By June Fernandez (from her blog Mari Katzetari)
HAVANA TIMES — My subjective perception of the matter is that gender violence is very common in Cuba, but at the same time there are elements of Cuban society that facilitate women breaking out of a violent situation.
Story #1: “I wish he’d raise a hand to me so I could boot him out once and for all”
I’m in Havana at a get-together with three woman friends who are around their fifties. One of them is asked how it’s going with her partner, a man she’s been living with for several years. She answers that, truthfully, it’s not going so well: the guy is very controlling. He always wants to know where she’s going and with whom. “He invades my space; I’m fed up, I feel suffocated. And sometimes he gets really mad. It scares me. But on the other hand, I’m wishing that he would dare once and for all to raise a hand to me, because then I would throw him out of the house and send him to the devil”. The friends agree with her.
Story #2: “Your daughter’s guy has a complex, and he’s going to beat her up.”
Skeptics – please abstain from raising your eyebrows, and just skip this part of the story if you’re incapable of giving it serious consideration, but I can’t tell what happened without talking about santería [Cuban religion with African roots]. Evelyn (assumed name) is a professional priestess, and friend of a friend, who has asked me to bring her a gift. She comes to see me at home, but I’m not there and Carmen (not her real name), my hostess, opens the door to her.
Carmen is a strong believer, and she feels that she is in communication with her dead family members. Evelyn and Carmen don’t know each other at all. They begin chatting about religion, then Carmen senses that the dead are asking her to warn Evelyn that her daughter is in danger: “Her man has a complex because she’s going out with others, and he’s going to attack her; he’s going to hit her or stab her. You have to be very alert because it’s going to fall upon you to intervene and protect your daughter.”
Evelyn’s blood ran cold. In fact she does have a daughter whose husband is in jail, and who can be very aggressive. She’s afraid that when they let him out he’s going to go after the daughter who has already decided not to go back with him.
Evelyn returns home and two hours later she calls us, to say nervously: “They’ve let my son-in-law out, he’s drinking rum with my husband. I’m afraid of how he’ll react when my daughter arrives. Carmen tells her to have faith in herself, that she will be capable of protecting her daughter.
The next day we went to Evelyn’s house, and she told us how everything ended up: “As I had feared, my daughter got home and the guy got angry: he began to yell all kinds of things at us, to insult us and threaten us, and he reached the point of slapping my daughter. I called the police and they arrived right away and locked him up again.” That’s when she told us that this was nothing new, that in fact the daughter had taken out restraining orders against him in the past, but that later they would always reconcile.
Story #3: The woman who wanted her mother to care for her abusive ex-husband.
I went to a small private café on Lamparilla St. In Havana to have a fruit drink. The woman who waited on me was over 70. We began to chat about the normal topics, that in Cuba “it’s not easy” (one of the most commonly repeated phrases), but that Spain isn’t doing well either, and then I let go with my habitual discourse about how people pour a mountain of energy and money into emigrating, only to find a country in crisis – a swindle in which immigration is criminalized and it takes years to correct the situation. The woman agrees with me and tells me that her sister went to Madrid with the illusion of joining her daughter who had emigrated years ago.
As it happened, she discovered that the daughter wanted her to take care of her ex-husband (her daughter’s father) from whom she had separated because he mistreated her. The daughter didn’t understand how she could be opposed to taking on the job of relating to the guy who had abused her, even if he had been a good father to his child, and she threw her out of the house. The woman returned to Cuba with her savings gone. But before that, from the airport, she called her daughter’s house and told her grandson, “My love, tell your mother that your grandmother is dead, that I’m no longer in her life and she should forget me.”
In the short ten days that I was in Cuba this year, I heard or witnessed these stories without looking for them or asking for them. Meanwhile, six months ago, a feminist Basque friend went to the main office of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) in Santiago de Cuba and asked about gender violence in Cuba. They told her that they don’t have any such thing because in Cuba, thanks to the Revolution, there is equality. Please note that this is not the official position of the FMC, which does do work in this area, although I lack sufficient details to judge their approach.
The Communist Party made a commitment in 2011 to analyze and agree upon actions that would “confront gender and domestic violence, and that which is manifested in the communities.” This was a change in tone, since up until that moment the topic was silenced or at least minimized. In any case, there is still no specific law against gender violence. In cases of aggression or homicide, the fact of an existing family relationship is applied as an aggravating factor.
The official media do not inform about men who murder their partners. It has been argued that this is merely one aspect of a general policy of zero crime reporting because the Cuban media renounce yellow journalism. This argument is not convincing to the communicators who specialize in gender themes; they regret that “such a serious topic is not given a systematic and rigorous treatment in the media.”
Outside of the official institutions (although maintaining ties with them) and the official Party organs, there are several initiatives looking to break the silence and insert the topic of gender violence into the institutional and media agenda.
The “Oscar Arnulfo Romero” Group for Reflection and Solidarity (producers of the documentary by Lizette Vila); the Latin America and African Network of Masculinity; those in the Gender and Culture program with their discussion series “Take a suspicious look”; the singer Rochy Ameneiro with her project “All against the tide”; and media such as Sem-Lac and the IPS news agency are some of the people and collectives that have contributed their efforts to the struggle against macho violence.
My own very subjective perception of the matter is that gender violence is very common in Cuba, but at the same time there are elements of Cuban society that make it easier for women to break out of a violent situation.
The very reduced influence of Christian morality means that the idea that matrimony is forever because that’s the will of God is not so ingrained in people’s heads. Divorce is the bread of everyday life – it isn’t seen as a huge failure nor as cause for shame and public derision.
The high rate of employed women also implies economic autonomy. Traditionally they’re also the ones to inherit the family home; in case of a separation, the man is the one who leaves.
Later there’s another aspect that I don’t know how to describe without it sounding like a stereotype: I perceive that typically Cuban women are extroverted, and very little given over to political correctness or the idea of maintaining silence around uncomfortable topics. Women friends chat freely about delicate subjects without beating around the bush.
Not all women are that way, but the ease with which the women quoted here related their stories of experiences with violence seems to reveal the two sides of the matter: on the one hand, how extensive and common this violence is, but on the other the capacity of the women to break the silence and talk about it, thus reaffirming themselves as women capable of facing up to violence.