Cuba’s fight against Machismo

Krishan R. Kania

December 5th, 2016

Princeton, NJ — The recent death of Fidel Castro has spawned a combination of mourning and celebration as people around the world debate his legacy of promoting socialism, reducing poverty, and combatting racial inequality. The subject of gender equality, however, has not been addressed as often, partly due to its complex nature. The tension lies between the seemingly positive national statistics on gender equality and the unsettling daily experiences of Cuban women, reflecting a deeply rooted culture of sexism and machismo.

Machismo, characterized by the promotion of traditional gender roles, exaggerated masculinity, and the belief that a man must be fully responsible to provide for and protect his family, is very much engrained in Cuban society. In fact, researchers Peter Glick and Susan T. Fiske found that Cuba ranked the highest out of 19 nations (including other Latin American countries such as Columbia, Chile, and Brazil) in both hostile and benevolent sexism, factors that correlate strongly with gender inequality: hostile sexism refers to an attitude of antipathy towards women who are perceived to be challenging men’s dominance, whereas benevolent sexism refers to an attitude of protection and affection towards women who embrace conventional gender roles.

Walking down the streets in Havana, you will quickly encounter examples of sexism and sexual harassment, such as the constant catcalls, or piropos, and other non-physical solicitations towards women. Furthermore, the norm persists in Cuban society that men should hide their emotions, avoid displaying any feminine traits, earn enough income to provide for their families, and treat women as “trophies”. While studying abroad in Cuba, I was personally asked, on multiple occasions, “how many girlfriends do you have?”, in a tone that signaled that having multiple concurrent heterosexual relations is an affirmation of masculinity.

In recent years, Cuba has made great strides in dismantling aspects of the machista mindset, largely through the efforts of Fidel Castro’s niece Mariela Castro, one of the leaders of Cuba’s LGBTQ revolution. For example, today, there is much greater visibility in alternative sexual orientations, greater acceptance for metrosexuality, and more educational efforts to challenge machismo than ever before. The Cuban government has also become more attentive to the medical needs of the LGBTQ community, offering free sex-reassignment surgery, distributing condoms, supporting the health of sex workers, and ensuring access to anti-retroviral drugs for anyone afflicted with HIV/AIDS. However, the progress towards specifically reducing gender inequality has been complicated.

On one hand, according to the Global Gender Gap Report from 2016, 62 percent of Cuba’s professional workers are women, 91 percent of Cuban women have at least a secondary education, and 49 percent of the country’s parliament is female. On paper, these statistics are compelling, but they are also misleading. For example, being a professional worker, such as a doctor, does not yield the same level of respect or financial reward that it would in other countries — Cuban doctors earn, on average, just $30 USD per month. Also, since the liberalization of the Cuban economy, men have shifted towards higher paying jobs that do not require a technical education, such as those associated with the fast-growing tourism industry within the private sector (e.g. taxi driving or hotel management). Similarly, though the Cuban Congress is well-represented by women, it has virtually no power in Cuban politics. In reality, the Cuban Communist Party, only 7 percent of which is female, makes all the major political decisions.

In short, Cuban women are still confronted in their daily lives with many of the power dynamics that reinforce sexism within a machismo culture. Although Cuban women have shifted into more professional roles, Cuban men have retained access to the highest-paying jobs, reinforcing gender inequality.


Culhane, John. “Fidel Castro Put Gay Men in Labor Camps. His Niece Mariela Is Leading Cuba’s LGBTQ Revolution.” Outward — Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation. Slate, 26 Nov. 2016. Web.

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications for gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56(2), 109.

“The Global Gender Gap Report 2016 — Cuba.” World Economic Forum. Web.

Wadley, Nicole. “The Truth About Gender Equality in Cuba.” Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. Georgetown University, 1 Oct. 2015. Web.