On April 4, 1986, feminist, poet, and writer Margaret Randall spoke at the Michigan Union Ballroom on the University of Michigan campus. her speech was on "Cuban and Nicaraguan Women."
The last time I was in Ann Arbor was in 1978, which was perhaps a more vibrant time in general on United States campuses and certainly a very vibrant time here in Ann Arbor. Going to campuses around the country this year, mostly in connection with my case, or reading poetry or speaking, I've felt sad about the subdued nature of campuses, and the lack of continuity that students seem to have even with their own history, let alone with the history of other peoples in the world. So it's very exciting to me and stimulating to see that this has apparently not happened in Ann Arbor, that you are still a bastion of thoughtfulness and questioning and all the other "subversive" things this administration apparently does not want students and people in general to engage in.
I'm going to share some thoughts with you tonight about women in Cuba and Nicaragua; thinking about women in those two countries is especially interesting because both have had people's revolutions. They have many things in common and many differences.
The Cuban revolution came to power in 1959, the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979. Those intervening 20 years were exceptionally important in terms of women's struggles in the world. The
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Cuban and Nicaraguan Women
Ann Arbor - On April 4, 1986, feminist, poet, and writer Margaret Randall spoke at the Michigan Union Ballroom on the University of Michigan campus. Her speech was on "Cuban and Nicaraguan Women."
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international women's movement has really come to the fore in those 20 years. In the 50's when Cuban women joined their brothers in struggle to topple Batista, there was virtually no active women's movement as such in Cuba, or for that matter in the United States. In the 60's and 70's when Nicaraguan women participated in their Revolution, the strength of women's struggles made a great deal of difference. I'd first like to talk about Cuban women.
Cuba, before 1959, before the victory of the Cuban revolution, was not much more than a sort of house of pleasure for U.S. businessmen and U.S. marines. There was a nightclub in Havana called the Tropicana with its own private airstrip. -- U.S. magnates came down and used that nightclub and the people in it, essentially the women in it and the women on the streets of Havana and the women on the streets of other Cuban cities, pretty much at their whim and will.
Cuba was, economically speaking, a one crop economy -- sugar -- dependent almost entirely on the United States in terms of trade, and the whole country was very much colored by that unequal relationship. This had a specific meaning to Cuban women. Only about 9% of Cuban women were involved in the active labor force and included in that statistic were 70,000 domestic servants and some 100,000 prostitutes -- those who could be counted - of course. There were many who couldn't be. Most of the other women in Cuba who worked had either very low-level jobs as employees of department stores or they ran elevators. Perhaps they worked in some of the factories, a little bit in textiles, a little bit in tobacco. They had the worst paying jobs: no services, no daycare. That was basically the picture. The Cuban people were badly off, and of course when that is the case, women are always in an even worse situation, bearing the double burden of their poverty and their gender.
Cuban women took part in the Revolution in a very widespread way, but not in a very powerful way in terms of decision-making, although there were women like Vilma Espin, Hydee Santa Maria, Margaret Hernandez, or Celia Sanchez, and others who were at the forefront of the 26th of July movement. Women like Vilma Espin, in fact, became leaders of the movement of the province Oriente during the last two months of the war. This was a small battalion fighting in the mountains, numbering 11 women before the war ended and several hundred afterwards. They wanted to be construction workers of a sort instead of fighters. There were many, many women in the mountains who were working as nurses, as teachers in the liberated zones, doing literacy work; women who were sewing uniforms and arm ands, who were doing underground work carrying messages. But as I say, there was not a large number of women in the leadership of the Cuban movement. So when the Cuban movement came to victory in 1959, it was a liberating force for women. The 26th of July Movement and the Communist Party of Cuba which grew out of it were committed to equality for women, and in fact did some very concrete things to better the situation for women in Cuba.
Education was opened up to women in a vast sort of way. It didn't take more than four or five years for large numbers of women to begin to go into some of the areas that had previously been almost off limits to them, areas such as engineering, architecture, and medicine. The percentages of women in those fields rose very quickly: six to seven years after the Revolution some 50% of the graduating physicians were women, so in that area the movement was very swift.
