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En Casa: Women and Households in Post-Soviet Cuba*


This paper argues that the household has become a renewed space of significance for Cuban women in the post-Soviet period. It draws from existing scholarship and ethnographic fieldwork conducted with women in the city of Santiago de Cuba to discuss the effect of post-Soviet crisis and reform upon women's domestic practices, the management of domestic economies, and longstanding gender ideals that link women to the domestic sphere. Physical, economic and social factors leading to post-Soviet Cuban women's increased concentration upon the household are argued to be both the result of pre-existing social orientations towards households as a womanly space and a response to specific politico-economic shifts since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Este artículo sostiene que el hogar se ha vuelto un significativo espacio renovado para las mujeres cubanas en el periodo post-soviético. Se basa en textos y trabajo etnográfico conducido con mujeres en la ciudad de Santiago de Cuba para discutir los efectos de la crisis post-soviética y las reformas sobre las prácticas domésticas de las mujeres, el manejo de las economías domésticas, e ideales de género de largo plazo que vinculan a las mujeres con la esfera doméstica. Factores físicos, económicos y sociales que conducen a una creciente concentración femenina en los hogares en la Cuba post-soviética son señalados como el resultado tanto de orientaciones sociales preexistentes, como de un espacio feminizado, alrededor de los hogares y como una respuesta a las transiciones específicas desde el colapso de la Unión Soviética.

Palabras clave: Cuba, mujeres, hogares, post-soviético, antropología

Este artigo propõe o lar como um renovado espaço de importância para mulheres cubanas no período pós soviético. Ele faz uso de estudos existentes e de trabalho de campo etnográfico realizado com mulheres da cidade de Santiago de Cuba para discutir o efeito da crise e reforma pós soviéticas sobre práticas domésticas femininas, sobre a administração de economias domésticas, e sobre ideais de gênero de longa data que ligam as mulheres à esfera doméstica. Argumenta-se aqui que fatores físicos, econômicos e sociais que levaram mulheres cubanas no período pós soviético a se concentrar mais no lar são ambos resultados de orientações sociais pré-existentes, na direção ao espaço doméstico como espaço da mulher, assim como uma resposta a deslocamentos político-econômicos após o colapso da União Soviética.

Palavras-Chave: Cuba, mulheres, lar, pós soviético, antropologia.

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1 Enríquez, Laura J., ‘Economic Reform and Repeasantization in post-1990 Cuba’, Latin American Research Review, vol. 38, no. 1 (2003), pp. 202–17: Pearson, Ruth, ‘Renegotiating the Reproductive Bargain: Gender Analysis of Economic Transition of Cuba in the 1990s’, Development and Change, vol. 28 (1997), pp. 671705; Mona Rosendahl, Inside the Revolution: Everyday Life in Socialist Cuba (Ithaca, 1997).

2 Laura J. Enriquez, ‘Economic Reform and Repeasantization’.

3 Similar occurrences of inter-generational transferring of domestic labour between women have been observed elsewhere in Latin America; see Chant, Sylvia, ‘Women, Work and Household Survival Strategies in Mexico, 1982–1992: Past Trends, Current Tendencies and Future Research’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, vol. 13, no. 2 (1994), p. 210.

4 Oscar Lewis, Ruth M. Lewis and Susan M. Rigdon, Four Women: Living the Revolution. An Oral Historical of Contemporary Cuba (Urbana, 1977); Oscar Lewis, Ruth M. Lewis and Susan M. Rigdon, Neighbors: Living the Revolution. An Oral Historical of Contemporary Cuba (Urbana, 1978); Rosendahl, Inside the Revolution, pp. 51–77.

5 L. M. Smith & A. Padula, Sex and Revolution: Women in Socialist Cuba (Oxford, 1996); Vilma Espín and Deborah Schnookal, Cuban Women Confront the Future (Melbourne, 1991); Maxine Molyneux, State, Gender and institutional change in Cuba's ‘Special Period’: the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas (London, 1996); Helen Safa, The Myth of the Male Breadwinner: Women and Industrialisation in the Caribbean (Boulder, 1995).

6 K. Lynn Stoner, From the house to the street: The Cuban Women's Movement for Legal Reform, 1898–1940 (Durham, 1991); Irma Arriagada, ‘Changes and Inequality in Latin American Families’, Cepal Review, vol. 77 (2002), p. 138.

7 K. Lynn Stoner, From the house to the street.

8 Cuba's very low fertility rates and widespread access to contraception have not been accompanied by a devaluing of motherhood as a concept of vital importance. Although Cuban women have fewer children than elsewhere in Latin America, and can more easily control when and with whom they have them, the importance of mother-child bonds not only for economic stability but also as the central element in kinship networks remains very important. A decline in fertility after the post-Soviet economic collapse can even be seen as a commitment to child-bearing as a venerated practice, with informants choosing to wait until they were economically able to provide for the children they intended to have. Garcia & De Oliveira's study of fertility and work in urban Mexico similarly found that although women's practices were changing to include higher workforce participation and fewer children, most women still considered their main source of identity to derive from motherhood. See Sonia Catasús Cervea and Juan Carlos Alfonso Fraga, ‘The Fertility Transition in Cuba’, in José Miguel Guzman et al. (eds.), The Fertility Transition in Latin America (Oxford, 1996), pp. 397–413; Garcia, Brigida and de Oliveira, Orlandina, ‘Motherhood and Extradomestic Work in Urban Mexico’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, vol. 16, no. 3 (1997), pp. 364–84.

