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The face of re­sis­tance is fe­male

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - THE FACTS ISSUE - By vanessa gar­cia

The fe­male face of Cuban re­sis­tance.

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 al­phamale 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 U.S. 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.

VANESSA GAR­CIA is the au­thor of the novel White Light, one of NPR’S Best Books of 2015. She’s also a jour­nal­ist, es­say­ist, and play­wright. Find her at vanes­sagar­cia.org.

Pic­tured: Rosa María Payá of Cuba De­cide.

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