Cuba: Machismo and Feminism Together at Last?

When I walked out of the airport terminal, the sweet scent of a recent rain shower was in the air, a rainbow stretched across the sky, and I was in Cuba. On the twenty minute taxi ride into the center of Havana, American cars from the fifties chugged along the road: canary yellow Chevys, cherry red Fords, lavender Plymouths, house-painted shades General Motors never dreamed of. Dotting the highway were billboards: “Support the Revolution,” “Believe in Fidel,” “The People Will Triumph.” “Think Soberly and Deeply.”

For about twenty years, I had wanted to visit Cuba. Ever since I heard about “The Family Law,” I was curious to see first hand a society developed by a macho-looking, bearded Latino who calls himself a feminist and pushed such a law through early in the Revolution. The Family Law makes it illegal for a husband, whose wife works outside the home, not to participate in an equal share of the housework. In fact, a wife can perform a citizen’s arrest on such a loafer. “Manuel, you did not take out the garbage; you are under arrest!” I wanted to experience first hand what happens when Latino machismo and socialist feminism cohabitate.

My excitement was sprinkled with some apprehension which even the mojito–that combination of Cuban rum, lime, mint, sugar, and ice, made famous by Hemingway–I had sipped on the flight over hadn’t calmed. I knew the CIA didn’t want me to be there and I wasn’t sure how the Cubans would treat me.

I caressed the money belt that was strapped under my blouse. In the States, a friend of a friend who had been to Cuba told me that crime was rampant there. Also, since U.S. banks don’t trade with Cuba, my credit cards and American checkbook would be worthless. So the Yankee dollar is the currency of choice.

Approaching immigration control, I thought about the warnings American friends had given me about the trouble I’d be in if I let Cuban authorities stamp my passport. I heard stories about it being necessary to slip dollars into your passport as a bribe, about being taken into small rooms and interrogated, about communist rigidity and dangers. Ready for a full dose of vitriol, I took a deep breath and handed over my passport. The agent grinned at me and said “Welcome to Cuba,” and before I could sputter something about “No stamp, please,” he imprinted only the loose slip of paper that was the visa form I’d received on the short flight over from Cancun.

During almost one month in Cuba, I traveled by bus over much of the central and western part of the country, visiting schools and clinics, farms and villages, work projects; talking with people on various levels, trying to get a more balanced picture of this small country that continues to function in spite of the billions the United States government spends every year to annihilate its government and social system. Especially I wanted to see how women were living and working in this unique society. Was it as terrible or as ideal as we heard?

My first morning I arranged to visit a community on the outskirts of Havana, la Guinera, which some years before had been one of the worst slums in the country, festering with drugs, prostitution, hunger, and crime. Leaving the center of Havana behind, we passed through narrow streets where tiny houses and shacks leaned upon one another.. A member of the Women’s Federation, who accompanied us, said that about 24,000 people–6, 000 of them children–live in the eight square kilometer area we were about to visit. We climbed off the bus and entered the day care center where four women, in their twenties and thirties, greeted us.

“This is a woman-run project,” Fifi, the director, said. “It all started with a communally-run day care center so that women could hold jobs. Their idea grew and soon an experimental project developed, supported by the government. “Materials and training are supplied to people, teaching them to rebuild their houses, schools, stores, and clinics. In turn, they teach and help others to do the same. The crime rate has been cut to a negligible level. Former convicts lead productive lives. We all help each other out.” I learned that professionals can receive leaves from their regular jobs to add their skills to projects like la Guinera, which exist all around the country.

Later I wandered around on the streets. Several macho-looking guys were helping some children paint a fence. On another corner, we passed a makeshift meat stand. Several young black men waved at me from behind the counter. Instead of the stereotyped reaction I might have expected based on the men’s rough appearance–flirtation or hostility or worse–their friendly faces were open, expressing optimism and pride. One of the women told me, “They’re very active in this community. They used to be in prison. They were tough guys we call guapos,”. “Now they are rehabilitated and they work along with children, women, and the elderly, painting, building things, and supervising open markets.”

As we walked up and down the streets, I noticed a certain type two-story building that appeared every ten blocks or so. “That’s the community doctor’s house. Each section of the community has its own doctor.” I mentioned how clean the streets seemed. “We have a “garbage patrol,” organized through the environmental program in the schools. If children see anyone littering or throwing garbage on the street, they take it to that person’s front door and hand it to them.”

Back at the community center, one of Fifi’s colleagues explained that this project has many levels: “For example, in the workers’ dining room, we have a ‘school table,’ where we teach people table manners and conversational skills. Just changing the environment, the buildings, does nothing. You have to change people’s behavior, attitude, and manners. Everyone is encouraged to get as much education as possible. Children are urged to stay in school. There are special schools for, for example, hearing problems or behavior problems. Adults go to evening school. Our community has its Declaration del Arbol; it’s like a tree with many limbs.” She added, “Because the leaders are women, men don’t feel so threatened.”

