MEXICO CITY — More than a dozen Cuban LGBT rights advocates on the morning of Oct. 30 were huddled on the floor along the wall of a large ballroom of a Mexico City hotel during the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association’s biennial global conference.
The activists — wearing white T-shirts that highlighted Cuba’s participation in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia earlier this year — were finalizing their presentation in support of their country’s bid to host the 2016 ILGA World Conference. They quickly walked to the front of the room once LGBT advocates from the African country of Botswana finished their own presentation.
A lesbian and transgender woman held a large Cuban flag at the front of the ballroom as Manuel Vázquez Seijido and Yasmany Díaz Figueroa spoke from the podium. Their presentation included a slideshow with pictures of hotels in Havana, the Cuban capital, and videos of events associated with the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Several of the activists passed out condoms and pro-LGBT literature as many members of the audience clapped and cheered “Cuba.” Díaz even noted during the presentation that Cuban doctors have traveled to West Africa to help combat the Ebola epidemic.
“[The ILGA conference] would be a good thing for all sectors,” said Díaz.
Delegates to the ILGA World Conference ultimately choose Thailand to host the biennial gathering in 2016, but the activists’ bid underscores the progress that many feel Cuba has made in extending rights to its LGBT citizens over the last decade.
Mariela Castro seen as champion of LGBT rights
Supporters of Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the country’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), maintain she has spearheaded a number of pro-LGBT initiatives in recent years. These include a condom distribution campaign and prompting the country’s national health care system to offer free sex-reassignment surgery to trans Cubans.
Mariela Castro was president of the local committee that organized an ILGA conference in May that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from Latin America and the Caribbean to Havana and the beach resort of Varadero.
Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban Parliament, late last year voted against a proposal to add sexual orientation to the country’s labor law because it did not include trans-specific protections. She has also publicly backed marriage rights for same-sex couples on the Communist island.
Isel Calzadilla Acosta, coordinator of the Network of Lesbian and Bisexual Women in the city of Santiago de Cuba in the eastern part of the country, during an interview with the Washington Blade at the ILGA World Conference praised what she described as Mariela Castro’s advocacy on behalf of LGBT Cubans.
Calzadilla said her organization formed in 2003 in response to Mariela Castro reaching out to local activists to work for CENESEX.
“We have seen many advances,” Calzadilla told the Blade. “CENESEX supports us with capacity building and with events and we attribute everything that we are doing to them because we have a voice with Mariela Castro.”
Argelia Fellové Hernández of the Network of Lesbian and Bisexual Women in Havana agreed, noting Cuba’s gay-inclusive labor law and events that commemorated the annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
“Our island has come a long way in recent years, compared to many countries around Cuba,” Fellové told the Blade during an interview at the ILGA World Conference in Mexico City.
Mariela Castro took part in a legislative panel during the ILGA World Conference.
She did not respond to the Blade’s repeated requests for an interview while in Mexico City.
Gay Cubans sent to labor camps in 1960s
Mariela Castro’s efforts stand in stark contrast to the LGBT rights record of her uncle, former Cuban President Fidel Castro, in the years following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Fidel Castro’s government in the 1960s sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production or the Spanish acronym UMAP. Authorities until 1993 forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria.
Cuba repealed its sodomy law in 1979.
Fidel Castro during a 2010 interview with a Mexican newspaper described the persecution of gay Cubans in the years following the revolution as “a great injustice.”
LGBT rights advocates who oppose the government — and Mariela Castro in particular — insist authorities continue to face harassment under public assembly laws.
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier were among the hundreds of people detained at a popular gay nightclub in Havana in 1997. Cuban security officials in September 2012 reportedly detained Leannes Imbert Acosta, national coordinator of the Cuban LGBT Platform, an umbrella organization of independent advocacy groups, as she left her home to deliver materials on a planned exhibit on the 1960s labor camps to CENESEX.
