PHILADELPHIA – An advocacy group on Saturday honored Cuban President Raúl Castro’s daughter for her efforts in support of LGBT rights in Cuba.
“I’m very honored that this organization, Equality Forum, invited me to participate in this event this year,” Mariela Castro said during a press conference with the group’s executive director, Malcolm Lazin, at the National Museum of American Jewish History before she accepted her award.
“She is truly an international hero for LGBT equality,” Lazin added, noting there have been what he described as “remarkable changes for LGBT Cubans” because of Mariela Castro’s work as executive director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX.) “We are really very honored to have her here in the United States in an open forum.”
Mariela Castro has spearheaded a number of campaigns over the last decade to promote acceptance of LGBT Cubans and to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS on the island.
She successfully lobbied the Cuban government to begin offering free sex-reassignment surgery under the country’s national health care system in 2010.
Observers have credited Cuba’s condom distribution campaign and sexual education curriculum with producing one of the world’s lowest HIV infection rates. Cubans with the virus also have access to free anti-retroviral drugs through the country’s health care system.
Mariela Castro, whose uncle is former Cuban President Fidel Castro, in May 2012 appeared on a panel with Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in New York while she and other Cuban scholars visited the United States. She also met with LGBT advocates in San Francisco during the trip.
CENESEX has also scheduled a series of events across the country between May 7-18 to commemorate the annual International Day Against Homophobia.
“I am very proud of how we have advanced [LGBT rights in Cuba,]” she said during a panel at the University of the Arts earlier on Saturday that former GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios moderated.
Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas; Wilfredo Labiosa of the group Acceso and Philadelphia resident Ada Bella, who emigrated from Cuba to the United States in 1958 were the other panelists who joined Mariela Castro at the University of the Arts in Center City.
Mariela Castro, who has also spoken out in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Cuba, pointed out her mother, who directed CENESEX until she died in 2007, in the 1990s proposed an amendment to the country’s family code that would have defined marriage as a union between two people regardless of gender. She said during the panel that religious leaders and other Cubans questioned and even criticized her previous efforts to extend marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples.
Mariela Castro added she plans to continue to fight for these issues once she returns to Cuba.
“We want everybody to have the same rights,” she said. “I think that same-sex couples should have the same rights.”
Some Cuban LGBT advocates remain critical of the government and Mariela Castro herself in spite of these efforts.
Leannes Imbert Acosta of the Cuban LGBT Platform claims authorities detained her last September as she left her Havana home to bring materials to CENESEX on a planned exhibit on forced labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production – or UMAPs in Spanish — to which the government sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military services during the 1960s. Ignacio Estrada Cepero, a gay man with HIV who founded the Cuban League Against AIDS in 2003, stressed during a New York City panel last year sponsored by Cuba Archive, a group that documents the Cuban government’s human rights abuses, that those with the virus on the island continue to face discrimination — including more than 500 people with HIV/AIDS he claims remain in prison for what he described as the crime of “pre-criminal social dangerousness.”
The Cuban government in 1979 repealed the country’s sodomy laws, but its critics continue to stress authorities use public decency and assembly laws to harass LGBT Cubans. Those with HIV/AIDS were forcibly quarantined in state-run sanitaria until 1993.
Fla. congresswoman blasts Mariela Castro
The State Department had initially denied Mariela Castro’s request to travel to Philadelphia, but Lazin on April 29 announced she had received the visa that allowed her to attend the event.
“Mariela Castro is the standard bearer for the oppressive Cuban dictatorship that has been wantonly violating people’s human rights for over 50 years,” Cuban-born Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement she released on Friday. “To allow her to come to the U.S. yet again so she can proliferate the Castro propaganda machine is appalling.”
Herb Sosa, a first-generation Cuban American who is president of the Miami-based Unity Coalition, an LGBT advocacy group, also blasted Equality Forum’s decision to honor Mariela Castro.
“To reward any element of the decades-old dictatorship, especially for positive efforts on human rights — is a sad joke,” he told the Washington Blade. “The daughter and niece of the Castro dictators have blood on their hands. Her marches and public spectacles are nothing more than photo ops for a willing and enabling media that does not seem to want to ask too many questions.”
Lazin interrupted this reporter when he started to repeat his question to Mariela Castro’s interpreter about her reaction to those Cuban LGBT rights advocates and others on the island who have criticized both her and her father’s government.
“Let’s keep the questions to the award that Mariela is here for tonight, which is the International Ally for LGBT Equality,” Equality Forum Communications Director Chip Alfred told reporters during the press conference at the National Museum for American Jewish History. “She’s not here to talk about the politics in Cuba.”
Labiosa earlier in the day applauded Mariela Castro and the Cuban government for what he described as their efforts to advance the island’s LGBT rights movement.
“They have been able to move it to the new century,” he said as he compared it to those in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries and territories. “We as a country, as a movement can learn and should be able to be open to learn from the Cuban government and also from the CENESEX and from the people.”