Cuban women and Cuban ‘marriage’
“With a bleeding eye in their hands, a sergeant and several other men went to the cell where our compañeras Melba Hernández and Haydée Santamaría were held. Addressing the latter, and showing her the eye, they said: ‘This eye belonged to your brother. If you will not tell us what he refused to say, we will tear out the other.’
“Haydée, who loved her valiant brother above all else, replied full of dignity: ‘If you tore out an eye and he did not speak, much less will I.’
“Later they came back and burned the women prisoners’ arms with cigarettes until at last, full of malice, they told the young Haydée Santamaría: ‘You no longer have a fiancé because we’ve killed him too.’ But still imperturbable, she answered: ‘He is not dead, because to die for one’s country is to live forever.’ Never had the heroism and the dignity of Cuban womanhood reached such heights.”
(From “History Will Absolve Me,” a translated transcript of the statement made by Fidel Castro at his 1953 trial in the kangaroo court of U.S.-supported Cuban tyrant Fulgencio Batista. Quoted from the “Fidel Castro Reader,” edited by David Deutschmann and Deborah Shnookal. Melbourne, Australia: Ocean Press, 2007, p. 81)
One of the first initiatives of the revolutionary government that took power in Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959, was the formation, one year later, of the Federation of Cuban Women (Federación de Mujeres Cubanas) under the leadership of Sierra Maestra fighter Vilma Espín. Among the initial goals of the FMC, described by Colette Harris in “Socialist Societies and the Emancipation of Women: The Case of Cuba,” were to create conditions allowing women full participation in the economy, to change the patterns of living in rural areas that contributed to the oppression of women, to provide social services to replace conditions of domestic servitude, to equalize opportunities that previously favored men, to encourage women to take roles in political work and government, and to implement workplace changes addressing the particular needs of women in general and of mothers in particular. (“Socialism and Democracy” 9:1 (1995), pp. 91-113)
The FMC at that time played a pivotal role in the revolution’s campaign to eradicate illiteracy in Cuba. Ninety-one thousand women were mobilized in this unprecedented effort to empower the country’s most oppressed by teaching them how to read and write. Seeking potential students in every corner of the island nation, the campaign was able to announce that by the end of 1961, universal literacy to the third-grade level had been achieved.
Among its many inspiring qualities, the Cuban revolution is known for its forthrightness and honesty. The Cuban film “Lucía,” released in 1968, offers three portraits of Cuban women: the stultifying life of a “privileged” woman under Spanish colonialism; the perilous struggle of a union organizer in the pre-revolutionary period of U.S.-controlled puppet governments; and the new challenges faced by a post-revolutionary Lucía.
In this third portrait, set in the context of the revolutionary government’s literacy campaign, Lucía is taught to read and write by a young education volunteer who comes to her rural home. She is happily married, but her husband is conflicted by this new development. He clearly loves Lucía and wants the best for her, but he is also strongly possessive. He feels threatened by the time she spends with the young teacher and unsettled by the fact that her growing literacy is lessening her dependency on him.
There is no objective threat to their relationship, but the film ends as they engage in a lovers’ quarrel on the beach near their home. In the last frames, the camera pans from the couple to the top of a sand dune where a girl (Lucía number four?) watches them fight and smiles. No, the film acknowledges, the defeat of the vestiges of patriarchy will not be accomplished in one generation. But it will be accomplished by the fundamental change brought about by a rational, planned economy that puts the needs of the people first and foremost. And the revolutionary will and effort personified by the Cuban revolution and the Cuban women and men in motion are a guarantee for continuing progress.
