Women at Work in Cuba

Hello Friends,

This is Lisa writing from the Cuba Central team. This past week, Sarah Stephens, CDA’s executive director, and I  took a delegation of 22 women on a people-to-people trip to Cuba.  We worked in collaboration with the Women Donors Network, an organization of philanthropists from across the U.S. Our goal was to introduce them to some of our closest friends in Cuba – the people with whom we have been closely engaged on our latest report: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women in Building Cuba’s Future.”

This publication focuses on Cuban women and the issues of gender equality on the island; the real, measurable progress for women and children in areas like health, education, and legal rights, and the gap that still exists between their aspirations for equality and the reality of their everyday lives.

The book will be published at the beginning of next year (watch this space for news!). On one of our final evenings in Cuba, we held a celebration to mark the completion of the book, which brought together many of the women who have contributed to this project over the past several years. They included:

Antonia Díaz, a professor who leads the CUAM (Catedras Universitarias del Adulto Mayor), a program run through universities, which provides continuing education courses for the elderly. Antonia works to promote healthy, active lifestyles for the elderly, and to increase respect and awareness about “abuelidad,” which I can only translate as “grandparenthood”. Antonia proudly introduces herself as a very happy 91 year old.

Barbara Perez Casanova, a small business owner, or cuentapropista. In October 2010, Barbara, 26, was among the first to apply for a license to work in the private sector after its opening to new categories of business.  She runs a small storefront in a self-employment zone, selling shoes and clothing. Barbara says that cuentapropistas are still facing an uphill battle, as they deal with inspectors, high taxes, and difficulties in acquiring the products to sell. However, she enjoys the independence that comes with running her own business, and has been able to save up some money to invest in fixing up her house.

Magia López, a rapper in the group Duo Obsesíon, and Sandra Álvarez, psychiatrist and specialist in race and gender issues. Magia and Sandra both live in the community of Regla, across the bay from Havana. Regla is a working-class, predominantly Afro-Cuban neighborhood. Magia and Sandra both work to raise awareness of societal problems relating to race and gender – they see their criticisms as essential to improving their country. Sandra maintains a blog, entitled “Negra cubana tenía que ser” (It had to have been a black Cuban woman), where she addresses these issues openly. Magia uses hip hop music as her medium, like in this song, “Los Pelos,” which expresses pride for her natural hair. We also highly recommend this video, a rap song in homage to Cuban mothers, featuring Magia’s mother-in-law.

This trip was a true lesson in the power of human interaction. As trip leaders, Sarah and I were consistently inspired by the interactions we saw taking place before us. They were a reminder of how much these women – from such seemingly different countries and situations – share in common.

What has been so often missing from the debate in our country about Cuba is our shared humanity. It is our hope that policymakers, academics, and advocates in our country are inspired by these women as well.

We arrived back in DC refreshed and eager to continue our work, breaking down the barriers that have been imposed between the people of our two countries. We appreciate your accompaniment and continued support in the work that we do.

Antonia Diaz

Antonia Díaz, speaking at CDA’s book celebration


Members of our delegation with new friends in Cienfuegos


Our delegation in Regla with Sandra Álvarez and some of our other hosts

Lisa Ndecky Llanos
Program Manager
Center for Democracy in the Americas


Gross case developments: “Non-belligerency” pact; action at the UN; U.S. Senate Resolution, and MinRex Responds

Alan Gross, the USAID contractor serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba, asked the United States government to sign a “non-belligerency pact” with Cuba in an effort to move closer to negotiating his release, reports Michael Isikoff, who reported this weekend for the Today Show from Havana. Gross presented the idea after meeting with Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project and of the Cuba Documentation Project. Government officials in Cuba have repeatedly alluded to negotiations regarding a swap of Alan Gross for the Cuban Five, five Cuban agents currently serving sentences in the U.S. But, the State Department continues to call for Gross’ unconditional release on humanitarian grounds.

On Tuesday, Judy Gross joined Senators Ben Cardin (MD), Barbara Mikulski (MD), and Jerry Moran (KS) for a press conference urging her husband’s release, reports the Washington Post. The next day, Sen. Moran introduced a resolution calling on Cuba’s government to immediately release Gross on humanitarian grounds. It was co-sponsored by 31 Senators and passed unanimously by voice vote. Senator Moran, a long-time advocate for easing restrictions on agricultural sales to Cuba, has “stepped back from these efforts” since Gross’ arrest, according to a statement published on his website.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention notified Cuba on Tuesday of its decision ruling the imprisonment of Alan Gross as arbitrary, reports Reuters. Gross’ lawyer had filed a complaint with this U.N. human rights body earlier this year. The group made the same ruling against the U.S. regarding the Cuban Five in 2005. For its part, the Washington Post editorial board called on the Obama administration to reject a prisoner swap claiming the cases of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five are not comparable.

