A daily bulletin of news & opinion

5 January 2010

Cuba’s bakers will be working overtime on Sunday, making cakes for the nation’s women. Cake features heavily in every Cuban festival, and particularly on International Women’s Day, which is celebrated next Monday to varying degrees around the world. In a wonderful demonstration of its far-reaching power, the Cuban government subsidises cakes for the day (the state-run shops charge around 30p for a large, family-sized sponge cake). And the cakes are spectacular, from multi-layered, multi-coloured sponges, to sandwich cakes, coated in thick, meringue-like icing.

Cuban men need little excuse to approach women in the streets and they fully embrace the chance to wish the female population “happy Women’s Day” and proposition strangers with a slice of cake. But this being Cuba, where politics infiltrates every part of daily life, the day also prompts a debate about gender in the press and on the street.

For Cuba is quite unusual in having achieved an exceptional degree of equality in the workplace, while retaining a deeply sexist culture. Since fighting alongside men in the Revolution, Cuban women have occupied important roles in government. Today, the proportion of women in parliament is among the highest in the world. In the workforce, women account for two thirds of the island’s professionals and technicians. But there is still a lack of women in management positions or high-level posts. In December last year, President Raul Castro said the lack of progress in this respect –some 50 years after the Revolution – was a cause for shame. His comments have provoked a flurry of debates around gender equality within the Communist Party.

In many cases, the legislation is already there to protect women’s rights but cultural values continue to prove an obstacle to social change. For example, after the birth of a new child, either parent can take one year’s leave on full pay. But very few fathers take advantage of this for fear of losing their standing in the community.

In the home, women are still expected to take care of all the household chores. Research has shown that for every 34 hours that Cuban women spend on domestic tasks, men spend 12. What is most remarkable is that this persists despite the fact that, in most cases, women work the same hours as their partner. This sense of duty is instilled from an early age. Amalia, a lawyer, recalls being made to do chores as a child while her brother went out to play. It is then reinforced when a woman moves in with her husband’s parents and is expected to take over from her mother-in-law. Out on the streets, Cuban chauvinism is at its noisiest. An attractive woman can look forward to an almost constant barrage of hissing, congratulatory and occasionally obscene comments. Amalia says, with exasperation: “Even with all the education and culture that the Revolution has given the people, this still exists.”

She blames it, above all, on deep-seated cultural behaviour. “Cubans cannot escape from being Latinos,” she says, shaking her head. “And Latinos are, in general, chauvinists.” And on Monday she will no doubt find herself faced with a feast of cakes that will leave a slightly hollow feeling if eaten.


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