Interview with Aimara Peña: “The government believes that women in politics are an easy enemy to destroy”

Aimara Peña (Sancti Spiritus, 1988) decided to stand as an independent candidate to become a delegate of the National Assembly of People’s Power in Las Tosas, the village of 2,000 inhabitants where she resides, in the province of Sancti Spiritus. She studied to be a teacher, her interest in community politics stems from her experience as an activist, she is a journalist and independent librarian, which has brought her closer over the course of years to the necessities and pressing needs of the neighborhood.

Aimara is determined to demonstrate that the work of activists on the island is completely legal, to motivate other neighbors who are afraid to participate in politics and, above all, to give a new and true strength to the role of delegate, as a figure responsible, according to her, not only to send a message, but to press the government to heed what the people are demanding.

Despite counting with support in her community, as the elections approached, the Citizens for Change initiative, which had been supporting her, turned its back on her, and on the day of the vote, a strong State Security operation coerced the neighborhood and obstructed the vote in which she could have been elected. However, Aimara endured the meeting until the end, and is firmly determined to continue trying to be the voice of her community, despite the obstacles that women face in doing community politics in Cuba, both by the government and the political opposition.

Have you ever been discriminated against for being a woman once you decided to announce yourself as an independent candidate for becoming a delegate of the National Assembly of People’s Power?

When I decided to run for this election, I was aware that for a woman to do politics is difficult anywhere in the world, but in Cuba it is twice as difficult. I have been involved in political and social activism for several years, I have done independent journalism and I know from personal experience that in Cuba, being a patriarchal state, there are cultural and political barriers that are more powerful than the legal ones. I remember that when I arrived in Havana from Colombia, the customs authorities and State Security detained me and confiscated a copy of the Cuban Electoral Law, which they described as subversive material. Then, an officer came up to me and said: “Girl, what do you do, do you have any children?” I answered yes, and he said reproachfully: “It is hard to believe that a woman like you is concerned with these topics.”  Being a woman, for the repressors, is a weakness, and therefore a woman that chooses to do politics is an absurd decision, since we should be taking care of our children.

Aimara Peña by Alietser Prats

How did your family react when you told them you wanted to become a delegate? Did anyone make an issue out of the fact that you’re a woman?

My family is respectful of my decisions, but they worry about my safety, and that was one of the issues that generated the most conflict. As an activist, you always have State Security forces on top of you, but the pressure becomes even stronger when you enter the electoral process. At that moment, the grassroots organizations in the community (the Communist Party, the Union of Young Communists, the Federation of Cuban Women) start to be concerned about you, and this entails the beginning of defamatory campaigns against you, in which they accuse you of being “a bad wife and mother” for taking up your time with politics. These type of macho comments, always made in public, make it difficult to maintain a sense of harmony within the family.

From whom did you receive more support, men or women?

Within the community, I received support from women, as well as from men, but women undoubtedly show more respect, because men in Cuba don’t take the idea very seriously that a woman can make a difference in political issues. There is a popular belief that men are more suitable for public service, and women should develop themselves within the domestic sphere.

What kind of threats have you received from the State Security forces?

Most of the threats made by the State Security forces have been aimed at the stability of my family: my children, my husband, my mother and my father. They have tried to negotiate with the schooling of my eldest son, and to defame my reputation as a wife and mother. In fact, they have carried out some of these threats, because they are convinced that a woman’s family is her weakness, but they have not managed to get me to turn away from my vocation.

So the threats are mostly related to being a woman …

Absolutely. For them, being a woman in this society and wanting to do politics is something that simply doesn’t go together, and the fact that a woman is active in politics is in itself a weakness. They focus their threats on our roles as mothers, daughters and wives. They believe that we are an easy enemy to destroy.

Yet, they haven’t destroyed you … after everything that has happened, why have you decided to continue?

Because I’m convinced that I’m doing the right thing and I’m doing it well. I announced myself as a candidate because I was going to win, even if I did not get nominated. The experience that my community went through was a victory that they will never be able to change: the fact of having changed the image of what elections have always been like in Las Tosas and turning it into something competitive where there are different options, has opened a path from which there is no turning back.

Why did Candidates for Change turn their back on you? What role do women have in the platform?

I’m not sure, I’ve heard from third parties that the board decided to suspend me from my duties and cut ties and communication with me, without even informing me.

In this project there are several women, I don’t know the exact number of them, but I can say that none of them make decisions on the platform level. Although, they granted us ranks with impressive titles, we were always informed about the decisions after they had already been made. And when some shone for their work, they turned their back on them as they did to me. I believe that the fact of being a woman is still a problem up to today in regard to doing politics within the Cuban opposition, and the fact that  leaders do not recognize this is the first symptom.

Despite not being able to count on the support of Candidates for Change, you decided to present yourself as a candidate for delegate all the same…

Although what happened with Candidates for Change was only a week before my nomination assembly, and even though I was detained by the State Security forces, who happily reminded me that I had been abandoned; I wasn’t alone, and I didn’t feel isolated. I made a commitment to all the people who always supported me and I was ready to do it because I had worked on this more than a year. Although I wasn’t able to get the nomination, during the assembly I managed to demonstrate within the community that there is no democracy and that the official discourse, according to which all Cubans have the right to choose and be elected, was dismantled. I could not leave everything half-done just because someone made a decision that was very different from what I had been striving for.

Do you want to continue doing politics?

Since I was very young I have had a calling for public service; I have the desire to do good things for the community, and the work has just barely begun. This experience has shown me what our reality is, but the change will occur when the idea matures and the people manage to break through the fear and the obstacles that are holding them back today. Meanwhile, you have to work under any circumstances; an idea, a desire, a goal cannot be abandoned before they are achieved.

Why do you think it is important for women to do politics in Cuba?

I believe that women are perfectly capable of understanding the problems of others and of carrying our projects. The political class has to connect with the reality of its environment in a human way and not to lose sight of this during its mandate; and in that, women are really good.  Furthermore, in Cuba women should not give up on their aspirations to participate in politics, because they have an obligation to earn the respect and their right to the spaces that the stereotypes of society have taken away from them.


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