Alicia Gonzalez

HAVANA and WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Not long ago, schoolchildren in Cuba were asked by researchers for the Cuban government to draw a picture of their mothers, the way they see them at home.

Rather than smiling faces, many drew the backs of women, working at the kitchen sink or attending to some other domestic task.

That, say women’s rights activists, is the picture of daily life for many Cuban women as they struggle under the 43-year U.S. trade embargo.

“Women are the most affected,” says Alicia Gonzalez, an official with the Federation of Cuban Women, an agency within the Cuban government that conducted the study. “They carry the domestic burden on their shoulders.”

Last year, President Bush further tightened sanctions against and restricted travel to Cuba in the hopes that heightened economic pressure will compel the communist country’s dictator, Fidel Castro, 78, to usher in a more democratic form of government.

Referring to the tougher measures, Molly Millerwise, a spokesperson at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, says, “We think they are a critical element in starving the Castro regime of funds that he uses to prop up his regime and oppress the Cuban people.”

Critics, however, see them as an attempt to appease politically powerful Cuban-Americans, many of whom reside in the battleground state of Florida. The sanctions have not been an effective tool in bringing about democracy and tightening those policies only makes the situation worse, critics argue.

Carrying Message to Congress

Hundreds of activists carried that message to members of Congress and their staffs in late April, hoping to encourage legislation that would ease U.S. policies toward the country.

Dubbed “Cuba Action Day,” the April 27 event marked the beginning of what organizers described as a nationwide grassroots campaign in the United States to change U.S. policies toward Cuba. The effort did not yield a response from the White House.

As a group, the activists–who represented women’s groups, Cuban-Americans, academia, business and religion groups–did not address the specific effects of Bush policies on Cuban women.

But women’s rights activists held a series of separate events on the topic.

Best and Worst Deals

Women in Cuba sometimes seem to have the best and worst of many deals. The national constitution protects their rights. Men and women receive the same salary for the same work and more than 65 percent of the technicians and professionals in the country are female. The maternity leave policy includes 100 percent of wages from the 34th week of pregnancy until 12 weeks after the baby is born. After that, the mother can collect 60 percent of wages until the baby reaches six months.

On the other hand, as men and women struggle with an average salary of about $15 dollars a month, prostitution has flourished for both sexes and become a football in the debate over the U.S. embargo.

While some, including the Bush administration, say Castro has turned a blind eye to the trade because it pulls in tourist dollars to support the country’s stagnant economy, others say the U.S. exploits the issue to justify sanctions that impact families the hardest.

“What does restricting Cuban-Americans to one visit every three years have to do with reducing prostitution?” Wayne Smith, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy and veteran Foreign Service officer who served six years in Havana, said in an interview last year with MSNBC.

Meanwhile, women still assume most of the responsibility for household management.

“The very nature of the embargo impacts women disproportionately because women are more responsible for meeting people’s needs, specifically for food and medicine, which is, from a humanitarian perspective, the most important thing that the embargo denies people,” said Yifat Susskind, associate director of MADRE, a women’s human rights organization based in New York.

A 1997 report on the embargo by the American Association for World Health detailed “devastating consequences for Cuban women,” such as hindering access to nutrition, medications, contraceptives and breast cancer screening.

Acute Drug Shortage

Although all Cubans receive free medical care, the U.S. embargo has created an acute drug shortage on the small Caribbean island.

Not only are U.S. pharmaceutical companies prohibited from selling medications to Cuba, drug companies in other countries are likewise banned from selling any medications that contain even a small percentage of ingredients manufactured by U.S. pharmaceuticals. As a result, Cuban pharmacies are stocked with domestic herbal remedies, but antibiotics and aspirins are hard to come by. The government, however, has replicated some medicines used to fight AIDS.

The embargo imposes numerous other hardships that permeate daily life in Cuba. Families, for instance, have a hard time buying light bulbs, replacing broken windows or repairing toilets. Even surge protectors, which cost approximately $10 for an inexpensive one in the United States, are out of reach for many households in Cuba. This means people must remember to unplug their refrigerators and other electrical devices before going out, a precaution against losing an important appliance when the power returns.

Food Rations after Work

Because of the notoriously slow and overcrowded buses, Cubans scrimp on sleep in order to get in bus lines early. After work, there are food ration lines to stand in. And if supplies get low, it’s usually the mother who sacrifices her own food intake for others in her household, which often includes extended family members.

Last summer, the Bush administration not only further tightened the embargo by prohibiting Cuban-Americans from visiting their families in Cuba more than once every three years, it limited remittances except to immediate family members.

“We think this is very cruel,” says Mirna Quinones, 63, a retired University of Havana history professor who continues to work as a freelance translator to help support her extended family of eight, which includes an ex-daughter-in-law and four grandchildren, including one whose father lives in Miami. “This is the cruelest thing to do to a family.”

As the primary breadwinner, Quinones brings home approximately $30 a month from her pension and translating jobs and says, even with help from her Miami-based son, there’s never enough.

Quinones was also recently diagnosed with a heart condition.

Momentarily breaking into tears, she says the new restriction limiting family visits has hit her especially hard. “I am crazy about seeing my son. I was expecting to see my son this year, but now I can’t see him till next year. I’m not young anymore. My heart is not strong. I may not see my son again.”

Ann Farmer is an independent journalist who lives in New York City. She reports for The New York Times and contributes stories to various publications including Emmy, More, Dance Magazine, and others. Allison Stevens is Washington correspondent for Women’s eNews.

For more information:

American Association for World Health Report–
Denial of Food and Medicine: The Impact Of The U.S. Embargo On The Health And Nutrition In Cuba: