This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!
Fidel Castro may be dead, but for decades the world has equated his image with Cuba itself: Fidel the father, the bearded guerrilla hero who led Cuba for 49 years, looming large over the podium at which he vociferated, cementing his words into law. The persona has outlived the man. It has continued through the green-fatigued guerrilla gear of his brother, Raul, who now runs the country; and, ironically, through the mass market, where t-shirts and mugs bear Fidel’s image and that of his comandante, Che Guevara. All this male representation might lead an outsider to view Cuba as a patriarchy. But Cuba has always been a woman.
Cubans refer to their country, grammatically, as feminine. She is a female “la patria,” not a masculine “fatherland.” Not even a neutral “homeland.” The patron saint of the island is a woman: la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, or “Cachita,” as Cubans call her. She is the woman who watches over all who cross the ocean, all who have left Cuba’s shores, and all who remain on the island, surrounded by water. But beyond semantics and religion, let’s talk about the female leaders who have been emerging from Fidel’s long shadow for years.
One of these women is 28-year-old Rosa María Payá, who leads a group called Cuba Decide. Unlike Fidel, she is not physically imposing. She has a fairly small frame, but her owl-like eyes seem to swallow you when she speaks, taking you into the alternate future she sees, where Cuba is a democracy. Cuba Decide asks Cubans to “accept or reject the following question: ‘Do you agree with the convening of free, fair and pluralistic elections, by exercising freedom of speech and press; and organizing freely in political parties and social organizations with full plurality?’”
Payá’s peaceful, organized movement resists a system of government that has not held free elections since before Fidel came to power. Even Fidel’s predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, a famously U.S.–backed head of state, came to power in 1952 through a military coup. The language of Cuba Decide does not ask for “revolution” or upheaval. It carefully avoids imposing any one position on the people by simply asking for freedom of choice through elections.
Language is important, particularly when you are trying to define a place and lay the groundwork for change. Independent journalist Yoani Sánchez held a similar belief in language when she started her blog, Generación Y, in 2007. She wanted to write freely in Cuba without being regulated by the state-run media. Sánchez risked her life to create Generación Y, and she’s now written herself into Cuban history by leading 14ymedio, the first digital media outlet that operates independent of the state.
I spoke to Sánchez in 2010, two years after she became one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world. She told me she began blogging because she felt “saturated with an accumulation of history that needed to be told.”
“I wanted to show the reality of Cuba, without verbal violence, simply as it is,” she said. “I wanted to show this reality in a society where reality is manipulated constantly; I wanted to show it to a community that was aching. Every day I ask myself why this country is not the country that we were promised as children.”
Others had tried to express themselves freely before Sánchez, but were punished. During the so-called Black Spring of 2003, the government gathered and imprisoned a group of dissident voices that included journalists, activists, and librarians. In response to the lockdown, las Damas de Blanco, or the Ladies in White, began marching in Cuba to protest the capture of their sons, brothers, and nephews. They marched because they were tired of seeing their loved ones jailed for exercising their freedom of speech. Under the leadership of Laura Pollán, the movement received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, though Pollán was not allowed to leave the island to receive it. Pollán died in 2011, but the movement continues under the leadership of Berta Soler, who organizes marches to this day.
These women are outliers, but there are also women within the ranks of the Castro dynasty who are climbing the political ladder. Mariela Castro, Raul Castro’s daughter, is known for aiding Cuba’s LGBTQ people in the fight against the formerly monstrous treatment of the community on the island. (Cuba once corralled gay men into work camps to “rehabilitate” them and make them “men.”) As director of the National Center for Sexual Education, she influenced the Cuban government to provide state-paid sex-reassignment surgery.
In 2016, according to the World Bank’s statistics on women in world parliaments, 49 percent of the seats in Cuban government were held by women. In the United States, that number was 19 percent. Still, the role of women in Cuba is complicated. If you look at the ideology of the Cuban Revolution in a vacuum, it all seems pretty straightforward. The Revolution worked diligently toward gender equity, given that one of Castro’s goals was to end sexism. As early as 1960, the government established the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), which led women out of the house and into the workforce, helping to provide literacy as well as the skills and childcare needed for women to work. However, that ideology often clashed with the image of the alpha-male father that Castro himself represented.
In Havana in February 2017, I witnessed the far-reaching power of that image, still playing out culturally as machismo. I got into a cab on the second day of my visit, and the cab driver matter-of-factly mansplained to me that “Valentine’s Day is for the mistress. The wife gets the rest of the year, but on V-Day, you bring the mistress flowers, and you take her out. You make her feel special.” This conversation inside an almendrón (those ubiquitous, old American classic cars of the ’50s found everywhere in Havana) made me feel like I was on an episode of Mad Men, in which I was, of course, playing Peggy. Cuban men on the street still catcall and objectify women, though most men (and some women) in Havana would call it flattery. Add to this soup the fact that Havana is still a place where women offer their bodies up to Europeans in exchange for a way out, and what we have is not irony, but paradox. This is the paradox of the matriarchal society that, to the outsider, still seems machista. By these standards, however, a similar paradox exists in the United States, in the reverse (perhaps not in experiencing as many catcalls, but having a pussy-grabbing president).
Regardless, it’s difficult not to see the face of resistance (in both the United States and Cuba) as female. The hard-fought battles have made women stronger and clearer in their missions as leaders. In 2018, Raul Castro will step down, and one of two things will happen: The Castro dynasty will choose a like-minded successor, or there will be a bigger opening of the motherland. For Payá, this opening is an opportunity for the Cuban people to give birth to their own fate.