Luisita López Torregrosa, The New York Times – Just after Raúl Castro grabbed the world’s attention with his decision to step down from the presidency of Cuba when his term expires in 2018 — effectively ending the half-century Castro era — a new report on the status of Cuban women arrives to stir further debate in Washington’s policy circles, among conservative Cubans and among feminists.
Called “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future,” the report credits the top leaders of the revolution, principally Fidel and Raúl Castro, with mandating and enforcing rules and laws guaranteeing gender equality and women’s rights, which have made Cuba among the highest-ranking nations in the advancement of women.
The study, released Monday, was written by Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports opening relations with Cuba and lifting the U.S. embargo. After a decade of research in Cuba on a number of economic and social issues, Ms. Stephens and her associates train their eyes on the progress women have made in four decades and examine whether it can be sustained.
In an interview at her office, Ms. Stephens said, “What I want to get at, what’s important, is that one of the great things in Cuba, part of the social project of the revolution, was equality, including equality for women — and that mattered.”
Yet, perhaps inevitably, this equality has a double edge.
“What I heard from a lot from women is that all of that is all well and good, but it’s no equality that was earned or achieved by women from the bottom up. It was something that was decided at the top and set into law,” she said.
María Ileana Faguaga Iglesias, an anthropologist and historian who said that the story of Cuba’s progress toward equality was overstated, expressed the frustration of highly educated women. “We have to distinguish that access to university studies does not necessarily give us power,” she said in the report. “What’s more, to be in positions that are supposedly positions of power does not necessarily permit the exercise of power.”
Ms. Stephens agreed with the women’s frustrations. “They deal with sexism and machismo every day, in the home, in the workplace, everywhere,” she said. “It’s just not enough to have good laws.”
Still, there are feel-good elements to women’s progress in Cuba.
Cuba consistently ranks high in international surveys on women. The Overseas Development Institute in Britain rates Cuba in the top 20 nations for its progress relative to the Millennium Development Goals, which were adopted worldwide after a U.N. summit meeting in 2000. The World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Cuba 19th among 135 countries, up one notch from 2011, one of only two Latin American nations in the top 20 (Nicaragua was ranked ninth). By comparison, the United States fell to 22 from 17 in the survey, which measured the health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women.
Those figures aside, women make up only 38.1 percent of Cuba’s work force. That is an improvement, the report published this week notes, but lags behind most of Latin America. Less than 40 percent of working-age women are employed, and Cuban women earn on average less than half what men make, mostly because men have access to higher-paying jobs.
Like women just about everywhere, women in Cuba want more female leaders in the high ranks of government and party. According to the report, they make up only 7 percent of the Cuban Communist Party’s ruling Politburo, 14 percent of the Party Secretariat and 22 percent of the Council of Ministers; only one has enjoyed the rank of vice president (there are five).
With a more open private-sector economy, more women are now working for themselves, starting businesses, earning money and gaining self-confidence. But others fear that the reduction in state jobs and the more competitive economy will end their state-guaranteed benefits and leave them by the wayside.
In an e-mail from Havana, where he was visiting last week, Richard E. Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, called the report a “superb study” that correctly pointed at areas where the United States could get involved, like “helping female entrepreneurs gain skills, networks, markets and capital for success in Cuba’s increasingly market-oriented economy.”
Jane Harman, the director, president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and a former member of the U.S. Congress, said, “The story is two steps forward and one step backward. True, the revolution incorporated women’s equality in Cuba’s Constitution and legal architecture. But the story of work opportunities for women in Cuba shows a gender gap, which could worsen under the regime’s economic reform policies. Whether or not one favors major change in U.S. policy toward Cuba (which I personally do), shining light on the need to make Cuban women full partners in Cuba’s future is in everyone’s interest.”
A two-time visitor to Cuba, Dr. Cynthia McClintock, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, said by telephone that the study “is not a naïve romantic whitewash.” She criticized Washington for shutting off Cuba despite its strides in meeting many of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. “It’s a contradiction,” she said. “Here’s a country which has been doing well at this, but we don’t want to deal with it.”
For now, with its poor economy and lack of jobs, Cuba is losing people. In 2011 alone, 40,000 Cubans, more than half of them women, left the island. “I’m the only one left,” a secretary lamented. “All my friends are abroad.”