Juana Mora Cedeño of Proyecto Manos and other members of Cuba’s civil society who work independently from the government met with Pelosi and U.S. Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Ana Eshoo (D-Calif.), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) on Feb. 20 at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the Cuban capital.
Mora told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview from Havana on Monday that she spoke about education, health care and what she described as the lack of medication for Cubans with HIV during the meeting.
U.S. Chief of Mission Jeffrey DeLaurentis invited Mora and the other advocates to meet with members of the delegation at their request.
“We spoke about the LGBTI community, the rights the community needs to have, but does not have,” said Mora.
Mariela Castro’s group ‘not really representative’
Proyecto Manos is a federation of Cuban advocacy groups that are not affiliated with the National Center for Sexual Education or CENESEX, which has become the public face of the country’s increasingly visible LGBT rights movement.
CENESEX Director Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who is also a member of the Cuban Parliament, has received praise from many of the island’s LGBT rights advocates and others around the world. These include Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Equality Forum, who honored her in 2013 at his organization’s annual dinner amid blistering criticism from U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and other critics of the Cuban government.
“CENESEX is not really representative,” Mora told the Blade, describing the work of LGBT rights advocates who are not affiliated with Mariela Castro’s organization. “We combined forces for the defense of human rights of our people because the Cuban government has never passed a law in our favor.”
Cuban lawmakers in 2013 approved a proposal to add sexual orientation to the country’s labor law, although Mariela Castro voted against it because it did not include trans-specific provisions.
Mariela Castro has publicly supported marriage rights for gays and lesbians in the Communist country. Her supporters also frequently note that trans Cubans are able to obtain free sex reassignment surgery under the country’s national health care system.
Mariela Castro was president of the local committee that organized a May 2014 conference that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from across the Americas to Havana and the beach resort of Varadero. She also attended the 2014 ILGA World Conference that took place last fall in Mexico City.
Cuban LGBT rights advocates who publicly criticize Mariela Castro and her father’s government maintain they continue to face harassment from the authorities under the country’s public assembly laws.
Marío José Delgado González of the Divine Hope LGBTI Christian Group, which seeks to promote acceptance of LGBT Cubans in the country’s churches, told the Blade last week in an e-mail that he was unable to attend a meeting with members of a Code Pink delegation in Havana on Feb. 13 because the “security of the Cuban state prevented me from going.”
The entire Code Pink delegation, which numbered around 150 people, the day before met with Mariela Castro.
“Security forces of the Cuban state arbitrarily detained me,” Delgado told the Blade in a follow-up e-mail, noting two officers from the Cuban Interior Ministry and a state security official drove him to an area on the outskirts of Havana to prevent him from attending the meeting with the Code Pink delegation. “They are afraid that these U.S. LGBTIQ organizations will reach out to us and decide to support us financially.”
Mora and Delgado on Feb. 9 met with Ellen Sturtz, a Washington-based LGBT rights advocate, and seven other members of the Code Pink delegation at a Cuban activist’s apartment in Havana.
This meeting took place five days before Delgado said security officials detained him.
Delgado told the Blade that Mariela Castro claimed the advocates did not “want to meet with her, which is a lie.”
Neither Mariela Castro, nor the Cuban government responded to the Blade’s request for comment.
Normalized relations ‘very good’ for LGBT Cubans
The Feb. 20 meeting between the U.S. lawmakers and Cuban civil society members took place roughly two months after the White House announced it would begin to normalize relations with Cuba.
Delegations from the two countries met in D.C. on Feb. 27 to discuss the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.
Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who leads the U.S. delegation in the talks with the Cuban government, told reporters during a press conference at the State Department on Feb. 27 that the two countries at the end of this month will meet to discuss human rights.
“We have always said that the way our diplomats operate in terms of their ability to see as broad as aperture, as broad a slice of Cuban society as possible,” said Jacobson, referring to the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana. “The ability to see all kinds of people in Cuba is very important to them. It gets you into the issue of people in Cuba who we always wanted to continue to have conversations with.”
Pelosi and other members of the Congressional delegation met with additional Cuban LGBT rights advocates while they were in Havana.
“Our meeting with various members of Cuba’s civil society representing diverse backgrounds, including those advocating for LGBT rights, was insightful and positive,” Pelosi spokesperson Jorge Aguilar told the Blade on Tuesday in a statement. “We heard their perspectives and concerns; we listened to their aspirations about the future of relations between our two countries; and we reiterated our commitment to improving human rights, especially the rights of the LGBT community, in Cuba — an issue of great importance to our delegation.”
Mora told the Blade she feels that LGBT Cubans would benefit from normalized relations between her country and the U.S.
“It would create many opportunities,” she said. “Diplomatic, economic, political and social relations to me would be very good for our community and for our country.”