The Role Played By Women In The Cuban Revolution Essay Sample

The Role Played By Women In The Cuban Revolution Pages
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The Cuban revolution entered the world arena in 1959 when a small group of guerrillas and urban insurrectionists overthrew the dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista. Thereafter a series of economic and social reforms were launched which indicated that the goal of the revolution was nothing less than the creation of a new social order. The main engine of this transformation was to be the state under the firm and charismatic command of its guerrilla hero, Fidel Castro. In 1961 Castro announced what was already clear: this was a socialist revolution. Within a very few years Cuban capitalism was destroyed, and its defenders had fled to Miami. The economic and political power of Cuban families was crushed, as was the power of the Catholic Church. A massive and unprecedented redistribution of wealth was begun. Cuba became one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. Each of these developments profoundly affected women’s lives. In this new atmosphere of change certain traditional perceptions of appropriate female behavior were challenged and many formal and informal restraints on women’s activities were cased. Fidel Castro described the changes that were taking place in women’s private and public lives as “a revolution within the revolution” (Arriagada 1998).

The dramatic changes that occurred in Chile during the 1960s swept through every arena of society, spurring both revolution and reaction in the political system; the Catholic Church; schools and universities; and families (Orans 1987). Women responded to these changes in diverse ways. Many middle- and upper-class housewives opposed leftist politics on the grounds that it threatened the family and the church, two of the main institutions of Chilean society and the two that most directly affected women’s lives. Women in the younger generation, especially students, embraced the climate of radicalism and became active participants in leftist politics. Women’s involvement in the anti-Allende and anti-Pinochet movements can be traced to the way in which women were affected by a series of events that took place in the 1960s, particularly the Cuban Revolution, Vatican II, the rise of the centrist PDC, and the student protests.

In Chile, as in much of Latin America, the sixties really began on January 1, 1959, as Fidel Castro marched into Havana with his revolutionary army. The Cuban Revolution sent shockwaves around the world and fundamentally reconfigured the global political landscape. The success of an indigenous revolutionary regime prompted Castro’s supporters and opponents throughout the region to reevaluate the potential for revolution and shift their strategies accordingly.

Although Marxism had been an active political force in Latin America since well before the Russian Revolution, the Cuban Revolution ushered in a new political era. For the revolutionary left, this era was one of hope; for the anticommunist right, it was one of fear. Castro’s success provided concrete evidence that the leftist goals of a socialized economy and autonomy from the United States were attainable in Latin America, but also strengthened the view that the Left need not pursue an electoral route to socialism (Bunck 1989). This gave a new lease on life to leftist advocates of revolutionary violence. Those on the Center and the Right, as well as the U. S. government, sought to prevent revolution while the Left sought to foment it. Although the Cuban Revolution did not, in the end, set off a wave of Latin American revolutions, it drew women into the political arena in new ways and in unprecedented numbers, both for and against radical change.

The U. S. government responded swiftly to the threat of revolution in the region with the Alliance for Progress, a program that sought to promote democracy by spurring economic growth, boosting education, and redistributing income. Chile, with its “long history of democracy and a tradition of social reform going back to the 1920s,” was to be the “showcase” for Kennedy’s new program (Castro 1981). The Alliance for Progress failed to achieve its objectives, but the U. S. government sustained its commitment to Cold War politics by providing massive funding to reformist elements in the Chilean government – $720 million between 1961 and 1970 (Chafetz, Dworkin 1986). These transfers funded the development of new programs, electoral campaigns, and a score of miscellaneous covert operations. U. S. aid provided a substantial boost to the efforts of reformers and anti-Marxist forces in Chile, efforts that they would direct partly toward building a base of support among women (Bello 1975).

Chilean feminist scholar Castañeda (1990) characterizes the period from 1953 to 1970 as one of “feminist silence” characterized by the dissolution of women’s organizations and partisan control of women’s issues. Once Chilean women got the vote, women’s organizations retreated from politics. I account for the rise and fall of activism among women in terms of changes in the opportunities afforded to women’s organizations by a transformation of the issues represented within the party system. The inception of a cross-partisan women’s movement in Chile coincided with a period of realignment that shifted the primary cleavage among the political parties from religion to class.

The strength of women’s organizations derived from their claims to represent a new way of doing politics, one that juxtaposed women’s ability to unite against men’s proclivity to bicker over narrow partisan interests. Women’s organizations capitalized on the climate of cross-partisan cooperation that characterized the Popular Front era in the 1930s and 1940s. Their ability to influence elites and mobilize grass roots support weakened once they became associated with a particular political tendency. This occurred in 1941 with the death of Popular Front President Aguirre Cerda and again in 1953 when women’s organizations became discredited for their shady involvement in the Ibañez administration (Fox 1978). As a result, leaders of women’s organizations abandoned their efforts to organize autonomously and the movement declined. These events seemed to confirm a widely held view that women were not ready to engage in politics.