Cuban authorities in May reportedly arrested and “savagely” beat David Bustamante Rodríguez, an LGBT rights advocate with HIV, during a “peaceful protest” at his home near the city of Santa Clara. Neither Mariela Castro nor the Cuban government responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the incident.
A group of independent Cuban advocates criticized organizers of the ILGA conference that took place on the island in May over their decision not to invite them to the event. Mariela Castro’s supporters have repeatedly denied these claims.
Many of the Cuban advocates who attended the ILGA World Conference in Mexico City work directly with CENESEX.
‘Totalitarian regime’ leaves LGBT Cubans isolated
Ignacio Estrada Cepero, founder of the Cuban League Against AIDS, is among the independent advocates who continue to criticize Mariela Castro.
Estrada’s wife, Wendy Iriepa Díaz, is a trans woman who once worked for CENESEX.
“Mariela totally manipulates the LGBT community,” said Iriepa during a trip to D.C. in the summer of 2013 with her husband.
Cuban-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) remains among the most vocal critics of Mariela Castro and her father’s government.
The Florida Republican last month blasted the ultimately unsuccessful bid to hold the 2016 ILGA World Conference in the Cuban capital. Ros-Lehtinen in May 2013 sharply criticized Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based LGBT advocacy group, over its decision to honor Mariela Castro at its annual dinner.
Ros-Lehtinen a few months later met with Estrada and Iriepa in her Capitol Hill office.
“It’s very important for the U.S. community to understand what is the status of LGBT rights and the denial of rights in Cuba,” said Ros-Lehtinen after the meeting to which the Blade had exclusive access. “Mariela Castro, as part of the regime, has been on a propaganda tour internationally and here in the U.S. especially trying to sell this facade that is really non-existent in Cuba.”
Pedro Luís García Macías, a blogger and photographer who lives in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, appeared to agree with Ros-Lehtinen during a telephone interview with the Blade on Sunday.
“The department that she directs does not do complete work,” said García, referring to CENESEX and Mariela Castro. “It does not respect the complete diversity of the human being, the diversity of thought.”
García added the government has left LGBT Cubans “very isolated.”
“Many people are afraid to think freely because of the totalitarian regime,” he told the Blade.
Cuban advocates who support Mariela Castro with whom the Blade spoke during the ILGA World Conference were quick to blast Ros-Lehtinen and others who criticize her.
“When someone offends [Mariela Castro] it is very offensive to us,” said Calzadilla. “She has been able to understand our pain, our problems and we defend her at all levels. These people who left Cuba don’t know our Cuban reality.”
Fellové told the Blade she has “never” heard these criticisms.
“They are lies,” she said.
U.S. embargo is a ‘great impediment’
Both Calzadilla and Fellové told the Blade the U.S. embargo against Cuba has adversely affected the island’s LGBT residents.
Calzadilla said she and other advocates have faced difficulties obtaining certain medical instruments. She told the Blade the embargo makes it impossible for her to travel to the U.S. with a group of women who work in Cuba.
“I, as a Cuban activist of the people, have the opportunity to go there to demonstrate to them what the women in Cuba are doing,” said Calzadilla. “It appears that in my case the embargo is a great impediment because I will not be able to express what we are doing.”
Fellové stressed the embargo continues to have a widespread effect.
“It affects our children, our neighbors, our parents in the area of medicine,” she said. “The blockade affects a lot.”
García has a far different view.
“The blockade does not exist,” he told the Blade. “An embargo is what exists; better yet what we have is a mental embargo. The mental embargo that we have as Cubans here ensures that we cannot move forward.”
García said he wants to leave Cuba, but is unable to do so because of the cost.
“We are exhausted,” he told the Blade. “We are out of thoughts. We are out of ideas.”
Calzadilla on the other hand is far more optimistic about their future and that of their fellow LGBT Cubans.
“I am clearly optimistic,” she told the Blade. “I could say that because I have been in activism for many years and because I have seen the positive changes.”
“We are well-respected,” she said.