminism.” There are four false (highly emotional) declarations in one sentence. There is no way that anyone can reason, make sense, or say something reasonable about such an unreasonable statement. Mr. Robinson shouldn’t censor the message nor encourage such type of exchange with his comment.
    Let’s bring some facts. All over the world, women are not treated equally. This article is not about feminism of any kind, but about justice, and women need justice and equal rights. Castro did not “liberated” women. Cuban women are known to be more independent than other women in Spain and Latin America since colonial times, so when Castro arrived, he found a long tradition of strong women in Cuba.
    Men should offer solidarity to women’s fight for equality. I am saddened to witness the absence of comments on that sense. The author is right. The problem is the silence and injustice.

  • I did not suggest that machismo exists in Cuba as a consequence of Fidel Castro, only that he was a leader in the use of women. As you may be aware, his womanizing was well known and widespread although I find it more than difficult to accept the rumours of two a day or 3500.
    The background of the Latin American machismo is clearly an inheritance from Spain.

  • Carlyle, re: your post 24 june: My post of 23 June demonstrates that Fidel was the antithesis of machismo with everything he did to elevate the status of women. I can find fault with much he did and the wheels he set in motion, but dominating and/or holding back women certainly was not one of his bad things.

    I personally believe machismo is a concept that remains in the minds of Cuban men but mostly because the women tolerate it because it is far from reality. Machismo today is little more than rude comments that most women brush off considering the source. Men no longer hold the position of real power as they once did and erroneously believe they still do.

    I simply reject your proposition that machismo exists in Cuba as a result of Fidel Castro’s behavior when history and actual facts show the opposite. Cuban women are one of the countries greatest achievements and Fidel is primarily responsible for that.

  • Yes Bob. The article is about the consequences of machismo which is rife in Cuba. Fidel Castro led such behaviour by example and I see no reason for letting him “rest in peace”. Do you?

  • Carlyle, can you relate your above comment back to having anything to do with the original post?

  • While I did not read Fidel into Claudia Padron Cueto’s original post, he has been brought up by some who can directly relate anything having to do with Cuba back to him. We must acknowledge that his role in the Revolucion caused many bad things and many good things. There is logical debate which was greater, the good or the bad. Any conclusion that every effect was good or every effect was bad is illogical.

    I see the societal and cultural changes from elevating the status of women to be one of Fidel’s greatest accomplishments. From the Mariana Grajales battalion through the education of women and integration into the workforce on a basis equal to men is something that no one else has accomplished in that time frame. Consider accomplishments like Fidel asking Vilma Espin to go establish the new Federación de Mujeres Cubanas and then immediately asking them to go teach half the country to read and write in two years. Or asking Haydee Santamaria to lead a cultural renaissance. Or, identifying Celia Sanchez’s great broad thinking and then listening and implementing her wisdom into everything.

    While there is much one can fault Fidel and the Cuban government for, what they did to the status of women is one of the major accomplishments.

    Back to the original topic of the post, I find my Cuban significant other has no problems with machismo or any other male negative traits. She has a simple way of dealing with it, just having the attitude “I don’t take that shit from anybody”.

  • Great answer.

  • Damn FIDEL!

  • No they don’t! And please Americans DO NOT bring you nasty feminism and liberalism to my country. We DON’T want it, We DON’T need it!

  • Why deny Fidel his legacy Frank? It affects the lives of every Cuban living in Cuba every day! Should a society that is mired in the consequences of Fidel Castro’s lust for power and control pretend that he never existed? The undeniable full legacy is there, of executions, of persecutions, of hatred, of the insatiable thirst for power and control. of pursuit of nuclear conflict and that over-whelming arrogance that brought about the boasted conviction that: “History will absolve me.”
    Why should those who daily suffer the consequences of his dictatorship let him rest in peace? This was the man who proposed an initial nuclear strike upon the USA which as Nikita Khrushchev pointed out, would have created a Third World War.
    The communist regime does not wish Fidel Castro Ruz to be forgotten, the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of Cuba is busy putting up ever larger hoardings of “El Commandante” even the Copelia ice cream parlours are now bedecked with larger than life portraits and exhortations by Fidel. Classrooms, public offices, roadside posters and hoardings, and the TV channels are all similarly plastered – no hope for Fidel to rest in peace when his cult of the personality is so avidly pursued by those he led. The echoing tramp of the goose-stepping soldiers at his grave site will ensure that there is no peace!

  • Fidel is dead….let him Rest In Peace!

  • If anyone seeks a ‘poster boy’ for the Spanish style machismo that is rife in Cuba, look no further than Fidel Castro.

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