Feminists in Cuba: Is It Time to Take Steps Together?

Yasmin S. Portales Machado

HAVANA TIMES — On Tuesday, July 24, a group of Cuban feminists gathered at the Jose Marti International Journalism Institute and ended up discussing the possibility of coordinating their efforts to form a national political organization. In addition, they talked about what should be on the Cuba’s agenda with respect to their concerns. Did they achieve this?

The invitation couldn’t have been more innocent. It was just another one of the many intellectual debates (usually) organized by, for and about women intellectuals. The message read: “We would like to invite you to a discussion about “Feminism in Cuba Today: Rethinking Theory and Practice.” This was to involve the participation of Georgina Alfonso, Teresa Diaz Canals, Danae Dieguez and Isabel Moya, among others, as guests. The forum was to be moderated by Dr. Alina Perez.

The gathering also mentioned that this initiative had the support of the Women’s News Service for Latin American and the Caribbean (SEMlac), Spain’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs in Cuba and the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development (AECID), but this wasn’t the most outstanding feature of the meeting.

Although the event was announced less the 24 hours before it was to convene and before a holiday, the institute’s Don Mariano Classroom was full at about 10:00 a.m. with women from very diverse backgrounds, including teaching, animal breeding, philosophy, technical research, community service, social communications and political activism. However the common denominator was their commitment to feminism and its inclusion within their respective professional areas.

The initial presentation was made by Isabel Moya, the editor of the magazine Mujeres (Women), who gave an overview of why the decision to organize the event.

The contribution of feminism hidden from society

Undoubtedly the most important reason was the expansion of the postgraduate thesis of Social Communication that incorporates a gender focus and the clashes this is generating between professors within the various faculties at the University of Havana.

In this context it is appropriate to close ranks and rethink about how feminism — disguised by the term “gender” in many areas — contributes to our society. We need to examine our way of understanding relationships between people and how it can be used to successfully meet new social challenges in Cuba from the standpoints of theory and practice.

Alina Perez, the moderator, noted to the audience that the intention was not to establish a closed panel, but to promote dialogue between peers. For this reason, at the entrance of the room were copies of the newsletter “Voces para el dialogo” (Voices for Dialogue). This was devoted to “Feminism in Cuba Today,” and consisted of interviews with the speakers Teresa Diaz Canals, Danae Dieguez, Isabel Moya, as well as three other major Cuban feminists: Mirta Yañez, Zaida Capote Cruz and Georgina Alfonso (the latter was invited to speak but was unable to attend).

The availability of this documentation was aimed at facilitating the discussion, clearly and synthetically explaining six opinions about feminism in our nation. After laying down the ground rules, Alina opened the forum for the first presentation, by sociologist Teresa Diaz Canals.

The well-known university professor and essayist moved between testimony and methodological reflection. In her presentation she sought to bridge the tensions of daily life in Cuba (immigration, the dual currency, depressed wages, political uncertainty) and the various forms of expression with which feminist ideology can be made concrete (among the most important being political action, ethics and lifestyles that are consistent with gender-emancipated relationships, and confronting various types of discrimination).

Diaz Canals concluded with a call to rescue the memory of our feminists of past centuries and to reaffirm their conviction that there is indigenous feminist thought in Cuba.

After thanking the speaker, the moderator proposed a first round of discussion before continuing with the presentations so as to stimulate the gathering.

After some reluctance — because even among feminists we can sometimes find it difficult to break with traditional/top-down/patriarchal academic patterns — Zaida Capote gave us her response to the central question of whether there exists a feminist movement in Cuba today (NO! was her response) and she proposed a solution: creating a feminist organization, a mechanism that links academic, creative, institutional and community endeavors and that overcomes the current status of semi-autonomous groups and isolated initiatives that are connected by networks of affinity.

Up to that point the program was respected, but because the debate no one remembered that Danae Dieguez’s presentation of gender and the media was still to come, since everyone there focused on analyzing the challenges and objectives involved in Zaida’s proposal.

There were many comments and several of the participants included in their arguments the errors and painful lessons learned from their experiences with the Asociacion de Mujeres Comunicadoras (Association of Women Communicators), the mythical MAGIN that in the ‘90s defended the idea of socialist feminism, arguing that a gender focus was not in contradiction with “class struggle.”

The challenges

Instead of giving an incomplete account of every idea expressed — I should note that there were detailed accounts, replies, counterclaims, metaphorical narratives, calls for order, surprised laughter and alarmed whispers — I prefer to summarize the challenges faced by this idea of creating a feminist organization:

Why it will not be easy: In a society as politicized as Cuba’s, a feminist association is a frontal challenge to the hegemony of power. This is not only because feminism is essentially a political project — and whoever denies this is ignorant or opportunistic — but because it also seeks to dismantle the same logic of the social order and to replace it with others in which the relationship between people is equalitarian, without any kind of top-down verticality.

