Cuban women in the Special Period

Yoseti Herrera Guitián

Photo by Marius Ott, Unsplash

Photo by Marius Ott, Unsplash

In March 1990, the Fifth Congress of the Federation of Cuban Women met to discuss the subtle ways women were being discriminated against at work. This discrimination prevented women from gaining promotions into positions of greater responsibility and, in the case of politics, into higher ranks in the government, and in pointing out aspects that affected equality the Federation especially highlighted the double burden of domestic work. But remedying this soon became impossible, as a much more important matter arose: the defence of the nation and the new economic strategy in the face of the disappearance of the socialist bloc and the Soviet Union. 

According to a friend who witnessed the moment, Fidel Castro complimented all the delegates on their beautiful outfits and told them to take good care of them – because for their next congress in two years’ time they might have to wear them again.

Characterised as an experience of collective trauma, the Special Period is a scar that many Cubans carry with pain and pride. Pain, because of the many rough difficulties we had to face; pride, because overcoming them made us so much stronger and proved our resilience against all odds. The ‘90s were crucial for the Cuban Revolution, as the protective shell we had built with the Soviet Union was broken. For the first time, we were sailing on our own through an ocean of capitalist developed economies, only with a determination to save our socialist achievements and with absolutely no idea how to survive the storms around us.


The Special Period in Times of Peace

The Special Period in Times of Peace refers to the years following the collapse of the socialist bloc and the subsequent impact on Cuba’s economic relations with eastern European countries. It conveys the idea of facing economic crisis and finding effective and practical solutions, under very difficult circumstances, without denying principles of socialism. When Russia announced they would not respond to any of the previous economic agreements of the Soviet Union, and the CMEA (Council for the Mutual Economic Assistance) was dissolved, Cuba lost – in a single year – 85% of its imports. This meant that the importation of food, technology, and other decreased drastically; the entire productive infrastructure (industry, agriculture, energy) was paralysed, and the GDP contracted to a 36% between 1990 and 1993. (Pérez Izquierdo, Impacto del período especial en la vida cotidiana de la mujer cubana, en la década de los años 90’, 2002) The price of sugar, our primary export product, was also reduced in the international market. Transportation and energy were deeply affected too. Altogether, it dramatically impacted the quality of life of the Cuban people.

After the United States’ defeat in the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the Special Period was the perfect opportunity for the US to attempt to retake Cuba. On April 6th, 1960, Lester Mallory, then Assistant State Undersecretary, had written that, ‘The majority of Cubans support Castro, ... there is no effective political opposition ... the only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment  and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship. ... Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba, ... denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.’ And so we see the Special Period was seized upon by the US, with its imposition of an economic, financial and commercial blockade[1], which were reinforced by the Torricelli law (The Cuban Democracy Act) in 1992, and the Helms-Burton law (Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity) in 1996.

It was a period characterised by survival and the preservation of moral and spiritual integrity, despite the increase of social problems – whether migration out of the country, robbery, fraud, prostitution, and disparity – that surfaced and endangered the set of values already fostered by the Revolution. Yet statistics fall short in illustrating the seriousness of the Special Period for the Cuban people, the seriousness that led people to reinvent products and machinery as well as themselves. This reinvention instead gives you a glimpse of the reality embraced with ingenuity and craftiness by the Cuban people. 


Living in the ‘90s as a Cuban Woman 

Since 1959, Cuban women have had an active role in the economic, political, and social life of the country, and are often more engaged than men because of their double role as workers and as housewives. These were the outstanding heroes that undoubtedly suffered most under the limitations of the Special Period. Women had to develop new survival strategies and adapt to the many economic changes, as well as facing scarcity of food and services.

To begin with, let us remember the fact that Cuba is still a society with strong patriarchal cultural features – which often makes women the caregivers and responsible for all the needs of their families. (Campuzano, ‘Ser cubanas y no morir en el intento’ 1996:8) This presupposes a double burden of work and domestic labour.

