The Washington Blade on Tuesday obtained a copy of a statement onto which the Cuban League Against AIDS and six other LGBT advocacy groups that are not affiliated with the country’s National Center for Sexual Education signed. CENESEX’s director, Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, is president of the local committee that organized the sixth International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association for Latin America and the Caribbean Conference that is currently taking place in the beach resort of Varadero.
“We reject and denounce the fact that this meeting will take place with only the presence of a Cuban official and some non-governmental organizations,” reads the statement.
The groups describe the conference as a “mockery,” referring to the Cuban government’s human rights record they say includes continued harassment of independent LGBT activists from the authorities. The organizations specifically criticize both ILGALAC and Mariela Castro.
“Cuban civil society of which we are members is one that permanently denounces all these violations of human rights not acknowledged by those organizing the event,” reads their statement. “We are those who are not able to take a seat at the table of complicity that pretends to show an island where our community covers new ground.”
Ignacio Estrada Cepero, founder of the Cuban League Against AIDS, noted to the Washington Blade from Miami where he currently lives with his wife, Wendy Iriepa Díaz, a trans woman who once worked at CENESEX, that the Cuban government sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to forced labor camps in the years following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2010 apologized for sending gay men to the camps known as Military Units to Aid Production or by the Spanish acronym UMAPs. Estrada told the Blade the Cuban government has yet to fully investigate them.
“Everyone agrees in the need to create a plural space where respect of the freedom of expression and assembly and the topic of human rights are no longer prohibited,” he said.
Mariela Castro’s supporters note she successfully lobbied the Cuban government to begin offering free sex-reassignment surgery under the island’s national health care system in 2008. They also credit Cuba’s condom distribution campaign and sexual education curriculum with producing one of the world’s lowest HIV rates.
Cuban lawmakers late last year approved a proposal that seeks to amend the country’s labor law to ban anti-gay employment discrimination. Mariela Castro has publicly backed marriage rights for same-sex couples.
The ILGALAC conference is the first time Cuba has hosted an international LGBT gathering.
“ILGALAC 2014 will be a great experience from which there is a lot to learn,” ILGA Co-Secretary General Gloria Careaga Pérez told the Blade before traveling to Cuba.
Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen last week sharply criticized both conference organizers and the Cuban government. The Cuban-born Republican last May blasted a Philadelphia-based LGBT rights organization over its decision to honor Mariela Castro.
The Free Rainbow Alliance of Cuba, another independent Cuban LGBT advocacy group, also criticized Mariela Castro and ILGALAC for not inviting it to attend the conference.
“The Cuban authorities, through the National Center of Sexual Education (CENESEX,) through its director’s political use of family ties and personal aura, try to control, manipulate and win international legitimacy as promoters and guarantors of rights for the LGBTI community,” said the Free Rainbow Alliance of Cuba in a statement that Caribe Afirmativo, a Colombian LGBT advocacy organization, sent to the Blade last Thursday.
Neither conference organizers, nor Mariela Castro returned the Blade’s requests for comment.
The event is scheduled to end in Havana, the Cuban capital, on Saturday.