In response, Josefina Vidal, director of the North America division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, released a statement on Wednesday accusing the U.S. government of lying about Gross’ health, reports the Associated Press. Vidal also called the State Department’s demand for Cuba to release Gross “unilaterally” unrealistic and denounced the ruling of the U.N. Working Group. She reiterated Cuba’s willingness to negotiate with the U.S., but criticized the U.S. for demanding action “without taking into consideration our humanitarian concerns related to the case of the Cuban Five.”

Along the Malecón re-posted a blog by Edward Lee, former security director of USAID and author of the book “Staying Safe Abroad: Traveling, Working & Living in a Post-9/11 World.” Lee recently wrote that Gross’ imprisonment was “not one of USAID’s finest moments,” stating:

“As a former director of security at USAID, I must strongly suggest that somewhere, amidst the agency’s massive file system, electronic or otherwise, there is a written threat assessment that documents the level of risk of sending Mr. Gross to Cuba to set up Internet access for Cuba’s Jewish community and the possible repercussions, including imprisonment. If USAID never assessed the potential threat to Gross in writing if he implemented the project on Cuban soil, they clearly should have.”

Cost of calls between U.S. and Cuba to be reduced

Cuba’s government has repealed an executive order placing a 10% surcharge on all calls between Cuba and the United States, reports EFE. The government communique stated that the elimination of the surcharge “will benefit communications between the Cuban population and emigrants.” The decree was passed in 2000 by then-President Fidel Castro in response to an action by the U.S. Congress which awarded Cuban funds frozen in the U.S. to the families of Cuban-American anti-Castro activists who were shot down by Cuba’s air force in 1996. At the time, Castro described the act as “theft of funds owed to our country by American telecommunications companies,” and stated that the surcharge would continue “until the sum total of Cuban funds illegally frozen in the United States is returned with the corresponding interest.”

Cuba blocks dissident hotline

A telephone service called “Háblalo Sin Miedo” (Say it Without Fear) that allowed participants in Cuba to quickly send reports to counterparts in the U.S. and Spain by leaving messages of up to three minutes in length, has been blocked by ETECSA, Cuba’s telecommunications monopoly, reports the Miami Herald. The service, launched last spring by a Cuban-American graduate of Florida International University, received hundreds of calls per month, which were transcribed, posted on the service’s blog, and sent out to activists and journalists. Participants can still send messages via Twitter. ETECSA has also suspended collect calls to Spain, reports Havana Times.

Man enters guilty plea over smuggling birds in pants in MIA airport  

Alberto Díaz González pled guilty to smuggling birds from Cuba into the United States and now may face up to 20 years in prison, reports the Miami Herald. He was caught on October 20 trying to smuggle 16 Cuban bullfinches into the Miami airport after declaring that he was not carrying any wildlife. The birds were sewn into the inside of his pants and in a plastic cylinder.  The “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy apparently does not extend to migrants with beaks.


Cuba’s economy grows 3.1% in 2012

Cuba’s economy grew by 3.1% this year, surpassing 2011’s rate but still falling short of the 3.4% that officials had projected, reports Reuters. Adel Yzquierdo, the Minister of Economy and Planning, blamed the construction sector’s failure to reach targets for the shortfall. Yzquierdo also identified a significant drop in Cuba’s agricultural production, which we reported last week, as a contributing factor, in a detailed report on the country’s economic performance published in Granma.

Over 1.5 million cell phones in Cuba

The National Office of Statistics (ONE) released data showing that over 1.5 million cell phone lines are now in use in Cuba, reports Café Fuerte, representing a 27% increase in cell phone use compared to 2010 and surpassing expectations. Years ago the state telephone firm ETECSA predicted that 1.4 million cell phones would be in use in Cuba in 2014.

Cuba-Health International Convention discusses policy

Health policies and social determinants were the main issues brought to the table at the 2012 Cuba-Health International Convention this week, reports Prensa Latina.  Symposia on major health issues affecting Cuba, such as dengue, tuberculosis, and cancer accompanied the convention, which included expositions by some 70 biopharmaceutical companies. Health ministers from around the world attended and Alexandre Panilha, Brazil’s minister of health, sat down with President Raúl Castro to discuss ways to strengthen ties, especially in the area of medical cooperation, reports Granma.

Repair work completed on Central Cuban Railway line

Work to repair the Sancti Spiritus portion of the Casilda-Trinidad-Meyer railway line has been completed, reports Havana Times. The line connects the Ingenios Valley to the Escambray Mountain Range, which had been isolated from the main rail system since 1988, and will benefit residents and tourists looking to travel between the two regions. Heavy rains in May of this year had damaged 33 kilometers of rail line, requiring intensive repair work.