The events of the 1960s set the stage for the reemergence of women’s mobilization in the 1970s and 1980s. The Cuban Revolution polarized Chilean society and drew women into political life. On the one hand, women became a key target audience for anticommunist rhetoric, which portrayed communism as threatening children, educational freedom, and the safety of church and home, issues commonly recognized as women’s domain. Gender became a critical component of the way in which the Cold War was fought. Framing the war against communism in terms of women’s concerns presaged the role that women would play in mobilizing against Allende, and, later, in supporting the military dictatorship. On the other hand, the revolutionary happenings of the sixties prompted many women to join the Left. They embraced the climate of protest sweeping university campuses and Catholic parishes. From this community of radical women would come the leaders of the feminist movement in the late 1970s.

As the Cuban revolution began to define itself as socialist (April 1961), sectors of the population looked to the communist model in other parts of the world for organizational strategies. Young children became Pioneros and, as they got older, members of the Communist Youth. Workers and peasants formed organizations structured to defend their rights in the new political system. In 1965, the M-7-26 became the new Cuban Communist party. Women soon organized into a broad-based movement, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), which had been established on August 23, 1960. Following the lead of their sisters in the Soviet Union and other socialist states, Cuban women patterned their organization on those women’s movements.

So the FMC was separate from, but organically linked to, what in ` 1965 would be redefined as the Cuban Communist party. The federation’s dual role was to mobilize around women’s issues and to enlist women in support and defense of the new revolution. The traditional communist approach to the problem of women’s equality was that once women’s economic independence was assured, discriminatory practices and residual prejudice would disappear. Often it was Fidel Castro himself who insisted upon harn nessing and channeling women’s participation as women in the heated discussions of those first years.

The new revolution, largely channeling its efforts through the FMC, began to address the most urgent women’s issues: education, work, health, day care, legal protection. The revolution also promoted campaigns not specifically aimed at women but that did a great deal to change their role in society. Perhaps the most important of these was the massive literacy campaign of 1961, in which 100,000 young people went out to teach reading and writing to the almost one-quarter of the adult population that was illiterate. Illiteracy was greater among women, and so those in the countryside, especially, gained access to a whole new social participation. But 56% of the young literacy brigadistas were also female. Most of these young girls had led previously chaperoned lives, overprotected from their own possibilities for responsibility and emotional growth. So the literacy campaign changed the lives of older women and pushed a generation of young Cuban girls toward greater personal and collective freedom, thus affecting women’s social agency in future generations as well.

The revolution became stronger, in spite of ongoing threats against its sovereignty by the United States. The efforts by the United States to undermine the revolutionary process included the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, a continuing trade embargo and prohibition of U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba, and censure at international organizations like the United Nations and the Organization of American States. Many Cubans resented U.S. interference and engaged in the defense of their nation’s independence. Women entered the militia that protected workplaces and other strategic areas, and they participated in night patrols (a kind of neighborhood watch) through defense committees organized on each block. They worked to become better educated, to take on a broader range of jobs, and for salaries commensurate with their labor. They also began to deal with the fact that great numbers among them had been trapped into prostitution or domestic service.

Early in the revolutionary process, through an innovative program of reeducation, prostitution was literally stamped out. This doesn’t mean there were suddenly no prostitutes in Cuba, but that no Cuban woman was any longer forced by circumstance to survive by selling her body. Women who had been prostitutes were trained in other fields and placed in jobs once they were trained. Although the revolution effectively eliminated prostitution during its first three decades, more recently, with the hardships of the “special period” of austerity since 1990 when Soviet aid ended, some prostitution has reappeared.

FMC created a system of day-care centers. They prepared study materials and educated housewives to the new revolutionary ideas. They mobilized women in the countryside, who had previously endured lives of virtual subservience to their profoundly exploited men. Within the new project of health care for all, they focused on the special problems of women’s health: adequate and fully paid maternity leaves, healthy pregnancies, contraception and abortion, a yearly pap smear to reduce the rate of cervical cancer, and special food rations for pregnant and nursing mothers.

All of these were “women’s concerns,” but they were also important to the entire society. The FMC became one of the new system’s great mass organizations, eventually enlisting more than 80 percent of women in the country fourteen years of age or older (Isabe and Dumoulin 1986). It was soon capable of mobilizing vast numbers of women almost instantly – whether to go door to door in the campaign for every women to have her free annual pap smear or to urge them to discuss and promote a new law, to rally in support of a new revolutionary measure, or to join with their brothers to pick potatoes or be vigilant against attacks upon the vulnerable revolutionary process.

There is no doubt, however, that the Cuban revolution has changed women’s lives in fundamental ways. In 1991 women were 38.7 percent of the salaried labor force. Nearly half of them work outside the home, compared to 13.6 percent when the revolution took power. Women constitute 57.3 percent of university students, 55.3 percent of university graduates, and 58.3 percent of middle-level technicians. And women who work earn salaries comparable to men’s and have job security and excellent benefits. Almost 34 percent of the national legislative body is now female. Cuban girls grow up in a system that supports their right to be educated, to work, to make their own reproductive decisions, and to aspire to real power.

