CAMP 2016: In Cuba, women (and journalists) are more equal, but still face challenges

Cristina Escobar says, “We don’t dress like that.” Like journalists in the US, she says, she battles stereotypes about her home country of Cuba. Behind her is panelist Melinda Voss and moderator Rosemary Armao.

Story by Angilee Shah, 2016 JAWS Fellow | Photo by Erica Yoon, CAMP photographer

Cuban journalist Cristina Escobar has been to the United States  six times. And for the most part, she feels that she has common cause with those attending the Journalism and Women Symposium conference in Roanoke, Va., in October.

“How is it to be a journalist in Cuba? I don’t feel that it’s very different from many of you,” she said in a panel about her home country on Oct. 30. Other JAWdesses on the dais were Melinda Voss, Kathy Bonk and moderator Rosemary Armao.

Cristina, 29, was born in Havana and works for Cuban national television and specializes in politics — “the kind of work made by old men,” she said. But, she said, in her job, she is able to provide news coverage that includes the interests of younger people. She was appointed as special correspondent on U.S.-Cuban issues when talks began at the end of 2014.

Still, self-censorship is part of her working life.

“There are a lot of boundaries that are there because we think they’re there,” Cristina said. “I try to go near them, go over them and then come back. I do believe those boundaries are reconfiguring every day.”

But she sees Cuba, still, as a place with many freedoms.

“We don’t say everything we want in the media, but in the social area, people talk about whatever they want. They don’t care. Hey, post it on Facebook.”

Cristina began by talking about an issue that might feel familiar to many in the U.S.: representation and stereotypes. She showed an image that appears high in Google searches for Cuba, of a woman with a cigar wearing a colorful dress and a big smile.

“We don’t dress like that,” Cristina said.

One of her U.S. trips, in May 2015, was as part of the first delegation of Cuban journalists to attend a White House press briefing.

“We were invited, and I think they thought we were going there to be amazed,” she said. “We were there to work.”

She, of course, raised her hand to ask a question, but White House press secretary Josh Earnest never looked in her direction. About an hour in, an American reporter asked when the last time a Cuban journalist was able to ask a question. Cristina was finally called on and seized the opportunity, to ask not one question, but six.

“It was the first time that a Cuban journalist from Cuba asked a question in a White House press briefing,” she told the conference-goers.

Struggling to be recognized, be called on and ask rigorous questions are shared issues for women journalists in the U.S. and Cuba. Cristina pointed to one way that the two countries differ: In Cuba, women dominate in media. They are more often the on-air journalists in television news and are more than half of all journalists in radio and print. They also have wage equality.

“We all earn the same salary, according to the job you do. It’s not a very good salary, but at least it’s the same one that men have,” she said.

Still, women in Cuba also have progress to make in terms of taking on leadership positions in media.

Sixty percent of professors of higher education in Cuba are women, 52 percent of scientists and medical doctors are women, and half of lawyers are women, Cristina said. But women spend much more time doing housework than men and disproportionately shoulder the burden of caring for a rapidly aging population. They also carry the burden of Cuba’s struggling economy more heavily than men because they often run their households.

“For example, a woman at home doing something won’t let a man help her because she knows how to spend those resources,” she said. “If a man does something, he will spend more.”

In Cuba, though, women do have good information about and access to contraception and it is fully legal to have an abortion, and their babies are usually born healthy. So women are able to think through and decide when they want to have babies — which has contributed to Cuba’s low birth rate problem.

These are the kinds of issues that interest Cristina in terms of the future of her country. As relations with the U.S. warm, she wants to report on how Cuba will meet the challenges of growing their economy, transitioning from a Castro-led government, and reforming their constitution.

“The U.S. is like gravity in terms of politics. We are supposed to be like the U.S. and the idea of having our borders more open and a bigger dialogue creates more debate. And I don’t see that as a bad thing,” Cristina said. “I think the Cuban culture is very strong.”