HAVANA — I was six when I saw my mother sitting on a stretcher at a psychiatric hospital in Cienfuegos, half-naked with a blank stare. She was bent over, her hands groping the ground, when a male nurse, humming a popular song, grabbed her hair and forced her to throw up into a bucket, which he then emptied into the toilet.
That image, buried in my memories since the 1970s, resurfaced decades later at the Havana airport. Before a departing flight, an officer in civilian clothing locked me inside a room and, with a smile, asked me to get undressed. I was ordered to squat, and my body was patted down to ensure I was not concealing contraband.
While his fingers searched me, the memory of that nurse’s callous laugh and my defenseless mother came back to me like a boomerang, heightening my own sense of vulnerability. What could I do? How and where could I file a complaint? No one talks about what happens in hospitals, nursing homes, women’s prisons, police stations and Cuban courts after reports of domestic violence, sexual assault or harassment are filed — and the public lacks access to any affidavits, statistics or reliable sources that would verify claims. Cuban women must silently endure humiliation in a patriarchal, monolithic and cyclical system.
Six decades after the revolution, women still consider their rights a gift bestowed by the male-led government.
Here is a list of some of the efforts that the revolutionaries made beginning in the 1960s to incorporate “housewives” into socialist society: A national child care system, Círculos Infantiles, was founded. The Facultad Obrera Campesina (F.O.C.) was founded to offer women the opportunity to enroll in secondary education. The Cuban Army made it possible for women to enlist and become military doctors or part of the artillery reserve. Prostitutes were integrated into society and given the opportunity to find jobs as taxi drivers, educators or skilled workers. These policies were devised by government as part of the “battle for women’s liberation.”
To this day, however, most Cuban women are unaware of what their individual rights are, and few know how dangerous it is to become aware of them. In Cuba, various forms of harassment, abuse and violence against women persist, and there are systems in place for punishing those who do not put down their heads and surrender to the reality that men are in control of our daily lives.
Throughout my life, I’ve seen how powerless parents are in matters regarding their own children. Parents have no say over how their children should be raised, whether they will be conscripted or sent away to school in rural areas, and what dangers could befall them being so far from home and such a young age. They have no say over their children’s manners, religious teachings and political ideologies. There are only two choices: Run with the herd or be crushed by it.
As a teenager in the 1980s, I was taught in a “scientific communism” class that family was the heart of society. But from what I could see, that was no longer the case; organizations with mass followings like the Young Communist League had taken its place.
Things do not improve after leaving school. The intrusive way in which some men treat us, no matter who is present, is plain harassment. In Cuba it is considered normal for you to be shouted at, bossed around, touched without permission, because women are seen as subordinates.
When it came time to choose potential successors for a post-Castro Cuba, not one woman was considered. This was by design. In high school, a teacher and former member of the military once told me, “Men are in command because men made the revolution possible.”
The truth is that Cuban women possess great strength and proved their valor on the front lines of the revolution, too.
The guerrilla fighter Celia Sánchez Manduley was one who did. Without her and a small group of female soldiers known as the Marianas, Fidel Castro’s victorious march into Havana in 1959 wouldn’t have been possible. But because Ms. Sánchez is described in her official biographies as “one of Fidel’s closest collaborators,” and not as a revolutionary in her own right, many Cuban girls are unaware of her achievements.
She opposed executions by firing squad and the forced-labor camps where Mr. Castro sent gay men and other so-called counter-revolutionaries. Despite her role in the revolution, Ms. Sánchez was never granted the title of “comandante.” She also was an outspoken woman who, surrounded by a male-dominated military, was not able to carry out her own objectives.
Today, being a woman in Cuba who is unwilling to keep silent is complicated. We are also policed by other women: Family, friends, neighbors and colleagues can all be enlisted to report on, betray and bad-mouth us. This ends up hurting all of us.
While the #MeToo movement has reached countries around the world, Cubans are still living under a patriarchy shaped by the revolution. Cuban men don’t see a problem, and convincing them otherwise is futile, because for generations they’ve been taught that women were liberated 60 years ago during the revolution and that we require nothing more. Doing anything that doesn’t benefit the state makes you suspicious.
That was my mother’s experience, and it’s why her writing was not published until after her death. And the same is true for me: I am not allowed to publish works in my own country that describe Cuba’s stark reality.
I cannot recall a time when Cuba came close to abolishing the social ailments that have afflicted us. In our history, we’ve confronted imperialist threats, the American economic embargo and various foreign policy emergencies, but addressing basic issues of women’s rights has always been an inconvenient task. The feeling of being under constant threat kept us silent, gritting our teeth and accepting our place.
But it’s time to impartially and independently discuss the particular needs of women, separate and independent from the government’s agenda — bearing in mind, always, that the forces necessary to bring about a transformation are still invested in the prevailing image of the male authoritarian clad in military green. In Cuba, endemic sexism is politically correct.
Any public discourse about the plight of Cuban women must encompass legal reform and bring forward cases of abuse, no matter which entity or person is responsible, enabling us to claim rights that are normal elsewhere. Among these are the right to a clean hospital room with running water to give birth in, and pension payments that are in line with market prices for divorced mothers with children, and freedom from psychological and physical abuse, whether personal, state or ideological.
I was born and raised in a system that exerts control under the guise of paternalism — a system that caresses you as it beats you, that teaches you but also inhibits you, enlightens you and censures you. We are hostages to a government that behaves like an abusive, old-fashioned and sexist father, from whom we must seek consent and forgiveness.
Wendy Guerra is a Cuban poet and novelist. Her most recent book is “El mercenario que coleccionaba obras de arte.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].