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ISR Issue 51, January–February 2007

Race and sex in Cuba


Blacks in post-revolutionary Cuba

THE LEGACY of slavery and American occupation left a strong stamp of racism on Cuban society before the revolution, although the patterns of racial separation were not so sharply drawn as in the United States. While the United States during its occupation of the island from 1899–1902 attempted to impose Jim Crow-style laws to keep poor Blacks from voting, they failed, making Cuba one of the few states in the region to institute universal male suffrage.

The strength of Cuban nationalism, which emphasized the role played by both Blacks and whites in the independence struggle against Spain, mitigated against such blatant forms of racial exclusion. Wealthy whites in Cuba expressed their racism in different ways, urging, for example, the immigration of whites in order to reduce the Afro-Cuban population on the island. Though the Cuban republics had proclaimed themselves in the tradition of the racial egalitarianism of Cuban independence leader Jose Martí, the promise of racial equality was never fulfilled. Racism in Cuba took the form, first, of denying race as a legitimate category of discussion or as a problem to be solved. Institutionally, it took the form of systematic exclusion of Blacks and mixed-race Cubans from certain jobs and economic sectors, from elite schools and clubs, as well as segregation of public spaces like parks and beaches.* In general, dark skin acted as a barrier to social and economic advancement. As a result, Blacks were under-represented at the top echelons of society, but were more concentrated in lower-paying, menial jobs, and stuck in the poorest neighborhoods, suffering the highest rates of unemployment and imprisonment.

The July 26th Movement had not said a great deal before the revolution on the question of race, and had made no special efforts to recruit or organize around the issue. A labor congress convened by the movement on the eve of the revolution produced a program with a statement against racial discrimination. After victory, Revolución, the official daily of the movement, ran a series of articles by Afro-Cuban intellectual René Betancourt. Arguing that racism would not simply disappear on the morrow of a successful revolution, Betancourt urged that Blacks would have to be organized into a unified social movement in order to ensure that combating racism was part of the revolutionary process.1 Fidel took a different course.

In a press conference on January 23, 1959, Castro told a U.S. reporter that racial divisions were not as deep in Cuba as in the U.S., and that the revolution would eliminate any remaining racial prejudices, concluding, “Our thoughts are the thoughts of Martí.”2 Cuba’s most famous national liberation leader, Martí, advanced an ideology of racial fraternity in which distinctions of race were rejected for an all-inclusive Cuban identity. He essentially envisioned a Cuba that was color-blind—an ideology that later would be used both to bolster Blacks’ claim to unfulfilled promises of equality and whites’ claims that the problem of race no longer existed in Cuba. Martí’s ideas reflected a desire to rouse Blacks to the banner of national liberation without at the same time alienating white supporters. “In the daily life of defense, loyalty, brotherhood, and shrewdness,” he wrote, “there has always been a Negro standing beside every white man.”3

Castro very early on gave speeches that revealed a sincere commitment to ending racism in Cuba, and concrete steps were taken in this direction. Segregation was ended in parks, beaches and other public places. The government launched a mass public campaign of propaganda, meetings, and symposia to discuss the question and urge people to change their behavior. But perhaps the most important changes for Blacks and mixed-race Cubans came from the initial economic reforms of the new regime that raised wages for the lowest paid, reduced rents, and provided more educational and job opportunities to the poorest Cubans, where Blacks were disproportionately concentrated.

But while Castro pledged the new regime to quickly wiping out public forms of discrimination, he favored only gradual desegregation in the private sphere, such as clubs, and urged Afro-Cubans to be patient and respectful. “Indeed,” writes historian Alejandro de la Fuente, “[Castro] remained opposed to passing anti-discrimination legislation and fighting racism through legal means.”4 An advertisement run in Revolución in early 1959 featured a Black boy pleading, “I don’t ask for much,” followed by a request for better food and education, so that someday he can grow up in a world without racism. The message was that Blacks were ready to achieve equality not through militant action, but gradually.5

Castro’s emphasis was on racial brotherhood and unity (à la Martí), but also against any special organizations of Blacks to combat racism. As part of its drive to racially integrate Cuba, the regime disbanded Black clubs and organizations, and shut down the Black press that had existed prior to the revolution, arguing that such organizations, or the promotion of such organizations as a means to fight racism, would perpetuate segregation and racial identification. And unlike women, whom the state encouraged to join the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), no state-sponsored Black organization was created to replace them.

