Evolution in the Revolution
Changes Behind the Sugar Cane Curtain
Not every Latin revolutionary who visits Boston is as welcome as Santiago Carrillo. Five cuban citizens who came last week did not even feel safe having their visit mentioned here publicly until after they had returned to Havana. As members of the World Student Christian Federation they were among the first Cubans admitted into the United States in 15 years. Despite their official U.S. visas, however, these Fidelistas were still potential targets for attack by the "Cubans from Miami," the exiles from Fidel's Revolution.
There were no press conferences or public meetings when Amparo Salcedo, Francis Figueroa, Reinerio Arce. Carlos Piedra, and Manuel Quintero visited Harvard. Instead nonpublicized private gatherings, such as a session last week with fellow Christians at the Divinity School, were held. The most interesting discussion came at one such meeting the previous evening, when they talked not only about religion, but about the Revolution as well.
Dressed in double-knits, seldom smiling at first, they seemed uneasy recipients of the tributes and radical comradery offered by the Latinos gathered to meet them. They soon showed, however, that the unfamiliar cold weather and the brevity of exposure to this country, rather than a lack of revolutionary ardor or understanding, had caused their initial discomfort. Taking turns addressing the predominantly student audience, they talked at length and in depth about the roles of women and education in the Revolution today. They also quickly dispelled any doubt as to their ability to mix Marxism and religion.
"It is erroneous to say that church and politics can be separated," Piedra, a minister, said. "One cannot be apolitical in this world," he explained, asserting that any attempt to act apolitically actually supports the existing structure and becomes a political act. Without altering his relaxed tone of voice, Piedra preached: "To serve Jesus within the context of serving the poor is the lesson of the gospels."
Piedra also defended the Cuban Communist Party statute that prohibits members of the church from joining the party. Church members are still full citizens, he claimed. They can run for elected office, although they are denied positions in the political vanguard identified with the party. The exclusion of Christians from this group is justified, he said. "since all Christian [political] alternatives have led to failure." Citing the role of the Christian Democrats in Chile, he partially blamed them for the fascist coup that toppled the freely elected Allende government.
In Cuba, all five agreed, the party leads the Revolution and the church follows, dragging its feet with every step. The five Christians--one Methodist and four Presbyterians--saw the Catholic Church, with its displaced petit bourgeois following, as the most reactionary force left in Cuba. In particular, the Catholic Church and to some extent the entire Christian church, has acted as an enormous barrier to the liberation of Cuba's women.
Before the Revolution, women in Cuba were doubly oppressed, according to Figueroa, one of two women in the group and the most vocal of the five. Women in pre-revolutionary Cuba were kept down both because of the social regime and because of their gender. Figueroa said: "Sexual discrimination limited women in society in all aspects-the legal system and the educational system, as well as the mass media, which saw women primarily as a market to increase their capital. Women were taught to occupy themselves with beauty....The whole culture, if we can call this culture, discriminated against them."
Throughout the first decade of the Revolution women served their traditional subservient roles in the church: making clothes for the poor, serving coffee, playing canasta, and selling crafts to finance the church. In 1967 the government replaced the women as the supporter of the church, but not until 1974, when the Ecumenical Council of Cuba established a Department of Women, did women begin to "hear themselves in church." However, the Catholic Church, which does not belong to the Council, still does not have an organization for women.
Outside the church, women have made major gains, chiefly through the activities of the Federation of Cuban Women-a mass organization comprising more than 80 per cent of Cuban women. Following its establishment in 1960, the Federation set up Cuba's first day care centers and sex counseling services. In October 1975 the Federation won adoption of a family code which guarantees the equality of women.
Cuban women have stood at the forefront in many areas of the international women's movement. In the first years after the victory of the Revolution, the Federation did away with prostitution on the island by providing education and alternative employment for the 100,000 prostitutes then working in Cuba. The Federation also started night schools for domestic servants. This program has succeeded to the extent that "the concept of 'maid' has been eliminated," Figueroa said Working women in Cuba are given four months pregnancy leave with full salary and may, if they choose, remain at home with their baby for up to a year without giving up the right to return to their original job. Women may also take time off from work without loss of pay in order to shop for food or take their children to the doctor.
Only a continuing re-education of both women and men has made possible the great advances Cuban women are making in their condition. As Figueroa pointed out to her self-consciously smiling male friends, "A man who calls himself a revolutionary or a socialist is not wholly revolutionary or socialist unless his companera (his female counterpart) is wholly free from subjugation."