As we said our good-byes, Fifi added with a smile: “You know guapo means bully and tough guy but it also can mean beautiful and handsome. Here in Cuba, some men are guapos, but women can be guapas. And in our community, our guapos become beautiful!” On my way out, I notice on the wall that la Guinera has won an award from the United Nations in the category of a community project that especially helps women and children.

One day on the way to Trinidad in south central Cuba, about five hours from Havana, I visited an organic farm. Alice, the director, an agronomist and trade union leader in her thirties, greeted us. “This project is called las Marianas after Castro’s women’s brigade. It is organized through the Federation of Women and run by an all female staff. The goal is to train women to move from low level jobs, like house cleaning, or even prostitution, to better jobs and improve their lives.” There is much experimentation with organic insecticides, like extract of tobacco, which they dab on the plants, and hydroponic methods. Alice grabbed a handful of soil, which she caressed and sniffed. “It’s compost made from leftovers of sugar mills.” Her dark eyes flashed with enthusiasm as she looked out from under the brim of her straw hat. “We sell to the city market directly, eggplant, guavas, tomatoes, garlic. The women here are in their thirties, mostly married, average three children.” A loud speaker played Cuban jazz in the background. “The women find this work more rewarding than cleaning houses and worse because they see that people are waiting for the food they raise. We see the trucks go out full and come back empty. There is good childcare here. We work the land ten hours a day, seven days a week. Each woman has two days off. We must work that much because people eat every day.” As she pushed back a wayward strand of hair, her pink pearl nail polish and hand crafted silver and bead hoop earrings reminded me that Cuban women haven’t sacrificed their legendary sexiness and beauty while developing economic and professional equality with their men. “We have a beauty parlor here, too,” she assured me.

Of course, minds and laws don’t always change at the same pace. A divorced female attorney, head of the local branch of the Women’s Federation, reminded me of this. I met her one evening in a small town about one hour from Havana where I attended a meeting of the Committee for a Democratic Revolution, the local representatives of the government. The Cuban government has a complex three-tiered system: municipal, provincial, and national. People are chosen to be representatives based on the quality of their proposals not determined by party or amount of money they have. “It is not true that the laws are made by Castro,” social science faculty members at the University of Havana had told me the day before. “He is a deputy and president of the Council of State but he makes proposals like anyone else. People must represent the people’s wishes or they are removed.” Everyone votes and most people participate actively in their government. Forty percent of elected officials are female The Women’s Federation is one part of the government. It is as if we had a Department for Women’s Affairs in Washington and on all local levels.

“Men are still macho,” the Women’s Federation president said to me.” “I practice law, I’m divorced, now I’m free. Men still want women to serve them. They still want to be kings. They haven’t changed very much. But from the beginning, the Revolutionary Committee was concerned with improvement of women’s status in society.” Her stylish appearance, short blond sophisticated hairstyle, trim black and white suit, gold earrings, and carefully applied eye makeup contrasted with the dreary pale blue chipped paint of the Women’s Federation meeting hall.

A young black woman, around twenty years old, joined our conversation. She was studying to be an engineer and was a successful athlete. “I also love to play classical piano,” she told me. “What are your dreams? I asked. “To be the best I can: construction engineer, athletics, music. And to travel like you.”

As I moved through the Cuban countryside and met with many people, I was especially impressed by the enthusiasm for learning among the young people and the self-confidence of the young women. One afternoon in a homeopathic clinic, an eleven-year-old girl who was part of a health education class, asked us, “Do you know about safe sex?” She went on to tell us that her uterus would not be ready to have babies until she is over twenty and that she must be careful to wait. There is an active education campaign to combat teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

One day, we visited a college preparatory high school out in the country. As we entered a lab, our host and guide greeted us. Her curly red hair and blue eyes matched her openness and self-confidence. A seventeen year old pre-medical student, she showed us around the lab where she and a group of students were conducting research on homeopathic remedies for skin infections, hypertension, anemia, and diarrhea. The students will be pharmacists and doctors. Even though Cuba has only 2% of Latin America’s population, it trains more than 12% of Latin American physicians.

During my time in Cuba, I visited a number of medical clinics. Medical care is free and available to everyone, just as everyone can have as much free education as they can benefit from. There is reciprocation required by the government. For example, medical students may not be able to choose their own specialty and they have to give some years of service where the government decides they are needed. However, evenly dispersed throughout every area are medical personnel and facilities. Everywhere I went, doctors and staff, were eager to explain their work to me. “There is nothing I would rather be doing with my life,” a woman physician told me, who had, along with her clinic, received a United Nations’ award for exemplary medical service. Around her, the paint was peeling and equipment old, yet the love and dedication on the faces of the staff and the confidence shown by the patients was impressive. “Our major problems are related to respiratory illnesses and tobacco and alcohol addictions. Rape and child abuse are not at all issues,” she answered in response to my inquiries.

