Women in Cuba: the Emancipatory Revolution

Women in Cuba: the Emancipatory Revolution
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Abstract: Developing a welfare system that protects the most vulnerable groups in society, as well as proactive policies designed to achieve equal rights for all, has long been a priority of the Cuban Revolution. Cuban women, discriminated against and relegated to a lower status before 1959, have benefited from measures adopted by the government of Fidel Castro to integrate the political, economic and social life of the country, achieve emancipation and obtain full citizenship.

Key words: Cuba, woman, rights, integration, emancipation.


The triumph of the Cuban Revolution has created the most remarkable political, economic and social upheaval in the history of Latin America. From its beginning in 1959, the new government, led by Fidel Castro, placed the poor - especially women and people of color, the principal victims of the discrimination inherent in patriarchal and segregationist societies - at the center of their reformist project. The Revolution "of the humble, by the humble and for the humble,"[1] was designed to lay the foundation for a new era, one marked by equality and freed from the throes of the injustice linked to the history and social structures of the country.

Cuban women were the immediate priority of the revolutionary government. In 1960, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) was created. Its president was Vilma Espín Dubois, the wife of Raúl Castro and a fully committed activist in the struggle against the dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista. What was the status of women at the triumph of the Revolution? What concrete steps were taken to disseminate and implement the idea of equal rights and equal opportunities between men and women and to erase prejudice and cultural stereotypes?

Three themes structure these reflections. Firstly, special attention is paid to the role of women before the triumph of the Revolution. Secondly, the new government’s actions aimed at enabling this sector of society to achieve true emancipation and full citizenship are analyzed. Finally, beyond the soaring declarations of principle, we will take a look at the status of Cuban women today and assess their integration into the political, economic and social life of the country.

1. The status of women before the triumph of the Revolution

During Fulgencio Batista's military regime, which lasted from 1952 to 1958, Cuban women, who lived under the yoke of a patriarchal society, constituted only 17% of the labor force. Those who were employed received significantly lower compensation than men for doing equivalent work. Under the omnipotent rule of their husbands, women were confined to the role of mother and assumed responsibility for household and domestic tasks. As the primary victims of the illiteracy that afflicted much of the population, prospects for Cuban women were grim. Of the 5.8 million inhabitants of the island, only 55% of children aged six to fourteen were enrolled in school. Over one million were denied access to education and remained at home under their mother’s charge. Illiteracy afflicted 22% of the population, more than 800 000 people, of whom the majority were women.[2]

Despite having obtained the right to vote in 1934 under the progressive government of Ramón Grau San Martín, itself a product of the popular revolution of 1933, the role of women in political life was quite limited. From 1934 to 1958, only 26 women (23 deputies and 3 senators) held legislative positions.[3]

Cuban women, however, played a key role in the insurgency against the Bastista dictatorship, particularly through organizations such as the Frente Cívico de las Mujeres Martianas and Mujeres Unidas Oposicionistas. In September 1958, after the creation of the exclusively female military squadron, "Mariana Grajales," Cuban women joined Fidel Castro’s guerrillas in the July 26 Revolutionary Movement in the Sierra Maestra. Several well-known female figures, for example Celia Sanchez, Melba Hernández, Haydée Santamaría and Vilma Espín among others, emerged from the struggle against the Batista regime.[4] Nevertheless, the demands of these activists were not purely feminist. As Maruja Iglesias, leader of Frente Cívico de Mujeres Martianas underscored, "we are not fighting for women's rights. We are fighting for the rights of everyone."[5]

2. The First measures taken by the revolutionary government

Since the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the ideological foundations of which were rooted in the thought of national hero José Martí, the Cuban state has made the empowerment of women one of its main priorities. In his first speech delivered on January 1, 1959 in Santiago de Cuba, a few hours after Batista had fled the country, Fidel Castro spoke of the situation of women and recalled that the mission of the revolutionary government was to put an end to the subordination of the most oppressed sectors of society:

"This is a sector of our country that needs to be liberated, because women are victims of discrimination at work and in other aspects of life [...] When our revolution is judged in the years to come, one of the questions that will be asked is how our society and our country resolved the problems of women, even though this is one of the problems of the revolution that requires the most determination and firmness, the most perseverance and effort."[6]

Cuban women have been the main beneficiaries of the revolution’s social and popular achievements. In 1960, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) founded by Vilma Espín, was created to defend equal rights for all and to end discrimination. Women would finally come to occupy their appropriate social space and contribute fully to the building of the new society. Fidel Castro emphasized the importance of this: "Cuban women, doubly humiliated and repressed by a semi-colonial society, required their own organization, one that would represent their specific interests and work to achieve their greater participation in the economic, political and social life of the Revolution."[7] The Federation of Cuban Women now has over four million members.

