BY ELIZABETH STONE
For the masses of people, men and women alike, life in prerevolutionary Cuba was hard. Malnutrition and hunger were widespread. Half the population lived in thatched huts, shacks, or single-room slum housing. Half the people were without electricity. Half didn’t have running water or inside toilets. One quarter were completely illiterate. Chronic unemployment was as high as it was in the U.S. during the depth of the 1930s depression.
Contraception was generally unavailable and abortion was illegal. Even when women were able to obtain birth control devices, husbands often considered the use of them a threat to their manhood. The general lack of medical care meant that 80 percent of all babies were not born in hospitals. Many died at an early age.
Women suffered most from all the effects of underdevelopment. It was they who did household chores without benefit of electricity and running water. They were the ones with the highest rate of illiteracy. The economic stagnation and low level of industrialization — products of imperialist exploitation — meant that it was almost impossible for a woman without education or a skill to get a job except as someone else’s personal servant. …
The struggle beginsThe women who joined the struggle against the dictator Batista in the 1950s had already begun to show the way. They played an important role in that fight. Women organized demonstrations and worked in the underground, collecting supplies for the guerrillas, selling bonds to raise money, creating hospitals, sewing uniforms, and hiding revolutionaries in their houses. They served as messengers and spies. There are many stories about the role women played in transporting weapons under their skirts through the streets of Santiago and the other centers of revolutionary activity.
Some women became guerrilla fighters. Individual women fought on different guerrilla fronts and there was also a group of women combatants called the Mariana Grajales Platoon, named after the Black woman active in Cuba’s first war of independence. This legendary unit grew to the size of a company during the final stages of the revolutionary war and was maintained afterwards. …
One of the first activities to draw in large numbers of women was the creation of the militia. As the revolution deepened with the carrying out of the land reform and the nationalization of large imperialist holdings, the U.S. government and counterrevolutionaries within Cuba began to organize armed opposition. Bombings, sabotage of factories, and the burning of sugarcane fields went hand-in-hand with the threat of military attack from the United States. To help counter this a popular militia was organized in the workplaces and schools, and women who worked or who were students joined it.
There was a big hue and cry from counterrevolutionary elements about women’s incorporation into the militia. They questioned the “morals” of women who dressed like men, wore pants, and carried guns. When the militia women went out to drill, they were sometimes greeted with rocks. There were also many supporters of the revolution who questioned whether women belonged in the militia. But every able-bodied person was needed to defend the country, and eventually most revolutionaries were won over. …
In 1961, the campaign to wipe out illiteracy was organized. It was a gigantic effort. A hundred thousand youth between the ages of ten and eighteen left their schools and went into the countryside as literacy brigadistas to teach people how to read and write. Over half of these brigadistas were girls and young women.
Fifty-five percent of those who learned to read and write were women. This was accomplished despite considerable resistance to including women in the campaign. Lucía, a Cuban movie produced in the 1960s, portrays a typical example of such resistance when Lucía’s husband tries to prevent her from attending literacy classes and she fights back against this. For thousands of women like Lucía, learning to read was a first step toward greater self-confidence, a sense of their own worth and dignity, and more control over their lives.
For the young women and girls who went out to teach, the experience was a wrenching break from the past. Until then, some of them had not even been allowed out of the house alone. Now they were traveling to the most remote parts of the countryside and mountains, where they shared the life of poverty of the peasants, not only teaching but also working with them in the fields. …
Along with the literacy drive came other bold educational efforts. A school was set up in Havana for 20,000 maids. As their employers left for the United States, these former maids were trained as child-care workers, bank workers, and taxi and bus drivers.
Special schools were set up for former prostitutes too, where they could live, receive an education, and learn skills which would prepare them to be integrated into the labor force. …
Fidel Castro and other leaders often spoke in those years about the important role of women in the revolution. This and educational tools such as the movie Lucía helped combat backward attitudes. But the key consciousness-raiser was the experiences of the women themselves. It was their participation and accomplishments that gave women a new consciousness of their worth and political importance. And this confidence grew as more and more people began to realize that the full participation of women was essential to the very survival of the revolution.
Int’l conference in Cuba: ‘Step up fight to end US embargo’
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‘Africa called, Cuba answered’ tour begins in Canada
‘Cuba has the right to choose its own destiny’
Gerardo Hernández of Cuban Five speaks at international solidarity conference with Cuba
End US embargo of Cuba!
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