Presbyterian Commission on the Status of Women delegates meet with Cuban delegation

The Cuban delegation reports that women’s rights there have resulted in economic, scientific and educational advancements

by Melody K. Smith | Presbyterian News Service

NEW YORK — On Wednesday, March 8 — International Women’s Day — members of the PC(USA) delegation to the 67th Commission on the Status of Women were hosted by Yuri A. Gala López, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Deputy Permanent Representative of Cuba to the United Nations, at the offices of Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations.

The gathering was coordinated by Sue Rheem, Representative to the United Nations and Director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, to provide space to hear the voices and stories from the Cuban delegation around women’s equality in Cuba.

“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a long and rich relationship with Cuba. Our witness began in 1890,” said Rheem at the opening of the gathering.

The Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022), is pictured with Ambassador Yuri A. Gala López, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Cuba to the United Nations. (Photo by Rich Copley/Presbyterian Mission Agency)

Gala López welcomed the group and then invited members of the Cuban delegation to share stories on the history of women in Cuba, their contributions to the economic and development of the country, as well as the equality and representation of women in leadership in Cuba. The delegation reported the following impressive statistics:

  • Sixty-six percent of professionals in Cuba are women.
  • The number of Cuban women who hold government office is growing. Currently, 313 of the 605 members in parliament are women.
  • The new process of Cuban elections has resulted in increased female candidates — currently 55% of candidates are women.
  • Women have a large presence in education, health and science. They currently represent 55% of scientists in Cuba.
  • 55% of lawyers and 66% of the Supreme Court are women.
  • Wages are equal between men and women.

Despite these statistics, the delegation reports that Cuba has not peaked when it comes to gender equality. “It was born in the revolution and continues,” one delegate said.

Not surprisingly, in Cuba there is access to universal and free education for all. Even though there are efforts to make others believe there is no freedom of religion in Cuba, the delegates assured the group, “this is a lie.”

During the fight against Covid, Cubans worked to develop their own vaccines, foreseeing the challenge of getting vaccines from outside the country because of the trade embargo. Five vaccine candidates were developed in Cuba and three were approved. The protagonists of these vaccines were women; most Cuban citizens were able to be immunized. Scientists have produced other vaccines against hepatitis and cancer, and they are also women.

Ironically, treating their citizens was challenged by the lack of access to medical supplies during the pandemic.

“As we have gathered our efforts in the development in biotechnology, the blockade hinders us from producing them,” one delegate shared. “When we were in the middle of the pandemic and Cuba needed oxygen in the very worst moments, Cuba asked the global community — including the United States — for oxygen to treat their patients. No one answered the call. The obstacle to technology — scientific and economic — is the blockade.”

“The main obstacle for women’s rights in Cuba is the United States [embargo],” said one delegate. “It is a greater form of violence against women.” Despite all these advancements in women’s rights, medical equipment shortages can hamper treatment in Cuban hospitals, where it is a matter of life and death.

During an opportunity for questions, Emma Johnston, the Young Adult Volunteer for the United Nations office, said, “I am really surprised and inspired by these numbers,  because sometimes it feels like a far-off dream. But to know you have already achieved that gives us hope as we look at our House of Representatives, where we are not seeing that.”

Since 1969, the church has addressed U.S.-Cuba relations with a focus on human rights, immigration and regional tensions sprouting from the Cold War. At the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis (2018), the PC(USA) reaffirmed its partnership with the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba. In 2016, the 222nd General Assembly approved a policy focusing on the “Nuevo Momento” in the country. This included support for the reclamation of private property lost during the revolution, normalization of diplomatic relations and immigration policies, an end to U.S. attempts to encourage regime change or isolate Cuba, and the return of Guantanamo Bay. Recent polices have also encouraged the U.S. to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and lift all travel restrictions for U.S. citizens visiting Cuba.

Every year since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has voted in favor of condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba. For years, the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations would send letters of support to member-states, asking missions to support this cause. In 2018, this advocacy and relationship-building culminated in an ecumenical meeting of faith leaders with the president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel.

The PC(USA) continues to accompany Cubans through the work of mission personnel and church partnerships. Ministry in Cuba tends to focus on diaconal work in the communities, church development, and Christian education through the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas. The Cuba Partners Network is made up of congregations and presbyteries with a commitment to explore partnership with the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba (IPRC). Members encourage reflection, prayer and conversation on the relationship between the partner churches, their governments and their people.

Members of the delegations paused a moment for a group photograph. (Photo by Rich Copley/Presbyterian Mission Agency)

“This meeting is very important to us because we know that you also fight for a better world,” said one delegate, “a world where we can all have the same opportunities, where families can grow — not only economically but spiritually.”

The Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022), offered her thanks for the time and for delegates’ willingness to share their stories. Leading the entire group in prayer, she asked that God “help us to be good and faithful siblings.”

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