Setting the scene
Cuba is an island nation consisting of the main island, Cuba, and numerous small islands, cays and islets, many of which are entirely covered by mangrove. It is the largest island in the Caribbean and spans a surface area of 110,860 square kilometres (42,803 square miles), about the same size as England. The United States lies 150 kilometres (93 miles) to the north with The Bahamas to the northeast, Mexico to the west, Jamaica to the south and Haiti to the southeast. The capital is Havana.
Cuba has a population of just over 11,000,000 but data indicate a decline in the birth and population growth rates. An increase in emigration has led to a high population aged 65 and over. Life expectancy is 77 years for men and 80 for women.
The climate is warm, humid and subtropical with an average temperature of 25.5ºC. Due to its geographical location and elongated shape, Cuba is very prone to hurricanes.
Cuba is an indigenous word which means ‘cultivated land’ and the earliest inhabitants were native Arawaks from Venezuela and Guyana who settled here because of the fertility of the soil. However, with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, they were subjected to hard work in slave-like conditions by the Spanish colonisers, resulting in their gradual and almost complete extinction. They were replaced with slaves brought in from various parts of Africa.
Over the centuries a new level of society emerged with the ‘criollo’ – men and women born in Cuba but of Spanish descent – who had a new way of thinking about their national identity. In 1868 a criollo freed his slaves and initiated the first struggle against Spanish colonialism. Although this ‘Ten Years War’ did not free Cuba from Spanish rule, it did inspire others to take up arms and in 1895 fighting against the Spanish army began. In 1898 the government of the USA mediated the break from Spain but Cuba now had to submit to North American interests.
Cuba became a Republic in 1902 but under its new Constitution the United States retained its right to intervene in the internal matters of the island whenever they felt it necessary. In 1934 a new treaty repealed the United State’s right to intervene but its rights over the Guantanamo naval base were maintained by lease.
1950 a dictatorship devastated Cuban society and poverty was widespread. A new movement was formed under Fidel Castro and other leaders such as Ernesto Ché Guevara and in 1959 a revolution, supported by the communist bloc, overthrew the dictatorship.
Following the revolution the USA imposed an embargo on Cuba and in 1961 there was a complete breakdown in relations between the two countries when Cuba’s first democratic socialist government was elected.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the great political and economic changes in socialist countries today, had a devastating effect on Cuba, which had been supported politically and economically by the countries of the socialist bloc. This was made worse by the trade embargo that the United State’s government maintained over the country.
However, there is hope for the future: on 17 December 2014, both governments, under President Raul Castro in Cuba and Barak Obama in the United States, announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The trade embargo is still in place and talks continue over a range of issues. It will be important to keep up-to-date with the current situation as we approach March 2016.
Education and Health
Although the educational system was established in 1522, when the first schools for primary education were opened, most Cubans did not fully access education until 1961 after the revolution when a literacy campaign was initiated. Now people are able to study free of charge from primary school right through to university. The Faculties of Medical Sciences, in which a considerable number of women enroll each year, are outstanding.
Currently in Cuba women are in the majority in the educational system, not only as students, but also as educators at all levels.
Cuba has a health system with numerous programmes of prevention, health promotion and early diagnosis for all ages and conditions.
Cuba has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Research into the diagnosis and treatment of cancer is given high priority although it is difficult to obtain raw materials and some medicines from overseas. Cuba has the highest ratio of doctors per head of population in the world. Health specialists travel to many places where doctors have never been seen before. Hundreds of young people from all over the world take up scholarships to study in Cuba. Cuba’s principle is that everyone who needs medical attention is treated free of charge and without discrimination.
Since 1940, when the second constitution of the Republic was approved, the family, maternity and marriage have received the protection of the State and both spouses have absolute equality of rights. The traditional model of the family, governed by European Christian canons, has been altered by new legal issues, such as divorce and separation. Family life has been affected by many shortages and the limited access to housing for new married couples. Some church groups, as well as the Woman and Gender program of the Council of Churches of Cuba, carry out training programs that contribute to the strengthening of the multiple models of the Cuban family.
After the revolution, the government of Cuba restricted religious practice leading to an atheist state. In 1990 the constitution re-established the lay character of the State and guaranteed religious freedom. This enabled people to return to the public practice of faith. Many congregations had survived through the extraordinary work of women who had taken on the leadership when so many pastors had been conscripted or had emigrated. In most Cuban congregations today women have high level roles.
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination, reflecting the Spanish history. During the 19th century a number of Protestant churches were established and now there are over 60 denominations.
The Council of Churches in Cuba brings together most denominations and among its various programmes is one for integral education of women and the family.
Islam Judaism, Spiritualism and New Christian Religious Movements with fundamentalist tendencies are also present.
The Situation for Women
Although discriminated against in the past, Cuban women today play an important role in society, family and church although there are still some elements of a patriarchal culture in all levels of society.
After the revolution in 1959, women were active in building up a new society and improving their education and professional training. In 1961, the Federation of Cuban Women was formed, to demand the rights of women, children and the family.
Today more than 46% of persons employed in the public sector are women; women constitute 68% of the technically and professionally qualified labour force and 39% are managers. . According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Cuba occupies 4th place in the world on the scale of countries with the most women in their Parliament.
Nevertheless, it is still primarily men who occupy key positions in economy, politics and religion.
For more information on Cuba see our magazine ‘Together in Prayer’ and our CD Rom containing a Powerpoint presentation on Cuba with script. All our resources are available to purchase at your local preparation day or direct from the office.