Nevertheless, the process of re-education could not begin immediately after the Revolution. First the Cubans had to dismantle the old educational system under which careers meant less than titles which were as often bought as earned. The task of teaching 980,000 illiterates, s seventh of the population, how to read and write also loomed formidably at the beginning of the Revolution. The great literacy campaign of 1961 involved more than a quarter of a million teachers. Despite the loss of many teachers to war and exile and despite CIA-run sabotage and assassinations of teachers, the campaign ended with 97 per cent of the people literate (many of the remaining 3 per cent were too handicapped to educate, according to Figueroa.
In the same year as the literacy campaign the Cuban people also nationalized the educational system on the premise that the Revolution guaranteed universal education. They founded a new system of education in which all students also work-a concept drawn from the writings of Marx and Marti (a Cuban revolutionary hero of the 19th century war for independence). Beginning in 1963, all schools were incorporated into the national scheme to improve agricultural, and to a lesser extent, industrial, production.
Today in the universities all students and professors are required to work outside of school in an area related to their field of specialization. The 27-year-old Arce, who teaches clinical psychology at Havana University, also practices psychology within the national health program and acts as a consultant to the Public Health Department. The first year pre-medical students, whom he teaches, wash floors when they are not in class.
Today, though, there are few pre-medical or pre-law students. Cuba has limited the number of students studying in these fields, because, as Quintero, an engineering students, recognizes, "We can't use doctors and lawyers to pull us out of (economic) underdevelopment." Cuban students are encouraged from a young age to enter professions that will most directly fill societal needs. The channeling of students into certain careers is necessary, Arce agreed, in order that Cuba's tremendous investment in education is eventually paid back. By 1969 Cuba already invested one fifth of its total productive capacity-a greater portion into education than that of any other major country.
The schools of higher education (schooling is obligatory until age 15) are open to those with "good grades and a correct attitude." Part of that attitude is evident in Quintero's statement that "It is a privilege to study, so each student must recompense society." This idea was formalized in the recently promulgated Social Service Law, under which all graduates of higher education must work for three years in locations and positions assigned by the educational ministry. Those men and women who enter the military, whether as volunteers or draftees (men only), are exempt from such service.
Despite educational reforms and enthusiastic participation by the Cubans in both their salaried and their volunteer work, the Cuban economy remains troubled. When the rich fled the coming Revolution they took both material wealth and technical expertise with them. They also destroyed the machinery they left behind. When the Revolution came to power, "it was not a question of distributing the wealth, but of distributing the poverty," Quintero remarked.
Since then, as the economy has grown, the distribution has been kept nearly egalitarian. The highest government officials receive about 700 pesos a month while the minimum wage is between 85 and 92 pesos a month. Quintero earns 350 pesos (roughly $375) a month as an engineer, but he pays nothing for health service, education, and many cultural activities. There is full employment and nearly complete job security. While some general inflation has occurred recently, aggravated by the increased numbers of working women, the government has prevented any rise in the price of food, clothing, and rent.
By accepting massive amounts of economic aid from the Soviet Union, Cuba has avoided cutbacks in its social and political reform programs. According to Quintero, the country has made significant investments in pollution control and it has a broader and more effective resource conservation program than most developing nations. A population control program also exists with social pressure used to limit most couples to two or three children, Quintero said.
The Revolution's most important reform in the last few years has been the increased emphasis on mass organizations: the women's and students' organizations, the trade unions, and the block groups, or Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR's). Under the new Constitution adopted last year, these organizations form the basis of the "popular power." This power structure builds upwards from the mass organizations, through municipal and provincial assemblies to the national assembly and the council of state, of which Fidel Castro is president.
At the block level the municipal representatives are required to periodically convene assemblies and report to their constituency. Representatives are not exempted from their job responsibilities; they are full-time workers as well as part-time public servants. Elections are held without personal campaigning-candidates are allowed to post only a photo and a biography, Any person may run for office, but Party members are usually elected, because they are most often the best citizens, Arce asserted.
The five Cubans are home now, having skipped a planned visit to Yale to avoid the type of confrontation with pickets that Carrillo found there. They also escaped a misadventure one of their countryment had in Boston last Christmas--an encounter with an American pay toilet. They don't have such things in Cuba; they haven't had them there for quite a while.