As early as 1962, officials of the new government began to make statements that racial inequality had been rooted out in Cuba. As Alejandro de la Fuente notes,

[T]he second declaration of Havana, issued in February 1962, asserted that the revolution had “eradicated discrimination because of race or sex,” in Cuba. Writing in the same year, a Communist Party official concurred: “Our patriotic, democratic, and socialist revolution has eliminated from Cuban life the odious and humiliating spectacle of discrimination because of skin color.” The dominant discourse was summarized by Fidel Castro himself when he argued that discrimination in Cuba had disappeared along with class privileges. He also noted that it had “not cost the revolution much effort to resolve the problem.”6

At the same time, the government placed a renewed emphasis on Cuba’s African roots, promoting cultural forms that emphasized the integration of Afro-Cuban traditions into the national mainstream. This did not mean, however, that the revolution embraced Afro-Cuban religions such as Santeria, which Cuban officials denigrated and discouraged as a “primitive” cultural relic—a product of ignorance and low culture that they associated with criminality. According to de la Fuente, this created a hostile environment that led the religion’s practitioners to hide their activities.7

Cuba’s initial campaign against racism, and its declaration that it had eliminated the problem, were both important components of the image it wanted to project overseas in relation to the national liberation struggles in Africa and the Black struggle in the United States. That Cuba was able to end segregation and the most overt forms of racism made it a powerful example for activists in the U.S. and Africa in their struggles against racial oppression. Yet Cuba’s integrationist model, which downplayed race consciousness and militant action, inevitably came into conflict with the politics of Black power activists who emphasized the need for organized Black militancy. The Cuban state prohibited, however, any attempt by Blacks (or anyone else) in Cuba to discuss these questions.8

In 1981, according to Cuban census figures, whites were 66 percent, Blacks 12 percent, and mestizos 22 percent of the population. The revolution had definitely brought great improvements for non-whites in the areas of health, education, and job opportunities. Life expectancy for Blacks and whites was only a year apart (compared to a gap of 6.3 years in the U.S.), and in education, Blacks graduated at a higher rate than whites.

But inequalities remained. Whereas 13 percent of whites worked in managerial positions, only 7 percent of Blacks and 9 percent of mixed-race Cubans were managers. And while there was considerable advancement of Afro-Cubans in leadership positions compared to the period prior to the revolution, Blacks and mixed-race Cubans still only represented 12 percent of the Central Committee in 1980, and 13 percent in 1997, though they constituted one-third of the National Executive Committee.9

And despite the substantial reduction in racial inequality in areas such as health care, education, and employment, there were also economic realities that reinforced certain racial patterns:

[A] strong correlation between race, the regional distribution of the population, and the quality of the housing stock persisted through the 1980s. A traditional geography of race and poverty had not been dismantled, largely because of the government’s failure to provide adequate housing to all the population. No neighborhood was racially exclusive—this was true, for the most part, in pre-Revolutionary Cuba also—but in the most dilapidated areas of the big cities, the proportion of Blacks and mulattoes was greater than that of whites.10

These poor areas were designated by police as high crime areas, which reproduced some of the patterns of police discrimination existing elsewhere. For example, the “social dangerousness” law was disproportionately applied to non-whites. A 1987 study by Cuba’s attorney general found that non-whites were 78 percent—more than double their presence in the population—of those found to be “socially dangerous” by the Havana city courts.11

The onset of economic crisis in the 1990s has tended to reinforce racial inequality in Cuba. For example, Black Cubans have less access to dollars. Overseas remittances, since Cuban exiles are predominantly white, go disproportionately to white Cubans. Regional poverty has propelled some Cubans, many of them poor and non-white, to migrate to Havana to seek a better life, a pattern some white residents have portrayed as a “Black invasion.”12

More visible racism has also returned, most noticeably to the tourist industry, where Blacks work behind the scenes as cooks and cleaners, or as entertainers, but few are found working at hotel front desks or as managers. Hotel administrators told historian Alejandro de la Fuente that they favored whites and light-skinned mulattoes because of their “good looks.” De la Fuente argues that “The evidence is overwhelming that there has been a rebirth of some kinds of racism, in attitudes and…even discriminatory behaviors.”13 According to de la Fuente, most commentators are agreed that the Cuban prostitutes that troll the tourist areas are non-white, a result of Blacks’ lower economic status in Cuba and the racialized “notions of sexuality” among tourists who visit Cuba.14

Studies show, moreover, that racist attitudes have not disappeared. Eighty-five percent of Cubans, in a 1994 survey conducted in Havana and Santiago, agreed that discrimination still existed in Cuba, and a 1995 study of three Havana neighborhoods “found that 58 percent of whites considered blacks to be less intelligent, 69 percent believed that blacks did not have the same ‘values’ and ‘decency’ as whites, and 68 percent opposed interracial marriage.”15 There is even an argument among some Cubans that Blacks, having failed to advance themselves in spite of all the opportunities, have proved their inferiority. Blacks are still very underrepresented on television, and when they do appear, they are portrayed in stereotypical ways, as indigents and criminals.16

Yet to the extent that any of this is acknowledged, the prejudice is deemed a residual relic of the past that will eventually wither away. While there have been candid moments where Cuban leaders will agree that sexism and discrimination against gays are still problems in Cuba, the issue of race, or the persistence of racism, is a taboo subject. But the insistence that Cuba is a color-blind society papers over the persistence of racism in Cuba and leaves no outlet for Cubans to fight it.