9 Melhuus and Stølen, Machos, Mistresses and Madonnas, p. 12; Sylvia Chant with Nikki Craske, Gender in Latin America (London, 2003), pp. 9–13.

10 Helen Safa, The Myth of the Male Breadwinner: Women and Industrialisation in the Caribbean (Boulder, 1995), pp. 48–9; see also Verena Martínez-Alier, Marriage, Class and Colour in Nineteenth Century Cuba: A Study of Racial Attitudes and Sexual Values in a Slave Society (Ann Arbor, 1989), and Manuel Moreno Fraginals, The sugarmill: the socioeconomic complex of sugar in Cuba, 1760–1860 translated by Cedric Belfrage (New York, 1976).

11 Raymond T. Smith, ‘The Matrifocal Family’, in Jack Goody (ed.), The Character of Kinship 1760–1860 (Cambridge, 1973). For an example of critiques of Smith's model of matrifocality, see Christine Barrow, ‘Men, Women and Family in the Caribbean: A Review’, in Christine Barrow & Rhoda Reddock (eds.), Caribbean Sociology: Introductory Readings (Oxford, 2001), pp. 418–26.

12 de González, Nancie L. Solien, ‘The Consanguineal Household and Matrifocality’, American Anthropologist, vol. 67, no. 1 (1965), pp. 1541–49.

13 Ibid., p. 1542.

14 Safa, Helen I., ‘The Matrifocal Family and Patriarchal Ideology in Cuba and the Caribbean’, Journal of Latin American Anthropology, vol. 10, no. 2 (2003), pp. 312–48.

15 Smith, Sex and Revolution; Pearson, ‘Renegotiating the Reproductive Bargain’, p. 671; Molyneux, State, Gender.

16 Margaret Randall, ‘The Family Code’, in A. Chomsky, B. Carr and P. M. Smorkaloff (eds.), The Cuba Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham and London, 2003), pp. 399–405. See also Safa ‘The Matrifocal Family’, p. 315.

17 Safa, The Myth of the Male Breadwinner, p. 128.

18 Molyneux, State Gender, pp. 12–8. See also Vilma Espín and Deborah Shnookal, Cuban Women Confront the Future: Three Decades After the Revolution (Melbourne, 1991).

19 Louis A. Pérez, Jr, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, Third Edition (Oxford, 2006), p. 284.

20 Dualisms such as ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and ‘reputation’ and ‘respectability’ have been argued to correspond with Caribbean notions of masculinity and femininity – although some anthropologists have pointed out that men and women can also be seen to move between these dualisms according to context. See Diane Austin, Urban Life in Kingston, Jamaica: The Culture and Class Ideology of Two Neighbourhoods (New York, 1984); Peter Wilson, Crab Antics: the social anthropology of English-speaking Negro societies of the Caribbean (New Haven, 1973); Jean Besson ‘Reputation and Respectability Reconsidered: A new perspective on Afro-Caribbean peasant women’, in Christine Barrow and Rhoda Reddock (eds.), Caribbean Sociology: Introductory Readings (Oxford, 2001), pp. 350–70; Daniel Miller, Modernity, An Ethnographic Approach: dualism and mass consumption in Trinidad (Oxford, 1994).

21 Chant with Craske, Gender in Latin America, pp. 188–9; de la Rocha, Mercedes González, ‘The Urban Family and Poverty in Latin America’, Latin American Perspectives, vol. 22, no. 2 (1995), pp. 1231; Safa, The Myth of the Male Breadwinner.

22 C. M. Melhuus and K. A. Stølen, ‘Introduction’, in M. Melhuus and K. A. Stølen (eds.), Machos, Mistresses, Madonnas: Contesting the Power of Latin American Gender Imagery (London, 1996), pp. 12–3; Helen I. Safa and Peggy Antrobus, ‘Women and the Economic Crisis in the Caribbean’, in Lourdes Benería and Shelley Feldman (eds.), Unequal Burden: Economic Crises, Persistent Poverty and Women's Work (Boulder, 1992), pp. 49–82; Arriagada, ‘Changes and Inequality’, pp. 136–44; Chant, ‘Women, Work and Household’, pp. 226–8.

23 González de la Rocha, ‘The Urban Family’, p. 15; Chant, ‘Women, Work and Household’, pp. 226–8; Gates, Leslie C., ‘The Strategic Uses of Gender in Household Negotiations: Women Workers on Mexico's Northern Border’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, vol. 21, no. 4 (2002), pp. 507–26.

