Dangers of Fighting for Gender Equality in Cuba

Ilena Alvarez


Are Cuban socialism and feminism incompatible?

HAVANA TIMES — Nobody would think that someone could be punished in Cuba, a country which aims for social equality, for the sole crime of fighting against gender equality.

It’s no secret that we live in a patriarchal society and, in fact, this phrase is back in fashion like it was at other times in our history. Even so, pointing out this fact explicitly and putting it on display can bring about serious problems.

This is what happened to Alas Tensas magazine, a feminist publication which is directed by Ileana Alvarez, a tireless woman who has the titanic task of writing gender-focused journalism from Ciego de Avila. (Alas Tensas = Tense Wings)

Any citizens’ initiative is a torment for the Cuban government and Alas Tensas is a project which has a life of its own and its members are being harassed. Havana Times stands in solidarity with them because we share their struggle for a fairer society.

Why do they want to cut our wings?

(Editorial from Alas Tensas magazine)

Those of us who create the feminist magazine Alas Tensas, have been suffering harassment and systematic attacks over the past two months. They want or need our independent, and self-proclaimed feminist, media platform to disappear, there’s no doubt about it.

Like British feminist Mary Beard said in her essay The Public Voice of Women: “It’s not what you say that prompts it [the attacks], it’s the fact you’re saying it.” Beard reminds us that a common refrain in patriarchal discourse (which she herself has been victim to), is “Shut up you bitch,” when a woman dares to leave the restraints of a domestic space and use her voice. This is how they try and ask you to go back into the kitchen or to darning their socks.

We have experienced demonstrations of force on every front. The most recent has been a ban on us traveling outside the country. Not only does this violate our freedom to move freely but also our right to self-determination: they have stopped us from taking part in feminist training courses and gender-focused journalism workshops.

Ileana Alvarez, editor of Alas Tensas magazine, was invited to a journalism workshop in Panama (April 6th) and to finalize her fellowship at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, the Regional School studying feminisms which is based in Mexico (April 22nd). She couldn’t leave the country on either occasion because in the National Identification System (SUIN) of the ID, Migration and Immigration Directorate (DIIE), she appears as “grounded out of public interest”.

The magazine’s designer Yaudel Estenoz wasn’t able to leave the country either, when he tried to travel to Trinidad and Tobago on April 22nd to apply for a student visa for a grant he had been awarded to study a Masters in the US. [With the US consulate in Havana no longer servicing visa requests from ordinary Cubans, they must go to another country to file applications.]

Before, on March 24th, writer, visual poet and journalist Francis Sanchez had his laptop seized by Customs at the Santa Clara airport when he was returning to Cuba, after they went through his personal files and found a piece on the elections and machismo throughout Cuba’s history. Sanchez knew that the same “regulation” would weigh him down when he tried to extend his passport.

Travel bans are just the tip of the iceberg. First of all, we were interrogated or summoned to have “conversations” (as they call it) with State Security agents. During these meetings, we received serious accusations and threats. In a nutshell, they trimmed our wings.

Within the symphony of spontaneous forms of independent speech (blogs, YouTubers, the Weekly Package, newspapers, music, film and movie producers) that are appearing recently in spite of great hurdles, we are the only Cuban magazine which specifies in self-declaring itself “feminist”.

The government tried to remove this ideology from Cuba, calling it “bourgeois” and unnecessary by declaring, de facto, that every form of discrimination had been abolished with the Revolution. However, here we are since October 2016. Our reality has shown that there are serious problems still pending in Cuba – beyond achievements such as our freedom to abort, maternity laws, equal pay or access to education and work – and nothing is said about them, they get worse, while new problems arise.

In the meantime, state-controlled media remain quiet, even some which are targeted at a female audience. Feminicide statistics aren’t even recognized here in Cuba, for starters. We don’t even have a law against gender-based violence.

This isn’t the first time the government has tried to “deactivate” a feminist project and magazine. Female newscasters from the MAGIN group, who tried to change women’s image in media, were “deactivated” in 1996 (they had only started coming together three years before that) and their magazine project never saw the light of day. They didn’t even manage to register themselves in the Associations Registry. This story can be found in the testimonies we have rescued here in Alas Tensas, such as “Magin, simply” or “Magin: Don’t ever stop feeling like a star.” Clearly, they are bothered by them “using complaints”, as Maria Zambrano would say, or rather, using their voice.

Going back to Mary Beard, we agree on one of the causes of patriarchal intolerance: “It’s not what you say that prompts it [the attacks], it’s the fact you’re saying it.” Now, Alas Tensas is also trying to go beyond symbolic representations which are related to the “what you say”, leaving abstract thought and the closed and more comfortable framework of academia behind, to take our word to the public sphere.