Nevertheless, the issue is surfacing whether the Cuban government wishes it to or not. There is a growing Black youth protest developing in Cuba today, mostly around the issue of police brutality, and which is sometimes expressed through hip-hop music. “We are the new movement that wants change in Cuban society” says rapper Amehel Cepeda. “And we are a strong and important movement that cannot be stopped.”17 The explosion of hip-hop music in the 1990s got so big that in 1999 the government changed its oppositional stance toward hip-hop and in 2002 formed the Cuban Rap Agency, which runs a record label and organizes hip-hop festivals.18

Author Sam Farber, in an interview with this magazine in 2004, summarizes the place of Blacks in post-revolutionary Cuba:

Since Blacks have been a disproportionately large part of the Cuban poor, they have benefited from measures of benefit to poor people, particularly in terms of health, access to higher education, and so on. As a result, there are, proportionately speaking, many more Blacks in positions of influence and power that there were before the revolution.

At the same time, however, the absence of an affirmative action policy since the very beginning of the revolution has had a very significant and negative effect.… A recent article by Henley C. Adams in the Latin American Research Review (February 2004) painstakingly documents the relatively small proportion of Blacks in the Political Bureau and Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, as well as in the Council of Ministers and among top officers of the Armed Forces. I keep an eye for the photographs that appear in Granma and when they report on Cuban scientific congresses, and I see relatively few Black faces. Yet when I see the pictures of baseball players and boxers, they are practically all Black. Yet other sports such as swimming are heavily white. So it begins to feel somewhat like the U.S.

Is this racism, as many supporters of the Cuban regime maintain, a merely attitudinal and educational problem? No, it is much more than that, since it is rooted in the unequal and inferior position that Blacks still occupy in Cuban society.19

Women in Cuba

Women played a significant role in the civic resistance to Batista, producing important leaders such as Vilma Espín, Celia Sánchez, and Haydée Santamaría. But they were under-represented in the rebel army. Only one in ten guerrillas were women, and they tended to work as seamstresses, cooks, assistants and supply carriers rather than as fighters. Some women fought alongside men, but very few. In the summer of 1958, Fidel created an all-woman combat platoon of fourteen women called the Mariana Grajales Brigade—named after the mother of Antonio Maceo, a famous Black Cuban general from the war for independence against Spain. They apparently fought with great bravery.20

After the revolution’s triumph, the government embarked on a campaign to draw women into public life. The involvement of women outside the home in literacy campaigns and other volunteer work, their increasing entry into the paid labor force, and the creation of a vastly improved and accessible health care system (including freely available abortions and contraceptive devices), all brought positive changes for women, increasing their economic independence and social mobility and radically transforming attitudes about women’s role in society. But sexist attitudes, job discrimination, and the burdens of childrearing and housework for women have not disappeared. Cuban state capitalism has not resolved the contradiction between the demand for women’s labor outside the home and its continued dependence on women’s unpaid labor in the home.

The Federation of Cuban Women, when it was formed in 1960, announced its main purposes as “the incorporation of women in work and raising the educational consciousness of women.”21 Castro commented that women’s entry into the workforce was necessary not only for reasons of “elemental justice,” but “because at some point the male workforce will not be enough, it simply will not be enough.”22 Bringing women into nontraditional work roles required state-sponsored propaganda that tried to break down stereotypes and prejudices about women’s role in society. The very fact of women’s mass entry into the workforce, as it has in other countries, also eroded the idea that women belonged only in the home.

The FMC’s efforts to get women to enter the workforce initially had little success. Husbands resisted their wives working and there was little economic incentive, given the shortages of purchasable consumer goods, for women to seek paid labor. But the development of Cuba’s economy in the 1970s began to draw in greater numbers of women. In 1953, 17.2 percent of women were in the paid work force. By 1975, that figure had risen to 28 percent; by 1990, to 39.6 percent; and by 2001, to 42 percent.23

The FMC also mobilized thousands of women into work brigades in the countryside and elsewhere to replace male workers in times of national emergency. Women’s important role as an auxiliary labor force is illustrated well by the example of the Militant Mothers for Education (MME). Formed by the FMC in 1970, the MME mobilized women (1.7 million by 1985) to provide unpaid labor to the school system. Militant Mothers performed such tasks as visiting truant children, monitoring school grounds, cleaning schools, filling in for absent teachers, and sewing uniforms.24

