In this two part interview, Her Excellency, Josefina de la Caridad Vidal Ferreiro, the Ambassador of Cuba in Canada, speaks about Cuban women in government and shares some interesting perspectives on the lives of women in her country. The interview took place in late January at the Embassy of Cuba in Ottawa with the editor of Cuba Business Report, T.K. Hernández.
Ambassador Josefina Vidal was born in 1961. She holds a Bachelor´s Degree in International Relations from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, MGIMO (1984).
After several years working as an Assistant Researcher at the University of Havana´s Center for the Study of the United States (1984-1990), she joined Cuban Foreign Service, where she has had a long diplomatic career. She served as an Analyst at the Cuban Embassy in France (1990-1997) and as First Secretary at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington (1999-2003).
Afterwards, Ms. Vidal spent 15 years at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, first as Deputy Director (2004-2006) and then Director (2006-2012) of the North America Division. In 2012, she became Director General of the newly created United States General Directorate (until 2018). In this capacity, she led the Cuban delegation that negotiated in 2015 the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States.
In January 2018, she was awarded the rank of Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba and in March, she became Ambassador to Canada.
She is fluent in English and French, and has knowledge of Russian.
Ambassador Vidal is married.
Cuba Business Report: Good morning Ambassador. I have a few questions to ask you about women in government in Cuba. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. Cuba holds second place in the world for the number of women in lower parliamentary seats. Of the 605 seats – if I’m incorrect, please correct me – 322 are held by women and this is a statistic from May of 2018. First of all of these numbers correct?
Ambassador Josefina Vidal: Yes they are correct. Of the 605 seats, 322 are held by women which represents 53.2% of the total seats of the parliament and that proves the Cuban parliament is second place in the world with the largest presence of women in government after Rwanda.
There are three important positions in the parliament, the President, the Vice President and the secretary of the Cuban National Assembly, and the Vice President and the Secretary are women. And there are 10 permanent committees and four of them are chaired by women, so you see we have seen all over the time the role of Cuban women growing and their presence in the Cuban Parliament representing different municipalities of the country.
Also, you have to take into consideration there are the provincial governments and in 10 of the 15 Cuban provinces (14 provinces and 1 special municipality), the heads of the provincial governments are women.
Cuba Business Report: Is the age of this group younger now?
Ambassador Vidal: It is younger. I didn’t bring that number but I think the average age of the Cuban parliament now is 49 years old. It’s a very young parliament.
Cuba Business Report: The Berkley Center reported in 2015 that the Cuban Communist Party is made up of only seven percent of women. Has this number changed?
Ambassador Vidal: I don’t have the statistics for the Communist party as a whole all over the country to know how many women are members, affiliated with the Communist party, and I cannot validate this data because I don’t know if the source is accurate.
But I have the number for the members of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.
There are 148 members in total in the Central Committee, 67 of the 148 are women, which represents 45.47%.
Cuba Business Report: What are the challenges women in politics face today?
Ambassador Vidal: There was a revolution in Cuba 60 years ago, and there was also a revolution for the role of women in society, that changed overnight in a very significant way.
But for many years we didn’t have the same presence of women in politics that you were seeing of women in other sectors of the society, as you know scientists, doctors, nurses, teachers, in culture, artists. You didn’t see that number growing as fast in the political sphere. But in the last few years that number has been growing. And you see now more women involved in politics in Cuba.
Cuba Business Report: Do you think the problem at that time after the Revolution was because women didn’t possess the correct educational requirements or connections to the right people?
Ambassador Vidal: I think it’s more of a traditional, cultural nature, not a problem but a reality, because in spite of the fact that we have given women from the very beginning of the Revolution the same rights as men, even the same rights to have access to different positions in society, there is still you know a lot of weight of the domestic work at home on the life of women.
So there is a conflict between public life and domestic life, because most of the work at home still is on the shoulders of women. No matter how much we have done, no matter how much progress Cuban men have made, you know still women are very much responsible in the house for looking after the children, the family. We have a growing problem in Cuba with the aging population. So now you find more and more women who have to take care of their older parents.
And that is growing because the Cuban population is aging in a very rapid way. You find some indicators in Cuba which normally are not indicators present in developing countries are more indicators of developed countries. But in Cuba we have this contradiction, because of the access to education, to health, to social security, the aging population is growing very fast and the younger population is not growing as fast. So now you have women not only looking over the children, the education of children, but also the aging parents, and so a lot still has to be done from, let’s say, in the educational, cultural work so there is a more balanced share of responsibilities at home between all members of the family.