Unlike what we in the U.S. might expect, I traveled freely on my own throughout Cuba. I found people open, even eager, to speak with me when they learned I was an American. Never once did I experience any hostility or apprehension. Up on the University of Havana campus, I got in a discussion with some students who were sitting out on the lawn. “Cubans are sophisticated enough to differentiate between the American people and their government.” They continued, “Americans think we are imprisoned but we feel that Americans are imprisoned by their ignorance. We say that the U. S. has so much opportunity but Americans don’t have the tools to take advantage of it. Cubans have the tools but not the opportunities. Cuba is not one man. You know if there were an election tomorrow, Fidel would win. But the U.S. government wouldn’t believe the results anyway.” We all exchanged email addresses. The students I met seemed better read and more aware of world issues than most of my students back home at the college where I teach. Some women students I spoke with studied in the Center for Gender Studies and told me it was well supported and popular.

Over coffee on day, a Cuban-American recording studio owner said to me, “I’ve had many Cuban musical groups come to the U.S. Out of one hundred maybe two people defected.” “But, you know,” he added, “There’s a certain greed in human beings. I don’t think socialism can work alongside capitalism. People want what others have.”

“Castro had a nice idea, to create an egalitarian society where everyone had their needs met. I’m not sure he’ll be able to carry it off. Probably he shouldn’t have nationalized private individual’s property. He pissed too many people off. A socialist country has to be surrounded by other socialist countries. And they don’t exist anymore. Maybe China but that’s a very different situation. Cuba is not really communist. Castro wasn’t interested in communism or the Soviets. He just wanted to make a social revolution work. The U.S. policy drove him toward the Soviet.” He added, “Cuba is a great place to raise children: the people have good ethics; they are never vulgar; they have real family values.”

But these values are being threatened. One day I was driving with an American friend who has lived in Cuba for many years along the Malecon, Havana’s broad ocean-front boulevard. Huge waves crashed over the sea wall. Our cab driver dodged waves breaking across the road and maneuvered his 1957 orchid-colored Chevy around the seawater spouting from the manholes. Outside the high-rise tourist hotels, instead of armed guards, young girls in spandex and sequins stood waiting, I realized, not for a bus. With foreign tourism now replacing sugar as the main crop, prostitution is returning after a forty-year hiatus. Tourist dollars pay for education, health care, sports, and social security. They also bring sex tourists whose dollars offer young girls a more glittery life—at least for one night—than this social experiment of a society provides them.

One day I was visiting the San Pascual, a ship that Hemingway once stayed on. My guide, Ana, a twenty-six year old language student, asked me if it was true what they heard about crime, violence, and drugs among American youth and on our streets. “That’s sad to hear,” when I explained about the widespread availability of guns and some situations in our cities. “We say here,” she explained, “that there are many kinds of freedoms. Maybe we in Cuba can’t buy new cars or travel as freely as you do but we have the rights to food, safe streets, housing, clothing, education, and health care.”

On my last night in Havana, after a dinner alone in a paradores, a restaurant in a private home, I was wandering around on dark back streets trying to find a taxi. Suddenly a man ran up toward me from behind. Having been mugged twice in the States, I am touchy about such an event. He ran right up to me and chattered away in speedy Cuban Spanish. I said loudly “NO,” having no idea what he was saying to me. He switched to English: “Eeets allright,” he smiled at me, “Women are safe in Cooba!” He apparently was asking if I needed assistance.

An American friend, a woman who has lived and worked in Havana as a freelance journalist for 15 years, drove me to the airport. Halfway there, a siren and blinking lights startled us and a uniformed policeman motioned us to the side of the road. Images of life imprisonment and torture flickered through my mind, which wasn’t all that clear after the mojitos and salsa dancing of the previous night in the Old City. The cop walked up to the driver’s side and tipped his cap. He spoke to my friend for a minute or so, then smiled at us and left. “What was that about?” I asked.

“He noticed my license plate is hanging loose and he didn’t want me to lose it. But mostly he wanted to wish us a Happy International Women’s Day. All police officers are instructed to pass this greeting on to every woman they meet today. Some police state, eh?”

Flying through the clouds, back to the powerful neighbor to the north, I recalled an afternoon I’d spent in the small town of Remedios, one of Cuba’s oldest, dating from 1514. Its labyrinthine streets were created to deter pirates’ attacks. Trying to find my way back to the main plaza and my bus, I asked an elderly woman for directions. Ana, a widow, invited me into her home. Inside her cozy and spotless house, she served me a glass of ice water, the best refreshment she could provide. Since my Spanish is miniscule, we each sat in a rocking chair and rocked together for a while in silence. Finally when it was time to leave, we hugged. “Hermanas,” she said. I repeated, “Hermanas.” “Sisters.”

On the plane home, I was reading Christa Garcia’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban, about three generations of Cuban women, a family divided geographically and politically by the Cuban revolution and the United States embargo. How many millions of lives are disrupted by political and economic differences—even on a relatively small bit of land in the middle of the sea. A Cuban-American who had been visiting his mother, leaned over and said to me with tears in his eyes, “Cuba, que es linda, non!” I nodded.