The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 74/No. 38      October 11, 2010

Women’s liberation and
the Cuban Revolution
Panel presentation held at library in Atlanta
(feature article)
ATLANTA—The Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History sponsored a panel discussion here September 25 on the book Marianas in Combat: Teté Puebla and the Mariana Grajales Women’s Platoon in Cuba’s Revolutionary War 1956-58. The book is based on an extensive interview with Puebla, who is today a brigadier general and the highest-ranking woman in Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces.

The panel included Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, who interviewed Puebla and edited the book; Eleanor Hunter, a librarian at the research library; Bahati Kuumba, associate director of the Spelman College Women’s Resource and Research Center; and Preston Goins, a senior at Georgia State University majoring in Spanish and history.

The Saturday afternoon program began with a showing of With Our Memory on the Future, a documentary film produced in 2005 on the 45th anniversary of the founding of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). The video focuses on women in Cuban society and the advances that have been made since the revolution. In the film, those being interviewed express a wide range of views about sexual relations, divorce, a father's role in child rearing and housework, women working outside the home, and other questions. Watching the movie gave many in the audience an introduction to questions that would be discussed during the Marianas in Combat program.

Abayomi Manrique, a library associate at the Auburn Avenue center, welcomed the nearly 60 people in attendance on behalf of the library and program department. He called special attention to a table with a wide range of books by Pathfinder about the Cuban Revolution and revolutionary politics.

Hunter, who chaired the panel, recounted how Puebla was a 15-year-old teenager when the vicious brutalities of the Batista tyranny led her to throw herself into a great historical movement. She dropped her studies, joined the July 26th Movement, and eventually joined the fighters in the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Eastern Cuba. In 1958 she became the second in command of the Mariana Grajales Women’s Platoon, and had earned the rank of lieutenant by the time of the triumph of the revolution in 1959.

Hunter pointed to several examples that showed the social goals—the morality—of the Cuban Revolution and its leadership, describing how Fidel Castro fought for full participation of women in the revolution. She noted Puebla’s explanation of how the new government cared for and educated the children of those who supported the revolution as well as those who opposed it. She mentioned the special schools that were established to train women who had been prostitutes for productive jobs.  
Internationalist mission in Angola
Hunter said that for those who fought in internationalist missions, like in Angola where Cuban combatants helped defeat the apartheid forces of South Africa, the only thing the Cubans ever took home when they left was their dead.

Bahati Kuumba talked about “the revolution within the Cuban Revolution” that has changed the lives of millions of Cuban women. It’s an unfinished revolution, she noted, because patriarchy and sexism still exist. “Socialism is necessary but not sufficient,” she said. “Even after winning access to child care and health care, there is still work to be done. They have eliminated the institutional basis for sexism, but it’s not yet eradicated.”

Kuumba cited a quote from Karl Marx found in Waters’s introduction to the Marianas book that she said exemplifies what the Cuban Revolution represents: “The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by the progress of women toward freedom… . The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation.”

Goins said he first learned about Marianas in Combat through a footnote in a book titled The Revolution Question: Feminisms in El Salvador, Chile, and Cuba, by Julie D. Shayne. “I found the Marianas book in the library and spent the whole afternoon reading it. I could not put the book down,” he said.

Goins deplored the lack of objective reading material available about the Cuban Revolution, saying most of what he found in the Georgia State University library are counterrevolutionary books “with dime store titles from the first years after the revolution.”

The Marianas book “opened my eyes. All other armed conflict that I knew about involved the working class fighting for the ruling class,” Goins said. “I learned that the Cuban revolution was not just about what Fidel, Raúl [Castro] and Che [Guevara] did in the mountains, but about the mass popular support in the cities.”

Waters described how she first met Teté Puebla in the home of Puebla’s neighbor, Gen. Harry Villegas, known as “Pombo,” who had fought at the side of Guevara in Cuba, the Congo, and Bolivia. Puebla unexpectedly turned up at the door dressed for doing her household chores. “Her down-to-earth qualities, the lack of pretension, were delightful,” Waters said. “Even more important, she exemplified the ordinary women and men who made the Cuban Revolution, who make any genuine revolution.”  
'Not willing to live on their knees'
“Puebla is an example of the millions in Cuba who are not willing to live on their knees,” Waters added.

Waters compared the revolutionary capacities of working people in Cuba to those of the seasoned working-class fighters and youth of the civil rights movement that brought down Jim Crow segregation in the United States. “It was those two struggles,” she said, “that convinced me that revolution in the United States was not only necessary, but possible.”

“The workers and peasants of Cuba didn’t set out to make a socialist revolution, but to close the gap between the insanely rich and the desperately poor,” said Waters. “It was the first free territory of the Americas, and it still is. They refuse to bow down to Washington.

“It’s why the Cuban Five have been held hostage for 12 years. Because the Cuban people refuse to change as the U.S. rulers demand," Waters said, referring to five Cuban political prisoners held in U.S. jails for the “crime” of gathering information on counterrevolutionary organizations in south Florida with a record of violent attacks against Cuba.

Waters noted that “no revolution in history has had the number of women who were political leaders of the struggle that the Cuban Revolution has. This has to do with the political clarity of the leadership, and Fidel Castro above all. But it was the objective changes over the last century of struggles that made it possible. For example, in 1917 very few women were part of the leadership of the October Revolution in Russia. In future revolutions women will be an even bigger part of the leadership.”

In the documentary film, a reference was made to the fact that there was no retreat on women’s emancipation during the Special Period in Cuba—the years of extreme economic hardship beginning in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the supposedly socialist regimes of Eastern Europe, which had accounted for 85 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade.

“The FMC led the fight to defend what women have gained in the revolution,” said Waters. “A few leaders and economists at the time advocated that women should be laid off before men and obligated to return to the home as a solution to the economic scarcities. The debate ended when a leader of the FMC asked, ‘What army do you intend to use to implement this policy?’”

During the discussion period a participant asked, “How does the leadership of Cuban women relate to the internationalist brigades? Was there opposition from colonial powers or the ruling classes of various countries [aided by Cuban internationalists] to the role of women in those brigades?”

“Women participated in the international brigades from the first mission in 1963 in Algeria. Cuban women fought in Angola in a women’s anti-aircraft brigade,” Waters said. “Today, Cuban doctors in Equatorial Guinea, many of them women, are helping to set up the medical system in that country, she added. Waters explained prejudices against women on the international brigades exist, but they break down over time because of what the women accomplish.

One member of the audience, who had grown up in Guatemala, explained how the government there in the 1980s used brutal repression against the workers and peasants to crush forces trying to emulate the Cuban Revolution. This included the murder of her father. She asked if Waters saw violence against women as aimed primarily at intimidating women or society as a whole.

Waters said that violence against women has been a key aspect of their oppression through millennia. “The fight against it is an important part of the battle for women’s liberation and to prevent the rulers from dividing working people along lines of gender and race.”

Another question was asked by panelist Eleanor Hunter about the Ana Betancourt schools in Cuba. Waters explained that the new revolutionary government that took power in 1959 organized to bring women from peasant families into Havana to attend these schools, which were named after a combatant from the country’s independence war of 1868. There they learned basic sewing skills and received other training so they could make an economic contribution independent of their family responsibilities, gaining confidence and self-respect. “The FMC led the battle to persuade women to come to the schools and to convince their families to support them doing so,” she said.

Following the formal program many stayed to expand the discussion. When the library doors closed, they moved to a restaurant down the block to continue for a couple of hours more.
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