Vilma Espín Dubois played a fundamental role in the emancipation of the Cuban woman. A revolutionary activist, she joined the 26th of July 26 Movement and became a member of its National Directorate. In 1958, she joined the Frank País Second Eastern Front, becoming one of the first women to participate in the guerrilla movement. After the triumph of the Revolution, she dedicated her life to the struggle of Cuban women for equality until her death in 2007. She chaired the National Commission for Prevention and Social Attention and the Commission on Children, Youth and Women's equality in the Cuban Parliament.[8]

One of the first tasks of the FMC was to fight against prostitution, a vital necessity for some 100,000 women in pre-revolutionary Cuba, and to involve them in building the new society. With the disappearance of the economic and social conditions responsible for the sexual exploitation of women, their social rehabilitation was facilitated by the existence of a women's federative structure.

Following the adage of José Martí, "to be cultivated is to be free", Cuba in 1961 launched an extensive literacy campaign that opened the possibility for all sectors of society, in particular women and especially women of color, to benefit from the social progress that had unblocked the path to equality. Some 10,000 primary schools were established that same year, more than had been built during the sixty years of the neocolonial republic. The results were immediate: over 700,000 people, 55% of whom were women, became literate within twelve months and illiteracy itself was reduced to 3.8%. In 1961, UNESCO declared Cuba to be the "first territory free of illiteracy," at the time a status unique in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since 1961, Cuba has created what is known as Children’s Circles (daycare centers/nurseries) aimed at allowing Cuban mothers to have access to training, work and participation in the country's economic life.[9]

Cuba then established a constitutional and legislative framework designed to promote women's rights as well as equality for all. Sections 41 and 42 of the Constitution casts in stone equal rights between women and men and punishes any "discrimination on the grounds of race, skin color, sex, national origin, religious beliefs or any other offense against human dignity".[10] Act 62 of the Penal Code (Article 295) qualifies infringement of the right to equality as a crime, punishable by two years in prison.[11] Thus women have access to all public service positions and all ranks of the armed forces.[12]

Internationally, Cuba has also played a pioneering role in promoting women's rights. For example, in 1965 the Caribbean island became the first Latin American country to legalize abortion. Only two other nations on the continent, Guyana in 1995 and Uruguay in 2012, have followed Cuba’s example by granting women the inalienable right to control over their own bodies. Likewise, Cuba was the first country to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the second to ratify it.

3. Women in Cuba today

The health and well-being of Cuban women have been national priorities since the advent of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, a fact that is clearly illustrated by indicators in this area. For example, life expectancy for women is 80 years, two years higher than for men, a figure similar to that of most developed countries. The infant mortality rate is 4.6 per thousand, the lowest in the Third World and the Americas (including Canada and the United States). The maternal mortality rate is 0.02%, the lowest in Latin America and the Third World. According to the World Bank, the fertility rate (children per woman) is 1.5, the lowest in Latin America, a figure that may at the same time pose a problem for generational renewal.[13]

From a legal perspective, Article 59 of the Labor Code is aimed specifically at protecting Cuban mothers. It states that "the employer shall establish and maintain working conditions for women that take into account their participation in the work force and their social function as mothers." Thus, while continuing to receive their full salaries, Cuban mothers have the right to take full-time leave for a month and a half before delivery and three months after the birth of the child. This leave may be extended to a full year with compensation equivalent to 60% of their salary. After a year, they are automatically reinstated in their jobs. Moreover, Cuban right to work laws allow women to retire at the age of 60 or after having made 30 annual contributions to the retirement fund. In comparison, the French woman must have made 42 retirement contributions in order to receive a full pension.

Women account for nearly 60% of the country’s students and over 65% have graduated from institutions of higher education. Since 1980, professional working women have achieved, on average, a higher level of schooling than professional working men. Women represent only 44% of the 5.5 million people that make up the country’s workforce, a figure that confirms the fact that further efforts are needed to achieve full equality.[14] At the same time, they constitute 66.4% of the country’s middle and upper level technicians and professionals (teachers, doctors, engineers, researchers, etc.) and 66% of all civil servants, compared to 6.2% before 1959.[15]

Today, Cuban law ensures that the salaries of women who do equal work be strictly equivalent to those of men. In France, according to INSEE, for equal work, the salaries of women are 28% lower than that of men.[16] In the United States, the salaries of women are only 80% of those of men.[17]

In Cuba, women occupy 46% of the leadership positions in the economic sector (the figure was 2% before the triumph of the Revolution). By way of comparison, in France, among the CAC 40 companies, only five are headed by women.[18] At the administrative and judicial level, Cuban women represent 66% of the members of the finance ministry and the Supreme Court and 78% of the officials of the public prosecutor's office.[19]

Cuban women are fully integrated into the country's political life. The statistics in this area are revealing. For example, of the 31 members of the Cuban Council of State, 13 are women, or 41.9%. At the executive level, there are eight women ministers out of 34, or 23.5%. In the Cuban Parliament, 299 of the 612 deputies are women, i.e. 48.66%. In France, the percentage of women in parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate) is 26%. Cuba occupies third place worldwide for the highest percentage of women members of parliament. Informationally, the United States ranks 80th.

