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Edited/Distributed by HURINet - The Human Rights Information Network
Struggle For Women's Equality In U.S., Cuba
By Rose Berbeo, the Militant, Vol. 62, no. 13, 6 April 1998
NEW YORK - "The question of women is permanently on the agenda of the Cuban revolution," stated Mirtha Hormilla, a member of the permanent mission of Cuba to the United Nations, at an event on March 21 titled "Women In Cuba Today" that drew about 90 people. The event was sponsored by Casa de las Ame'ricas, an organization of Cubans and other Latin Americans living in the United States who support the Cuban revolution. Hormilla was part of a panel that included Marisol Valdez, also from the Cuban mission; Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press and editor of numerous books on both Cuba and women's liberation; Margarita Samad-Matias, professor of human rights and women's studies at City College of New York; and Viviana Lam, a student at Hostos Community College who recently helped organize a very successful panel discussion there on "Women in the Next Millennium." The meeting was chaired by Nancy Cabrera of Casa de las Ame'ricas. Puerto Rican actress/playwright Sandra Rodri'guez gave a dramatic reading from one of her new plays to open the event. Hormilla noted that one of the first acts of the Cuban Revolution was the land reform. Among those who received titles to the land they worked, "an important percentage were women," she said. "At the United Nations, it pains us to see how many women in the world today are still denied the right to own land." Hormilla pointed out that even the "most intransigent enemies of the revolution" have had to recognize social gains such as in education and health care, which women and children have benefited from the most. She cited an annual UN report that lists Cuba as ranking 16th in the world for development of women. "The revolutionary government has worked to guarantee equal opportunities for women's participation, and this is institutionalized" through the 1976 Cuban constitution, the Family Code adopted at that time, and constant attention of the revolutionary leadership, Hormilla explained. She noted that women make up 46 percent of the workforce, "which is to say that women are encouraged to work." The government's policy is to create child care and other services that make this possible. "No woman doubts that she has equal rights to men," Hormilla continued. "But changing the mentality, not only of men but of women, happens at a slower pace. Even though the Family Code recognizes the equal responsibility of both partners, no one can deny that in the home it's women who still carry the main responsibility for the family."
Impact of the `Special Period'
That burden became heavier with the abrupt end to Cuba's favorable trade relations with the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the deep economic crisis that followed known as the "Special Period," Hormilla explained. This is aggravated by the 1992 Torricelli Law, the 1996 Helms-Burton law, and other moves by the U.S. government to tighten the economic squeeze on Cuba, she said. Valdez noted that women "have suffered the most from the lack of variety of food; the cutbacks in transportation that make going to and from work take longer; and when spare parts for domestic appliances don't arrive in time, making daily life harder." Since 1990, the Cuban government "has come up with a strategic plan to protect the gains the people have won since the triumph of the revolution - access to education, health care, access to jobs, and social security," said Valdez, and within this "women have a special priority." She gave some examples of the high percentage of women in different sectors of the labor force. Women comprise 57 percent of university students and 27 percent of the Cuban parliament, Valdez added. Hormilla pointed to the education of women as one of the most important gains. Illiteracy has been eliminated, she noted, "and everyone - including housewives -has at least a sixth-grade education. This cultural level is one of the strengths of the revolution." Samad-Matias, a longtime activist in solidarity with Cuba, stated that improvement of the status of women in Cuba "is a revolution within a revolution, without which it is impossible to have fundamental social change." The U.S. government "doesn't want people to travel to Cuba and tells them lies about Cuba," Samad-Matias said. "They don't want people to learn that only 90 miles away a different system exists, where despite being attacked in so many ways 11 million people are still surviving and developing and have many more social services than people in the richest country in the world." She noted that women in Cuba are entitled to six months paid maternity leave after giving birth (and another six months unpaid), where women in the United States are lucky to get six weeks leave without pay. The professor also pointed to the role that Cuban doctors and other internationalists play throughout the semicolonial world. "I think we have so much to learn from women of Cuba, for allowing us to see our dreams are possible," she said.
