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CUBA: Machismo Not O.K. – But Not Yet K.O.’d

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Dec 4 2007 (IPS) - Gradually, more men in Cuba are declining to take on traditional masculine behaviour patterns, and women who oppose the machismo and sexism that still predominates are opening up ways of changing gender relations, beyond the effects of official measures taken to promote equality over the last 50 years.

The debate about masculinity in this Caribbean island nation is beginning to grow in academic circles, the media and society in general, prompted by challenges to machismo, the rise of “metrosexuality” and the greater visibility of sexual orientations other than the heterosexual norm.

“Male and female gender constructions have gone through many of the same changes as Cuban society in the past 15 years,” Julio César González Pagés, the coordinator of the Ibero-American Masculinity Network, told IPS. The country has experienced the longest economic crisis in its history over the last decade and a half.

González attributes these changes to economic factors, because some working women now earn more than their partners, and to the effect of “public policies promoting greater equality between the sexes. This has caused traditional concepts to be re-examined, not only at university level, but within families themselves,” he said.

Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the authorities have encouraged women’s participation in traditionally male-dominated spheres, particularly in the world of work, which has caused a relative shift in power away from men, and a slow but steady decline in machista or sexist dogmas.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2007, published by the World Economic Forum, indicates that 62 percent of the country’s technical and professional workers are women, although they remain a minority in parliament and the cabinet, where they hold 36 percent and 16 percent of the seats, respectively.

Nevertheless the report ranks Cuba as the 22nd country out of 128 in terms of gender equity, putting it in first place within the Latin American and Caribbean region.

Experts regard the new attitudes towards paternity among some young fathers, who share responsibility for bringing up their children with the same loving care that was previously associated only with mothers, as one of the most telling expressions of the breakdown of the conventional model of masculinity.

However, in many Cuban homes the economic crisis of the early 1990s reinforced the model of male dominance, with men being assigned the role of breadwinner and women being relegated to unpaid domestic duties and the care of children, the elderly and the disabled.

The norm is for boys to be educated in the belief that they must be strong, daring, and successful at their studies, work and sports. They should hide their feelings, treat women as trophies, and avoid any traits construed as feminine.

“Boys don’t cry,” and “behave like a man!” mothers and fathers tell their sons over and over from an early age. “How many girlfriends do you have?” people ask boys, an early initiation into a race where the man who takes the most women to bed is the winner.

An article by González in the Cuban magazine “Temas” says that the ethos created by the revolution “has fought against expressions of machismo in relation to women, but has maintained those related to men themselves, which means the predominant values of masculinity have not changed.”

Sexism or male supremacy, said the university professor, continue to be represented “by white, urban, heterosexual men.” This is the reality, which contradicts “laws, decrees and legal instruments against discrimination and exclusion on the basis of social, racial and gender barriers,” but reflects the complexity and durability of gender identity constructions.

Homosexual masculinity has been the target of some of the worst discrimination by those maintaining the machista mindset, which labels men who choose to have sex with other men as effeminate and perverted.

González was one of the organisers of the University Forum on Masculinity and the Culture of Peace, held at the Cerro municipal university in Havana on Nov. 21 and 22, which was attended by community leaders, professors, intellectuals and students.

The research projects and final year undergraduate thesis plans presented and discussed at the meeting addressed topics seldom debated openly in the family or the community, such as gender violence, emigration, race issues, pornography, and legislation on sexual diversity, all of which were analysed from the point of view of masculinity and femininity.

“If discussions like those held in this university forum are reproduced in the media and the educational system in general, academia could be integrated into the debate taking place in society as a whole,” González said.

González, who teaches the subject of masculinity and a culture of peace for the Master’s degree course on gender issues at the University of Havana, acknowledges that “the academic study of masculinity at Cuban universities is a very recent phenomenon, and it is still a small discipline,” although some students have chosen to focus on the subject for their theses.

In fact, a gender equity group at the Universidad de Oriente, in the city of Santiago de Cuba, 850 kilometres east of the Cuban capital, and another group focusing on sociocultural studies at the Universidad Marta Abreu, in the central province of Villa Clara, are also making efforts to stimulate research on masculinity.

The forum included a presentation on sexual health for men who have sex with other men (MSM) by the National Centre for Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Infections-HIV/AIDS, and a debate on metrosexuality, in which one of the participants was Cuban fashion designer Raúl Castillo.

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