A woman, María Mari Machado, is the vice president of the Cuban Parliament. At the Provincial Assemblies level, of the 1268 elected members, 48.36% are women. Cuban women preside over ten of the country’s fifteen provincial assemblies, or 66.6%, and occupy the vice presidency in seven of them, or 46.6%. Of the 115 members of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, 49 are women, or 42.6%. The Communist Party secretary for the province of Havana, the largest in the country, Mercedes López Acea Lázara is a black woman born in 1964. She is also vice president of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers. These results are all the more remarkable in that there is no law in Cuba that requires parity in political offices.

Moreover, of the sixteen provincial union leaders of the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC), nine, or 56.25%, are women.

In terms of diplomacy, Cuba is represented by women in no fewer than 47 countries. At the Foreign Ministry, more than 40% of the civil servants are women and many of them occupy vice-ministerial posts. Josefina Vidal, Director of the Department of the United States at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is responsible for conducting negotiations with Washington in the historical process of normalization of bilateral relations announced by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro on December 17, 2014.[20]

In Cuba, sport is considered essential to the physical and intellectual development of all citizens. Cubans have free access to all of the country’s sport facilities and infrastructure. The National Institute for Sports has implemented a range of programs for all sections of the population and all generations. The results are revealing: in terms of top-level sport, Cuban women occupy a place that is second to none. Cuba is also the Latin American country that, with 49 titles, has the highest number of Olympic medalists.[21]

The United Nations, by way of its Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), has applauded the policy of the Cuban state toward women. Alejandrina Germán, president of the Regional Conference on Women and the Dominican Republic’s Minister for Women, stressed that Cuba has always played a pioneering role in the promotion and protection of women's rights, while recalling that gender equality depends first and foremost upon the political will of a country’s leadership.[22]

If prostitution had disappeared as an institutionalized social reality, it should be noted nonetheless that a resurgence of this phenomenon began the 1990s with the economic crisis, renewed sanctions imposed by the United States and the advent of mass tourism. The National Center for Sex Education, led by Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of the current President Raúl Castro and Vilma Espín, the founder of the FMC, plays an important role, based on prevention and persuasion, in the fight against this affliction.[23]

Cuba has put in place a legislative and legal arsenal designed to defend against gender violence. The National Group for Attention to and Prevention of Family Violence is a multi-sector, multidisciplinary entity that includes the Ministries of Education, Health, Interior, Justice, the services of the Attorney General of the Republic, Forensic Medicine, the National Center for Sex Education, the University of Havana, the Supreme Court and the Institute of Radio and Television. It is responsible for coordinating the struggle against conjugal violence. The Penal Code severely punishes all attacks against physical and psychological integrity. Domestic violence is considered an aggravating circumstance.

Macho, sexist and discriminatory behavior, a legacy of five centuries of patriarchal society and its intrinsic cultural, ideological and psychological barriers, still persists in Cuba today and constitutes an obstacle to the full emancipation of women. Women, however, undeniably play a dominant role in society and participate fully in the development of the country.


The Cuban Revolution has without doubt paved the way for the emancipation of women. All rights, whether economic, social, cultural, civil or political, are guaranteed by the constitution and women have been the main beneficiaries of the process of social transformation initiated in 1959.

In neocolonial Cuba, women were relegated to a subordinate social status. With the advent of the Revolution they became active participants who have contributed significantly to the building of a new society, one based on equality and social justice. They now play a vital role in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the country.

"The whole country is found in women," José Martí said quite accurately. However, even if the existing legal standards enable the development and achievement of Cuban women, even if the indicators and statistics remain exceptional for a Third World nation and even if the Cuban woman has no reason to envy her peers in the most developed countries, certain cultural, psychological and ideological barriers remain to be overcome along the sinuous path that leads to total emancipation.

Translated from the French by Larry R. Oberg

A Doctor of Iberian and Latin American Studies at the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, Salim Lamrani is a Lecturer at the University of La Réunion, specializing in relations between Cuba and the United States.

His new book is Cuba, the Media, and the Challenge of Impartiality, New York, Monthly Review Press, preface by Eduardo Galeano, translated by Larry R. Oberg.

