Monday, November 22, 2010

Amy Blackwell's Cuba photos & research findings posted

I have created a Facebook photo album of my Havana pictures and a PDF file containing my preliminary research findings on gender equity and women's roles in Cuban society. Links to both are posted on my website at You'll find them on the left side about midway down the page.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Summary of findings on gender equity and women's roles in Cuban society, part 1

You might be surprised to learn that Cuba's 1940 constitution (the most progressive in the Western Hemisphere at the time) outlawed sex (and racial, color, and class) discrimination and granted wide-ranging rights to women. Although many of these provisions went largely unenforced under the Batista administration, the Revolutionary government from 1959 onward made the elimination of sex, racial, color, and class discrimination a top priority. For example, the Revolutionary government opened the labor market to women as a means of advancing gender equity and ensuring an adequate Cuban workforce, particularly given the multitude of social projects undertaken by the government (like providing all Cubans with free health care, free education from pre-K through Ph.D., etc.).

Vilma Espin, Leader of the FMC 1960-2007
The Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas (Federation of Cuban Women, or FMC), established in 1960 by Fidel Castro and led by Vilma Espin until her death in 2007, was the first Cuban mass organization. FMC continues its work today on the municipal, province, and national levels; currently boasts a membership of nearly 4 million Cuban women ages 14+; and remains a major NGO force for breaking through gender barriers in Cuba. Click here for an FMC report on the status of Cuban women in 2003, which also clearly outlines FMC activities and strategies.

Brigadista Uniform
In 1961, Cuban women and girls were instrumental in the National Literacy Campaign. Approximately 100,000 Cubans volunteered as brigadistas (roaming literacy teachers, the youngest of whom were 7 years old - a boy and a girl), initially dispatched to the countryside where the illiteracy rate was higher, then relocated thereafter to teach in the urban areas. The oldest pupils were two women who learned to read and write at the ages of 102 and 106. Brigadistas had an extremely high success rate. In less than one year, the Cuban illiteracy rate decreased from over 20% to 3.9%! Havana is home to the only literacy museum in the world, and many other countries have launched Cuban-model literacy campaigns incorporating materials sensitive to and celebratory of their own cultures.

In theory, the 1975 Family Code tackles women's "second shift" -- the domestic tasks awaiting them at home after a hard day's work in the labor force -- by imposing equally shared responsibilities for childrearing, housekeeping, and other domestic duties on husband and wife. In reality, the Cuban tradition of machismo is difficult to undercut, and many women are still relegated to traditional gender roles in the home. The FMC is working hard to ensure that the female "double shift" eventually disappears by promoting neighborhood-level education to make the Family Code a reality in Cuban households. It is interesting to note that during civil wedding ceremonies, a recitation of provisions of the 1975 Family Code by a lawyer with consent by both spouses replaces traditional wedding vows.

More research findings later . . .

Amy Blackwell

Friday, November 5, 2010

Delegates home safe & sound; more info about Cuba research findings soon

You may have heard about the fatal crash of an AeroCaribbean flight out of Havana on Thursday. The AAUW delegates were on a different plane and arrived safely in Miami the evening of the 4th. And our hearts cry for the families and friends of the crash victims.

I had wifi access issues the last few days of the Cuba research trip and was unable to blog in real time. So I will post a summary of our final experiences and findings soon.

Amy Blackwell

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

1 November in Havana

1 November: our first day of delegation meetings with governmental, organizational, and university women in Havana. 1st meeting: dialogue with representatives from the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) and various Parliament members regarding the struggle for women’s rights amid historical patriarchy, the current status of women in Cuba, and goals for attaining gender equity in the future. Although the 1940 Cuban constitution (the most progressive in the Western Hemisphere at the time) granted many rights to women regarding maternity and workforce, enforcement was lax. After the Revolution of 1959, the new government actually implemented such women’s rights policies. Still, women were working a “double day”: tasked unfairly with domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning, child care, etc. The 1975 Family Code arose from FMC draft legislation to task the male and female of each married couple equally with such domestic duties and to grant equal rights to pursue careers outside the home. Cuban civil wedding ceremonies substitute the recitation of vows with a reading of the provisions of the Family Code and require consent to them by both spouses. But “machismo” is tenacious, so gender relations within the home sometimes will still follow the old stereotypical patterns. A few of the current challenges: resolving consumer shortfalls (medicines, contraceptives, etc.) due to the U.S. economic embargo and protecting the rights of homosexuals, family violence victims, and fathers who want to paternity leave to care for infants or sick children.  (Note that FMC --the first mass organization in Cuba, established in 1962 -- works with women and men to foment changes in gender rights via its national organization and its grassroots through local/municipal groups.)

Next meeting: Mariela Castro Espin (daughter of Raul Castro and Vilma Espin, longtime FMC leader and revolutionary heroine) discussed her research on Cuba’s historic intolerance of homosexuality, tracing its roots back to Spanish colonial traditions. Mariela, director of FMC’s National Center for Sex Education and Research, shared the government’s plan to sensitize the population about homosexuality to foster a more inclusive, gender-diverse Cuban society. Revolutionaries in the 1950s identified discrimination practices based on sex and race as measures used by the Batista-era powers to oppress the Cuban working class – and thus sought to eradicate both. But homosexuality never entered into the dialogue. So until very recently Cuban society, in large part, has been intolerant toward LGBT issues. In 2009 and 2010, many Cubans commemorated International Day Against Homophobia, with plans to do so in 2011 onward. The government now supports educational and media efforts to raise awareness of and advocacy for a Cuba that embraces diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation. Mariela also discussed women’s access to abortion and contraception (both of which are entitlements under the public health care system) and the integration of sex education into all aspects of educational curriculum (FYI: all Cubans entitled to free primary, secondary, university, and graduate education). Efforts are afoot to use cartoons and other media to teach adolescents about respect between the genders in terms of courtship and sex, in part to undercut the “machismo” priority on sexual conquest of females and replace such notions with healthier relationship skills.

Amy in Fidel Castro's chair at the University of Havana
After lunch at Casa de la Amistad (where many visiting dignitaries are received, including President Jimmy Carter), our AAUW delegates toured the University of Havana; met with female university administrators, faculty, and staff; and attended talks on the Cuban economy and sociological studies in Latin America. Soon delegates will receive a breakdown of the gender statistics of students, administrators, faculty, etc. in general terms and by area of study.

31 October in Havana

The AAUW delegation spent the day savoring several Havana cultural attractions on 31 October. First stop: the scale model of the City of Havana, an amazing blend of form and function. This undertaking is a work of art unto itself, and urban planners use it to visualize development ideas and model possible outcomes. We then ventured to an open-air market full of Cuban artwork, handicrafts, etc. After lunch in Old Havana (a district deemed a UN World Heritage Site, where we will take a walking tour on 2 November), we attended the a magnificent performance of “Coppélia” by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, featuring Cuban prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés. This performance is part of the Festival Internacional de Ballet de La Habana, which this year honors Cuban ballet “the” Cuban prima ballerina Alicia Alonso on her 90th birthday. But our day of dance was not over yet! Immediately after the ballet, we enjoyed dinner and a show at the Tropicana nightclub, once an exclusive and ritzy club catering to the likes of Frank Sinatra when the Mafia held sway over the Havana entertainment district. Tropicana features a 2-hour Vegas-style cabaret show with elaborate costuming and a smokin’ hot Cuban band – led by a female maestra!