Women were encouraged to enter non-traditional fields, such as construction, and many women entered higher education and became doctors (women were 48 percent of doctors in 1990). But in some respects, the sexual division of labor did not change. In 1984, half of women university students were studying to be teachers, the same percentage as before the revolution.25 Forty-three percent of women entering the work force between 1974 and 1983 entered services (as teachers and health workers) or administrative fields (as receptionists and secretaries).26 Only 12.5 percent of nurses were male in 1990.27 Laws lagged behind the changes, and could still be used to discriminate. A 1965 law barred women from working underground, in quarries, under water, in “dangerous places,” or when physical force is required.28 A less restrictive 1976 law (Resolution 40) still listed 300 job categories that women were barred from holding. The law was abolished and then replaced by a similar law, which was only removed from the books in 1992.

The mass entry of women into public life prompted the state to begin setting up day care centers. However, these were staffed entirely by women who received the lowest pay (77 percent of the national average),29 and they never came close to providing adequate services to accommodate the number of working mothers. In 1962, 332 day care centers, with spaces for 31,700 children, served 38,700 kids. With 390,000 women in the work force, free public day care in Cuba only provided one slot for every ten women.30 This ratio of one to ten remained consistent as construction of new day care facilities always lagged behind the growth of women’s employment—into the 1990s.31

The lack of adequate child care means that women’s double burden has not been lifted in Cuba. Women are expected to hold down a job as well as take care of housecleaning, washing, child care, cooking, and shopping. “Women have the job of producing and reproducing,” commented labor minister Jorge Risquet in 1970.32 Indeed, because women have on so many occasions been required to engage in volunteer labor, they sometimes face a triple burden of housework, paid work, and volunteer work, as this example shows:

In the 1970s Cubans were asked to work two Saturdays a month to increase national production. Day care centers were opened on “working Saturdays,” but schools were not. The FMC requested that women be exempted from Saturday work, but Castro refused, explaining that the country could not afford the lost hours. The CTC [Cuban Confederation of Workers] rejected a proposal to eliminate Saturday work in order to help women. The CTC’s secretary general observed that working women’s problems “cannot be resolved by working less…[but] only by working more.”33

The result is that families are forced to improvise. Teenage girls stay home to baby sit, as well as members of the extended family such as aunts and grandmothers, and private child care arrangements are made under the table while the state looks the other way.

In Cuba, the dual role expected of women is called the “double shift,” and it is responsible for the high turnover of women in the work force. So, while 700,000 women entered the workforce between 1969 and 1974, 500,000 dropped out.34 It also helps to explain the persistence of discrimination against women on the job. Marta Nuñez’s study of women workers at a brick factory found that women earned 54 centavos for every peso male workers earned. Management justified this disparity by pointing out that the law prohibited women from taking the higher-paying jobs, even though by then the law no longer was in force.35 Managers tend to promote men more readily, and pay men more, claiming that men are more reliable and can work longer hours because they do not have the pull of family responsibilities.

Managers were also reluctant to hire single mothers, a growing problem as divorce rates skyrocketed. Though no reliable statistics have been compiled on the number of single mothers, in 1989, 61.2 percent of children were born to unmarried women.36

Women are found in fewer numbers as one moves up the administrative ladder. Women are underrepresented in the Communist Party (CP) and the main state institutions. In 1975, at its founding congress, the CP boasted a female membership of 13 percent. By 1986, women were 21 percent of party members. There have never been any women members of the party’s nine-man secretariat (at least as of the mid-1990s). In 1989, four of the twenty-five members of the Council of State and only two of the forty-five Council of Ministers were women. In 1991, women constituted 17 percent of the 225-person Central Committee and 12 percent of the politburo membership.37 Women were similarly underrepresented in the system of poder popular.38

The question of abortion reveals most clearly the Castro government’s utilitarian approach to a woman’s right to abortion. Cuba’s 1938 criminal code sanctioned abortion only to save the life of a pregnant woman, in cases where pregnancy resulted from rape, or to avoid birth defects. Nevertheless, in pre-revolutionary Cuba safe abortions were available in the cities at fairly affordable rates. Ironically, the 1938 law was strictly enforced for several years after the revolution. When this led to an increase in deaths as a growing number of women resorted to self-induced abortions or to what would be referred to in the U.S. as “backstreet butchers,” the Ministry of Public Health in 1965 decided to shift gears and doctors once again began providing abortions. Abortion wasn’t officially decriminalized, however, until 1979. Government policy has been to officially discourage women from having abortions, but at the same time to provide them without charge through the tenth week of pregnancy. Second- and third-trimester abortions require a hospital director’s approval. In spite of the availability of contraceptive devices, about 40 percent of pregnancies ended in abortion in 1979—a fact which prompted Castro to blame women for using abortion as a form of contraception and threaten to start charging for them.39 In the late 1980s the Cuban media began warning women of the dangers of having abortions.41 Research found that half of the women in a 100-woman study felt guilty for having had an abortion.41