[1] Fidel Castro, “Discurso pronunciado por Fidel Castro Ruz, Presidente de Dobla República de Cuba, en las honras fúnebres de las víctimas del bombardeo a distintos puntos de la república, efectuado en 23 y 12, frente al cementerio de Colón, el día 16 de abril de 1961”, República de Cuba. http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/1961/esp/f160461e.html (site consulted March 8, 2015).

[2] Acela Caner Román, “Mujeres cubanas y el largo camino hacia la libertad”, Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, August 2004. http://librinsula.bnjm.cu/1-205/2004/agosto/31/documentos/documento104.htm (site consulted Novembre 15, 2014).

[3] Joseba Macías, “Revolución cubana: Mujer, Género y Sociedad Civil”, Viento Sur. http://www.vientosur.info/documentos/Cuba%20%20Joseba.pdf (site consulted Novembre 15, 2014)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Fidel Castro Ruz, “Discurso pronunciado por el Comandante Fidel Castro Ruz, en el Parque Céspedes de Santiago de Cuba”, República de Cuba, January 1, 1959. http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/1959/esp/f010159e.html (site consulted April 18, 2015).

[7] Acela Caner Román, “Mujeres cubanas y el largo camino hacia la libertad”, Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, op.cit.

[8] Federación de Mujeres Cubanas, “Dossier Vilma Espín”. http://www.mujeres.co.cu/dossiervilma/HTML/01.html (site consulted April 18, 2015).

[9] Acela Caner Román, “Mujeres cubanas y el largo camino hacia la libertad”, Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, op. cit.

[10] Constitución de la República de Cuba, 1976, Artículo 41 & 42.

[11] Código Penal Cubano.

[12] Dalia Isabel Giro López, “Mujeres haciendo Revolución”, Cuba Defensa, August 20, 2013. http://www.cubadefensa.cu/?q=node/2158 (site consulted April 18, 2015); Sonia Regla Pérez Sosa, “Homenaje a mujeres de las FAR”, Cuba Defensa, March 5, 2015. http://www.cubadefensa.cu/?q=homenaje%20mujeres%20FAR (site consulté April 18-20, 2015).

[13] Banque mondiale, “Tasa de fertilidad, total (nacimientos por cada mujer)”, 2014. http://datos.bancomundial.org/indicador/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN/countries (site consulted March 8, 2015).

[14] Mariela Pérez Valenzuela, “Mujer cubana: una fortaleza en la economía nacional”, Federación de Mujeres Cubanas. http://www.mujeres.co.cu/714/beijing1.html (site consulted November 15, 2014).

[15] Mujeres, “Cuba en el CEDAW”. http://www.mujeres.co.cu/cedaw/texto/01.html (site consulted November 15, 2014).

[16] Thomas Morin & Nathan Remila, “Le revenu salarial des femmes reste inférieur à celui des hommes”, INSEE, http://www.insee.fr/fr/themes/document.asp?ref_id=ip1436 (site consulted November 15, 2014).

[17] Le Figaro, “La crise pousse les Américaines à travailler”, November 18, 2009. http://www.lefigaro.fr/emploi/2009/11/18/01010-20091118ARTFIG00628-la-crise-pousse-les-americaines-a-travailler-.php (site consulted November 15, 2014)

[18] Camille Boulate, “Les cinq femmes à la direction générale du CAC 40”, Les Echos, March 7, 2013. http://business.lesechos.fr/directions-generales/les-quatre-femmes-a-la-direction-generale-du-cac40-5300.php (site consulted November 15, 2014)

[19] Federación de Mujeres Cubanas, “Cubanas en cifras”, 2014. http://www.mujeres.co.cu/715/plegable2.pdf (site consulted November 15, 2014), p. 7-9.

[20] Salim Lamrani, “Acercamiento Cuba-Estados Unidos : perspectivas y obstáculos”, Al Mayadeen, February 23, 2015. http://espanol.almayadeen.net/Study/uJUAe1pzFUiV8aRIAF9FTA/acercamiento-cuba-estados-unidos--perspectivas-y-obst%C3%A1culos (site consulted March 8, 2015).

[21] Federación de Mujeres Cubanas, “Cubanas en cifras”, novembre 2014. http://www.mujeres.co.cu/715/plegable2.pdf (site consulted March 8, 2015). p. 8, 9.

[22] Margen Borges, “Destacan en Cepal política de Estado cubano a favor de mujeres”, Federación de Mujeres Cubanas, 2014. http://www.mujeres.co.cu/articulo.asp?a=2014&num=714&art=51 (site consulted November 15, 2014).

[23] Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual. http://www.cenesex.org/ (site consulted November 15, 2014)

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