Women's rights in the U.S. and Cuba
Waters noted that 1998 marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most important victories of the working-class movement in the United States in the last 50 years: the victory for women's rights registered in the Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion. "This was not given - it was won in struggle," spearheaded by the women's rights movement. That movement, Waters noted, grew out of the sweeping changes in women's economic status that began as the U.S. prepared to enter World War II, as well as the changing consciousness and combativity of youth who responded to the mass struggle to bring down the Jim Crow system of segregation in the United States and the rising anti-imperialist struggles around the world, especially the Cuban revolution and the fight of the Vietnamese people. Yet as soon as abortion was legalized, that victory came under attack. "Today, in 1998, people are still being murdered in the United States because they defend women's right to choose," Waters noted. "This graphically highlights the difference between the United States and Cuba," she said. "It shows why the Cuban revolution is an example for women in the United States and throughout the world who are fighting for equality and for a more just and human society." "When we started marching for abortion rights at the end of the 1960s, women in Cuba had already won that right almost 10 years before," Waters noted. "Today women's right to decide is so completely established in Cuba that when the Pope visited that country earlier this year and talked about abortion as a crime, it literally had no impact." In contrast, in the U.S. "the political and ideological offensive against women's rights is a constant. It is a deep part of the culture war that is waged by ultraright forces like Patrick Buchanan," Waters said. Women's right to choose "is never secure and never will be until we do in the United States what the Cuban people did 40 years ago in their revolution." Before 1959, only a very small percentage of women in Cuba worked outside of the home - somewhere between 10 and 15 percent at most - and the majority worked as maids. More than half of peasant women were illiterate, Waters noted. Economically and socially, women in Cuba have gained as much ground in 40 years as it took women in the U.S. 150 years to cover. This was possible only because a socialist revolution eliminated the economic foundations of women's oppression, and, just as importantly, a revolutionary leadership consistently led and supported the efforts of women to carry out a fundamental transformation in their conditions of life, she said. In addition to the land reform Hormilla spoke of, this included a mass literacy campaign that educated hundreds of thousands of women, especially working-class and peasant women, many of whom learned to read and write over the objections of their husbands; schools for domestic workers, peasant women, and former prostitutes who were then able to become part of the broad labor force; and the establishment of the Federation of Cuban Women. The course of the Cuban revolution in promoting the struggle for women's equality was "registered once again in the 1980s, during what was called the rectification process, as the Cuban leadership addressed some of the problems that had developed from copying many of the practices that had become institutionalized in the Soviet Union," Waters said. One of these problems was that the construction of child-care centers, which had been a priority in the early years of the revolution, had virtually come to a halt. This was turned around in the second half of the 1980s. While the pace of construction has greatly slowed due to lack of resources in the Special Period, "that policy has not been reversed." The Cuban revolution shows us that socialist revolution is possible, and that women's liberation is possible, Waters said. "The rest is up to us." Lam told the meeting that she is originally from Ecuador, where, she said, "you feel that a woman is part of the downside of society, nobody cares about women. It's very rare to see a young woman going to a protest. You don't see women looking at the newspapers there, saying, `Wow, I'm going to fight for my rights,' " she said. "I'm here to learn more about women in Cuba," Lam said. "I think the Cuban woman is a very good example. We have to keep on struggling. That's our right and our duty." In the discussion, Hormilla explained that the question of jobs is one of the most pressing in Cuba. She explained that one of the topics discussed at a recent leadership gathering of the Federation of Cuban Women was how to increase opportunities for women in industrial jobs. Most women work in the service sector, education, health, administration, and as technicians, while fewer work in industry or agriculture, she said. In the countryside, she said, "the sugar mills need engineers, but they also need workers. It's a complex situation, because young people naturally have aspirations which they've gained through the revolution." Women who do work in industry, are primarily in light industry, she added, not heavier work, which is better paid. "The problem of employment will be solved to the degree the economy is reactivated, and the numbers show the economy is coming forward," Hormilla added. Another person asked about the role of women in the Cuban military. There are some women's units in the regular army, Hormilla said, but it is a small percentage. Every woman in Cuba, however, "receives military training in various forms - through the Committees for Defense of the Revolution and the Territorial Troop Militias, which are volunteer units to arm the population and defend the country. "The revolution exists today because it is militarily defended," the Cuban diplomat said, "And when it's needed, there will be 3 million women soldiers" ready to fight for it.
Rose Ana Berbeo is a member of the International Association of Machinists.