Sexist attitudes also persisted. The 1975 CP thesis written for a discussion at its first congress noted that women continued to be portrayed in a sexist manner in the public media as either sex objects or wives, and beauty pageants remain popular in Cuba.42 The marriage contract read out at a 1973 symbolic wedding between female members of the CDR and male members of the Centennial Youth Column, committed the women to “wash, sew, iron, sweep, and beautify the environment and to participate in cultural and ideological activities.”43 A 1985 study of students in Matanzas province found that 44 percent of males wanted to marry virgins, though three-quarters of women students rejected the idea that they should be virgin brides.44

The Cuban leadership did not acknowledge the existence of rape or domestic abuse in Cuba until 1992. As a result, almost no data are compiled in Cuba on domestic abuse. But there are some statistics on self-inflicted violence among women. For example, a 1981 study on suicide found that Cuba had one of the highest suicide rates (27.5 deaths per 100,000 people) in the world, and the suicide rate for women in a 1970 study was twice that of men.45

The Family Code, introduced in 1975, for the first time laid official emphasis not on drawing women into the workforce, but on the rights and duties of men and women in the Cuban family. It emphasized equality of the sexes, and in particular, the necessity of both men and women to share household responsibilities: “Both partners must care for the family they have created and must cooperate with the other in the education, upbringing, and guidance of the children according to the principles of socialist morality. They must participate, to the extent of their capacity or possibilities, in the running of the home, and cooperate so that it will develop in the best possible way.”46 The Family Code also barred sex discrimination, proposed job quotas to increase women’s employment opportunities, gave paid maternity leave to women, and mandated a national sex education program. However, it was not legally enforceable. Yet by promoting shared housework, “In effect the Family Code acknowledged that the government’s intent to fully socialize household tasks was not feasible. Cuba could not afford all the day care centers, cafeterias, laundries, and other services that women needed, and so men would have to do their part.”47

In practice, however, women continue to bear the heaviest responsibility for childrearing and other household tasks. This was acknowledged by Labor Minister Jorge Risquet in his explanation as to why the 1971 anti-loafing law criminalized working-age males who did not have jobs, but did not do the same for women. Women “have the job of reproducing as well,” and therefore should not be legally required to work like men, he argued.48 In any case, for the growing number of single mothers in Cuba the code was irrelevant. A 1990 study of sixty-four Havana families concluded that working women continued to “care for and prepare children for life, take care of the home, and give their husband the idea that he is the head of the family.”49

The rectification period of the late 1980s introduced a number of austerity measures detrimental to women. Dining facilities at work and school meals were cut back, and charges for workers’ meals were increased. Workers were asked to work unpaid overtime, an extra hour or two per day. Mothers working in volunteer “microbrigades” were expected to work ten- to fourteen-hour days, leading to problems arranging day care to cover work shifts and to hardly any time for mothers to see their children. A reporter visiting an industrial parts factory in 1987 talked to a union official who argued that the solution to the problem of work hours extending beyond child care hours was for women to be replaced by men.50

Women faced even more difficulties since the onset of the extreme austerity of the “special period.” Sex-segregated unpaid work brigades were mobilized in agriculture on a wider scale, and housewives were mobilized in force. Yet at the same time, in 1991, the minimum age for day care eligibility was increased from forty-five days to six months. Many of the difficulties involved in juggling work and home life for women were severely exacerbated. The economic collapse reduced available fuel and energy, cutting public transportation and forcing working-class men and women into extremely long travel times. The cuts in energy and available appliances also increased the amount of labor time necessary to maintain the home, as did the increase in shortages of basic goods, which forced women to spend a great deal more time in long lines and on the black market searching for food. Women were forced to make and use substitutes for soap, detergent, and other necessities that were in short supply or unavailable.

Cuba’s ongoing housing crisis has also created severe problems for the family. Overcrowding has meant lack of places for young people to have sexual relations, the inability of young people to marry and live in a new home, or for couples to divorce and live separately. Home conditions have as a result become a source of tension.

The increased efforts to boost tourism also had its effects, promoting sexist public images of women and reviving prostitution (which was outlawed in 1963) as a means for young women to obtain dollars and improve their economic situation.