The Cuban Revolution declared itself Socialist soon after the triumph of the movement in April of 1961. Many members of the upper classes and even some members of the more aristocratic sectors of the working class left Cuba for economic reason. Many jobs opened up which could be taken by newly educated women. The Cubans were able to direct some of their energies towards the problems of the two most exploited sectors of women, prostitutes and domestic servants. Most of Havana had been owned by the American crime syndicate (George Raft, Meyer Lansky) who owned the casinos and the big hotels. After the Revolution come of the "high class" prostitutes went off with them to the Bahamas or whatever was to become the next base for exploitation in the Caribbean. That left, of course, hundred of thousands of poor women who has come to the city thinking perhaps they would be maids, and in one way or another, fell into prostitution as the only way to make a living to support their children. The new Cuban government was able to engineer plans which in a short period of time proved very successful in giving these women other options. These plans have a lot of anecdotes connected with them. I tell some of them in my first book about Cuban women, "Cuban Women Now."
The Cubans are the first to say that the people involved in these plans, in trying to make them work, were not sociologists or psychologists. They were completely untrained to do the work they were doing, but they had a lot of energy, a lot of love and a lot of drive to make life different, and this they essentially put into action. They made a lot of mistakes, but they did make life different and those plans were very successful. There was also a plan for domestic servants, which was underwritten by the Federation of Cuban Women, a mass organization started in August 1960 to which today about 80% of all women in Cuba over the age of 15 belong. If any of you have been to Cuba, then perhaps you have seen a hotel called the Hotel Nacional, a sort of very lovely old hotel by the sea. Two floors of that hotel were given over from 1960 to about 1965 to a school for domestic servants. Women would continue to work in the homes where they were employed, but they would ask permission to leave for two hours every night to go to school.
The Federation of Cuban Women would give them five pesos a month which was just what they needed for carfare or for busfare, to get back and forth from these classes. They would learn basic reading and writing skills, basic arithmetic and then very quickly move into some of the fields that were left vacant by, as I said, the more aristocratic sectors of the working class who were leaving the country at that time. These included bank tellers, taxi drivers, secretaries and interpreters. The Federation of Cuban Women also directed some of its energies to really fundamental problems, social problems for women such as daycare. It opened the first thousand daycare centers and the first thousand directors of those daycare centers were former domestic servants. So that was part of what happened with those women.
By about 1965 there were hardly any women in Cuba, who had no option but to work as a servant in somebody's home. So the economic situation that existed in Cuba from 1959 through the mid-sixties, coupled with the commitment to women's equality made first by the 26th of July Movement and later the Communist Party, really did make a huge difference to women in Cuba.
I remember being in a hospital shortly after arriving in Cuba in 1969 and sort of asking everybody what they thought about life. I was experiencing life in a socialist country for the first time and I was very curious. I remember asking a woman who was cleaning the floor in my hospital room what the Revolution had meant to her, and she said, "Well, I got divorced and I remarried for love," and that was what the Revolution had meant to her. And basically what she was expressing was, of course, economic independence. The Cuban Communist Party shared the line of thought that was prevalent at that time and which to a certain extent is still prevalent in the world communist movement: that economic independence and economic quality can bring equality for women in general. So emphasis was on opening education to women, opening up jobs to women and the rest would take care of itself. There was not a lot of emphasis placed on the struggle against sexism. There was not a lot of emphasis placed on struggling against the remnants of the old mentality and the old ideology regarding women in society. Many of us felt that this was too bad and the Cubans themselves came to feel that it was a mistake, and that mistake sort of hit public opinion in the middle of 1974. I think it's very, very important to emphasize that women moved forward in many areas. I don't want to paint a picture of backwardsness in any sense, because when we look at women in a country like Cuba, I think it's very important not to compare them with women in a highly industrialized country, but to compare them with women in that same country, in Cuba, before the change in social structure. Certainly there's no question but that the Cuban Revolution was a very liberating force for all people in Cuba and very much so for women. But I think it's also important to see that there has to be a struggle against sexism at the same time as economic changes are taking place.
