(This is part of the Jersey City in Havana Series, multimedia stories produced by St. Peter’s students who spent Spring Break in Cuba.)
By Isaaida Carmona-Belliard, Class of 2020
Mirtha Garcell was born and raised in Cuba. She is successful operating a boarding house in the tourism area in Havana, Cuba. Her parents were farmers, but at the age of 19, Mirtha felt that she did not want to farm and moved to the city looking for better opportunities.
Mirtha went to college for free. In Cuba, education is free, unlike the United States where many students and their parents have to finance college with loans and scholarships. She worked and had a family.
Mirtha said she is grateful to live in a country where she does not have to worry about her children’s welfare while they are in school.
“Nothing in the world is worth more than peace of mind,” she said in an interview with me referring to the recent mass shootings in the U.S. She said this following a comment about the recent mass school shootings in America.
In 1959 before the Revolution, women struggled for equality. According to Malena Hinze, in her article “The Revolutionary Role of Women in Cuba”, women played a role of second class citizens, by working as servants for the rich in low paying jobs. While they were allowed to work, women’s responsibilities were at home, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children.
Few women held positions within the government. Women that served in “guerrillas” or civil wars, were Celia Sanchez, Melba Hernandez, Haydee Santamaria and Vilma Espin. There are many other women that fought against the tyranny and oppression of the government.
The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) was founded in 1960, by Vilma Espin and supported by Fidel Castro to defend equal rights and end discrimination. Vilma Espin was a revolutionary, a chemical engineer and wife of Fidel’s brother Raul Castro. FMC fought against prostitution.
In the path to equality, schools were established, women were taken off the streets and educated, and everyone including people of color were educated. Daycare centers were created to help working mothers. In Chapter VI. Equality Article 44 of The Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, states:
Women and men have the same rights in the economic, political, cultural and social fields, as well as in the family.
The state guarantees women the same opportunities and possibilities as men, in order to achieve woman’s full participation in the development of the country.
The state organizes such institutions as children’s day-care centers, semi-boarding schools and boarding schools, homes for the elderly and services to make it easier for the working family to carry out its responsibilities.
The state looks after women’s health as well as that of their offspring, giving working women paid maternity leave before and after giving birth and temporary work options compatible with their maternal activities.
The state strives to create all the conditions which help make real the principle of equality.
Women equal rights are embedded into the Constitution punishing any form of discrimination, and also allowing women to hold Public Service Positions and to serve in the Armed Forces.
Mirtha said women are allowed to pursue pursue any degree for any profession of their choice. Women make up 44% of the workforce in Cuba and 66% of women hold public service jobs.
Women are business owners, teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and even lieutenants in the army. She also admits that education is important, but, it does not pay a living wage. In the case of doctors and surgeons, she said they are true humanitarians because they do not get paid their worth. Doctors are paid about thirty pesos a month. The communities in return give the doctors food and anything they can provide in return for their service.
She also said, that up to this day women still do not earn equal pay as their male counter parts. Women are paid 28% less than men.
I also asked Mirtha about healthcare. She said it was free for Cubans. She added that there are problems within the facilities and materials and medical supplies are scarce or not available. She said sometimes there are not enough beds available for sick people. There is a community doctor and nurse assigned to each neighborhood.
Women receive extra care during their pregnancy. They are assigned a doctor and a nurse that follow up with their health. The woman must be healthy and take care of herself. To ensure that babies are born healthy, women are educated in pre-natal care. Infant mortality is 0.02 % the lowest in comparison to Latin America. Maternity leave is 90 days and up to a year with 60% percent regular pay. Cuba is the first Latin American country to legalize abortions. Mirtha said that abortions are legal within a specific time, and if it is determined that baby might test positive for a deferment or illness.
During my stay in Cuba, I learned a lot talking to Mirtha and other people around the area. I found there are mixed feelings about the current situation in Cuba. Some people would happily leave and live anywhere else in the world, and others would not think twice about leaving their country. Mirtha is one of the people that loves her country, and would not leave it for anywhere in the world.
Women Store Employee – “Judy”
Video by Brian Bates, Class of 2021