The persistence of women’s oppression in Cuba, in spite of the important changes wrought by the revolution, has its roots in the continued dependence of the Cuban state and economy on privatized childrearing and housework. A central dilemma for Cuban women, argue Alfred Padula and Lois Smith, “was the failure of revolutionary ideologues and policy makers to consider adequately the cultural and economic implications of women’s domestic responsibilities.” Yet “the lack of safe forums for public debate and the dearth of independently functioning institutions with clear powers complicated efforts to address and redress issues of particular interest to women in Cuba.”51

Gays in Cuba

While conditions for gays in Cuba are today considerably improved, the sad history of anti-gay bigotry in post-revolutionary Cuba is perhaps the most glaring example of the limits of revolution’s achievements. Gay lifestyles in Cuba were associated after the revolution with the “debauchery” of Cuba’s pre-revolutionary culture that surrounded the gambling hotels and casinos. After the revolution, as Marvin Leiner writes, “Not only was…prostitution condemned, but also any notion of sexual freedom or changes that endangered the traditional family institution, except for bringing women into the workforce.”52 Homosexuality was denounced as a deviant remnant of bourgeois society.

The revolution, rather than challenging the traditional machismo of Cuban society, embraced it when it came to the question of gays. The ideal revolutionary was a strong, bearded guerrilla, and leading figures denigrated “effeminate” behavior among men. “No homosexual represents the Revolution,” wrote Samuel Feijoó, “which is a matter for men, of fists and not feathers, of courage and not trembling, of certainty and not intrigue, of creative valor and not of sweet surprises.”53 Fidel agreed, arguing that gays do not “embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary.”54

While there was terrible anti-gay discrimination in Cuban society before the revolution, homosexuality was never an issue (positively or negatively) of government policy. Only after the revolution did it become a matter of state policy—for the worse.

Gays were barred form membership in the Communist Party, and were publicly denounced as decadent and perverted, driving many of them abroad or turning them against the revolution. The low point came in 1965, when for two years, until international pressure led to their disbandment, the Cuban state set up Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP). UMAP camps were rehabilitation work camps for those “whose behavior was not in accordance with the public definition of good citizenship,” including gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and devout Catholics, among others. According to Leiner, early draftees were treated so badly that some officers in charge of running them were court-martialed.55 In the 1960s “effeminate” boys who exhibited “homosexual tendencies” were sent to special schools for problem children, and separated into “yellow brigades,” where they were taught to “use baseball gloves, pistols and swords,” among other manly pursuits.56 This was at the same time that Che Guevara was writing about the “new man” in Cuba.

A 1974 law banned homosexuals from positions of influence on children because “homosexualism…may have a negative effect on the education and conscience…of children and young persons.”57 The ban was lifted in 1978. However, the army does not permit known gays to serve, and a 1981 interview with a Cuban official by Leiner elicited these remarks: “We do not harass homosexuals. But as soon as we discover that a Party member is a homosexual we dismiss him.”58 The 1979 penal code banned any public display of homosexuality, imposing three-to nine-month sentences for doing so. Under the Ley de Peligroso (“social dangerousness”), gays could be detained for up to four years for “therapy and reeducation.”59

But the changes in women’s status were bound to lead to changes in attitudes toward gays. The National Task Force for Sex Education, formed in the mid-1970s, at first reflected prevailing attitudes about homosexuality. However, in 1979, the organization published an extremely popular book, Man and Woman in Intimacy, whose 27,000 copies sold out immediately. It contained a ten-page section on homosexuality that stated, “Homosexuality cannot be classified as a sickness…. Homosexuals do not ‘suffer’ from homosexuality; they suffer from the difficulties that their condition causes them in society.”60

Homosexuality itself was no longer a crime, and it was no longer defined as a “disorder.” One of the task force’s directors, Monica Krause noted, however, that this did not mean that discrimination against gays disappeared in Cuba. “There’s not a law that forbids a person because of his or her sexual preference to study this or that, but it happens; the discrimination exists.”61 Krause tells of leading postgraduate classes for family doctors in the 1980s in which the doctors interrupted her and shouted angrily when she began explaining that homosexuals were normal and should be treated with tolerance and respect.62 An FMC group in Cienfuegos explained in answer to a question about homosexuals that, “We make sure they are not in a position such as teaching school which will bring them in contact with children. There may not be laws against them, but we, the community, deal with the situation.”63

In 1988—the same year that homosexuality was decriminalized in Cuba—a Latina film student from Texas went to study in Havana and made a short film that interviewed gays about their experiences. The common theme was the sense of being isolated and not accepted at home, by friends or at work, and how that forced gays to lead a “double life.” This film, however, was not shown in Cuba.