Why is it necessary: Because women’s efforts will be weak as long as there remain thematic, methodological, institutional or geographical divisions, whereas these will be strengthened and achieve legitimacy by forming a group that has common goals and recognizes fundamental ideological commonalities. Gender agendas in Cuba will not advance if there is no unification of the strengths of those individuals who are committed to feminism.

What is missing: Before making that qualitative leap of consciously uniting themselves, feminists must overcome the limitations that are keeping us down as a group:

– “Havana-centrism” in theoretical development, where there is isolation and ignorance of initiatives (scientific, educational, communicational, community or political efforts) organized in different parts of the country or in different institutions of those provinces;

– A classist hegemonic social base of the “enlightened” — the majority of whom are college-educated, white, urban heterosexuals;

– The lack of a sense of history, where there is no conservation or recirculation of the legacy of those who preceded us in the movement; no awareness of the importance of the life stories of those who made and make feminism practical;

– A new generation without gender consciousness and that is profoundly disinterested in collective action;

– A media that generally reflects a distorted view of feminism and gender agendas;

– Prejudices that are entrenched in the popular mindset and in those people who make up the structures of power that works against the term feminism, as well as among those who demand it;

– The distorted legend that feminism runs counter to class struggle and against the socialist goal in general;

– The lack of recognition of the work of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) in promoting public policies beneficial to women as well as the sexual and reproductive rights of the Cuban population at large.

Many of these barriers were posed as questions, and some were then answered by Isabel Moya, who through her work as the editor of Mujeres magazine has had the opportunity to travel the island and learn about the experiences of many people who are not afraid of calling themselves “feminists.”

Moya explained that if there are Cuban feminist networks outside of Havana, these have national or local diversity, arising around projects as diverse as the 33 women’s centers in many other universities, the “Casas de Orientación a la Mujer y la Familia” (Centers for the Orientation of Women and Families) maintained by the FMC in all municipalities, and the personnel who work in new and successful “Tribunales de la Familia” (Family Courts).

But she acknowledged that many of these initiatives are not known outside of their geographical or professional areas.

There was also a certain consensus about the dangers of proposing such a project to the “Registro Nacional de Asociaciones” (National Register of Associations). However Luisa Campusano, the director of the Department of Women’s Studies at the Casa de las Americas, reassured those attending the meeting regarding the urgency of such a procedure: it turned out that the “Academia Cubana de la Lengua” (the Cuban Academy of Language) still hasn’t received its registration – although it was founded by the noted anthropologist Fernando Ortiz back in the 1920s.

Another presentation by Dr. Alina put the meeting on track, threatening to turn it into catalog of how much remains to be done by the Cuban women’s movement, and — comparing it to the discourses of the early twentieth century — showing how it seems to have barely gone past the right to vote and abortion.

What were raised were the demands and issues that should be included in a current feminist agenda in Cuba in light of the changes the country is going through in the updating of its economic model.

That brought on a second storm of ideas, much more positive, though these again reflected the professional biases of the women present (the proposals were rarely formulated as elements of a political agenda, instead what prevailed were their presentation as potential “research topics”).

The agenda

In any case, below I am presenting the points on the agenda for this hypothetical association (a pressure group, a network of initiatives, a coordinator of demands presented to the government?) in the approximate order in which they appeared:

1. Women and employment
2. Women, gender and the media
3. Women and families
4. Women and public policy
5. Gender violence
6. Women and poverty
7. Femininity and masculinity
8. Race relations
9. Life cycles in relation to women
10. Gender and education (this actually involves four matters, because it relates to elementary and secondary school, technical training and university education)
11. Women and music, as objects and as subjects
12. Equality in political settings and organizations
13. Guarantees of access to contraceptives, emergency contraception and free abortion for women and men
14. Women and religion (with an emphasis on the control over sexist and homophobic expression by institutions in the name of religious freedom)
15. Care as a right
16. Feminism and networks
17. Practices of gender development and education
18. Citizenship
19. Immigration and gender relations
20. Social mobility of women
21. Women and technology
22. Forerunners of the feminist movement in Cuba and the world
23. The logic of feminist of action and organization

After the discussion, Isabel Moya agreed to process those proposals and send them around. Even after the official conclusion of the meeting — Danae Dieguez remained for this — the panel rigorously analyzed the pros and cons of these points. What predominated was skepticism and anticipation, but the majority of people recognized Zaida Capote for giving the meeting such direction.

In 2013 we will mark twentieth year since the founding of MAGIN, yet several questions continue to float around:

– Are the new Cuban feminists capable of self-organization (beyond specific sectoral interests) to defend a political agenda?

– Will the “Registro Nacional de Asociaciones” respond more quickly than it has to the “Academia Cubana de la Lengua”?

– Will Cuba’s authorities be willing to dialogue with a coordinated feminist movement?

– And if they are willing to talk, will the authorities listen? And how will this movement negotiate with them without falling into the same patterns that are criticized?

One thing is certain: only those who take steps will get anywhere, and it’s time to start taking steps together…