Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Framing for Change: Social Policy, the State, and the Federación De Mujeres Cubanas

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Framing for Change: Social Policy, the State, and the Federación De Mujeres Cubanas

Article excerpt

Much has been written about the complexities of social policy development and change in liberal democracies, particularly welfare states.1 Contributors to these debates argue over the relative importance of institutional, cultural, and behavioral variables, as well as the degree to which policy represents broad societal interests.

Analyses of policy in other political systems (socialist states, nonliberal democracies, or authoritarian regimes) are few and far between, and they seem to fall into one of two camps. The first reduces policy development to predetermined and enduring political configurations: policies are the outcomes of the political priorities of governments; there is no independent policy process that includes the possibility of participation from competing actors. The second insists on the uniqueness of individual cases, with limited prospects for generalizability or model building.

The case of Cuba is often treated in this way: either as an example of strict socialist dogma or as an exceptional case. In this article, however, I examine gender equality policy in Cuba to determine whether (1) there is an independent policy process that invites participation from competing or contesting actors, (2) the development of gender equality and women's rights in Cuba is simply a product of socialist orthodoxy, and (3) there are any prospects for the integration of welfare state models and Cuban political and policy development.

My argument derives from Sheryl Lutjens's observation that ''the experiences of Cuban women cannot be deduced from claims about an archetypal socialist state and its relation to a generic socialist woman. Indeed, the disturbing facts of the post-socialist transition underscore the measurable advances made by Cuban women, as well as the particularities of a Cuban strategy defined by both policies and problems.''2 However, although Lutjens's assertion rejects the reductionist view, it is also necessary to seriously question the particularistic view. To do this, I consider the political dimensions of policy framing (a concept applied almost exclusively in the context of liberal democracies and welfare states) for gender equality and health care in Cuba.

The research presented in this article was generated through fieldwork in Cuba between 2004 and 2008. During that period, I made six separate trips to Cuba, during which I traveled to the capital, Havana, and to smaller urban and rural locations on the island. The focus of my research was on the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC),3 and I conducted all my communication with the organization through the headquarters in Havana. I interviewed several women in the organization and conducted follow-up interviews. In addition, through ethnographic and extended case methods,4 I was able to speak informally with many other Cuban women about health and gender equity and to observe aspects of family life in rural areas. I also conducted a thorough analysis of primary and secondary sources, to situate my own findings and interpretations.

My conclusion, based on this research, is that although there is no independent Cuban feminist movement as such, and the authoritarian nature of the communist regime is an incontrovertible political fact, the FMC's role has been to exert constant pressure for policy change. The FMC leaders, as policy insiders, negotiate with governmental actors and state institutions for concessions, acknowledgments, and adaptations that the government is not (initially) inclined to make. Of course, there are limits to the range of discursive possibilities. Yet to dismiss the FMC as a passive appendage of the government is to fail to understand the complexity and strength of women's agency and political participation. Doing so also misses the opportunity to consider the dynamics of agenda setting and issue framing outside of liberal democratic contexts.

In the pages that follow, I argue that the FMC has advanced positions that differ substantially from state policy and employed human rights strategies to pressure a seemingly recalcitrant regime for change in the areas of reproductive and maternal health, education, and gender identity. …

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