In 1974, the Cubans experiments with something they called "People's Power." They were beginning to feel that the Party in Cuba had too much administrative power and that it was necessary to evolve a form of government that would be representational, and that would give direct representation to the people--their needs, their ideas, their energies. And so for the first time since the Cuban Revolution, this thing called "People's Power" was attempted, first in a single province, the province of Matanzas, with the idea that it would be a pilot plan and would be attempted nation-wide the following year based on the lessons learned from the achievements and errors in Matanzas.
Every year the Cubans hold a huge celebration on the 26th of July, the greatest day of celebration in Cuba. It commemorates the attempt to take Moncada Barracks in 1953, an attempt which was a military failure, as you know, but which sparked off the whole last phase of the Cuban Revolution. So every year on the 26th of July, Fidel Castro speaks in a different part of Cuba and he usually chooses a place where something special has happened that year and addresses himself to whatever it is that has been going on there.
In 1974, he spoke in Matanzas and spoke about "People's Power" and people felt it had been a tremendous experience, a tremendous success in most ways, but after noting the successes involved, he pointed out the terrible picture of inequality the project had painted of women. What "People's Power" had been was a campaign at the lowest level, the neighborhood level, followed by the regional level, to be followed the next year by the national level, finally producing a national assembly of delegates freely and openly elected by people at each of those levels. The Matanzas experience showed that only 7% of the candidates had been women and when the final tallies were in, only 3% of the members of the Matanzas People's Assembly were women. This was a tremendous shock to the Cubans because they lived in a country, in a society, which they truly thought had made all of the changes, all of the sort of structural changes that needed to be made for women.
Before 1974, it was not common in Cuba to hear someone say, "There's discrimination against women in this country." One might say, "Well, there's still a lot to be done," but there was still the sort of idea that "We're on the right track, there's still a lot to be done, it'll take a long time, but all we have to do is keep on moving along the way we're going."
On July 26th of 1974, Fidel Castro said to the people of Cuba, "There is discrimination against women in this country." He cited the example of Matanzas and said "We really have to wage a struggle here for women's equality; it must be led by women, that struggle, but we must all get involved in it and we're going to start doing something about it right now."
What they did was to send a multi-disciplinary commission to Matanzas to interview people there, especially women, and of course, what they came up with was something that is not particularly new, although it was new in terms of discussion in Cuba. What they found was that women who were involved in all kinds of social work, political work, women who worked in the streets, and also raised families, took care of their husbands, took care of their houses and did not want to be members of the People's Assembly because it was too much work.
They realized that they had to attack what we call "the second shift" in a way that they had not done before. This multi-disciplinary study produced a series of papers which then became obligatory study material across the island. People would study them in work places, in neighborhoods, in military units, in schools, in factories, and these discussions were extremely interesting. I was living in Cuba at the time, and the discussions took place on two levels; one was the more formal setting of a block committee or workplace or school. All the workers and students had presumably read the study material and would gather to have discussions.
One of the things they found in these formal discussions was that women needed to get together by themselves first, in the workplace, or in the neighborhood, or in the schools, because if not, they weren't going to feel free to really say what was on their minds. So that's what they began to do in more places one after another and later women and men would get together and the ensuing discussions were pretty heavy.
The more informal discussions were also pretty heavy and those were the ones that you heard on the streetcorner or in the supermarket line or on the bus where women for the first time could really speak their piece about things that perhaps had not surfaced in the history of the Revolution. Of course one of the reasons for this was that the Cubans had quite a bit to do just to keep their revolution afloat, with the blockade and the economic and military aggressions and so forth against the country.
