Rifles, reports and high-heeled shoes
I came to Cuba with my heart in my mouth, aware of how burningly important it is for the developing nations that Cuba not be a fraud or a failure.
My arrival coincided with the fourth congress of’ the Federation of Cuban Women – the FMC. Billboards and posters announced it all over Havana: toda la fuerza de la mujer en el servicio de la revolucion. The logo was an art-nouveau-ish montage of Kalashnikov rifles and Mariposa lilies. I was not keen on the implications of either.
The floodlit exhibition pavilion was turned over to the exploits of women. And women, whose bottoms threatened to burst out of their elasticised pants, tottered around the exhibits on four-inch heels, clutching their campaneros for support. Their nails and faces were garishly painted. Their hair had been dragged over rollers, bleached, dyed and coloured. Their clothes, including their brassiers, were all two or three sizes too small and flesh bulged everywhere.
The next day my minder from the Ministry of Exterior Relations came to take me to the Palacio de Congresos for the first session of the FMC Congress.
The whole day was taken up with the reading of the informe central, the official 157-page official report to the Congress. The reader was Vilma Espin, president of the FMC, alternate member of the Politburo, member of the Central Committee, wife of Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother. She read correctly and quietly: a calm, matronly figure, hard to associate with the slender girl who had organised the medical support system during the lucha clandestina and joined the guerrilla fighters in the Sierra Macstra. I complained that she was hardly a charismatic speaker. ‘She does not have to impress us,’ answered one of the delegates. ‘We know her. She is our Vilma.’
Beside her, in the front row of the serried ranks on the dais, sat Fidel Castro, quietly reading through the report. I expected him to make some formal rhetorical statement and leave, as befits a totalitarian figurehead putting in a token appearance for the Association of Townswomen’s Guilds. To my surprise, he sat there quietly the whole day long: reading, caressing his beard, thinking and listening.
The next day he was there again. As one of the delegates waxed eloquent on discrimination against women in the workplace, a man’s voice interjected: ‘This is the heart of the problem, isn’t it? Women’s access to work?’ I looked about, wondering who owned these mild, slightly high-pitched, tones. It was Castro, leaning forward earnestly, intent on participating – not leading, but participating.
The women claimed that they were considered more likely to absent themselves from work because of their family responsibilities, but that, in fact, the ausentismo of women workers was often less than that of men. Fidel pointed out that women shoulder a double duty, which is unequal. The women argued that they were not prepared to give it up. Sometimes when the Head of State wagged his hand for recognition, the chairperson ignored him. At other times, the delegates noisily disagreed with him, crying ‘no, no!, some even booing.
I had been prepared for chants of ‘Fidel! Fidel!’ But nothing had prepared me for this. I thought ruefully of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi: both incapable of listening, especially to someone who disagreed with them.
All the time Fidel made jokes or selected funny comparisons, continually pressing the delegates to give concrete, living examples. Eventually we discovered that women did not want men to have the same leave to absent themselves from work for family reasons, because they would abuse it and use the time to visit other women – or at least the delegates thought they might. And thus one of the most fascinating contradictions in Cuban sexual politics was drawn out in a public forum of 1,400 participants.
All afternoon the debate surged on, with Vilma at the helm, steadily working through the order paper. And all the next day, when delegates complained that, if the day-care centres were closed – for any one of 100 reasons: lack of water, sickness of staff – women were called away from work to take care of their children. Because the day-care centres did not operate on the free Saturdays, which fall every two weeks, women were effectively prevented from undertaking the extra voluntary work that led to distinction and Party membership.
Fidel noticed that the Minister of Labour and Employment and the Minister of Education had not bothered to attend the Congress. ‘They should be hearing this,’ he said. ‘Watch,’ said one of the Cuban journalists. After lunch the chairs on the dais had all been moved up, and lo!, the ministers in question had appeared to answer the women’s demands.
When the sessions rose, the women leapt to their feet, waving coloured nylon georgette scarves and matching plastic flowers, pounding maracas, bongoes, conga drums and cowbells, clapping their hands and singing fit to bust. Hips gyrated, scarves flashed, flowers wagged. The syncopated thunder roared round the huge building, sucking the tiredest professional congress-makers out of their offices to watch as the women put on a turn that would have shamed a Welsh rugby crowd into silence.
They were so delighted – with the occasion, with Fidel, but above all with themselves – that I forgot how clumsy some of them looked in their harsh-coloured and badly made synthetic suits and the crippling high heels they thought appropriate to the situation. I abandoned my posture of superiority and let myself be impressed.
The first evening the delegates were taken to a ballet. They arrived stomping and chanting, sat chatting eagerly about the day’s doings, and, when the dancing had started and silence was finally imposed, a good proportion of them went straight to sleep.
They snored through the whole thing, but woke up with a start to watch the eighth wonder of the world – Alicia Alonso, 66 years old and virtually blind – dance a pas de deux with Jorge Esquivel to music by Chopin.
Her line was exquisite. And if, once or twice, things went slightly wrong – such as when she slid out of a lift and down Jorge Esquivel’s nose, so that his eyes streamed with tears – the audience had no intention of feeling, let alone showing, any dissatisfaction.
Alicia Alonso came back to Cuba at a time when artists and skilled technicians were leaving in hordes. She promised her people a world-class ballet. And she kept her promise. She danced in complete confidence, on a stage she could no longer see, borne up less by Esquivel’s strong arms than by the love and loyalty that surrounded her.