People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 17

April 28, 2013



Women, Workers and Changes in Cuba


Brinda Karat


A FIRST and lasting impression of Cuba, is the presence of working women in every sphere from the security guards at the airport tarmac to the shop assistants, to the customs and immigration officers to those at the tourist desk to teachers in schools, doctors and nurses in hospitals. Perhaps it is the leading role of so many women in public office, in every profession and in public service and their economic independence that makes Cuba rank among the top countries who have a secure environment for women. Women are safe on the streets in Cuba. They can travel to any place at any time of the day or night without fear about their security. Cuba does not need policing to protect its women, women and men together ensure that it is so.


The general secretary of the Cuban Women’s Federation (CWF) and member of the Central Committee of the Party, Maria Teresa Amarelle stated with legitimate pride in women’s achievements, “we have won our positions through the hard work of Cuban women in every walk of life and the receptivity of our Government and Party leadership.” The organisation has a membership of 4.2 million, around 88 per cent of the female population above the age of 14.




The legal framework for crimes against women in Cuba are in various provisions in the Criminal Code which include crimes like rape, harassment and also the crime of marital rape. The penalty for child rape is severe and usually attracts the maximum punishment of 30 years. The laws are strictly implemented and there is the certainty of punishment. Women leaders  could not think of any examples in the last few years when the accused were not punished. However, statistics of crimes were not available.


What are the reasons that Cuba has been able to provide such an environment? Before the revolution, under the US supported regime of Batista and other dictators, Cuba was considered a haven for criminals. There were high crime rates, sexual exploitation of women, drug lords, trafficking and high levels of corruption. The remarkable transformation in these years has much to do with the political will of the Cuban leadership and the Party in prioritising the fight against crimes in general and crimes against women in particular.  Secondly, the law is not just on paper, but strictly implemented. Thirdly, awareness, consciousness raising educational programmes of gender equality and sex education are there in every educational institution. Perhaps the most important is the collective activities of neighbourhood committees who play a most crucial role in the fight against and prevention of crimes on women. These committees known as the Committee for Defence of the Revolution, function as a democratic institution with peoples participation.  Unlike capitalist societies where an individual is expected and encouraged to function as separate and disparate unit with little or no contact with their neighbours, here these committees are just a call away for any type of support required. They also serve as patrols at night for security purposes. The approach to prevent crimes against women and also their redressal is also inter-ministerial and sectoral. It was interesting to find that among the ministries involved in the awareness campaigns apart from the home and women and youth related departments was that of information and communications. People seemed very conscious about the importance of images of women shown in TV serials, movies or advertisements on influencing social approaches towards women. Sexist portrayals of women, common in India, was strongly discouraged. At the same time as the youth leaders we met told us – issues of sexuality, sexual autonomy, gender equality are part of the youth agenda in discussions in the Communist Youth League.




Critics of Cuba, often say that domestic violence is not reported but widely exists. When we discussed this issue, the women laughed and said, why should a woman tolerate violence, there is no social pressure for condoning of such violence, in fact, it is the other way around, meaning the pressure is on her to report any such case. Nevertheless, the CWF is conducting sustained awareness campaigns throughout the country against all types of violence including against domestic violence, running several hundred centers to reach out to women. Cuba has adopted a Family Code which among many other gender justice provisions, encourages the sharing of domestic work. But according to the Federation, the added burden on women in domestic chores, still exists, though there is a significant change for the better.


With the advent of tourism, Cuba is also  facing the problem of the re-emergence of tourist related prostitution. Even though the numbers are small it is a matter of concern for the Federation. The issue is discussed frankly. The main reason according to the Federation as well as others, is the comparison in clothes and lifestyle that tourists bring with them create aspirations among some, which cannot be met in the present state of the economy. In Cuba, with the terrible consequences of the blockade, most up-market consumer items are not available for its citizens in the shops which are commonly used. These consumer items have to be imported and therefore prices are very high. Some young people, educated and with jobs, choose the “sex trade” as a means to access such items. In the case of Cuba, poverty is not a determinant for prostitution as it is in most parts of the world. Prostitution is illegal in Cuba but the main thrust is not that of arrests and jails, but of education and awareness.




When the statistics of the numbers of women in different professions were reeled off by the women activists of the CWF it was just astounding. The percentages of women in different spheres is: University enrolment 60 per cent; Graduates 62 per cent; Scientists 58 per cent; health professionals 78 per cent; doctors 80 per cent; educational sector 60 per cent; State sector jobs 48 per cent. Women are paid equal salaries for the same work. The higher salaries are in education and health where women are well represented. In the judiciary also women are well represented


The striking feature in Cuba is the benefits and rights that working women enjoy. Mothers can leave their children in a 12 hour crèche which is either free of charge or if the salary is in the upper range, then a nominal amount is taken. Children are given full care, given milk, meals and any medical attention which is required. Unlike in India, working women do not have the tension of having to leave their children untended at home. The maternity leave for women is four and a half months with a full salary. An option is provided for a year’s leave with 60 per cent of the salary and another year of unpaid leave, if required.




For us in India, fighting for 33 per cent reservation in elected bodies, Cuban women are far ahead with 48.5 per cent representation. Out of 15 provinces in Cuba, women head the government in as many as 10 provinces. This is an extraordinary record. Cuba has a single party system and therefore the role of the Party is also very important in creating this positive record.


