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The Liberation of Women: Another Failed Dream of Cuba's Revolution

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With a very short skirt and a cell phone attached to her hip, Yanisleidy leaves her house in a crowded Havana neighborhood. She's seventeen and has a visa to emigrate to Belgium. She looks around, checking for the cops, because she doesn't want to get into trouble just a few days before boarding the plane. For the last couple of years she's been working as a prostitute, though she doesn't speak of herself in such harsh terms, as along with sex she has given her love to several of her clients. Fulfilling her dream of leaving Cuba has cost her a lot, but she feels fortunate compared to her mother, who has never been able to travel even as far as Camaguey.

She is one of those young people who should be the "New Man," or in her case, the "New Woman." They were supposed to live in a society of equality and opportunity for all, but the future faded before it even arrived. She was born when the ration market no longer provided manufactured goods, and teenage girls received a single package of pads each month for their periods. Nor has she ever heard of women's liberation; instead, she was put in day care at six weeks so her mother could work. Now, not even twenty, she's learned that only the wallets of men contain the resources for the life she wants: nice shoes, brand name clothing and her own house.

Yanisleidy was only an egg in her mother's womb when they tried to eliminate all vestiges of machismo and racism from Cuban society. Both efforts failed and that of turning women into citizens with a full complement of rights and equal opportunities remains only on the paper on which the laws were drafted. It's true that not a single clause in the Constitution, nor one line in the labor laws, promotes or accepts the underestimation of woman, but our reality is not reflected in written lines and laws. Fifty years after the start of a social process that was to reform all of Cuban society, women are still waiting their turn on the crowded agenda of necessary changes.

In the sixties it was common to see women dressed in their militia uniforms, toiling the furrows of volunteer work, or rejecting the apron to fulfill whatever mission the Revolution entrusted to them. That famous harvest, when the country promised to produce ten million tons of sugar, saw women with their sombreros pulled down over their ears, machetes in hand. They appeared on the covers of magazines, smiling and confident of the future, so different from the genteel and reserved images of their mothers from a decade earlier. They surrendered, as did most of the rest of the population, to the illusion of creating a communist country for their children, not realizing that they were merely logs in the hearth of a project with an appetite for thousands of fires.

After the sugar harvest failed, a few grey and ugly years followed before the Soviets came to the island, like a husband who provides the money and makes the rules. All of Cuba prostituted itself in exchange for oil, protection, and a seat on the subsidized market known as COMECOM. By then, much had changed in the lives of women. They no longer took their husband's names, it was as easy to get an abortion as it was to have a rotten tooth pulled, and divorce had lost all its negative connotations. The great military and agricultural mobilizations led to a broadening of sexual relations, and virginity became a stigma rather than a virtue.

The forced introduction of atheism sent Catholic morality into a free fall, and the act of marriage lost its meaning, given the chance to enjoy the same rights in a free union. Elated by so many changes in such a short time, women didn't realize that each new share of freedom they acquired came at the cost of a loss of their rights as citizens. So while they began to graduate from the university, they were prohibited from forming their own groups to demand more autonomy. They could now buy condoms without blushing, but never managed to demonstrate on the streets for their missing rights. At last they were no longer subservient to the man standing next to them; instead they become domestic workers for that great lord whose name was the State.

Then came the eighties with its illusion of prosperity, supported by that masculine bear who was watching us from the Kremlin. Fourteen years earlier the Federation of Cuban Woman had been founded to promote gender equality and the full integration of women into the economic, political, cultural and social life of Cuba; not only did it fail in representing women in relation to power, but it was reduced to following guidelines prepared in government offices by men. Women's happy smiles were still seen in newspaper photos, but their utopian make-up had started to crack from sheer fatigue. Their tortuous domestic duties reminded them that the transformation was not as deep, nor the emancipation as broad, as they had been led to believe.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, many women left their jobs and went back to being housewives. They found it more profitable to stay home taking care of the thousands of needs of their husbands and children, rather than cling to the uncertainty of a badly paid job. They had to relearn the tricks of their grandmothers to mend the clothes, now that they were longer available at subsidized prices. Many assumed the docility that goes along with economic dependence. Putting food on the table every day became a magic act they performed on their own with little help from their husbands. And often they even failed to complete this act of legerdemain, as the loss of "free trade" with the Eastern European countries left Cuba in the position of a divorcee, without any rights to alimony nor half the property.

Prostitution returned without the social stigma that had accompanied it in earlier times. Fathers and husbands looked on with complicity as young women's bodies were exchanged for an electric fan or a new mattress for an old bed. Before this, there had been no tradition of exchanging sex for products and services, only for money. But now, with the exception of newspapers and bus rides, everything else that could be acquired was rationed in the market. With the introduction of the dual currency system and the opening of dollar stores, tourists found pretty Cubans willing to achieve their material dreams through the sweat of their pelvises.

While the economic setbacks accelerated, from the podiums we heard macho speeches with phrases such as "resist!", "an energetic and virile people," and "a trench warfare of ideas." With so much verbal testosterone, maternal nouns -- such as "prosperity," "reconciliation," and "tolerance" -- were forgotten. Faced with the beard, the olive green uniform, and the vigorous slogan, "Socialism or Death," the tenderness of a mother who wants the same for her child in exile as for the one standing next to her, could accomplish little.

Today, standing on any corner in any Cuban city, you can see that the majority of drivers are men, children walk to school with their mothers, and the bags carried for bringing home food hang disproportionately from the shoulders of women. In the quest for emancipation, women are left with a double workday. In addition, they fear for their children in an environment obviously lacking in moral values. The low birthrate has forced hospitals to limit access to abortion; currently only pregnancies that constitute a danger to the life of the mother, or where the baby is not expected to live, can be legally terminated. Although parliament tried to establish quotas for the participation of women, real power still has hair on its chest.

Many young women like Yanisleidy don't want to look in the mirror and see their own mothers, who lost their dreams and ambitions by the time they were thirty. They're a new generation, more concerned with aesthetics: they go to the gym and stick to their diets. They don't believe the siren song of female emancipation because they've grown up in an environment where the man is king and there is little to be gained by opposing him. Even with their high educational attainments, they can see the opportunities are not the same for those who wear skirts as for those who wear pants. Better to control their fertility, not only because contraceptives are widely available, but because the act of giving birth can mean falling years behind in their careers. Many see the birth of a baby as an irreversible step that will prevent them from emigrating from this country, which does not feel as if it belongs to them.

The dominate husband, whose name is the State, has become decrepit and jealous. He no longer wants to feed women's desire for independence because he needs her in the kitchen. Only her ability to put something on the table stands between the economic infrastructure and bankruptcy; it's her job to ensure that the knives and forks find a small piece of something every day. The verb "emancipation" is no longer used, reminiscent as it is of well-known failures and postponed dreams.