“There are usually a thousand red flags before a feminicide takes place. They are like traffic signs,” says Marta Maria Ramirez.
HAVANA TIMES – As I’m writing this article, the under-reporting of women killed by machista violence in Cuba continues to grow. Up until August 21, 2023, there had been 55 feminicides. Fifty-five women whose deaths haven’t been classified by the Cuban State. 55 unnamed crimes. Cuban civil society and independent gender observatories say that not classifying this crime in the Cuban Penal Code is aiding and abetting. From feminist archives and literature, we learned that women killed aren’t to blame for “the violence that killed them.”
These aren’t random crimes. The motives for feminicide are different to those of homicide and, as a result, needs to be classified as a specific crime. It has been introduced into legislation in different Latin American countries, proving legal systems and governments’ commitment to addressing women’s safety. Furthermore, it makes it easier to compile exact statistics, an action that the Cuban Government is limiting.
In May 2021, Doctor Arlin Perez Duarte, professor of Criminal Law at Havana University, said that feminicide “includes the State’s negligence, an open door for impunity.” She added that as a result there is “this feeling of tolerance, conformity.” On this basis, the Cuban Government has tried to sidestep its responsibility and prefers to distance the political implications of feminicide.
Unlike 18 countries within the region, the Cuban Penal Code doesn’t contemplate the concept or legal classification of “feminicide” or “femicide”, although it has included gender-based violence as an aggravating circumstance. This is why it’s interesting that some articles published by the state-controlled press include the term femicide from time to time.
Even when Mariela Castro Espin, director of the National Center for Sex Education, asked for this crime to be classified in legislation, her proposal was rejected during the Extraordinary Session of the Cuban Parliament when they were discussing the latest version of the Penal Code, in May 2022. The concept of domestic violence by proxy (with the objective of hurting a woman via her loved ones and especially her children) was also excluded from the legal framework.
Within this context, independent reports continue and warn that within the first half of 2023, there were already more than the 34 feminicides confirmed in the previous year. There have also been reports of three attempts of machista killings and four cases of women being violently killed still needing a police investigation.
Since 2019 —and up until August 14, 2023— there have been at least 173 gender-based murders in Cuba. 173 women and their violated right to demand: “this is my body, you can’t touch it, rape it, kill it.”
Visible vs. impunity
What do you do in a country where there aren’t any reliable official statistics for a crime that has no name? How do you draw out public policy and prevention strategies without these statistics? Can activism exist when the Cuban Government criminalizes it? These are some of the obstacles that independent gender-based violence observatories in Cuba and their network of collaborators have had to navigate since 2019.
The footprints of machista violence are compiled every day by different Cuban civil society organizations every day, such as the YoSíTeCreo en Cuba Observatory and the Alas Tensas Gender Observatory, in collaboration with the Cuban Alliance for Inclusion and the Cuban Women’s Network.
Organizations write up an under-report because they receive “many notifications that can’t even be classified as feminicides because they don’t have the chance to access these statistics,” says Yanelys Nuñez an art critic and activist at the Alas Tensas Gender Observatory.
Factual reports of every feminicide try to be exhaustive and involve lots of problems when trying to access sources. Yanelys says that “the Cuban people are stilll very afraid to provide information.” She adds that “there have also been threats to victims’ families so they don’t give statements to the independent press.”
Activist and journalist Marta Maria Ramirez says that this process becomes harder if the family doesn’t want to talk, if the sources come with preconceptions, if there is also a process of revictimization in the press where everything is portrayed in an unnecessary and brutal way.
“This is how an under-report is written: with fear, in secret,” Marta Maria says.
In order to collect information, a network of observers has been mobilized, building alliances with neighbors, relatives, friends and contacts on social media. When they receive an alert, they verify the incident using three different channels.
Observatories build up a file on every incident. They include important facts about the victims such as age, how the killing happened; if there are dependents who are now orphaned or elderly family members who the victim was taking care of; as well as a description of the space where the killing took place.
Based on these efforts, seven machista crimes were confirmed in July, in the Chambas, Trinidad, Baire, Güines, Jovellanos, San Jose and Cardenas municipalities. While in June ―the most awful month up until now― 11 women were recorded killed, including the first feminicide against a trans woman in Cuba, in 2023.
The reality is that Cuban civil society and feminists have issued words of caution every time machista violence peaks in the country. For example, a week after three feminicides were verified in February 2023, a dozen civil society organizations signed a letter addressed to the Cuban Government asking them to declare a state of emergency because of gender-based violence.
