Feminism, Communism and Catholicism
By Lisa Macdonald, Green Left Weekly, #304, 4 February 1998
The women of Cuba have reason to celebrate after the visit of Pope John Paul II two weeks ago.
The pope's call, on behalf of the majority of the world's capitalists, for the US to lift its economic blockade of Cuba, focused the world's media on the Cuban people's plight after 37 years of economic isolation, and their achievements despite that. John Paul's call adds significantly to the growing pressure on the US to lift the blockade.
The Cuban government knew that allowing the of the Catholic Church almost unlimited scope to spread his reactionary message on the family was a double-edged sword.
John Paul's ultraconservative position on women's "God-given" role as obedient and faithful wives, self-sacrificing mothers and domestic slave labourers is the antithesis of what Cuban revolutionaries have fought for.
Last year there were 41,227 divorces in Cuba (compared to 65,009 marriages). The pope's assertion in Santa Clara that divorce is evil and unnatural is not likely to change this pattern. The Family Code, which enshrines in law women's (and men's) unqualified right to divorce, to receive financial support from the father of their children and the state and to insist that their male partners do an equal share of domestic labour and child-care, was the product of years of profoundly democratic discussion involving the entire population.
The pope also railed against women's right to control their fertility. Abortion, he said, is an abominable crime which distorts the "true nature and dignity" of motherhood. All birth control methods, he said, "are not in accordance with human dignity".
Again, the pope's rantings must have had limited credibility among this particular audience since they directly contradict the experiences and aspirations of Cuban women. As one woman told a US journalist in Havana at the time: "He's entitled to his opinion".
Cuba has no official birth control policy, but abortion is legal and considered a right for all women, regardless of age, marital status or personal circumstances. It is a right which Cuban women fought hard for, against the legacy of centuries of imperialist colonisation and the domination of the Catholic Church before the revolution.
The reproductive rights of women in Cuba contrast sharply with those in Cuba's "moral" condemner, the US. Whilst opinion polls throughout the 1990s revealed that at least 65% of people in the US agree that women should have the right to choose, 15 abortion clinics were bombed last year, and unrestricted access to abortion is not available in a single US state.
During 1996 there were 83,000 abortions in Cuba and 140,276 births - an abortion rate of almost 60%. This compares to 31% in the US.
For Cuban women living under the blockade, abortion is more often than not the only way to control their fertility. It is a "choice" they exercise within constraints which are beyond their and their government's control. As another woman in Cuba interviewed by US television pointed out, there would be many fewer abortions in Cuba if the blockade was lifted and Cubans had access to a range of contraceptive technologies.
What the pope did not mention in his efforts to undermine the huge advances in reproductive and personal freedom that Cuban women have won is that, alongside the high rates of abortion and divorce, Cuba has a high level of health care, welfare provision and education for children. As a famous sign in Havana says: "200 million children in the world sleep in the streets today. Not one of them is Cuban."
Despite the immense difficulties it confronts as a result of the blockade, socialist Cuba has the lowest infant mortality rate among underdeveloped countries, and a rate that is lower than in the United States itself.
It is because of such achievements, and because the revolution gave all Cuban women much more freedom, encouragement, resources and confidence to make their own decisions about how to live their lives that the pope's reactionary sermons will fall on largely unreceptive ears.
The Cuban revolutionaries know this. They also know that the greatest threat to and limitation on Cuban women's freedom, is not, as "his holiness" tried to insist, "the substitution of God's infinite wisdom and power with an [communist] ideology", but the power of the US to starve Cuba of the resources it needs to progress towards the full liberation of women.
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