In the Central Committee, 42 per cent are women with one woman member of the 15 member Polit Bureau. In four provinces, the provincial committee secretary is a woman. In 58 municipalities, the Party committee is headed by a woman.


The record of women’s role and development in Socialist Cuba is inspiring and shows the vast superiority, in spite of numerous problems of the Socialist system over the capitalist system  in the struggle for women’s equality.




The meeting of the delegation with the leaders of the trade union movement was most educative. Raymondo Navarro, the head of the International department of the Cuban Workers Federation had some years ago attended the CITU national conference and seemed well aware of some of the problems that workers face here. In Cuba the context of workers rights is entirely different.


The most important matters being discussed in Cuba among workers are how the guidelines are being implemented and the impact on the working class. Changes are being made both in the pattern of employment, work, productivity and the issue of relocation. The continuing US blockade, the effects of the global crisis, high prices for imported items have, as referred to in the earlier columns while discussing agriculture, has led to a nationwide concern of the urgent necessity of self-reliance based on expansion of the productive forces, expansion of industry and manufacturing. But this is easier said than done. Many friends of Cuba ask why is it that Cuba has not developed manufacturing. The answer is so simple – the US blockade, but still difficult to comprehend that in the era of globalisation, a small country is deprived of every single component of what it needs to import to set up factories say for the production of even something as basic as a sewing machine.




Unemployment in Cuba is extremely low, because the State has taken the responsibility of providing jobs for all. Yet without the expansion of production, this has basically meant a paid workforce without work or with too little work.


The highest employment is in the service sector with 52 per cent. Of the 48 per cent in the productive sector, 18 per cent are white collar employees, thus actual workers are only around 30 per cent of the employed.


In this situation, the government decided to reduce the numbers in the State sector by half a million, opening up opportunities for self employment. There are rules for self-employment and the development of small enterprises, the number of workers who can be employed strictly restricted, so as to control the growth of the private sector and exploitative labour relations.  After widespread discussions it is decided that this could be implemented only step by step with social security protection guaranteed .Unlike in India where the hire and fire rules apply, in Cuba where the workforce is found surplus, alternative employment or skill training for self-employment along with bank loans with subsidised rates of interest are provided. For six months, the worker is paid his salary to enable him/her to have a period for adjustment for the alternative work. Along with subsidised food, free education for the children  as well as for health, cheap though limited housing, the relocation is cushioned more than in any other country.




With the tremendous achievement of an increasing life expectancy and with the State as a guarantor for universal pensions, the number of people getting pensions has increased. Pensions are approximately 60 per cent of the salary and the government is protecting the right to pension. Workers who are earning higher salaries pay a contribution to maintain the pension system for others and the social security system as a whole.


The trade union leaders were strongly supportive of the government’s new policies which they call “updating the economy.” Our job is to protect the workers they said, but we cannot destroy socialism by being only consumers and not producers. We require to take strong measures to ensure increase in productivity and in expansion of production. Workers have to play a leading role.


They seemed also quite clear that the process has to take into account a protection of the workers rights. There is an understanding that there should not and cannot be subsidy cuts in those subsidies mentioned above. Cubans are immensely proud of their free health and education system and would not support any whittling down of these rights. These subsidies are also crucial because minimum wages have remained at the same level for several years, nor has there been an increase in wages or salaries except in the case of productivity linked sectors like in the sugar mills where workers earn much more than the average wage of 400 to 500 pesos a month. Yet Cuban workers do much better in terms of quality of life than their counterparts in most countries.


There are numerous cultural centers, holiday homes throughout the country for workers. Cuba is a country with a rich culture. Everywhere there are workers clubs promoting music and dance and different forms of cultural expression.





In a workers State, a socialist State how are labour disputes resolved? The process in Cuba is a fascinating example of grassroot democracy. Every month workers hold meetings at the factory level which discuss work related as well as wider political matters. At that level when workers raise problems, a sort of informal arbitration takes place on what are considered minor issues. The formal structure is of arbitration courts which have elected members, the majority of whom are workers. There is one judicial officer, two from the administration and three from the workers. The verdict of the court is final and the administration has to implement it. Workers however have the right to appeal if they believe the procedure was weighted against them. However since workers have their own representatives in the court, there are very few cases of appeal. What is stressed and emphasised in Cuba is the principle of participatory democracy and workers consultation on all matters pertaining to them and their work.


A prime example of this is that before the economic changes were proposed, the president of Cuba, Raul Castro met with workers representatives and trade union leaders for wide-ranging consultations. It was stressed repeatedly, that since the working class has a critical role to play there can and will be no change without consultation and agreement. This is an example of a socialist democracy that is so far removed from the experience of our workers and trade unions in neo-liberal India when decisions are bulldozed, workers thrown out of jobs, where there is no social security, only despair and frustration.




In all the discussions that the delegation had, what was particularly striking was the high degree of commitment to Socialism, the high degree of political consciousness. As we walked through the offices  of the trade unions we saw a huge poster of the Cuban Five incarcerated unjustly in US jails: the poster read “Obama Give me Five!” It is symbol of the Cuban spirit to resist any and every effort of the imperialist powers to strangle their beautiful, brave nation.