So, it's not only a situation of faulting them somehow idealogically. There were priorities. Those priorities were real but the time came when the Cubans realized they had to do something about it, and I think they wasted a good deal of time by not doing something about it before then. That situation led to a number of changes in Cuban life and some of them were quite wonderful. The Family Code came out of that. The Family Code is a whole package of legislation regarding family life, family obligations, the obligations of men and women to their children, children to their parents and so forth. The foremost clauses, - 26, 27, and 28, which are included in the marriage contract and read into the marriage ceremonies as well, cover the obligation that a man has to do 50% of the household work, 50% of childcare, and in fact, support his wife in making her situation equal to his in terms of a chance to study, a chance to better her professional education, a chance to make of her life what she as an individual wishes to make of it, instead of being trapped in a domestic situation which somehow never permits this.
The Family Code was very important in Cuba, and I think that the Code should be seen as even more important educationally than legally. Legally it's very important if you're a woman and you live in a country where you know that the state supports you in these kinds of rights. But practically speaking, who is going to take this man to court? It's usually the woman, and by the time she's ready to do that, the marriage is probably not on very steady ground. I don't want to give the impression that this law is being used in a very smooth way and that it has just sort of automatically changed things. So, I think its most powerful aspect is its educational aspect. It has however been used especially in places like Isle of Pines.
Isle of Pines is an island mostly settled by younger people who went there in the sixties to work the circus plantations. Some remained there and raised families and have therefore been far away from the proverbial grandmother or aunt or uncle who could help take care of the kids. So the struggle is more severe in these family situations. In these cases, the law has been tested legally to a much higher degree and as a result women in these situations have made a big difference in Cuba.
Along with that kind of law came a kind of loosening up, not legally, but in terms of the sense of things in Cuba, in the prevailing idea about a number of things, a sort of consciousness about women in advertising, a consciousness of some problems around the extreme homophobia that existed and still exists in Cuba.
The State's attitude towards homosexuality which although not really advanced, has changed a great deal for the better in Cuba since the mid-seventies. So, I think that there has been a struggle against many kinds of attitudes, some of them attacked legally, some of them attacked educationally, some of them attacked in other ways. But there's been a whole sort of reassessment in Cuba of the need for an on-going ideological struggle against sexism as opposed to the previous idea that economic freedom for women is all that is necessary.
The struggle goes on in Cuba, and although at this point in time the highest echelons of the Communist Party, the highest eschalons of the State, of government, factories, industries, those kinds of things are still not very greatly peopled by women. There are each year more and more women in these positions and that seems to be something which is slowly improving.
Nicaragua is a very different kind of story. As I say, the Nicaraguan revolution came to power 20 years later. Most of the young people who were involved in building the FSLN, the revolutionary movement in Nicaragua, founded in 1959, were college students at that time. Many of them left Nicaragua to study. Some went to Mexico, Chile, or Venezuela. Some of them went to the United States and some to the European countries.
These people became familiar with much of the literature that started to come out at the beginning of the women's liberation movement in different places. This was very important for Nicaraguans because under Somoza's dictatorship there was an absolute clamp-down on literature of
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any kind, not just political literature. It was very hard to get even some of world literature in Nicaragua if it happened to be by someone like Dostoyevsky for example. There were jokes people told in Nicaragua about Russian novels not being allowed in, whereas Marx's Sacred Family was allowed in because it was thought to be a religious book.
Nicaragua is a very small country, very cut off from what we would consider the most ordinary trends in world thought, not just the most progressive trends. So it was important that these students who were to creates this powerful movement, the FSLN, had contact with these lines of thought in other countries.
Nicaraguan women had their own history of struggle and a very important one, a wonderful one. When we first went to Nicaragua to write about Nicaraguan women, there wasn't much research material available at that time in the libraries or archives. There weren't many libraries or archives at all then in Nicaragua. One of the things we did find, however, when looking into pre-Columbian times in Latin America was that women ere in control of commerce in two places on the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, which is now Nicaragua. I think that really is important; the economic importance that women have had in Nicaragua goes way back.