The approach that the Cuban government took to the AIDS crisis, though effective in holding down the number of cases, was shaped by its attitude to homosexual behavior. Instead of offering widespread testing combined with a comprehensive liberal sex education campaign (similar to the literacy campaign of the early 1960s), it resorted to draconian measures. After compulsory testing of the population, those testing positive for HIV (numbering in the high hundreds by the early 1990s) were required to enter sanitariums separate from the rest of the population. Though only about half of the “inmates” were gay men, early AIDS education in Cuba gave the impression that only homosexual men could get the disease. Internees were permitted to make chaperoned trips into the outside world, and a small number were released after it was decided that they were sufficiently “responsible.” The very existence of the quarantine policy contributed to a sense of panic about AIDS, combined with a sense that knowledge of it, or of the necessity of safe sex, was “solved” by separating AIDS patients from the rest of the population.64

This coercive approach was based on the assumption that male sexuality cannot be controlled, and that therefore men infected with the AIDS virus cannot be trusted. It takes as a given a society where there is not free debate or collective decision-making about social policy. An educational approach would have required free discussion, and an open attitude to different sexual orientations and behaviors; certainly not one where gays still do not feel comfortable coming out to friends, family members, and workmates. Yet because the Cuban regime allows no political expressions outside its own control, the gay and women’s movements in the United States and elsewhere in Latin America did not emerge in Cuba. As Leiner notes, “essential to AIDS prevention is freedom to assemble and form political and social organizations of choice.”65

Official tolerance for homosexuality increased in the 1980s, and conditions slowly improved. Castro told Sandinista founder Tomás Borge in 1992 that he opposed discrimination against gays, and Vilma Espín has called for an end to homophobia. Gays were more emboldened to appear openly, and some theatrical productions began to offer sympathetic portrayals of gay characters.66 In 1993, the popularity of the film Strawberry and Chocolate, which deals with homophobia, was another indication of the shifts that were taking place (though it was never shown on television), and in the same year the enforced quarantine of HIV-positive people ended, replaced with a modified program that allowed patients to stay at home after attending a course teaching them how to take care of themselves and avoid spreading HIV. The first publicly held gay wedding took place in a Havana suburb in 2001.

But discrimination persists. There are no officially sanctioned gay bars or clubs, and there is still public hostility to homosexuals.67 A growing number of gays and lesbians feel more confident about identifying themselves than they have in the past, but they are also acutely aware of the fact that they are expected to be “restrained and respectful.”68 These changes are also a reflection of changes in attitudes generally about women’s role in society.

Mariela Castro Espín, the director of the Cuban National Institute for Sex Education (and Raúl Castro’s daughter), recently came out in favor of the Cuban Constitution outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. When asked if the 1990s opened up an era of greater social tolerance toward homosexuals in Cuba, she gave this very qualified answer: “Yes, I believe that people are a little more relaxed about a homosexual presence, both in public and in the privacy of the family, but only a little bit relaxed, not more tolerant. We have much more work to do in our society for this ‘relaxation’ to mean real respect towards sexual diversity.”69


Some left-wing apologists for Castro insist that to the extent that any of the problems outlined here exist, they are either relics of the past in the process of withering away or problems created by the onset of Cuba’s deep economic crisis in the 1990s. The implication is that a lifting of the embargo would result in the renewal of the “process” of liberation in Cuba. Part of the confusion on these questions stems from the way in which the Left—taking its cue from Cuban state propaganda—continues to speak of the Cuban Revolution as if it were an ongoing process that began in 1959 and has never stopped, even fifty years later.

But inequalities in Cuba persist for reasons that are economic and structural. Oppression is not the product of an unfinished revolution; oppression continues to exist in Cuba because exploitation continues. Cuba achieved national independence but not socialism. “It is important to understand this, because many people make their case against Marxism on the grounds that various forms of oppression continued under Stalin’s rule, and in other societies calling themselves socialist, such as those in Eastern Europe, and Cuba or China.”70 The argument is based on the same assumptions made by apologists for the Cuban state—the identification of nationalization with socialism. Once it is understood that the exploitation of the working class persisted after the revolution, it places these other issues in perspective. A society that has not liberated the working class is incapable of achieving the full liberation of the oppressed either. The condition of one is the condition of the other. The embargo may exacerbate inequality in Cuba, but it has not created it.

The foundation of women’s oppression (though not its only manifestation) is privatized reproduction; of women’s liberation, the socialization of household tasks. But an economic system based upon the exploitation of wage labor—whether it is in Cuba or Canada—is incapable of freeing women from this burden. Cuban state accumulation depends on the labor of women both in and out of the home. Hence in Cuba, the limits of women’s freedom, however far it may advance, runs into the barrier of the family and can go no further without the collective socialization of production under workers’ control.

The liberalization in attitudes towards gays cannot of course be attributed to the triumph of the revolution, since the revolution acted in a completely oppressive and repressive manner toward gays in its early years. Moreover, the positive changes in the status of gays has lagged behind many other countries—chiefly, I would argue, because Cuba has not permitted the development of independent organizations of gays that could fight against discrimination.

