Eliminating sexism, racism & homophobia: Cuba’s achievements & challenges

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For those of us who believe a better world is possible, Cuba is the beacon that shows us the way. Against incredible hardships, this tiny island nation has been able to provide for its people things we can only dream of — free, universal, high quality education, health care and child care. Cuba faces racism, sexism and homophobia head on. Women especially have made great gains and they continue to be at the forefront of progress.

The United States government’s economic and political war against Cuba has hit hard and continues to create hardship for the people. But Cubans have maintained their progress toward socialism with incredible commitment, ingenuity and innovation. Cuba has not been afraid to try new initiatives. One of the most impressive aspects of the Cuban revolution has been its ability to initiate and review new policy, correcting mistakes and boldly pushing on. Most important, by putting the national economy in the hands of its working people, Cuba’s revolution established the foundations for full equality and total integration of its people.

Racists forced into the closet…Discrimination based on skin colour has been all but eradicated from Cuban society. African Cubans, the most oppressed in pre-revolutionary days, have benefited enormously from the egalitarian measures instituted by the revolutionary government, which included active affirmative action programs.

This does not mean that all forms of prejudice have been banned or that the consciousness of all people has yet been transformed — it hasn’t. But the big difference is the high cost of expressing such sentiments publicly. They just aren’t tolerated. And Cuba’s social system ensures that prejudiced private opinions are not translated into systematic discriminatory practices. A stark contrast to the situation in the so-called “democracy” 140 km to the north.

…while lesbians and gays fight their way out.  Cuba is confronting its contradictory record on homosexuality. There are no anti-gay laws in the Cuban penal code. However, lesbian and gay activist organisations still face problems obtaining recognition from the government. Cuban Communist Party members are not allowed to be open about their sexual orientation inside the party. Even so, calls to end sexuality-based taboos have taken root over the past decade. The revolution did not create homophobia, and it certainly doesn’t promote it today.

As anywhere else, homophobia in Cuba stems from its class-divided history. The world’s earliest ruling élites invented the patriarchal family in order to hold on to power through the system of heredity. This entails subjugating women by controlling their sexuality and reproduction. Cuba, of course, did not escape the oppressive global régime of heterosexuality and monogamy — enforced by Roman Catholicism, which had been brought to the island by its Spanish conquerors.

The Cuban government acknowledges that homosexuality is still considered sinful by a large part of the population and is committed to addressing this issue by improving sex education classes in schools and by better training teachers and health professionals. In Cuba, homophobia is not an issue of persecution, but one of prejudice. The Cuban Government has been slow in opposing this bigotry. But progress has been made, again in contrast to other so-called “democratic” régimes.

Women’s equality — two, three, many Cubas! Cuba’s fight against women’s oppression is inspirational. The liberation of women in Cuba is not based on individualised achievement or status, but on an assumption Radical Women understands completely — that women will only be free when they are released from bourgeois, capitalistic domination.

From the earliest days of the revolution, Cuba’s leadership made it quite clear that social equality for women could only be achieved by revolutionary involvement and action. The women’s movement was conceived as a social structure which would achieve its own identity by becoming an integral part of the national revolutionary process.

The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) was formed in 1960 and is recognised in Cuba’s  constitution. A mass organisation, it has worked as a catalyst for women’s liberation. It is the social and political structure which has allowed women to become strong and effective partners in building a workers’ state. The FMC has strongly backed the government in its drive to free women from traditional sex-typed roles and to provide them with a wide range of alternatives for changing their traditional lifestyles.

The FMC has pursued social change with a massive literacy program aimed at educating women to become full participants in the new society. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, for both women and men. Within the context of the revolution’s egalitarian and collectivist values, the government allows and expects non-sexist, rank-and-file participation in decision-making processes. Cuba ranks first place in Latin American and ninth in the world for female representation in parliament. Women constitute 28% of top government positions.

In partnership, the FMC and the government sought to break down sexist occupational barriers by massive incorporation of women into the workforce. Before the revolution, more than a quarter of  female workers were employed in domestic work. Today, that occupational bias has disappeared and women are employed in all fields of work, constituting 43% of the Cuban labour force.

And most importantly, the FMC attempted to make much-needed changes in the usually male-dominated nuclear family structure. The FMC and its leadership worked for a long time on Cuba’s 1975 Family Code, which was designed to counter traditional attitudes opposed to equality. It specifically states that women, whether they are employed in the paid workforce or whether they work within the home, do not have sole responsibility for the household chores. The Family Code has been important in raising the consciousness of the population to the double burden faced by women when they are drawn into the labour force.

With 3.7 million members, the FMC enjoys a prominent position in Cuban society that Australian feminists can only dream of. Eighty-five percent of Cuban women (those over 14 years of age) belong to this mass movement with bite!

Defend and extend the revolution. As inspirational as Cuba is, its light is flickering. Economic hardship created by the U.S. blockade means Cuba has great difficulty providing adequately for its population.  It faces a mad scramble for much-needed dollars to fund its programs and provide for its people. The Cuban government is now inviting foreign investment and encouraging joint enterprises and small businesses. These are high risk initiatives which put pressure on this workers’ state.

For 41 years, Cuba has fought valiantly to defend its revolution, but the Cuban people need outside help. Isolation is the revolution’s greatest danger. The Cuban Communist Party needs to take up the call for international socialism if its future is to be guaranteed.  And this is where we have the opportunity to teach Cuba something. We can show Cuba that we understand the best way to defend their right to self-determination is both through international solidarity and through fighting for socialism here in our own country.

Come and meet the FMC!  We have much to learn from each other. And now we have a great opportunity to do so. On July 22, Bertha Acosta Seguí, a member of the FMC National Committee, and Nancy Iglesias Mildenstein from the FMC Department of Foreign Affairs will arrive in Melbourne for a national tour initiated by Radical Women.

Radical Women and the FMC have a long association based on a shared vision of the interdependence of feminism and socialism. We understand the importance of women’s leadership and their instrumental role in the fight for a more just and caring society. We invite other feminists, unionists, queers, students, socialists, Aborigines, migrants and anti-imperialist fighters to share the achievements of Cuba’s revolution and join us in solidarity to defend its right to self-determination.

Let’s make Cuba’s beacon become a torch which lights the way for all of us!

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