May 23, 2015 at 12:00 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Cuban LGBT advocate challenges Mariela Castro

Juana Mora Cedeño, Havana, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Juana Mora Cedeño speaks with the Washington Blade on May 18, 2015, while visiting a colleague’s home in Havana. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

HAVANA — Juana Mora Cedeño of Proyecto Arcoiris, a Cuban LGBT rights organization that works independently of the country’s Communist government, arrived at her colleague Matute’s home in Havana’s sprawling Vedado neighborhood shortly after 6:30 p.m. on May 18.

Matute was watching an American crime show on television that she downloaded onto a memory stick and talking on the phone when Mora sat in a chair next to an oscillating table fan in her small living room. Matute brought her a Cuban coffee, and she sipped it as she spoke about Proyecto Arcoisis with the Washington Blade.

“Our collective principle in Arcoiris (rainbow in Spanish) is the rights of people in the (LGBT) community,” said Mora.

Mora — who is an artist — told the Blade that members of her group work “on a variety of things” that include art exhibitions and panels with independent Cuban journalists. Proyecto Arcoiris also publishes a magazine that contains articles and photographs from contributors in Cuba, the U.S. and other countries.

“We seek to empower people,” said Mora.

Few ‘spaces’ for LGBT Cubans to meet, talk openly

Mora spoke with the Blade two days after Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, who directs the National Center for Sexual Education, led an LGBT Pride march in the provincial capital of Las Tunas to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Mariela Castro and her group, known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX, have publicly supported efforts to amend the country’s employment law to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace. Transgender Cubans since 2008 have been able to obtain free sex-reassignment surgery under the country’s national health care system, but critics of Mariela Castro and CENESEX maintain less than 30 people have been able to undergo the procedure.

Mora also questioned efforts to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Cuba that Mariela Castro publicly supports.

“In Cuba it doesn’t exist,” Mora told the Blade, referring to the Cuban Constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. “There is no (marriage equality) in Cuba. They are curious words.”

Mora also noted she feels there are few “spaces” for LGBT Cubans to gather freely, even though a variety of groups are affiliated with CENESEX.

LGBT-specific events take place at bars and clubs throughout Havana, but Mora told the Blade the government operates many of them.

Hundreds of people on May 17 attended a state-sanctioned party at Mi Cayito, a gay beach east of the Cuban capital, to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia. A small, tattered gay flag was flying over the beach when the Blade visited it the following day, but Mora said police have previously conducted raids there.

Mora told the Blade that Havana’s oceanfront promenade known as the Malecón is one of the only places in the Cuban capital where LGBT people can gather and speak openly.

Hundreds of LGBT Cubans gather each night along the Malecón near the Hotel Nacional with musicians singing and playing their instruments, couples dancing salsa and street venders selling candy and flowers. Men and women who work as prostitutes (jineteros or jineteras in Cuban Spanish, depending upon their gender) can also be found in the area.

“It attracts everyone,” Mora told the Blade, referring to the Malecón. “It’s where people meet each other, where they talk to each other about their things, where they can be clearly seen with their people.”

Activist met with Nancy Pelosi in February

Mora is among the independent Cuban human rights advocates who met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress in February during their trip to Havana.

The advocate told the Blade that Pelosi greeted her and asked her about her work during a luncheon she attended at the home of Jeffrey DeLaurentis, chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Mora during the interview pulled out of her notebook a letter that she received from the California Democrat after the Feb. 20 meeting.

“We appreciated hearing your perspective on both the opportunities and challenges that small business owners and other entrepreneurs currently face in Cuba,” wrote Pelosi to Mora on her official letterhead. “It was an informative conversation for members of our delegation and demonstrated your strong commitment to the success of our enterprise.”

Juana Mora Cedeño, Havana, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Juana Mora Cedeño received a letter from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after meeting with her in Havana in February after the Obama administration announced it will begin to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Mora met with Mariela Castro before meeting with Pelosi. The advocate told the Blade during a telephone interview after she met with the California Democrat that CENESEX is “not really representative” of LGBT Cubans.

“In Cuba there exists a word called dissident if you disagree with the government,” said Mora during the May 18 interview. “We really don’t consider ourselves dissidents, but we are in this category.”

“In Cuba there is not just one point of view,” she added.

Mora told the Blade she hopes the normalization of relations between Havana and Washington that President Obama announced late last year will help ease some of the problems that Cubans continue to face because of the island’s economic situation. She also expressed optimism for the future of her organization and other independent LGBT rights advocates on the island.

“All of us are agents of change,” said Mora. “I believe that if we all believe in something, we can change it.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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