Despite the fact that there is no gender discrimination in Cuba in terms of employment, and the existence of legislations and conditions like daycare centres and maternity leave, women suffered when the number of jobs were reduced in search for productive efficiency in factories and workplaces. Many women and men received 60% percent of their salaries as they trained for new employment, but this payment was insufficient for those women who were the sole providers at home or single mothers. (Pérez Izquierdo, 2002) Although there were efforts to protect the employment of women, losing government jobs ultimately brought about alternative strategies for increasing incomes to support their families.

Many housewives and women, who weren’t already employed or studying, joined the labour sector through agricultural programs or self-employment, while some resorted to prostitution as a way out of their economic situation. Prostitution, which had once disappeared from the Cuban social landscape, reappeared as a negative consequence of the crisis and as a challenge to be addressed both by the government and the people.

The devaluation of the Cuban Peso and the reduction of income (considering that, at the time, 1 USD = 150 CUP), in spite of the 60% compensation, meant that women had to decrease family expenses to a minimum and prioritise money to buy food. There was also a loss of motivation among professionals, as their income was no longer enough to meet every day needs, and caused the migration to other more attractive and better paid jobs like those in tourism or self-employment. Health and education sectors were especially affected, along with transportation problems, lack of supplies of any kind (notebooks, pencils, books, medicine, medical equipment, etc.) and deteriorating work conditions.

The lack of medication and the limitations imposed by the blockade turned people, mostly women, to traditional medicine to care for relatives, and ointments, creams, lotions, beverages, teas and poultices even became part of the curriculum taught to doctors in medical schools. Fuels to cook with, whether kerosene, gas, electricity or alcohol were also reduced, and so working women’s situation was no better when they got home to face their role as housewife, mother, or provider, which made this burden even heavier.

Women would spend many more hours preparing meals using several kinds of fuel, whether wood, charcoal and diesel. Gas and electricity were the least used because of the limitations in the distribution and the reduction and severe power cuts. Cubans would not refer to these as blackouts but ’lightouts‘; living in Cuba, where the weather is hot even in winter, with no fan or air conditioning, it became normal to sleep in porches or rooftops. Unannounced power cuts that lasted 10-12 hours a day caused women to accumulate chores that required electricity, and changes in voltage even caused many remaining electrical items to break – which were impossible to repair or replace due to the lack of parts or imported raw material.

Food shortages – due to the lack of seeds, fertilisers, and fuel to irrigate the fields – along with transportation problems to distribute food to the cities, where 80% of the Cuban population lived, was a serious concern, and for women who were used to preparing three meals a day it was especially harsh. Sometimes armed with only two or three food items, that rarely included meat, and no condiments were available, they had to either go back into the traditional recipes or come up with recipes of their own making. Every piece of land in the city and every pot and jar was planted with vegetables, roots, fruits, condiments, and medicinal herbs. In the case of small areas that were turned into organic urban gardens, it also provided jobs for people of the community. For the first time, Cuba was producing most of their food organically, but there were other important proteins and vitamins missing from their diet. 

Meat, milk, and eggs were very difficult to get. During the period of 1990-94 there was a considerable loss of weight in the population, because their food intake was so low. As a result, there was also a neuritis epidemic that required action by the Ministry of Health – where women were again at the centre, particularly with the mother and child program focused on pregnant women’s nutrition. (Pérez Izquierdo, 2002)

Basic items used for hygiene, toiletries, soap, detergent, shampoo, deodorant, make-up, even pads, were off the market. Backyard manufactured soaps that were sometimes too saturated with chemicals, natural herbs shampoos provided by pharmacies, as well as innovative creams and make-up produced from natural products turned us to resources we had always had, but never knew how to use.