Colombia-FARC negotiations resume in Cuba

After a week’s respite, negotiations in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC have resumed, reports the BBC. The second phase of talks began after Colombia’s military attacked a FARC base over the weekend, killing some 20 FARC members. Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has made calls for the talks not to extend beyond November 2013, which would allow him time to formulate his response to the success or failure of the peace negotiations in advance of the 2014 presidential election, opines InSight Crime.

Around the Region

El Salvador Update: November 2012, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, CDA’s senior policy analyst on El Salvador, gives an update of developments in El Salvador for the month of November, discussing shifting party dynamics within the FMLN and ARENA, and El Salvador’s ongoing gang truce. Also included is a timeline for the month of November which chronicles gang truce developments.

If you would like to receive our Monthly El Salvador Update via email please contact: lela@democracyinamericas.org.

El Salvador’s gangs agree to “peace zone” proposals

As we reported in our El Salvador Update for the month of November, discussions have been underway about the possibility of specific municipalities in El Salvador becoming “peace zones” or “sanctuary cities,” as a continuation of the gang truce process. On Tuesday, it was announced that MS-13, Barrio 18, and three other street gangs – Mao Mao, La Maquina, and La Mirada Locos – have agreed to a peace process and have already begun to disarm in ten cities, reports InSight Crime. According to the statement released, this disarmament and peace process would benefit some 900,000 Salvadorans.

Recommended Reading

Cuban Migration Policy Reform: Cuba gets started, U.S. should follow, Phil Peters, The Lexington Institute

Phil Peters publishes a new paper on steps the U.S. can take in reforming Cuban migration policy. It advocates a repeal of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, and a repeal of the special provisions in the Refugee Assistance Act that give benefits to Cubans who are not refugees. Meanwhile, it encourages the retention of the U.S. policy of admitting 20,000 Cubans annually as immigrants, refugee processing at the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, and the United States’ family reunification parole program.

How Capitalist are the Cubans?, Damien Cave, New York Times

Damien Cave analyses “handcuffed capitalism” in Cuba and discusses to what extent Cubans are embracing recent economic reforms. He writes, “The changes of the past few years have been both remarkable and extremely limited.” However, he notes that there is no denying “pockets of controlled capitalism are emerging” and he quotes Óscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist, who says, “The government has lost the ideological battle.”

Q&A: A Missionary who Preaches Gender Equality, Ivet González, IPS

Ivet Gonzáles interviews Midiam Lobaina, a self-described ‘Christian militant,’ who takes a “feminist reading of the Bible to workshops and religious services around Cuba, to discuss gender equality and a culture of peace.” Lobaina discusses her work within the Christian community aimed at preventing violence against women.

Cuba ranked 58th of 176 countries in Corruption Perception Index, Transparency International

Transparency International, an organization that fights corruption, has published its Corruption Perception Index for 2012. The report compares the perceived level of corruption in 176 countries and territories. Cuba ranked 58, coming in above countries such as Greece, Mexico, Russia, Jordan and Brazil, and below countries such as Norway, Spain, Chile and Costa Rica.

Cuba’s Unanimity: Rest in Peace, Fernando Ravsberg, BBC Mundo

Fernando Ravsberg reflects on the shifting culture of debate in Cuba, arguing that spaces have re-opened for new forms of discussion and criticism of Cuba’s culture, economy, and transparency. “The old clichés have been permanently broken,” he writes, offering an example, “the youth of the Critical Observatory defied the government by marching on May Day with banners railing against the bureaucratic class and then proceed[ed] to Karl Marx Park to honor the German who invented socialism.”

Recommended Listening

Farmers markets expand in Cuba, Nick Miroff, NPR

Nick Miroff reports on a nightly makeshift wholesale produce market that operates on the edge of Havana, where farmers sell what is left of their produce after they fulfill their annual quota to the government. This news story discusses the impact of the recent economic reforms and many farmers’ need for new equipment.

Book Review: Everyone Leaves, NPR reviews novel by Wendy Guerra

NPR’s “All Things Considered” reviews Wendy Guerra’s autobiographical novel, “Everyone Leaves,” which was recently translated into English. According to the review, the book offers a new lens into what life is like on the island, especially from the standpoint of women coming of age.

Recommended Viewing

Photo Package: Cubans honor Saint Barbara, Santeria deity Chango, Associated Press

On Wednesday, Cubans celebrated Saint Barbara’s feast day with ceremonies and offerings to the saint, while also paying tribute to the associated Santeria deity Chango. The Associated Press provides a photo gallery of a few local celebrations in Bahia Honda.

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