As for the question of Blacks in Cuba, the persistence of racism in certain forms cannot be passed off as a historical holdover on its way to extinction because the onset of deep crisis has made racial problems worse in Cuba. At the same time, the mere declaration by Cuban officials that racism had been eliminated when its worst visible manifestations were rooted out was not only incorrect, but made it more difficult to debate and discuss the question of race. If racism is eliminated, and society is color-blind, then talk of racism is seen as threatening to the state. What becomes clear in any honest assessment of Cuban society is that the end of legal forms of racial discrimination, in the context of a society that is economically stratified, has regional economic disparities, and where the mass of the population is atomized and politically powerless, cannot lead to complete racial equality.

The Left acknowledges the right of women, gays and lesbians, and the nationally and racially oppressed to organize and combat their oppression virtually everywhere except Cuba, where the fact that Cuba denies these rights is often glossed over with references to the existence of “mass organizations” and Fidel’s verbal commitment to equality. This paternalism, which is also applied to the working class, accepts the idea that liberation is something that is given rather than fought for. Even if one accepts the dubious proposition that Cuba simply needs more time—after fifty years!—to overcome the obstacles to full equality in Cuba, this begs the question. Shouldn’t Blacks, women, and gays—and the working class overall—have the right to organize and fight for their own emancipation in order to hasten this process?

Paul D’Amato is managing editor of the ISR.

* In Cuba, the term for Cubans of mixed African and European ancestry is mulatto. Because this term is not commonly used in the United States, it has been substituted with the term mixed-race in this article.

1 Alejandro de la Fuente, A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 262.
2 Quoted in Hugh Thomas, Cuba, Or the Pursuit of Freedom (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1998), 1,120.
3 De la Fuente, 27.
4 Ibid., 266.
5 Ibid., 271.
6 Ibid., 279.
7 Ibid., 291–92.
8 Ibid., 302.
9 Ibid., 310–11, 330.
10 Ibid., 313.
11 Ibid., 315.
12 Ibid., 328.
13 Ron Howell, “Tourism reviving racism in Cuba,” Newsday, May 18, 2001.
14 De la Fuente, 326–27.
15 Ibid., 322–23.
16 Ibid., 324.
17 Quoted in Paul Panayiotou, “Cuban hip-hop,” available at
18 Simon Umlauf, “Cuban hip-hop: The rebellion within the revolution,” CNN Headline News, November 25, 2002.
19 Sam Farber, “Castro’s Cuba in Perspective,” ISR 36, July-August 2004, available at
20 Nicola Murray, “Socialism and feminism: Women and the Cuban Revolution, Part I,” Feminist Review, No. 2, 1979, 63.
21 Ibid., 64.
22 Ibid.
23 Jorge Dominguez, Cuba: Order and Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1978), 499; Alfred Padula and Lois M. Smith, Sex and Revolution: Women in Socialist Cuba (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 101, 109; Noy Thrupkaew, “A letter from Cuba, Part II: Cuban women, beyond prostitution,” Znet commentary
24 Padula and Smith, 43.
25 Ibid., 90.
26 Ibid., 102.
27 Ibid., 129.
28 Ibid., 123.
29 Dominguez, 501.
30 Padula and Smith, 132-33.
31 Ibid., 133.
32 Quoted in Marvin Leiner, Sexual Politics in Cuba: Machismo, Homosexuality, and AIDS (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994), 66.
33 Ibid., 136.
34 Leiner, 66.
35 Ibid., 126.
36 Ibid., 160.
37 Ibid., 46–47.
38 Ibid., 47.
39 Ibid., 74–76.
40 Ibid., 80.
41 Ibid., 75.
42 Dominguez, 497.
43 Ibid.
44 Padula and Smith, 177.
45 Ibid., 66.
46 Quoted in Leiner, 67.
47 Ibid., 105.
48 Ibid.
49 Ibid., 158–59.
50 Ibid., 119.
51 Ibid., 185.
52 Ibid., 25.
53 Quoted in Leiner, 25.
54 Ibid., 26.
55 Ibid., 28.
56 Ibid., 34.
57 Ibid., 35, 36.
58 Quoted in Ibid., 36.
59 Ibid., 43.
60 Ibid., 45.
61 Ibid., 46.
62 Ibid., 47.
63 Quoted in Padula and Smith, 172–73.
64 The information on Cuba’s AIDS program comes from Leiner, Chapter 5: “AIDS: Cuba’s effort to contain,” 117–57.
65 Ibid., 149.
66 Padula and Smith, 173.
67 Ibid., 174.
68 Dalia Acosta, “No turning back on gay rights in Cuba,” Inter Press Service, December 27, 2006.
69 “Gay rights in Cuba: how much has changed?” Mariela Castro Espín interviewed by Eduardo Jimanez Garcia, Green Left Weekly, February 29, 2004.
70 Sharon Smith, “Mistaken identity: Or can identity politics liberate the oppressed?” International Socialism 62 (UK), Spring 1994, 46.

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