“They’re killing us,” became the third wake-up call: a way to warn about growing violence against women in Cuba and the need to establish “a group of immediate, urgent, comprehensive measures to tackle the problem and rising number of feminicides that had shot up in February,” says Yanelys Núñez.
June and July 2023 were two especially hard months. Two months when the Cuban State still didn’t give a name to the gender-based murder of Alianni Rodriguez (25), Samira Lescar (31 years), Yanet Mejías Gonzalez (24 years), Nelbys Leyva (37 years), Dayris Fuentes Chavez, Karina Betancourt Maren (41 years), Daimiris Medina (43 years), Anisleysi Rodríguez Mesero (34 years), Iliana Martínez Avila, Maria Cristina Rodriguez Rodriguez (43 years), Milsa (46 years), Yunisleive Fernandez, Rafaela Yusmila Ramirez Chacon (45 years) and Adela Garcia (30 years).
At that same time (June 8, 2023), the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) presented the Observatory on Gender Equality, in which the Cuban State refused to use the term feminicide, as we could see in an article published by the Cuban News Agency.
According to Yanelys Núñez, the government observatory exhibits many mistakes in its conception. The activist believes that “all of these actions are to (…) say that there is a State in Cuba that is concerned about women’s rights and protection, but that isn’t really the case.” The state-led platform refers to feminicides as “women who have been victim to intentional homicide as a result of gender-based violence” and as “deaths of women caused by their intimate partner or ex-partner.”
One of the most questionable points about the Observatory on Gender Equality is the methodology it uses to count feminicides, as it only counts the cases where the perpetrator “receives a final judgement in court.” This is why it only recorded 18 feminicides in 2022, which represents half of the cases verified by independent observatories on the island. The method also excludes incidents where the perpetrator of feminicide commits suicide, Nuñez stresses. “There are lots of mistakes and this isn’t the observatory that Cuba needs right now.”
Independent mobilization in the face of State paralysis
Since November 2022, the independent report of feminicides developed by platforms YoSiTeCreo en Cuba and Alas Tensas forms part of the Latin American Map of Feminicide. The project conceived as “a political tool“ allows us to compare how gender-based violence is behaving within the region and what States need to do in terms of legislation and mobilization.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, 5228 feminicides were recorded between January 2021 up until now in 2023. During 2022, the country with the highest feminicide rate (adjusted to age) was Honduras, with 5.38 feminicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.
Activist and journalist Marta Maria Ramirez told elTOQUE that what makes Cuba stand out is that we are one of the last countries within the region to take action, and “call things for what they truly are.”
Meanwhile, there is a trend within Cuban society to ask for the death penalty and maximum sentences in jail. “I can understand that, with the helplessness and orphanhood we have, this is the path that people set out on, because there isn’t even a debate about this and also because (…) Cuba just approved a new Penal Code in December last year, which is medieval and holds onto the death penalty without even allowing us to have an honest discussion about it.”
“The longer it takes for us to take these first steps, the longer it will take to give women a solution, because the solution isn’t in legislation that punishes, but rather lies in preventive legislation, in training authorities, teachers, medical personnel (…), the entire bureaucratic scaffolding,” notes Ramirez.
Anyhow, it’s worth pointing out the actions of Cuban civil society, who are becoming more and more involved in giving a voice to this issue. “We aren’t in every home, in every town in Cuba. Civil society began to name this crime and is publicly reporting it. Something is wrong when feminicides are still being reported with fear, with threats from the political police (…). Entire groups have been threatened with Decree Law 370.” The law in force since 2019 prohibits the dissemination of information that the Government considers “against the social interests, morale, decency and integrity of people.”
Statistics about feminicides in Cuba are available on the Latin American Map. There we can read that 80% of the 84 feminicides verified in Cuba between 2022 and July 2023 were committed by the victim’s partner or ex-partner. While the relationship with the perpetrator is unknown in 4% (4) of feminicides.
The platform also reports that approximately 100 minors have lost their mothers as a result of machista violence. On the other hand, it’s unknown in 71% (60) of the cases it’s not known if the victim had previously reported the perpetrator to authorities. However, out of the 24 feminicides when we know the exact date, 29% (7) of the victims had previously filed complaints.
Marta Maria Ramirez also warns: “[Some of these women] are living in very remote places, they don’t have cellphones, support networks or anyone to complain to. Because one thing that abusers, these violent men, do is isolate you.”
The platform reveals that the age range of feminicide victims in Cuba ranges from less than 1 (it also includes feminicide victims that suffered domestic violence by proxy, who weren’t the main target of the aggresor) up until 80 years old. Twenty-nine percent of the 84 deaths recorded in the above-mentioned period were between 25 and 36 years old. Statistics can’t be verified with official statistics, as the Cuban Government limits public access to this information.
