By Gerry Bill
Trying to paint an accurate word picture of Cuban society is very much like trying to paint a ballerina’s pirouette— one can capture a point in time image, but dynamics of the move are harder to render. Cuban society is in constant motion. My first visit to Cuba was in 1994, during “The Special Period” of economic collapse there following the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, I have been to Cuba with Pastors for Peace eight more times. Every time I go I learn something new because significant changes have occurred since my previous visit.
I have seen changes in the ways people handle their transportation needs, going from crowded and infrequent “camel” buses to modern, frequent bus service, and from bicycles (alas) to a greater reliance on cars. I have seen food become available from an increasing variety of sources, including food now available from urban gardens and from what we would call farmers’ markets. The use of cell phones becomes more prevalent every year; this year, I saw young people by the hundreds accessing the Internet through their smart phones at certain locations where a Wi-Fi signal is available, such as near tourist hotels.
Two changes I would like to explore with you in this article are the changing attitudes toward lesbians and gays, and evolving opportunities in the workplace.
Cuba’s treatment of its gay and lesbian citizens has gone through a dramatic turnaround in recent years—somewhat like parallel turnarounds in the United States and Europe, but of course with a Cuban twist. Laws and attitudes against homosexuality were deeply rooted in Cuban society from pre-revolutionary times, and homosexual acts were outlawed as far back as the 1930s. Those laws and attitudes continued into the first years of the Revolution.
With time, however, things began to change. Sex between consenting adults became legal in 1979—three years after a consenting adults law had taken effect in California. With regard to gays serving in the military, Cuba was ahead of the United States. Military service was opened up to gays in 1993. During that same period in the United States, we had the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and gay people did not get the opportunity to serve openly in the U.S. military until 2010.
In Cuba, as in most places, changes in the law don’t immediately produce a change in people’s attitudes. Anti-gay attitudes had been ingrained in Cuban society for quite a long time— both by the Catholic Church and by something Fidel Castro later called Cuba’s “machismo” culture. Castro’s own views on LGBT issues evolved over time (which is what President Obama has said about his own views toward gay marriage).
Social discrimination continued, so to bring about a change in the attitudes of the citizenry something had to be done. Beginning in the 1980s, some government agencies began issuing public statements condemning homophobia as a relic of pre-revolutionary times. In the early 1990s, there began to be government-sponsored media portraying gays in a positive light. The celebrated feature film Strawberry and Chocolate, which some of you may have seen, was produced with Cuban government funding. Additional films with sympathetic gay characters followed, while television programming went through a similar evolution.
Besides the popular culture campaign, the government funds the Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), which is headed by President Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro. CENESEX has engaged in a long-running national campaign for gay rights, including championing government funding for sex change surgery. That campaign succeeded in 2008, and Cubans now can get sex change surgery free of charge, just like any other medically indicated procedure.
Mariela Castro has also helped the movement by participating in gay rights rallies and parades, and earlier this year organized a “blessing” for a large group of gay couples who hope to marry someday when Cuban law changes to allow it. CENESEX, under Mariela Castro’s leadership, also has sponsored a long-running media and poster campaign that promotes acceptance of gay couples.
The Evolving Workplace
There was a time after the Revolution when most Cubans worked for the government in one capacity or another. This had an upside, in that incomes did not vary that much from one worker to another, producing one of the most equal societies in modern human history. The doctor, teacher, auto mechanic and bus driver were all more or less economic peers. That was in sync with the communitarian goals of the Revolution.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the beginning of the special period in Cuba, things began to change. Cuba’s economy changed from one based on trade with the Soviets to an economy that relied heavily on the tourist trade. This led, inevitably, to greater inequalities of income. Tourists would offer tips, and those working in the tourist industry began making more from the tips than they did from their salaries, whereas those in non-tourist jobs did not receive the same consideration.
This led to a sort of dual economy. The people began complaining (yes, complaints are allowed in Cuba, even encouraged). This is how Cuban democracy works. People at the grassroots level, in their own neighborhoods, begin things by expressing their frustrations to their local elected leaders, who come from such small districts that the local representative most likely lives in that person’s neighborhood. The representatives carry the concerns up the line. Complaints aired frequently enough eventually make their way to the National Assembly, where changes in public policy can be made.
The result is that the means of earning a living have broadened, and more options are becoming available to people. It has become easier for a Cuban to open a small business. Small, independent restaurants used to be hard to find in Havana; now they are everywhere. I have been to some of them, and they seem to function quite well. But don’t imagine that these small businesses will morph into large mega chains with franchises across the island. Cuba has ways of keeping small businesses small, with limits on the number of employees, etc.
Another option, one that does allow for greater growth, is the workers’ cooperative model. I have had the opportunity to visit several such cooperatives. I have been to cooperative farms and to a fisherman’s cooperative in past years. Recently, the cooperative movement has broadened in scope.
This year, our caravan had the opportunity to visit two new cooperatives—one for textile workers and one for restaurant workers. Workers in both cooperatives seemed pleased with their work arrangements. Besides earning a better income than they did in their previous jobs, they have a greater sense of control over their work lives. They own the business, collectively. They make decisions collectively about how to operate the cooperative, how to remunerate themselves, what products to produce, and so on. They take pride in their work and in the successful activities of their cooperative. Plus, they can grow.
The restaurant workers’ cooperative I visited now has 55 owner/ workers, and they operate three separate restaurants in Havana. This is socialism at the grassroots level, where the workers work for themselves, not for the government (and certainly not for a corporation!).
Cuba is a dynamic place, and things keep changing. The picture I have just painted is as of July 2015. By the next caravan to Cuba in July 2016, things likely will have changed some more. Cuba still has a long way to go in guaranteeing equal rights to gays, and in the economic realm there are many more options that still have not been explored. It is exciting to visit Cuba and watch as the country continues to reinvent itself while remaining true to the principles of the Revolution. That’s why I keep going back. Why don’t you join us next year?
Gerry Bill is emeritus professor of sociology and American studies at Fresno City College, and is on the boards of the Fresno Free College Foundation/KFCF, Peace Fresno, the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, the Eco Village Project of Fresno and the Central California Criminal Justice Committee. He has made nine trips to Cuba with Pastors for Peace in the last 21 years, most recently in July 2015. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.