An intense and sustained incorporation of women into the work force is linked to both decreases in the size of the family and changes in the configuration of family roles. In the first years after the start of the revolution, the FMC developed diverse education, training, and political consciousness programs for women. Although the pressing need for trained labor was instrumental, the incorporation of women into the work force was not simply a matter of necessity. Rather, it formed a basic component of policies aimed at the full integration of women into society. One of the fundamental values of the revolution has been that human beings can realize their full potential only through creative and productive work. A woman’s independent involvement in economic labor encourages her personal development, allows her to become better informed, and increases her opportunities for participation in union and political activity. Clearly, it is impossible to struggle for the creation of a new society and the transformation of consciousness without struggling for the complete integration and liberation of women. From the very beginning this issue has been emphasized by the revolutionary leadership: It was presented in the 1975 document “On the Full Exercise of Women’s Equality” and in four congresses of the FMC.

Changes in women’s behavior as a result of the extraordinary conditions produced by revolution may not be accompanied by corresponding changes in women’s attitudes. By offering their colliding views, Garcia’s novel presents a nuanced vision of Cuban women. Some critics have been quick to notice this: Dreaming in Cuban’s unique contribution lies in its opening up the ideological, literary, and political forum to reflect the complexity and diversity of women’s perspectives of historical events and the impact they have on an extended family. Although the writer is committed to the theme of politics, her novel offers guarded hope for building bridges across ideological divides. By shifting the scene back and forth between Cuba and the United States, Garcia portrays the historically abysmal gap between Communists and anti-Communists through a cast of women characters who belong to three generations of the del Pino family.

The events are narrated through the eyes of the women. Celia, Lourdes, Felicia, and Pilar are fully developed characters capable of both deceiving and being deceived. Unlike her kin, Celia stands out as an unwitting Ariadne-like figure for some of the other characters. Leaving behind the scene of her rape at the hands of government soldiers, Lourdes, a resolute and independent woman, is now the proud owner of the Yankee Doodle Bakery in Brooklyn. She is a fierce anticommunist whose views, according to Pilar, “are strictly black-andwhite” (26). Meanwhile Celia, of humble rural origins, has found a renewed sense of purpose within the revolution, especially after she is appointed a civilian judge. While pregnant, Celia dreams about escaping to Spain, but only if she has a son. If she has a girl, she will stay and “train her to read the columns of blood and numbers in men’s eyes, to understand the morphology of survival” (42).

The importance of the mobilization of women into the organized, massive community service activities is great, not only in terms of the general revolutionary goals which these activities serve, but also in terms of the impact they have on the traditional ideology of the sexes. These activities bring women into la calle, out of the confines of la casa. They also represent an intermediate step toward female incorporation into the paid labor force. Women’s roles in Latin American revolutionary movements range from unarmed political protest and infrastructure support for combatants (securing and preparing food, sewing uniforms, nursing the wounded, gathering intelligence, sabotage, the fabrication of weapons, and teaching in literacy, religion, history, and politics) to, increasingly, direct participation in combat. In the years of the Cuban revolution, Cuban women have undergone a deep shift in consciousness about the ways in which they can expect society to meet their needs – as Cubans and also as women. The collective memory is changing. Cuban women have learned to ask questions and look for answers in a process that is ongoing. The profound concern generated by this experience led to a nationwide discussion of women’s role in society.

Works Cited

Arriagada, Genaro. Pinochet: The Politics of Power. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

Bello, Walden F. “The Roots and Dynamics of Revolution and Counterrevolution in Chile,” Ph. D. diss., Princeton University, 1975.

Bunck, Julie Marie. “The Cuban Revolution and Women’s Rights.” In Cuban Communism, edited by Irving Louis Horowitz, pp. 443-64. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1989.

Castañeda, Mireya. ”Women in the Creative Work of the Revolution and in Its Defense,” Granma Weekly Review, March 18 , 1990.

Castro, Fidel. Speech at the close of the 2nd FMC Congress, in Women and the Cuban Revolution, ed. Elizabeth Stone, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1981.

Chafetz, Janet Saltzman, Anthony Gary Dworkin, et al. Female Revolt: Women’s Movements in World and Historical Perspective. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1986.

Fox, Geoffrey. “Honor, Shame and Women’s Liberation in Cuba: Views of Working Class Emigre Men,” in Female and Male in Latin America, ed. Ann Pescatello, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.

García, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Isabe, Largua and Dumoulin, John. “Women’s Equality and the Cuban Revolution.” In Women and Change in Latin America, edited by June Nash and Helen Safa, pp. 344-66. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey, 1986.

Orans, Sylvia. “Cuban Women Move out from Sexism’s Shadow,” The Guardian, February 11, 1987. 

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