I won’t say only between men and women, all members of the family, so that women are released from this conflict they always have between the amounts of work they have to do at home and a political responsibility.
And also I think that we have to do more maybe from the social point of view to recognize more, the women who are in politics because sometimes you know, it’s not necessarily done intentionally, but the idea is that if you have a lot of responsibility in politics or not only in politics, in any kind of administrative position it could be a research institution or University or Hospital, whatever, it will add more work to you and that puts a lot of pressure on women, so maybe we have to do more like recognizing, you know that what they do is important, that what they do is very well seen by the society. So to compensate the idea that this is too much for women, you know, so it’s more of a cultural and let’s say cultural, educational issue.
And you know, it’s not just a matter for the government approving policies that help in that regard. For example, we have a new maternity law. The maternity law permits not only women, but also men and they can receive part of their salaries if they take care of the child because it’s most important for the family that the woman works than the man because economically it brings more to the family and you find a little bit more men doing that.
But we need more, we need to show there are policies, legislations oriented to help change the whole balance or the whole of the situation but we need to do more from the cultural and educational standpoint.
Cuba Business Report: Just out of curiosity, how long is the maternity leave for women in Cuba?
Ambassador Vidal: One year and you receive 65% of the salary so you can be at home with your child for one year and you receive a big part of your salary. Now we give that possibility to men to take care of their children which is good. This is quite new.
Which is good but you still don’t find too many men doing this but there are some. And now even if the woman and the man are important for the whole family that they work, we are paying grandparents to take care of the small children. This is quite new too.
So to help the whole family, because if the woman and the man need to work and there is a retired grandmother or grandfather, they can take care of the children. They, the grandparents are being paid for the work of taking care of the children. This is very good. So the government continues looking for solutions, for creating the right conditions so that women work and have more responsibility in society (work-life balance).
Cuba Business Report: Are there programs in Cuba to advance the status of women in government and society you’ve just explained some of the maternity benefits. For example, does the Federation of Cuban women still play a prominent role in Cuban Society?
Ambassador Josefina Vidal: The Federation of Cuban Women has always been very important, although it has been changing over time adapting to the realities of the country. At the beginning and even now the Federation was key and was very important for approving in Cuba nondiscriminatory legislation and to design and implement government policies and programs that could help achieving equality between the sexes.
Many laws such as the maternity law I just explained to you, have been enacted in Cuba, mainly at the initiative of the Cuban Federation of Women. The maternity law is one of them but there is the Family Code. This is very important. This is a law in Cuba to establish the rights and duties of the family. It will be reviewed after the Constitution is approved to look at the concept of family, at the concept of marriage, so to expand that possibility in Cuba. The Family Code and the labor laws are very advanced, are among the most advanced in Latin America because many rights are there for women.
The Federation of Cuban Women has played an important role also in international organizations such as the United Nations and its agencies that promote the improvement of the status of women. Cuba was the first country to sign and the second to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. So that gives you an idea about the importance that we attribute in Cuba to gender equality and to the role of women in society.
In the most recent period, the Federation of Cuban Women is more focused in other social issues that are important not only for women but for the society in general. For example, they still look about how to fight against the remnants of, you say, machismo. That’s important because that still exists; it has not been eliminated in Cuba, although we have made a lot of progress.
But at the same time, the Cuban Federation of Women is paying a lot of attention to gender violence. I cannot say that this is a major social problem in Cuba, even when you compare Cuba with other countries, it is not as let’s say as present. The manifestations are different. According to a study I read, in Cuba gender violence is more of a kind of a psychological violence. It is less physical, less economic; it is more emotional, psychological.
Economic, no, not too much because women, many of them are independent, they can work, they can sustain themselves, they do not depend on men, the majority of them. Yes, there is some physical violence as anywhere else, but it’s not so present as you see in other countries because there is a lot of focus and attention. For example in Cuba, the Federation of Cuban Women established Casas de Orientacion for women and the family all over the country. Those are institutions present in every municipality to give support to females, heads of families, single mothers, anyone who needs some assistance, guidance, help, even for orienting those who are victims of violence.
