Republican News · Thursday 09 March 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Cuban women work for total equality

Mariliana Castelló García works at the Department of International Relations in the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). FMC is a Nongovernmental Organisation (NGO) created in 1960 which represents over 3.5 million Cuban women, 82% of all Cuban women over 14 years of age. On a recent visit to Ireland, Mariliana spoke with An Phoblacht's Soledad Galiana.

``The principal violence against Cuban women is the blockade.''
Soledad: Mariliana, would you explain the role of the FMC?

Mariliana: We work in different areas at a community level, like health and social services and we have a national structure, with organisations in the different localities. Part of our work is to promote women to managerial positions. We have a Centre for Women's Studies, which carries out investigations focused on gender and a Research Centre with information on women's issues worldwide. Also, we have an International Department, forging links with women's movements around the world, including the United States, and we are members of the Women's International Democratic Federation and the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action.

S: You are telling me women organised quite early in Cuba. Do you feel that it is easier to be a woman in Cuba than in the rest of the world?

M: Being a woman is not easy anywhere at all. I think that men still have a lot of power in all societies. However, in Cuba there is a story of women's active political participation since the time of the Spanish colonisation and the Cuban rebellion against slavery. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a very strong feminist movement in Cuba. Women won the right to file for divorce in 1918, even before we had the right to vote, which came in 1938. There are lots of antecedents in the fight for women's rights. Women took part in the revolution and afterwards all women's groups united to form the Federation of Cuban Women. This year is our 40th anniversary.

S: How strong is machismo (male chauvinism) in Cuba?

M: Machismo is only an expression of the patriarchal structure of society. In each country it has a different expression. Maybe in Latin America it is more open and in Europe it is more subtle, which does not mean it is better. In Cuba we are still fighting for total equality, though without any doubt we are in a better position than other women in Latin America and other developing countries. Even compared with other developed countries, we are in a very good position. From a legal perspective, we have a lot of laws - including the Cuban constitution - guaranteeing equal rights for men and women at all levels of national life.

In areas like job opportunities and equal pay, we do not have any problem and there is a political will within the Cuban Communist Party government to achieve real equality. And then, there is also the federation's work as a mechanism for women's progress, and though we are an NGO, sometimes the government will look to our expertise to tackle different issues that are connected with women.

S: From women's point of view, what was the greatest achievement of the Cuban revolution?

M: The most important progress in Cuba is the level of women's education. Before the revolution, there were 6 million inhabitants and 1 million illiterates, most of them women, with only 12% of women working.

Nowadays, women make up 43.9% of the workforce and the 66.6% of the qualified workforce. Women account for most technicians and professionals. There are more women in third level education than men. And this is very important for the future.

In the 1990s, we suffered and are still suffering a very severe economic crisis caused by the fall of socialism in Europe and because of the US blockade against Cuba, which started in 1962 and intensified in the 1990s. Despise this economic situation, the number of women in the workforce has increased and their work is important not only to survive, but also to develop.

More than 40% of scientific researchers are women in Cuba. The Minister of Science, Technology and Environment and the Minister for Foreign Investment and Economic Co-operation are women. Of course, at 32%, the percentage of women in positions of power is still low for what are our aspirations. Only 26% of parliamentary members are women.

S: One of the main problems around the world is violence against women. How is the situation in Cuba?

M: It is not one of the main problems in Cuba but, of course, there are cases. Violence against women is still present in all societies around the world. But I think that the principal violence against Cuban women is the blockade.

S: What are the blockade's effects on women's daily lives?

The blockade has a strong effect, because women are responsible for the family and all the consequences of the US blockade are reflected in our day to day lives. Undoubtedly, the lack of certain products, the difficulties in public transport, all that makes women's lives stressful and difficult. It is also affecting women's personal lives and the consequences are especially dramatic in the case of illnesses, because the blockade includes medicines. When children are sick with cancer and need special medication, which is only produced by US companies, it is especially hard. Even if the Cuban government has the money to buy the medicines, the companies will not sell them to us.

You should also consider that the blockade is not only a US policy, because the US government is trying to force other countries to stop their business with Cuba. This means that some companies will use the blockade to their profit, selling goods at exorbitant prices, as they know it is very difficult for the Cuban government to find other possible sellers.

S: What about sexual tourism? How does the Cuban government cope with prostitution?

M: This is a very complex issue. I do not think that the main cause of prostitution is tourism, though there is a link between both activities. In Cuba's case, tourism is a source of investment very much needed to maintain our education, health and social security programmes. I think that the main cause of prostitution in general is discrimination against women. The government has taken some legal measures, not against prostitutes because we consider that these women are victims, but against those who benefit themselves from prostitution. And this will include the pimp but also those who rent their cars or houses, or those who promote sexual tourism in the country.

But I think that prevention work is essential in this area. The federation has been working with women and young people on these issues, and also with the families. We offer new educational and work opportunities to these young women.

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