Cuban socialism and women's liberation - two revolutions entwined


The ongoing socialist revolution in Cuba is an inspiring example of what can be achieved for women’s rights when the capitalist agenda no longer dictates. From 1959, when the Cuba Revolution achieved political victory over the US-backed Batista dictatorship, women have both defeated preconceptions that they can’t be revolutionary leaders, and helped their country lead the world in the areas of feminism, environmental sustainability, political participation, health and education.

The brutality of the Batista regime propelled many women to join the revolutionary struggle. Their initial roles in non-combatant underground work and caring for the male soldiers did not satisfy many of the women and they demanded equality in the armed struggle, against the opposition of many of the men. Fidel Castro spent one seven-hour meeting persuading leading opponents that women had the discipline (in fact, more of it) – and also the right – to fulfil this role . The women’s platoon of the Rebel Army became known for its discipline and courage, sometimes leading ahead where men feared to go. Thus it was early in the revolution that many men were forced to change their opinion of women’s capabilities.

On January 2, 1959, the day after the general strike which forced Batista and his cronies to flee Havana for the US, Castro called for the end of women’s oppression and – for their full participation in the nascent revolution. “A people whose women fight alongside men – that people is invincible”, he avowed in a speech from the Santiago de Cuba city hall. However, the expectations that both men and women generally held at that time were those of the capitalist world. The capitalists needed working-class women to assume primary responsibility for unpaid domestic labour in rearing the next generation of workers so as to reduce pressure on the capitalist state to direct wealth towards social welfare and away from private profits. They therefore promoted the view that women’s “natural” social role was being mothers/carers subordinate to their husbands – the “breadwinner” – within each individual family unit.

General acceptance that working women should be restricted to low-status and low paid work was also important in reinforcing the idea that women primarily belonged in “the home”. Capitalist dominance of the media and other cultural products, capitalist laws and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba all helped reinforce these ideas. The Cuban revolutionaries recognised that the impact of capitalism’s needs and the sexist ideas it promoted on women’s lives was so far-reaching and oppressive that fundamental changes were needed.

From the beginning of Cuba’s new revolutionary democracy, women assumed leadership roles, involving themselves in the popular militias to defend the revolution, and in the neighbourhood-based Committees in Defence of the Revolution. But this initial demonstration of women’s leadership capacity was recognised as inadequate for eradicating the discrimination against women that was thoroughly ingrained into Cuban social life. A group of women revolutionaries founded what was to become the main women’s rights organisation in Cuba, to build on the gains for women made during the struggle against Batista.

The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), a non-government organisation open to all women over the age of 14 and numbering nearly 4 million, organises at every level of society. The FMC works on various issues directly affecting women such as access to jobs and domestic violence. The Cuban constitution guarantees it an “advisory” role in the formulation of government policy, and the National Assembly of People’s Power tends to adopt most of its proposals. It is hard to find a comparable situation in any other country.

Partly via the FMC, women led the revolution from its early days, spearheading national literacy and health campaigns in which tens of thousands of FMC members led other Cubans in health and literacy brigades to rural areas, helping the rural workers and peasants in their daily work while teaching them to read and educating them about disease prevention, and decreasing infant and maternal mortality rates. As a result of the 1961 national campaign, the Cuban adult literacy rate increased from 75% in 1959 to 96% by the end of 1961. Today, the literacy rate is 99.8% and Cuba leads the world in the ration of female to male enrolments at all educational levels, at 121%.

And Cuba now has an outstanding health system which places a high priority on women’s needs. Women have access to many forms of contraception, and abortion is legal and accessible. Very few people in Cuba have HIV or AIDS, and less than a quarter of those are women. All healthcare is free, a remarkable achievement given that the criminal US blockade on Cuba includes a trade ban, 90% of which encompasses medical supplies and food. The UN Statistics Division records the infant mortality rate at four per thousand, lower than the US rate of six per thousand.

Children are educated about sex in Cuba from the elementary level, and encouraged to develop attitudes about sex that encompass mutual respect, the idea of sex as human expression, and safer sex. This stands in sharp contrast to the sexist moralism of pre-socialist capitalist relations, which embraced the sexual double-standard, tended to treat women as sexual objects, and threw women to the fate of enforced child-rearing or backyard abortions. Divorces are easily obtainable and usually initiated by women.

The Cuban Revolution also took steps to get women out of prostitution, providing them with alternative livelihoods. Revolutionary Cuba has heavy penalties for pimping. Prostitution was nearly eradicated, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The USSR was previously Cuba’s largest trading partner, on which Cuba had enormous reliance as a consequence of the crippling US economic blockade. With Cuba’s increased reliance on international tourism to earn foreign currency, the problem of prostitution and sexist advertising to promote tourism re-emerged.

One response by the National Assembly was the adoption of the FMC’s proposed measures to reduce sexist advertising. The FMC has also implemented outreach programs to the women engaged in prostitution, and made other recommendations to the government about adjusting its legal responses and overseas advertising to tourists. The lasting power of centuries of sexist socialisation under capitalism also gives the Cuban Revolution ongoing feminist tasks. Men still fail to take enough responsibility for contraception and don’t avail themselves of the free vasectomies available to them. It is not only sex tourists to Cuba, but also some Cuban men, who believe it is acceptable to hire women to deliver them sexual pleasure.

Writing of Cuba’s approach to the misogynist violence it inherited from the capitalist world, Cuba solidarity activist Donna Goodman explains in the March 2009 Dissident Voice that, “Crimes of violence against women, especially rape and sexual assault, are severely punished in Cuba. The Federation of Cuban Women travels the country to find out if there is hidden violence and to set up mechanisms for reporting and for community intervention.” She notes that discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or religious preference is outlawed by the Cuban constitution, and further laws back other measures of gender equality.

Although most Cubans no longer hold the pre-revolutionary attitude that women should stay at home and not engage in broader society, the assumption that women should assume most responsibility for domestic tasks is enduring. Some Cubans have been reluctant to elect women to some of the national leadership bodies because they think their domestic responsibilities would impede their leadership activity. One response to this problem was the 1975 Family Code, which set into law equal participation in domestic tasks. Another response has been the “best candidate” media campaign run by the FMC, aimed at urging voters not to allow historical expectations to affect their decisions. Cuban feminist leaders recognise the importance of continuing this work to change ingrained attitudes.

Despite this, Cuba still leads on most feminist measures. As a consequence of decades of taking women seriously as revolutionary leaders, it has the third-highest proportion globally of parliamentary seats (in a lower or single house) held by women, at 43%. As of December 2010, the US rate is 17% and Australia’s is 25%. Women represent 49.5% of all graduates at higher educational levels and 62% of university students.

In 1956 women made up only 17% of the paid workforce. Today they comprise 46.7%. This is partly enabled by the FMC which runs free childcare services for children under seven years – a far cry from Australia’s expensive childcare. And unlike in Australia, women don’t tend to take the worst-paid jobs – 65.1% of professional and technical staff, and 43% of scientists are women. They also comprise 51% of Cuba’s doctors. In fact, efforts to get women to study medicine were so successful that in 1999, when over 70% of medicine graduates were women, Cuba had to introduce quotas for men!

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