CUBA: Women Donors Network Delegation

The Center for Democracy in the Americas hosted a people-to-people trip to Cuba that took place November 25 through December 2 for a delegation of 22 women, including members and staff of the Women Donors Network.  CDA Executive Director Sarah Stephens and Program Director Lisa Ndecky Llanos led the trip.

The goal of the trip was to introduce the women of the delegation to Cuban women with whom CDA has been closely engaged during the research that led to the publication of CDA’s 21st Century Cuba report, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women in Building Cuba’s Future.”

Released March 6, 2013, this publication focuses on Cuban women and the issues of gender equality on the island; the real, measurable progress that women and children have made in areas like health, education, and legal rights since the 1950s, and the gaps that still exist – including lack of equality at work, lack of equality at home, and lack of adequate representation for women in positions of real power and authority.

The delegation observed first-hand the ways in which women in Cuba are confronting the challenges and opportunities that have emerged through the country’s economic reforms, including cuentapropismo, or self-employment.  The delegation met with Barbara Perez Casanova, a small business owner, who is profiled in “Women’s Work.”  In October 2010, Barbara, 26, was among the first to apply for a license to work in the private sector after its opening to new categories of business.  She runs a small storefront in a self-employment zone, selling shoes and clothing. Barbara says that while she enjoys the independence that comes with running her own business, cuentapropistas are still facing an uphill battle, as they deal with inspectors, high taxes, and difficulties in acquiring products to sell.

CDA also organized opportunities for the delegation to meet with and hear from women involved with Cuba’s vibrant arts and intellectual community.  With Magia López, of the hip-hop group Duo Obsesión, and Sandra Álvarez, a leading Afro-Cuban blogger, delegation members discussed issues of race and gender in Cuban society.  The delegation also visited La Casa de los Conspiradores, the gallery of artist Yami Martínez.  Yami has achieved international recognition for her art depicting the strains of life on Cuban women. She told the delegation about her art, and related her experiences running both a gallery and a “casa particular” (bed and breakfast) out of her home.

The delegation met with female officials from several government agencies, including Mariela Castro Espín, founder and director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX); Johana Tablada, Deputy Director of the North American Department of the Ministry of Foreign Relations, to discuss U.S.-Cuba relations and opportunities for engagement; and representatives of the Federation of Cuban Women to discuss the organization’s history, its role in promoting women’s issues post-revolution, and current initiatives being taken to protect women during this time of economic reforms.  Members of the Women Donors Network also had the opportunity to meet with female members of the National Assembly of People’s Power to discuss the representation of women in Cuba’s government and their experiences as legislators.

One of the highlights of the trip was a celebration marking the completion of “Women’s Work,” bringing together the CDA delegation with many of the women in Cuba who have contributed to this project over the past several years.

WDN members from the delegation reflected on how the trip shifted their perceptions of Cuba, as well as how the trip symbolized for many of them “a time for deeper connections” – between the women, and the governments, of the U.S. and Cuba.  One member wrote of the role people-to-people travel plays in forging these connections, “In relation to a culture about whom many conclusions are made out of context, hearing from the Cuban Americans in Miami, and then crossing the very small area of water to the island, to see and hear the people in their home context, becomes really important.”

For CDA, this trip confirmed the importance of people-to-people travel as a tool for fostering interaction between U.S. citizens and Cubans, especially women, in the places where they live, work, and struggle for equality.  These interactions were a reminder of how much these women – from different countries and circumstances – share in common.

People-to-people travel enabled CDA to host delegations and conduct research that produced our report, “Women’s Work.”  It is our hope that policymakers, academics, and advocates in our country read the publication and benefit from our balanced presentation of the successes and failures of Cuba’s gender equality project.