24 González de la Rocha, ‘The Urban Family’, p. 25.

25 Arriagada, ‘Changes and Inequality’, pp. 141–44; Chant, ‘Women, Work and Household’, p. 211; Catasús and Fraga, ‘The Fertility Transition in Cuba’, pp. 404–5; Safa, ‘The Matrifocal Family’, p. 332.

26 Sylvia Chant, ‘Women, Work and Household’, pp. 203–33; Garcia and de Oliveira, ‘Motherhood and Extradomestic Work’; Gates, ‘The Strategic Uses of Gender’.

27 Susan Gal and Gail Kligman, The politics of gender after socialism: a comparative-historical essay (Princeton, 2000), p. 5. Katherine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? (Princeton, 1996), pp. 79–82.

28 Frances Pine, ‘Retreat to the household? Gendered domains in post-socialist Poland’ in Chris Hann (ed.), Post Socialism: ideals, ideologies and practices in Eurasia (London, 2002). Molyneux, Maxine, ‘Women's Rights and the International Context: Some Reflections on the Post-Communist States’, Millenium, vol. 23, no. 2 (1994), pp. 287313.

29 R. M. Netting, R. Wilk and E. Arnould, ‘Introduction’, in R. Netting, R. Wilk and E. Arnould, (eds.), Households: Comparative and Historical Studies of the Domestic Group (Berkeley, 1984), p. xx.

30 Rosendahl, Inside the Revolution.

31 Susan Eckstein, Back from the Future: Cuba under Castro, Second Edition (New York, 2003), p. 99.

32 Ibid., p. 97.

33 Pérez, Cuba, p. 295.

34 Ibid., p. 294.

35 Isabel Holgado Fernández, ¡No es fácil! Mujeres cubanas y la crisis revolucionaria (Barcelona, 2000), pp. 131–73.

36 Pérez, Cuba, p. 305.

37 Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Profile: Cuba (London, 2008).

38 Further, many Cubans who do participate in the formal workforce would also rely heavily on black market income and remittances that are not reflected in official statistics.

39 Safa, ‘The Matrifocal Family’, p.324–5; Pearson, ‘Renegotiating the Productive Bargain’, p. 698.

40 Molyneux, Gender, State, pp. 31–5.

41 Mette L. B. Rundle, ‘Tourism, Social Change and Jineterismo in Contemporary Cuba’, The Society for Caribbean Studies Annual Conference Papers, vol. 2. 2001. Pearson, ‘Renegotiating the Reproductive Bargain’, p. 690.

42 Some neighbours were able to pay Reina because in 1993–5 many Cubans still had money; the problem was that there was nothing to buy, and subsequently black market prices for commodities skyrocketed. Services such as those which Reina performed would have been very affordable, but the ‘better-off’ neighbours would not have been rich or even sufficiently fed during this time.

43 Safa and Antrobus, ‘Women and the Economic Crisis’, pp. 69–74.

44 When I returned to visit Elisabeth in 2006, her sister had been sending money to her parents regularly for over a year, and had sent Elisabeth items such as baby clothes, bras, perfume and souvenirs.

45 Rosendahl, Inside the Revolution, pp. 28–50.

46 See also Jorge Pérez-López, Cuba's Second Economy: From Behind the Scenes to Center Stage (New Brunswick, 1995).

47 A fuller discussion of this point can be found in Anna Cristina Pertierra, Battles, Inventions and Acquisitions: the struggle for consumption in urban Cuba, unpubl. PhD diss., University of London, 2006, pp. 143–55; 170–213.

48 Stories of the fongo plantain skin ‘steaks’ were told to me independently by several women in Santiago as the example par excellence of the desperate creative lengths to which people resorted with their food preparation in the mid-1990s. Although I was unable to find evidence in newspaper and magazine archives from the period, some residents recalled television programmes and print columns advising on the properties of fongo and offering recipes for fongo 'steaks'. Holgado Fernández has also recorded an interview in which a recipe for ‘plantain mince-meat’ (picadillo de plátano verde) was given as evidence of the hardships of the early 1990s (Holgado Fernández, ¡No es fácil!, 2000, p. 63).

49 Eckstein, Back from the Future, p. 113.

50 Bohemia, 18 March 1994, p. 61.

51 Pearson's study discusses how women ‘put a premium’ on their domestic reproductive labour. Pearson, ‘Renegotiating the Reproductive Bargain’, p. 699.

* Fieldwork for this paper conducted in 2003/04 was funded by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland's Sutasoma Prize and Emslie Horniman Fieldwork Fund. Fieldwork equipment was funded by the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation. Follow up fieldwork in 2006 was provided by the University of London Central Research Fund. My thanks to Daniel Miller and Nanneke Redclift for their extensive feedback regarding the parts of my doctoral research upon which this paper was based, and to the peer reviewers for their constructive and detailed suggestions.

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