‘The revolution within the revolution’
At the Fifth National Plenary of the FMC in 1966, Fidel Castro opened his remarks with the following words: “Arriving here this evening, I commented to a comrade that this phenomenon of women’s participation in the revolution was a revolution within a revolution. … And if we were asked what the most revolutionary thing is that the revolution is doing, we would answer that it is precisely this — the revolution that is occurring among the women of our country! … “If we were asked what things in the revolution have been most instructive for us, we would answer that one of the most interesting lessons for revolutionaries is that being offered by our women.” (“The Revolution Within the Revolution.” In “Women and the Cuban Revolution,” edited by Elizabeth Stone. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1981, p. 64)
In that speech, Fidel alluded to the domestic enslavement of women and called for the mobilization of 1 million women to join the productive work force of the country. Demonstrating the depth and seriousness of his thinking on this matter, he noted: “Why can’t this goal be reached in four years? Because in order to have one million women working in production, we must have thousands of children’s day nurseries, thousands of primary boarding schools, thousands of school dining halls, thousands of workers’ dining halls; thousands of centers of social services of this type must be set up. …
“In order to reach the social goal of liberating women from all these activities that enslave her and impede her from full incorporation into work outside the home and all these activities in which she can engage in society, it is necessary to create the necessary material base, to attain the necessary social development.” (pp. 70-71)
The Cuban Family Code
Along with the effort to provide a material basis for women to enter the work force, a new legislation-based initiative, with mass input and support, was undertaken. On the verso of the cover of the official translation of the “Cuban Family Code,” provided by the New York City-based Center for Cuban Studies, we find this introduction:
“Following its discussion by the people and approval by more than 98 percent of the participants in the meetings and assemblies, the Family Code went into effect on March 8, International Women’s Day, 1975, by virtue of a Law enacted by the Council of Ministers on February 14, 1975. Cubans are taking the provisions of the Family Code seriously, and the Code is helping to create one of the most basic conditions for further development of the Revolution, that of equality between men and women in all areas of Cuban life.”
What are some of the provisions of that legislation? The code mandates equal rights and responsibilities for both marriage partners in the home. In general, “common law” marriages have equal legal standing with “legally formalized marriages.” Article 26 reads: “Both partners must care for the family they have created and each must cooperate with the other in the education, upbringing and guidance of the children according to the principles of socialist morality. They must participate, to the extent of their capacity or possibilities, in the running of the home, and cooperate so that it will develop in the best possible way.” (p. 8)
And Article 27 elaborates: “However, if one of them only contributes by working at home and caring for the children, the other partner must contribute [financial] support alone, without prejudice to his duty of cooperating in the above mentioned work and care.” (p. 8) In other words, his financial support of the family does not, in any respect, free the spouse from his responsibility to share in housework.
Under the code, children are guaranteed equal legal status, whether they are the dependents of biological parents, a single parent or an adopting guardian. Under Article 51 of the code, divorce is a simple matter: “Divorce will take effect by common agreement or when the court determines that there are factors which have led the marriage to lose its meaning for the partners and for the children and, thus, for society as a whole.” (p. 12)
What have followed from the directives of the code are practical and important measures to ease the burdens of women working outside the home, including priority in the purchase of labor-saving appliances, help with grocery shopping (Plan Jaba), workplace cafeterias, extended hours beyond regular working hours at health clinics and other social services.
‘Marriage’ in revolutionary Cuba
The commitment of the Cuban revolution to the liberation of women, to their full participation in society, has been a continuing, unwavering one, even in the face of the 50-year-long U.S. blockade and the difficult “special period” occasioned by the defeat of the Soviet Union, previously Cuba’s main trading partner.
The issue of full rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people has received close attention in Cuba. Unlike in the U.S., where right-wing religious forces (including both fundamentalist preachers and the Catholic Church), capitalist billionaires and their political stooges continue to actively conspire to derail the increasingly successful efforts for legalization of same-sex marriage, in Cuba the issue is seen as a matter of mass consciousness raising. LGBT Cubans themselves have a unique perspective on same-sex marriage.
Mariela Castro Espín, director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (Cenesex) and well-known globally for her strong and consistent advocacy for LGBT Cubans, explained how the issue is viewed by many of those affected during an interview with the French news agency AFP: “What the vast majority of gay and lesbian people raise is that they are interested in the legalization of consensual unions to have inheritance rights. That is what really affects them, because in Cuba the majority of straight people do not get married. It’s not a priority.” But she added, “Nevertheless, I hope that when this is discussed in the National Assembly, we can offer the same options that we heterosexual couples have, to homosexual couples.” (elnuevoherald.com, Aug. 16, 2013. Translation by B.M.)
The next installment in this series will touch on the contemporary struggles of women under capitalism against their continuing exploitation and oftentimes brutal oppression, and the revolutionary significance of their growing
participation in the working class.