This does not mean that they have had high level jobs or that they have made adequate salaries, but it does mean they are used to going out and being paid for their labor, no matter how poorly, and that is very important.
In Sandino's war in the 1920's and 1930's, women took an amazingly active part. There were women like Maria Altamirano who headed guerilla camps. There were other women like Altamirano who fought in the war in a way that was not usual at that point in history, so there's that history too that the Nicaraguan women have.
The economic structure of Nicaragua, the way dependent capitalism developed in that country, produced what the Nicaraguan's call a very high degree of paternal irresponsibility. Basically what that translates into is a man who will live with a woman -- married or not it doesn't really matter -- have a kid or two kids with her, move on to another woman, and keep moving on, leaving the respective women with these kids to fare for themselves. And so these women will go out and do whatever is necessary from prostitution to domestic service, to selling trinkets, to selling vegetables or fruit in the markets to support their children.
This isn't something only native to Nicaragua, of course. It is something you will recognize from many countries in the world, but it was very very prevalent, exceptionally prevalent in Nicaragua. Many of the women who were involved in the revolutionary movement had gone to study in other countries or had been in contact with feminist literature through comrades inside these countries and they began to struggle within their movement for their own equality as women.
By 1965-66 many women were involved because they were strong women who were interest in social change, who needed to get involved with that and had their own ideas about it and their own ideas about what their role as women should be in that social change.
There's also another element that was very, very important in Nicaragua and I think it has to do with Vatican II. Nicaragua is a very Catholic country and the tremendous revolution in the Catholic Church was happening in this period, so after Vatican II, the Christian movement in Nicaragua at a base level was tremendously strengthened. The women in that movement, interestingly, were less motivated to join the movement because they had a boyfriend or a brother or a father in it. They were more motivated to join it out of their Christian faith, a very strong motivating force for strong women getting into the revolutionary movement, and demanding a certain kind of equality for themselves within that movement. By the late 60s and early 70s in Nicaragua, there were women in tremendous roles of leadership within the FSLN who would participate in events like the take-over of the Chema Castillo home in December of 1974 or the take-over of the National Palace in August of 1978 where women were parts of those commandos in an absolutely essential way, not the people who went and staked out the place and drew the plans and carried the messages. They were member of the commando. They were the negotiaters. They were involved at a military level, at a political level. Then, you have situations like that at the end of the war, with the liberation of the city of Leon, the second largest city in the country, and the first free territory in Nicaragua. It was very, very important at the end of the war, as it was the place where the new revolutionary government was actually able to go and physically install itself. That city was liberated by Dora Maria Tellez, who was a commander in the war, one of a number of women commanders. In fact, her high command consisted of seven people, five of them women. Women like Monica Baltodano, like Lea Guido, like Dora Maria Tellez, Doris Tijerino. The list is very, very long of women who were right up there doing what their brothers and lovers and so forth were doing in terms of winning the war. When the war was over, a very, very large percentage of the leadership was female. Thirty percent of the liberating army were women. When the FSLN National Assembly, which, if it were a party, would be tantamount to the Central Committee of that party, started out 22 percent women. It's higher today, but placing yourself in a Latin American context, placing yourself in the context of a country like Nicaragua, that kind of percentage at the end of a war is really quite startling.
The Nicaraguans did some pretty amazing things when the war ended. The first decree by the new government was the abolition of capital punishment. The second decree was the abolition of the use of women's bodies for commercial purposes, something that was simply decreed by the new government without even going to AMNLAE, which is the women's organization in Nicaragua. AMNLAE existed, but it was actually the government itself which thought the second decree important enough to make it the second. It was in homage to women and the role they had played in the struggle there.
Unfortunately in Nicaragua, although the ideological struggle is sharper and there was more consciousness from the very beginning that the struggle against women's inequality had to be staged at an ideological level. The economic situation is much worse than it was in Cuba and so you have a very high degree of unemployment. It's very difficult for the Nicaraguans to do some of the things the Cubans were able to do because they simply don't have the economic situation in which to do it and of course today with the Contra war it gets worse and worse -- one of the many reasons why it's so important to stop this madness that we are supporting or that our government is supporting. And I'll just give you two examples that I gave when speaking about Cuba, the examples of domestic servants and prostitutes.
