August 1, 2013 at 11:46 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Cuban LGBT activists visit D.C.

Cuba, Ignacio Estrada, Wendy Iriepa, Gay News, Casa Ruby, Washington Blade

Ignacio Estrada Cepero and Wendy Iriepa Diaz visit Casa Ruby on Monday, July 29, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Washington Blade by Damien Salas)

Two Cuban LGBT rights advocates travelled to D.C. this week to meet with activists and a member of Congress.

Ignacio Estrada Cepero and Wendy Iriepa Díaz on Monday visited Casa Ruby and Us Helping Us in Northwest Washington. They also met with Cuban-born Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) at her office on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Estrada, who founded the Cuban League against AIDS in 2005, said while he and Iriepa were at Casa Ruby that they wanted to “show how we live, how we work” in Cuba while they are in the U.S. The activists also criticized Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who is the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) that supports LGBT rights while in the U.S.

“Mariela totally manipulates the LGBT community,” Iriepa said.

Estrada and Iriepa, a transgender woman who once worked for CENESEX, married in a high-profile wedding in Havana, the Cuban capital, in 2011.

They will remain in the U.S. for three months after arriving in Miami on June 26.

Estrada and Iriepa traveled to D.C. less than three months after Mariela Castro traveled to the U.S. to accept an award from Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based LGBT advocacy group.

“She does not recognize the work that is done on the part of the independent gay community,” Estrada told the Washington Blade during an hour-long interview on Tuesday. “She only recognizes the official part.”

Mariela Castro’s supporters note she successfully lobbied the Cuban government to begin offering free sex-reassignment surgery under the country’s national health care system in 2008. Iriepa herself underwent the procedure in 2007.

Observers have credited Cuba’s condom distribution campaign and sexual education curriculum with producing one of the world’s lowest HIV infection rates. They also note that Cubans with the virus also have access to free anti-retroviral drugs.

CENESEX in May scheduled a series of events across Cuba to commemorate the annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Mariela Castro has also spoken out in support gay nuptials, even though Cuban lawmakers have rejected efforts to legally recognize same-sex couples.

“I am very proud of how we have advanced [LGBT rights in Cuba,]” she said during an Equality Forum panel in Philadelphia.

Estrada and Iriepa reject any effort to portray Mariela Castro and her father’s government in a positive light.

Estrada noted to the Blade the Cuban government forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993. Three of these facilities remain open, but Estrada said those who receive care in them are unable to leave without an escort.

“You cannot do anything if you if these people don’t accompany you,” he said.

Estrada, who is positive, said more than 600 prisoners with HIV/AIDS live in six prisons he said the Cuban government specifically built to house them.

Official statistics indicate 18,261 Cubans were living with HIV/AIDS as of December 2012, but Estrada estimates the epidemic’s impact on the island is much greater. He also dismissed claims that those who are positive on the island have unlimited access to anti-retroviral drugs.

“It is a grave situation and it will become even worse when the government totally manipulates the statistics of the epidemic [in Cuba,]” Estrada told the Blade.

The regime’s critics continue to maintain authorities continue to harass LGBT rights advocates in spite of Mariela Castro’s advocacy against homophobia and transphobia and other issues.

Leannes Imbert Acosta of the Cuban LGBT Platform claimed authorities last September detained her as she left her Havana home to bring materials to CENESEX on a planned exhibit on forced labor camps to which the government sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military services during the 1960s. Estrada told the Blade a Cuban counter-intelligence officer approached him, Iriepa and other LGBT rights advocates during a Pride walk in Havana they held last year.

“There was no sort of opinion against Mariela, nor for Mariela, nor against Fidel,” Estrada said. “It was for LGBT rights.”

CENESEX dismissed Iriepa shortly before she married Estrada during a ceremony in which Yoani Sánchez, a prominent blogger and regime critic who visited the U.S. and other countries earlier this year during a three-month trip around the world, served as her maid of honor. Other government critics, independent journalists and human rights advocates attended the couple’s wedding.

“It was a triumph because this wedding was able to bring together in a very big way the Cuban civil society of the opposition, dissidents, bloggers, independent journalists and human rights activists,” Estrada said. “It is a success because never in the life of Cuba during the 53 years of what they call revolution has anything like this been known.”

Ros-Lehtinen applauded Estrada and Iriepa’s advocacy efforts during her meeting with them to which the Blade had exclusive access. She also blasted Mariela Castro and her father’s government for what she described as ongoing human rights abuses in Cuba.

“She [Mariela Castro] gets feted and awarded and yet these folks who are so valiant, so brave and telling the truth about what is going on in the LGBT community in Cuba are marginalized,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Blade after she met with Estrada and Iriepa. “I wanted to make sure that I had an opportunity to meet with them and let them know that their work is valued.”

A Cuban government representative did not return the Blade’s request for comment on Estrada and Iriepa’s trip and their criticisms.

As for Estrada and Iriepa, they remain upbeat about their future prospects once they return to Cuba.

Estrada told the Blade he hopes to maintain what he described as an open space that respects all “the colors of the diversity of our flag.” Iriepa added she hopes to one day open an organization similar to Casa Ruby in Havana.

“I will return (to Cuba) energized to do many positive things,” she said.

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

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