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Fidel Castro is said to have called for women’s rights to be a ‘revolution within a revolution’

New era

The Cuban woman: A rising power

By Luisita Lopez Torregrosa on June 9, 2015

Expectations and excitement about Cuba are at a high boil, with thousands of people on both sides of the Straits of Florida giddy with anticipation of historic change. Congressional, business and educational delegations are landing daily in Havana, eager to sample the mystique of a place virtually off limits to Americans until recently. In this electric new atmosphere, most things Cuban seem bursting with promise, few more than the remarkable progress women have made in a macho society.

Against the odds, in what has been an oppressive state-controlled dictatorship, Cuba has outpaced the United States and other developed nations in categories crucial to gender equality: the number and percentage of women in politics and in high-level ministerial positions.

The advance is impressive – at least on the surface. Cuba consistently ranks high in international surveys regarding women’s status, standing at 18 among 142 nations in women’s political empowerment and at number two for percentage of women in parliament, according to the 2014 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report. By contrast, the United States is ranked at 54 in women’s political empowerment and 83 for women in parliament (U.S. Senate and U.S. House).

“It’s a big change in political empowerment, all these women in the National Assembly,’’ says Sarah Stephens, the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington-based nonprofit, and author of “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”

Just back from one of her frequent trips to Havana, she has more questions than answers. “Does the number of women in parliament mean that women are truly empowered? Can they change policies? Can they openly advocate for women? Are they able to push for laws and policies to help people or are they good party members sticking to the party line? I don’t know the answer to that.”

Over time she has heard from a lot of Cuban women that government policies are “all well and good, but it’s no equality that was earned or achieved by women from the bottom up. It was something that was decided at the top and set into law.”

“Fidel Castro called for women’s rights as a ‘revolution within a revolution’ and this commitment became tangible through changes in legislation and policy,’’ according to Stephens. “But women within the system point out the gaps between promises and practice. They call it a ‘gender paradox,’ a society legally bound to equality but harnessed to the traditional system of patriarchy.”

Yet Cuban women are beginning to make progress in at least one realm: the business sector, says Stephens. She tells me the story of Nidialys, a 30ish mother of two young children who started a small car service when the government loosened regulations on the private and cooperative sector. Her business has done well and she now has a contract with a state-run travel agency that will open her car service to tourists. “She’s so busy she is complaining that she’ll have to hire someone to look after her children,’’ Stephens says. “Just a year ago she couldn’t have imagined that.” Her husband helps out – he’s a car mechanic – but she runs the business, manages employees and handles finances.

Another 30ish woman, Barbara, started out with a sewing machine in her tiny apartment in Havana. She imported cloth from Miami and made baby outfits she sold to friends, neighbors and other Cubans. Her homegrown business grew by word of mouth and now she and her husband, who hands out flyers at a restaurant, live in a large home with their two young children. And she’s not stopping with baby clothing. She plans to get into the lucrative tourist market, making and selling guayaberas, the popular tropical shirts. Her target: Americans.

This is the Cubanismo spirit I saw up and down the scale in Havana on a couple of trips in the past 10 years. Even women in lowly jobs—housekeepers, waitresses, clerical workers—displayed a sense of confidence and entrepreneurial ambition, working long hours, looking out to make extra money on the sly. There were also executive women in the government ministries like Culture and Foreign, in hotel public relations and in the state-run Habaguanex tourism industry who commanded staffs and dealt directly with foreign visitors and the international media.

“Cuban women have advanced a lot in the areas of equal rights compared with years ago and other countries in Latin America,’’ Dayma Echevarria Leon, a sociologist, professor at the University of Havana and visiting scholar at Columbia, told me by email from Havana. “However, a dominant patriarchal culture continues to stand in the way of advancement.”

But compared to pre-revolutionary Cuba, women have made giant strides. Before the 1959 revolution, Cuba was one of the most developed and prosperous countries in Latin America, but women made up only 5 percent of university graduates and 12 percent of the work force.

Today, women make up nearly half of the island’s work force and more than half of university faculties, and hold top portfolios in the ministries. Among the best educated in the West, they make up the majority of high school and college graduates, the majority in technical and administrative jobs, 33.6 percent of directors and executives, and a remarkable 48.9 percent of the Cuban parliament, the National Assembly.