Real sheets, towels, and shower curtains were a luxury, and the latter of these were usually made of packaging nylon or not used at all, while the approach for the sheets and towels was to make the ones we already had last as long as possible. Making clothes, underwear, and shoes were mostly in the hands of expert seamstresses and handcraft artists who started using car tires for the soles of shoes, bicycle tires for the elastic in bras and underwear. The seamstresses and handcraft artists turned every piece of clothing stored away in the closet into a comfortable and decent piece of clothing to wear. Shoes and sandals made of embroidery were also in fashion, as well as those made of leather and vegetable fibre.


Reinventing the wheel, going backwards into the future

Creativity and a sense of humour have been a part of Cubans’ daily life since the colonial times. It is part of an unspoken strategy to cope with difficulties that otherwise will seem too hard to overcome.

The lack of food and access to products made women go back to traditional strategies that meant procuring goods or food by any means; terms like getting, obtaining, negotiating, and bargaining refer to the many ways we got the basic items through unofficial channels in order to improve, extend, diversify, and make things last longer. In the everyday struggle, all strategies were directed towards the survival of the family.

As a part of the government’s solution to these problems, a 300-page volume was published to inform people of the many inventions and innovations carried out throughout the country. While some were more technical than others, it provided specific and detailed methods along with explanations of traditional ways to live and work – reusing resources with even extreme instances of recycling for people to replicate themselves. It was called Con nuestros propios esfuerzos (With Our Own Efforts), and some of the suggestions included breeding tree rats as if they were rabbits, the use of sugar cane husk as fibre, grapefruit sausage, meat with papaya, pea flan, tilapia jam, beet custard, ground ‘meat’ with plantain skin. Certainly, other areas were also covered in the booklet: construction materials for rustic houses made of rice husk and cement blocks, reuse of soviet appliances (considered, to this day, everlasting by many Cubans) such as the Soviet washing machine (AURIKA), transformed into all sorts of equipment, like fans and lawnmowers. (Skłodowska, ‘Reinventando la rueda: el período especial en el imaginario cubano’, 2012: 228-229)

From the government’s distribution of chicks for people to breed them at home, to the wild and famous – and true story – of having a pig in a bathtub, the limits were pushed in order to stand our ground and not perish in the process. Most transformations, both nationally and locally, were thought of, carried out, and assessed by women. During the Special Period, 43% of the active labour force were women and 66% of them had university degrees. If we sum up the fact that they represented 36% of the heads of the family (Pérez Izquierdo, 2002), they deserve the merit of keeping their families afloat and surviving not only the scarcity of material things, but also maintaining the values Cubans are still very proud of.

Heroes always come to your aid, they help you when you are unable to face the enemy or solve the problem in hand, be it a flood, a fire, a hurricane, or the bogeyman, and they are always there to get you out of trouble. Cubans, and Cuban women in particular, learned to become their own heroes, because standing still was out of the question. Many things were at stake: the survival of their families, the safety of their children, and the future of a Revolution that is far from perfect but that most Cubans prefer and want. It is our right to make our own path.

The Special Period in times of Peace was a turning point in Cuban history because it was the hardest test of resilience and sovereignty our people has ever had. That was a moment of changes that are still happening today, it was a time to start making our own future without imitating or depending on any other powerful country. It was time to open ourselves up to the world, to that jungle in which we will be the tiny but strong tree that endures every storm, every attack, and yet never yields.

[1] The term blockade is used because embargo does not apply to Cuba. Embargo is generally understood to be a legal method of retaining goods to ensure the fulfilment of a legitimately contracted obligation (Cuba has no legal obligation or debt to the United States); whereas blockade implies to persecute, isolate, suffocate and immobilise Cuba with the aim of forcing its people to renounce their independence and sovereignty.  Blockades have been recognised as ‘an act of war’ since the London Naval Conference of 1909. (Miranda Bravo, 2017)

Yoseti Herrera Guitián has an MA in English Language and taught for 13 years at both the middle school and university level in Cuba. She has been working as a tour guide at AMISTUR Cuba (ICAP) for 5 years now.

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