Studying Women in Cuba: My Undergraduate Research Experience | By Emma Feutl Kent

The University of Alberta’s Undergraduate Research Initiative will be presenting its Festival of Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities (FURCA) November 3 – 14.  To celebrate the integral role research plays in postsecondary education, The Wanderer will be featuring the stories of talented undergraduates, sharing the meaning and impact of their experiences researching.

When I arrived in Santiago, Cuba to study abroad through UAlberta’s Augustana-in-Cuba program, I was expecting to land in a run-of-the-mill Caribbean island country with peddlers hawking tacky beach towels and an abundance of cheap, gimmicky souvenirs. I’d been to another communist nation, Vietnam, where tourists can haggle over the same knock-off Ray-Bans found in most developing countries, and I figured Cuba would be more of the same. But when we stepped off the plane, the vendors were conspicuously absent. I realized then that Cuba would be a different experience from my travels until that point.

Over the following weeks, I learned that it wasn’t just souvenirs that were difficult to find outside of resorts and downtown Havana, but all consumer goods and many kinds of food. Though this policy is officially being phased out, Cuba operates on a dual currency system, whereby most Cubans are paid and expected to purchase goods in one deflated currency, the peso, while the country uses another currency roughly equivalent with the American dollar (the CUC) for exports and imports. As a result, all imported goods – hygiene products, clothing, many kinds of food – are sold in CUCs. This means that a 2-CUC bottle of shampoo is unaffordable to the average Cuban, who is only paid the equivalent of 10 CUCs in pesos each month.

I mention this example to illustrate one of the ways in which the Cuban system is broken. I didn’t speak to a single person under 30 who wasn’t dreaming of coming to America or Canada. And yet, there were other conspicuous differences between Cuba and the developing countries I had visited before. People were largely educated and healthy, and my Cuban classmates had received dental work and eye care, such as laser eye surgery, that is unaffordable to many in Canada. Though one should always be suspicious of statistics from authoritarian regimes, numbers from multiple sources confirm that Cuba has accomplished incredible development feats. For example, in 1961, a year-long campaign virtually eradicated illiteracy, and the country has been making headlines this year as one of the leaders in the international response to Ebola. One of the most striking of these development accomplishments has been the advance in women’s rights. This includes substantial movement towards gender parity in eduction and leadership, country-wide initiatives on women’s health, and legislation like the 1975 Family Code which includes a clause stipulating that housework and childcare must be shared equally between men and women. The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) has been one of the biggest contributors to this phenomenon and is the organization on which I focused my Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI) project.

In most of the Western world, contemporary trends in international development tend to be centered on localized civil society groups. These Community-Driven-Development (CDD) groups are seen by development agencies, including the World Bank, as the most successful way to foster social inclusion, increase administrative accountability, and empower citizens in developing countries. However, although CDD projects have been increasingly favoured in terms of funding and support, CDD processes may not benefit women as fully as men, or may even be harmful to women. Women do not always participate or participate actively in CDD initiatives, often due to their inferior status within the community. As a result, the needs and views of women, especially poor women, are often overlooked.

Social inclusion in Cuba is unique. It focuses on large-scale participation in institutionalized mass organizations like the Federation of Cuban Women instead of local civil society organizations. Although participation and membership in the FMC is not technically mandatory, involvement in mass organizations is strongly encouraged by the government. Today, about 80% of women in Cuba are members of the FMC. I was interested in the lessons Western aid workers could learn, both positive and negative, from this model of development.  In order to evaluate the FMC as a whole, I focused on the organization’s domestic violence prevention branch, called the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women (CPVAW). The CPVAW is funded by the FMC and consists of a panel of volunteer specialists including psychologists, lawyers, doctors, and social workers.

One of my professors in Cuba was involved with this group as a psychologist, and put me in touch with other experts and group members. The interviews I conducted formed the basis of my project, and the URI Stipend helped cover travel expenses and the costs of hiring a translator. Because I needed ethics approval from the University of Alberta, I had to return to Canada before I could start my interviews. Travel plans meant that I started my journey back to Santiago in the United States. With almost no flights to Cuba, it took three days to travel via Mexico City, from San Antonio, Texas, to Santiago. The journey involved bribery and a harrowing drive across the country with three Cuban men I met in a bus terminal after discovering that buses south had been cancelled for the week, but I arrived in one piece to begin my research.

After the interviews were completed, I analyzed their content and noticed that several themes came through across interviews. I found that the biggest positive of the FMC’s structure is that it ensures the majority of Cuban women are engaged in their own development process. Interviewees mentioned that discussing issues like domestic violence during group meetings allows many women to recognize and confront these issues in their own lives. Additionally, the FMC’s close government relationship and large membership give it the power to push its platform and improve women’s rights. When the FMC makes a recommendation about an issue, the recommendation is often taken as representative of a consensus on the issue among all Cuban women. This gives the FMC the ability to enact substantial changes.

However, while the FMC has been a positive force for women’s rights in these ways, it also suffers from issues that arise in any centralized system. Bureaucratic inefficiency and forced participation can lead to apathy within mass organizations. While joining the FMC is ostensibly a voluntary choice, Cubans face huge social and economic pressures to become members. As young people grow disillusioned with the government and the revolutionary cause, it is becoming increasingly common for people to join because they fear repercussions, not because they are attracted to the cause. This trend makes the FMC less effective. Furthermore, there are no real checks on government power, so there is little recourse against corruption or inefficiency. Unlike in civil society advocacy groups, it is difficult for members of the FMC to critique government actions because the federation is ultimately under state control and must work within those boundaries.

In general, I found that even though the FMC faces problems in terms of forced participation and difficulty challenging corruption, it is an important institution in terms of achieving women’s rights and including women’s interests in national platforms. Women in other developing countries could benefit from a national, unified, grassroots women’s rights organization with close government ties. The Cuban example demonstrates that encouraging women who are often marginalized to participate in the development process is beneficial in terms of education and empowerment.

Conducting this research through the URI gave me experience designing and implementing my own research project, and taught me how to conduct interviews and work on a sensitive issue. Furthermore, my supervisor, Dr. Siobhan Byrne, was a supportive coach from start to finish. Last November, I presented my research at the URI’s Undergraduate Research Symposium, which was an excellent opportunity to not only gain experience speaking about my academic work, but also to see interesting projects other students were working on. Ultimately, this project cemented my interest in international issues and gave me the skills to begin exploring important development questions.

Photography courtesy of Emma Feutl Kent.

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