At the same time, like other women around the world, they are often saddled with low-paying jobs, relegated to care-taking and homemaking, and boxed into careers like teaching when science and high tech would make them a better fit for the evolving Cuban job market. And, as Havana lays off thousands of state workers under the emerging market-oriented economy, women worry they will not find work in the private sector.

“Cuba has been very progressive on women, giving verbal support to equal rights, leading internationally and in Latin America,” Luiza Carvalho, the Americas and Caribbean regional director for U.N. Women, said by phone from Panama City, where she is based.

She has been on the job six months and expects to travel to Cuba before the year is out to see for herself. But she’s impressed by the high percentage of female parliamentarians and the fact that women make up 65 percent of the island’s mayors and provincial governors, compared to 10-to-20 percent in the rest of Latin America.

How much power do those women wield? Though women hold nearly half the seats at the 612-seat Cuban parliament, the assembly usually meets only twice a year and usually approves laws by a unanimous show of hands. Laws are drafted by a handful of legislators and a “no” vote is nearly unheard of. It’s difficult to pin down the women’s level of influence.

“Women in Cuba are not equal yet,” Ms. Carvalho concludes reluctantly, a comment that could be made about almost any other country in the world. “Women can’t gain equality until the patriarchal culture is finished.”
Patriarchal attitudes and traditions are threaded deep into Latin American culture and society. Yet the Latin American and Caribbean region has more female heads of state and heads of government – six – than any other region in the world, according to the 2015 U.N. Women in Parliament survey. Some countries have electoral quotas that increase or guarantee women’s role in politics, Ms. Carvalho says. Fourteen countries in Latin America have quotas – Cuba does not.

So how to explain the paradox of Cuban women’s strong representation in government?

Sarah Stephens suggests that ideology plays a role: “One of the great things in Cuba, part of the social project of the revolution, was equality, including equality for women—and that mattered.”

The director of the policy division at U.N. Women, Begona Lasagabaster, told me once that women and men who fight together, as Cubans did in the revolution, tend to maintain their political stature. Perhaps that’s true, though Cuban female revolutionaries like Celia Sanchez, Fidel Castro’s aide de camp and confidante, who fought alongside him in the Sierra Maestra, was not accorded a high-level ministry position in the post-revolution era and enjoyed little of the power of, say, Che Guevara.

Few women have emerged as major leaders in Cuba. While the United States has produced dozens of female trailblazers, advocates, and influential organizations, Cuban women don’t seem to have a single prominent leader or a potent public voice. Their gains have been made mainly through laws and government policies, not through the media, parliamentary debate or mass demonstrations.

But if there is a figure that might fit the bill it may well be Mariela Castro Espin, the 52-year-old daughter of President Raul Castro and the late Vilma Espin, a prominent rebel and comrade-in-arms.

Mariela Castro, by virtue of her name and her work for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Cubans, has become a spokeswoman in Cuba and internationally: a voice of the new, post-revolution generation. It is Mariela Castro who said recently that Cuba would never become a capitalist nation; it is Mariela Castro who cast the only “no” vote in the Cuban parliament against a workers’ rights bill she felt didn’t go far enough to prevent discrimination against L.G.B.T. people and victims of HIV. And it is Mariela Castro who, with her father’s ear and as the head of the Center for Sex Education, has been championing gay rights in a country with a history of persecuting homosexuals. She has succeeded in ways unthinkable not long ago, recently sponsoring a blessing ceremony for gay couples on an island where same-sex marriage is illegal.

Other potential leaders include Yoani Sanchez, 39, the ingenious dissident who created an online persona as a critic of the Castro government with her blog Generation Y. Sanchez has carried her pro-democracy message around the world, lecturing at places like Columbia and Georgetown universities.

And there’s the increasingly familiar face of Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, 53, the head of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s North America division, an “Americanist” long familiar with the United States, who speaks fluent English and is the leading negotiator in the current Havana-Washington talks. On the U.S. side of the table is Roberta S. Jacobson, 59, a Latin America specialist and Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere recently nominated by President Obama as the new ambassador to Mexico.

As U.S.-Cuba relations enter a new era, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Havana and Washington chose women to lead the most crucial and public negotiations in more than 50 years between the two countries.