Going to Cuba, as I did in 1997, is absolutely eye-opening. One day I was packaging bread for Buttercup; the next, I was landing at Havana’s international airport where murals said: “We believe in the Revolution. We believe in Socialism.” Stepping from Howard’s Australia into a workers’ state is a breathtaking experience.
I was among 52 women and men from four countries who participated in the first-ever International Feminist Brigade, co-sponsored by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) and Radical Women. We went to see the impact that the U.S. Government’s embargo was having on Cuban people — especially women and children, who are always worst hit by economic hardship. We found what revolution and international socialism can achieve. We saw the power that women have to make this a reality.
But you don’t have to go to Cuba to see this for yourselves. The Brigade launched plans for the FMC to visit Australia and find out from women about our struggles here. In July this year, representatives from the FMC arrive for a national tour. This is a fantastic opportunity for feminists, unionists, lesbians, students, socialists, Aborigines, migrants and anti-imperialist fighters to exchange perspectives with these revolutionary women leaders, and learn from them.
Power to the people! Forty years ago, after centuries of enslavement to foreign powers, the Cuban people seized power. Their aim: to create a society based on equality, not servitude. On January 1, 1959 they kicked out the Yankee bloodsuckers. They then nationalised the means of production — starting with the sugar industry — and set up a system of centralised planning. In a workers’ state, the people — not an élite — own everything.
With private property overturned, social divisions begin to crumble. The transformation is staggering. Everywhere we went — in the streets, to workplaces, health centres, child care centres, schools, theatres and neighbourhood celebrations — we saw people relating to each other, and to us, with solidarity and respect. We saw men and women work collaboratively — as planners, problem solvers and doers. Castro said in 1960, the revolution’s infancy, that it must be judged by the condition of the women. Wherever we went, we saw women’s imprint.
Women make the difference. Radical Women has a saying: “Scratch the surface of any revolutionary upsurge in the world, and you will find women not only on the front lines but in the leadership.” Cuban women played a vital role in the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictator, Batista. Vilma Espín, a revolutionary fighter in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, helped found the Federation of Cuban Women in 1960 — one year after the revolution. The FMC has been instrumental in shaping Cuba’s new society. Most women, from 14 years old, are members. Their achievements show how socialism and feminism are inseparable struggles.
In order to transform a dependent agricultural economy into one strong enough to provide for the needs of the people, Cuba had to industrialise. Women had to be brought into the workforce. Prior to the revolution, most had been prostitutes, domestic servants and peasants. The newly-formed FMC was the backbone of the national literacy campaign which taught women to read and write so that they could become full participants in the new society.
Every Cuban’s access to free, top quality, universal education is a legacy. Compare this to Australia’s full-pelt privatisation of education and occupational training. Most working people — especially women — are being shut out, because we can’t pay the exorbitant fees.
Child care in Australia is costing parents more than half of their incomes. The Howard Government’s “family values” economics gives women no other choice but to stay home and care for their children. For this they get meagre assistance. In Cuba, child care is a social, not private, responsibility.
Cuban women who are sole parents and unemployed not only have access to free child care and schooling, they continue to get the basic wage while undergoing retraining. Women who are pregnant or have young babies get special assistance so that their well-being, and their children’s, are cared for. In Australia, women in similar circumstances are expected to survive on minimal government subsidies. Unemployed single mothers are trapped in a poverty cycle, with poor health and little access to education for themselves or their children.
Australia’s health care system is collapsing. Because of systematic funding cuts, hospitals and health services can’t meet the costs of high-profit medicine. Our 27-year-old universal health insurance scheme is now being ripped apart. Fees for consultations are coming back, returning us to total privatisation and a health system only for those who can pay. All Cubans enjoy free, high-standard health care throughout their lives.
Corporate bosses shout loud and long about what “free enterprise” provides the ordinary person. But I know first-hand that capitalism and sexism go together like socialism and women’s liberation. I would much prefer to live in a society that works toward the latter.
Isolation — revolution’s greatest danger. The White House-imposed blockade of Cuba over the past 40 years is a desperate effort to quarantine the revolution and crush it. The Clinton Administration’s current embargo — the first to include food and medicine — is placing the Cuban people’s lives in jeopardy.
An economy faced with scarcity cannot provide for everyone’s needs. Deprived of basic necessities — from cooking oil and medicines to petrol, paper and spare parts — Cuba is under heavy siege. Women are bearing the brunt. Factory closures are forcing them back into the home, where they often set up domestic services to survive. The double burden between home and work is becoming greater. Preparing meals is more difficult, shopping queues are longer, bus trips take up more time. Because of shortages of cloth, they have to hand-wash their children’s school uniforms each day. The lack of building materials has caused a housing crisis. Social tensions are resurfacing — domestic violence is again an issue. Cuba has to rely on tourism to bring in the dollars to purchase much-needed goods on the world market. Prostitution, non-existent since the revolution, has reappeared in the tourist districts. Racism is another by-product. More light-skinned Cubans are being employed in the hotels because of tourists’ racist attitudes. Afro-Cubans are losing their jobs, even though discrimination is illegal. Cubans watch hotels hog the electricity and enjoy good plumbing, while they live with blackouts and flush their toilets with buckets.
“Track I” is how Washington DC refers to its law which punishes countries who trade with Cuba. There’s also a Track II: a covert campaign to undermine the revolution from within by creating discontentment. The principal target for both is women. It’s sound military strategy: go after the strongest point.
Attack brings resistance. Ten years ago, Fidel Castro said: “If fate were to decree that one day we would be among the last defenders of socialism in a world in which U.S. imperialism has realised Hitler’s dreams of world domination, we would defend this bulwark to the last drop of our blood.” He’s right. Cubans are determined to hold on to their revolution — and carry it forward. Especially women, who have gained the most, and people old enough to remember life under capitalism.
¡Two, Three — many Cubas!