There are different problems that make gender-based violence more nuanced in each country. However, according to Yanelys: “[the Map allows us] to exchange information and organize ourselves as an observatory.” According to the activist, the Latin American Map “is a regional platform that recognizes that gender-based violence exists in Cuba and that there is also an active civil society (…) within a context where independent organizations aren’t taken into account and are labelled mercenary because everything passes through the bias of ideology.”
(Gender-based) violence in Cuba
Since 2019, Cuban civil society has insisted on the importance of promulgating a comprehensive law against gender-based violence; a law that needs to transverse the entire judiciary apparatus and social groups. The law would need to be the basis for developing awareness campaigns, not only on social media, but also in mass media.
“In Cuba there are legal actions such as the National Program to Empower Women,” and the Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Provide Assistance for Gender-Based and Domestic Violence, Yanelys Nuñez says. She adds that “supposedly there are mechanisms within Cuban institutions to tackle gender-based violence; yet they only stay on paper, like so many other laws.”
The Government’s has half-heartedly recognized this scourge on the island. For example, Articles 43, 68, 84 and 85 of the Constitution approved in 2019 address issues such as gender equality, gender-based violence and the right to live violence free. But laws need to be translated into real preventive actions.
“This is why it’s important for a comprehensive law to be written up within a context of freedom,” the Nuñez highlighted. A landscape where independent activism isn’t criminalized and freedom of the press, speech and association are encouraged. We know from international experience that “real nationwide advances come when women have mobilized,” she says.
Measures that could be taken include the implementation of a specific phone line for gender-based violence, as the only phone line that exists today is shared with other problems such as drug consumption. Furthermore, citizens have reported that it doesn’t work on multiple occasions. Nor are there shelters, a vital structure so women who financially depend upon their aggressors or don’t have anywhere to go can escape this violence.
Gender-based violence takes many forms. Child marriage is another indicative factor of this phenomenon. In Cuba, 29.4% of women say they have been married (or under a man’s domain) for the first time before turning 18 years old, according to the Cuba Multiple Cluster Indicator Survey published by UNICEF in 2021.
“We continue to bear the brunt of caregiving and are completely helpless,” journalist Marta Maria Ramirez complains. In the same vein, she says it’s clear to see that single-mother families are growing “with a feminization of poverty and children at risk,” she emphasises when summarizing the landscape of gender-based violence in Cuba.
There are usually a thousand red flags before a feminicide takes place. They are like traffic signs,” notes Marta Maria Ramirezg. There are women who are asking for help from the police, officials, friends. There are entire families who see the signs. THESE signs are ignored a lot of the time, while they are told “nobody can come between a husband and wife,” or even, “you deserve it,” the activist says.
She also points out that “lots of feminicides reported in Cuba, even before the observatories existed, were women who had tried to break the cycle of violence. Some had managed to leave their homes with their children and start a new life. Even so, they were killed years later on the street, even in hospitals (there is a case from 2017 in Santiago de Cuba).” From her experience as an observer, Marta Maria Ramirez admits that it’s very hard for a woman “to come out of this circle on her own.”
In the past four years, civil society has taken on a more active role in complaints, based on the work of independent observatories. Yanelys Nuñez says that social media has shone a light on a phenomenon that was already happening. “A surge in violence in Cuba [can be seen] and, of course, women, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable, it’s something we also need to talk about.”
With these precedents, we aren’t very hopeful, Nuñez says. “2023 has been the worst year yet when it comes to feminicides recorded and we’re only half way through. Let’s see what numbers we end up with.”
Up until June 2023, the Cuban Government hadn’t presented official statistics about gender-based violence and feminicide cases regularly. Nevertheless, lots of reports from NGOs and human rights activists point out that gender-based violence, including feminicide, is a growing problem in Cuba.
Cuban civil society, independent observatories and their network of activists have recently presented the Directory of help and resources for victims of gender-based violence. Meanwhile, people are desperately wondering: how do we resolve this harm to women and girl victims of feminicides, disappearance, rape and sexual abuse? How can we talk about reparations and justice in Cuba that isn’t punitive, but restorative? Many of the societies we know haven’t resolved this issue with comprehensive legislation, but this can be a first step in Cuba’s case.
For Yoana Echenique (28 years), Ruselay Castillo (31 years), Rosmery Ponce Peña (23 years), Deyanira Fontanill (32 years), Adela Verdecia (30 years) and Saray Moya (50 years), feminicide is the name of the violence that killed them.