Freelance writer and Cuba scholar Rebecca Bodenheimer reports on the #YoSíTeCreo movement in Cuba, writing that alleged assaults by musicians have sparked a larger conversation on gender violence in the country. Read full article at Foreign Policy.
On April 18, one of Cuba’s most prominent musicians, José Luis Cortés, died suddenly at the age of 70 after suffering a stroke. Known by his nickname, “El Tosco” (“the rough guy”), Cortés founded the dance band NG La Banda, one of the pioneers of the Cuban salsa style called timba, the most popular genre on the island from the late 1980s to the mid-aughts.
But Cortés was also known for his machismo, both in his music and life. In 2019, Dianelys Alfonso, known as “La Diosa” (“the goddess”)—a singer with NG La Banda from 2003 to 2009—said that Cortés had repeatedly sexually assaulted and beaten her during the course of their romantic relationship. In a subsequent interview, she expressed fear of retaliation by Cortés, saying he sent her a threatening text warning there would be “consequences” after she went public. She also described him as physically abusive with his ex-wife and another woman in the band. Upon news of his death in April, Alfonso wrote on Instagram that every word she’d said about Cortés was true—and that he wouldn’t be hitting anyone anymore.
Alfonso’s 2019 allegations are considered the beginning of an organized #MeToo movement in Cuba, which was popularized with the hashtag #YoSíTeCreo (“I do believe you”). A corresponding platform with the same name was subsequently founded by an anonymous group of Cuban feminists as the “first Cuban platform to support people in situations of sexist violence.” [. . .]
Little has changed in the male-dominated, state-run Cuban music industry since 2019. Now, a much larger case of alleged sexual assault involving dozens of victims has underscored the urgency of not only the #YoSíTeCreo movement but also the larger fight against gender-based violence in Cuba.
Last December, several women publicly accused singer-songwriter Fernando Bécquer of sexual assault or attempted assault. Bécquer is not a household name, nor does he have anywhere near the level of influence that Cortés had. But the scope of this case is much bigger, and the tally of accusers now stands at roughly 30 women, according to the independent Cuban media outlet El Estornudo, which published the accounts of 16 women in March. These testimonies span over two decades, from 1999 to 2021, and three of them are by women who were minors at the time of their alleged encounters with Bécquer. Mario Luis Reyes, the El Estornudo journalist who has been covering the case, has said that after the first piece was published in December, he received “an avalanche” of messages from other women saying they were victims of Bécquer; among them were at least five who had been minors at the time of their alleged assaults.
The accounts depict a clear pattern of grooming. Virtually all the women who shared their stories said they expressed interest in the Yoruba-derived religion Santería before their encounters with Bécquer, who claimed to be a high priest of the religion. He would then suggest a religious cleansing that involved sexual acts to solve their problems, they said. (It should be noted that no actual Santería ceremonies involve sexual activity.) [. . .]
While some state institutions have made vague declarations denouncing violence against women since the allegations surfaced, very few have mentioned Bécquer. Only one, the Pablo de la Torriente Brau Cultural Center, a Havana-based institution dedicated to rescuing and promoting oral history and collective memory, has released a statement explicitly supporting the women who accused him. A few high-profile musicians have come to his defense, and Bécquer clearly felt emboldened enough by their support after Cortés’s death to address the #YoSíTeCreo activists on Facebook, telling them to “find a husband or wife you like and respect the memory of the maestro José Luis Cortés (El Tosco).”
Havana-based activist Marta María Ramírez, who has been advocating for survivors of gender violence since 1995, estimates that only seven women have made police reports against Bécquer—less than a quarter of the women who have made anonymous allegations. Although the police have launched an investigation into Bécquer, Ramírez said, “There is so little transparency around the whole process [of reporting sexual assault] that we don’t even know the number of formal accusations.”
While many of Bécquer’s accusers fear possible retaliation from him, Ramírez said some simply don’t believe in the ability of institutional structures to obtain true justice. #YoSíTeCreo said this case reveals that current legislation, which doesn’t treat gender violence as a specific form of violence stemming from misogyny, “is extremely flimsy because it’s so out of date.” [. . .]
While visibility around gender violence has been growing in recent years, the fight to reform Cuba’s legal system has been much slower.
Cuban feminist activism against gender violence dates back to the 1990s, when the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the state organ tasked with overseeing women’s issues in Cuba, set up counseling centers in each province to support domestic violence victims. But research conducted by feminist scholar Ailynn Torres Santana has concluded that the FMC counseling centers’ reach is quite limited. Between 2015 and 2018, the center in the eastern Cuban city of Baracoa only assisted in 28 cases of intimate partner violence, even though during that same period there were 360 related police reports.
A rare national survey conducted by the Cuban government in 2016 revealed that over a quarter of Cuban women had been subject to intimate partner violence within the previous 12 months, and almost 40 percent had experienced that sort of violence at some point in their lives. Less than 4 percent of women who had experienced intimate partner violence had turned to the authorities. There is also evidence that the rate of domestic violence has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The #YoSíTeCreo movement emerged in the same year Cuban feminist activists petitioned Cuba’s National Assembly for a comprehensive law against gender violence, in November 2019. Following the model of other Latin American countries, such a law would guarantee that the Cuban Penal Code treat gender violence, including femicide, as a specific crime related to the historic and continued subjugation of women, including transgender women.
Because there is no established protocol for cases of gender violence in Cuba, #YoSíTeCreo explained, the police treat it as they would any other crime. The activists described the typical process that a domestic violence victim undergoes “within the obsolete, revictimizing Cuban justice system.” [. . .]
[Photo above: Cuban singer Dianelys Alfonso from https://www.dw.com/en/metoo-cuba-will-the-movement-spread-to-the-island/a-49375437]