Just recently, last year, the Federation of Cuban Women signed a collaboration agreement with the Attorney General’s office for the use of a telephone line to report acts of violence against women. So they’re looking a lot after this specific issue. Also the Federation of Cuban Women is paying a lot of attention to social cases of, for example, dysfunctional families. They do some kind of social work too in the fight against addiction, mainly among young people, so they’re looking at how to assist, how to help in cases where they detect there are young who are addicted to drugs. This is not a big problem in Cuba, because our drug policy is very tough, but it exists. The Federation of Women is doing a great job in that specific regard. So you see now it’s not so much as at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution to encourage women to go to work, to go to study, to become independent economically though they still do that because not all Cuban women work.
According to our statistics, when you look at the civil state sector of the economy, women who work at State institutions is 49% of the whole workforce, so it’s almost half of the workforce in the Civil State sector of the economy. Not all women work, so still the Federation of Cuban women promotes that and does this kind of work to encourage women to work, to study but they don’t have to put so much emphasis as they had to do many years ago. So now they still do that but at the same time they also have as a role to help the society, to help families and I think it’s very important.
Cuba Business Report: What in your view on gender equality in Cuba? Is there a glass ceiling for women such as in government, as there is everywhere else in the world?
Ambassador Vidal: So we spoke a little about this already, throughout history, you can find women who played a very significant leading role in the struggle for the independence of Cuba from Spain, in the subsequent revolutionary struggle in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, but it wasn’t after 1959 when conditions were created in Cuba so that women could develop their potential. Actually, when you look at the statistics in the fifties, only 10% of the workforce of the country was women and so there is a complete change now only looking at the number of women as I said to you working in the civil sector of the State economy, which is 49%. So there has been a huge change as I mentioned. A revolution occurred in the status of women, the women started working massively in Cuba, participating in the country’s social life, reaching economic independence, autonomy, freedom from the previous dependence on men. I think we have made a lot of progress when you compare Cuba with other countries with the same level of development.
I think we did it because from the very beginning, the government set up as a goal for the Revolution to increase the role of women in the society.
Cuba Business Report: So it came from the top down?
Ambassador Vidal: Yes, yes, so it’s not a coincidence that Vilma Espin, who was the wife of Raul Castro and who was involved in the Revolution, was the person who created the Cuban Federation of Women. From the very beginning she had the support of the government to do that.
Many Cuban women from all over the country were brought to big cities to study, to work, to be trained. There were many illiterate women. There was a program in Cuba to overcome this problem in the country. That was solved at the very beginning. Fidel at that time said women were a revolution within the revolution, and that without women the Revolution would have been impossible.
So that gives you an idea about how from the very beginning women were seen as an important factor in Cuban society for all the changes we wanted to do in our country. Now we can say there is no sector in Cuba, political, economic, social, cultural, scientific, sports, even defense in which women are not present. They are present everywhere.
Cuba Business Report: Was there, in the beginning, resistance among men?
Ambassador Vidal: I’m sure, I was young, but I am sure there was resistance for many years, as you are suddenly trying to change a society. Actually there were many films done in the 60s and 70s and their main topic was the struggle for women to get freedom from the dependence on man.
Ambassador Josefina Vidal: I have some numbers for you about the role that women play now in our country:
*67.2% of technicians and professionals in Cuba are women,
*48% of political and administrative leaders,
*81.9% of teachers, professors and scientists,
*80% of prosecutors, presidents of provincial courts, professional judges.
It has never been a problem for Cuban women from the very beginning of the Cuban Revolution to receive the same salary as that of a man for the same kind of work. It was really a surprise for me to see that the Canadian Parliament just passed that legislation.
Sexual reproductive rights are guaranteed. You know this is a problem in many countries.
But we cannot think that everything is done, so we have to continue doing our educational work, it’s a permanent activity that we have to do.
Cuba Business Report: My next question was about a quote by Fidel. He said, “We must have a party of men and women, a leadership of men and women, a state of men and women.” We discussed this in part already, but how else have women achieved equality in Cuba?
Ambassador Vidal: In Cuba there are no quotas. But, the State, the party, are looking to giving the same opportunities to everyone, regardless of being black, white, women, men, homosexual. In our Ministry, 44% of our ambassadors are women and it was not like that many years ago. It was very rare in the first years after the creation of our Ministry 60 years ago.
So you have to give the same opportunities to all and that has been helping to increase the presence and the role of women.
This interview to be continued.