The Nicaraguans would not have been able to open the kinds of schools that the Cubans opened for domestic servants because, sadly, there are no jobs for those women to go into. So what the Nicaraguans have chosen to do in terms of domestic service has been to strengthen a union of domestic servants and back these women in their struggle for a shorter working day, better salaries, better working conditions, fringe benefits which they previously didn't have at all. This has been working quite well in Nicaragua. There are unions for domestic servants all over the country; again, it's a less ambitious plan than the plan that was engineered in Cuba, because of the lack of jobs in Nicaragua. The same is true for prostitutes. There are a number of projects in Nicaragua where prostitutes have gotten together to learn new skills, things like sewing. They're opened up sewing cooperatives or dress-making establishments and craft projects and those projects have managed to solve that problem for some numbers of women -- a small number compared to the number that really needs a large radical change in that area. Again, there's no way at this point in time of making a more radical effort due to the job situation. The Nicaraguans have managed to bring their unemployment rate down from about 40% at the end of the war to about 16%, but those were the figures I had when I left Nicaragua and I'm not even sure what they are now. They might be considerably higher considering the situation. One looks at Nicaragua today and feels that mere survival is heroism.
The Cuban Federation of Women remains an enormous organization which basically acts as a buffer, a conduit for women to make their needs known to government, to the State, to the Party, and also in the other direction; the kinds of things the State and Party are doing for women come down through that conduit and reach women in that way.
The Nicaraguans, at one point, at the very beginning of the Revolution, thought they would adopt a similar kind of model for AMNLAE, the women's organization in Nicaragua, and used that model for about a year, involving large numbers of women. At an assessment assembly at the end of that year they felt that this model was not good for them, that it worked well in Cuba, but they needed something else. They felt that women were duplicating the efforts of other mass organizations and so radically changed their view of the women's movement from a mass organization to small nuclei of women in workplaces and schools, peasant-bases wherever they may be. They felt that women's issues are different depending on where women are and what they are confronting. The new model they are now following seems to be working better for them in terms of their women's organization.
The Cubans have managed to move much more quickly in terms of reproductive rights and health care as well. I think that again has to do with the situation of the Church. The Catholic Church was never terribly important in Cuba. It was not the church of working people. It was more the church of the petit bourgeoisie, and it was also a pre-Vatican II church, a church that for many years, until recently was virtually separated from the revolutionary movement and also antagonistic toward it. The Cubans were able to evolve large programs of educational projects for women: health care and birth control. Abortion was legalized a couple of years after the Revolution; it's treated as any other health problem is treated in Cuba. It's free. It's very well attended. There's a great deal of information out concerning all these areas, so that this aspect of life for women is quite advanced in Cuba.
In Nicaragua there's going to be a little trouble with that. Abortion is still illegal. It is anticipated as part of a certain Nicaraguan Family Code. That part has not been touched on yet. There will be, of course, a great deal of opposition from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. While the base-level membership of Catholics in Nicaragua is predominantly very much in support of the Revolution, as most of you probably know, the hierarchy is very much in the other camp, so that's a problem that's going to be very specifically different in Nicaragua for that reason.
So these countries have their particularities in line with their own cultures, their own history, their particular national life. This is briefly then, a sort of picture of what these two rather revolutionary changes have meant for women in these two countries.
Ms. Randall is currently at the center of a controversy regarding her residency in this country. Born and raised in the U.S. Randall was denied residency in October of last year because of her writings and for having lived in Cuba and Nicaragua.
She is married to a U.S. citizen, and her parents and brothers are citizens. The U.S. government's case is based on the McCarran-Walters Act of 1952, which was passed over President Truman's veto during the McCarthy era. A decision on Randall's deportation is pending.