In spite of making our magazine in a small city such as Ciego de Avila in Cuba’s interior, our work seems to have taken on a social and international dimension, which the government can’t tolerate. The mentality of the controller (also read here: hijacker) is to keep us isolated, limited to a geographic and mental space which they have outlined for us, so that the truth, our truth, is never known or loses relevance.

Ever since our first article: “Alas Tensas is born in Cuba…” we haven’t hesitated on calling Cuban society “machista and patriarchal”, because this is how it’s been dragging on for centuries. Then, we committed the “sin” of showing that women are killed because of machista violence here in Cuba, at the hands of abusers, and because of a lack of preventative action, which was told in a blood-chilling story: “We have to talk about feminicide: Misleydis was killed in spite of repeated complaints.” At the end of the day, we question Cuba’s patriarchal tradition, as well as its structural and naturalized hypocrisy, like we did in the article: “Is International Women’s Day a day to celebrate?”

Anything we publish online can be read anywhere in the world. It allows us to be in contact with feminists all over the world and to expand something called “sorority”: a sisterhood between women who are aware of gender issues. Those of us who create Alas Tensas (Ileana, Francis, Yaudel, as well as some members of the Editorial Council) belong to LASA (The Latin American Studies Association) and we have taken part in academic congresses held in New York (2016) and Lima (2017), always on the subject of “Sexuality, gender and feminist studies”.

Results of our investigations and panel sessions organized for these congresses, have been published on our website, for example: “Cuban poetry written by women today: rebellion through ethnicity and sexual orientation,” and “La Avellaneda in Marti: from dark judgement to testimony of light.” By the way, we should also be taking part in LASA’s 36th International Congress which is scheduled to take place in Barcelona from May 23rd-26th, as we are members on the panel discussion: “History, feminism and feminist representations in Cuba. New accounts.” However, (we are sending this alarm to the academic community), we won’t be able to intend if our travel ban isn’t lifted.

We have been told that it isn’t the right “historic moment” for our work. Whole generations have been postponing their dreams, their creativity, self-censoring for the sake of this historic moment that never comes. Meanwhile… life goes on and we find ourselves tired and aged, with our children scattered across the world and us living off of the remittances they send us. Over the past sixty years of this socialist experiment, there has been a constant deja vu, the same mistakes are repeated over and over again. The majority of Cuban people live in a climate of fear, they cross the street every time they see someone who has “fallen into disgrace” come their way, like Dulce Maria Loynaz and Virgilio Pinera were in their day.

In Cuba, we have always seen citizens’ initiatives demonized over these decades: projects which aren’t conceived because of an official order. It’s happening today to us, to nearly every independent journalist and media platform. They accuse us of being “cyber-mercenaries”. They violate our privacy. They confiscate our working materials. They block our websites. They file legal complaints against us. They threaten us. They involve our families.

Therefore, we at Alas Tensas are today joining the many others who have been threatened or restricted. The list of people banned from traveling continues to grow.

Feminists who know that gender overlaps with other factors such as race, sexuality, religion, financial standing, ideology… need to understand that, in our case, the harassment we suffer for writing can’t be disconnected from the fact that we live in Cuba, in a province in the interior, far-removed from the capital, writing with a gender focus and openly declaring ourselves feminist. As a result, our vulnerability increases.

We need to remember that the first documented example of a man telling a woman to shut up appears at the beginning of Western culture, in the Odyssey, when Telemachus rebukes his mother, Penelope, for daring to express her wish to listen to a more joyful song from the bards. Then, he asks her to go and lock herself up: “My mother,” he says, “go back into the house and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff and bid your handmaidens to ply their work also. But speech will be a concern for men, all men, and for me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”

Some people, out of alleged love or care, ask us to keep quiet (just like Telemachus told his mother) for our own good today. In this hushed request, we feel like masculine power’s cry from above “Shut up…” is being repeated.

We advocate for our legitimate right to express ourselves freely, to write truthful journalism and to be a feminist platform. And we thank the people in Cuba and abroad, who stand by us in this demand, out of the goodness of their hearts.

2 thoughts on “Dangers of Fighting for Gender Equality in Cuba

  • The claim that the revolution removed discrimination in Cuba is fatuous. Racism for example is rife in both MININT and the State Police.
    But Llena and her colleagues in Alas Tensas made an error when they assumed that a communist regime would permit them freedom of expression and speech. Individuality is anathema to the regime as the purpose is to use its power and control to create a proletariat. One class of workers there to serve the purposes of the State ie: the communist dictatorship.

  • Ustedes tienen una mas persona”afuera” quien esta con la lucha suya. Aunque no soy cubana, despues de 18 visitas legales (visa religiosa) y viviendo con la gente, mi corazon es cubano. Gracias por su trabajo, su honestad, su fielidad, y su coraje a seguir escribiendo la verdad. Que DIos continue a bendecir a todxs ustedes.

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