April 11, 2015 at 3:31 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Cuban LGBT advocate dismisses critics of country’s government

Manuel Vázquez Seijido, gay news, Washington Blade

Manuel Vázquez Seijido of the Cuban National Center for Sexual Education on April 10, 2015, speaks to participants of an LGBT symposium at Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, N.J. The Cuban LGBT rights advocate spoke to them via Skype from Miami because he was unable to travel to New Jersey. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

NEWARK, N.J. — A lawyer who works for an organization run by the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro on Friday dismissed LGBT advocates on the island who continue to publicly criticize its government.

Manuel Vázquez Seijido of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) told the Washington Blade after speaking at a global LGBT rights symposium at Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, New Jersey, that it is “public knowledge” that the “real intent” of these groups that are critical of his organization and the Cuban government is “not to advance an agenda of protecting LGBT rights, but rather (to advance) their economic interests.”

“Their goal is to simply criticize institutions like CENESEX and of course the Cuban government,” said Vázquez.

Vázquez spoke to the symposium participants from Miami via Skype after a delay in obtaining a visa from the U.S. government prevented him from traveling to New Jersey.

CENESEX Director Mariela Castro Espín — whose supporters credit for advancing LGBT-specific issues on the island — had been scheduled to deliver the keynote address but organizers of the symposium last month announced that she was unable to participate. She thanked U.S. advocates for their efforts to expand LGBT rights and their support of closer ties between Washington and Havana in a short video that organizers showed to attendees.

Vázquez acknowledged that the Blade has spoken with Cuban LGBT rights advocates who have criticized both his organization and the country’s government. These include Ignacio Estrada Cepero, founder of the Cuban League Against AIDS, who now lives in Miami with his wife, Wendy Iriepa Díaz, a transgender woman who worked for CENESEX until she had a falling out with Mariela Castro.

“I personally respect the point of view of those activists that you have interviewed,” Vázquez told the Blade. “But I don’t share them.”

“Any one is free to criticize and to have their opinion and express it,” he added. “It is also true that all the institutions that are dedicated to working on these issues could be, at any moment, criticized and criticized by another group.”

Vázquez during his remarks listed a series of what he described as CENESEX’s accomplishments towards advancing LGBT rights in Cuba. These include the series of events marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia that take place throughout the country in May and the conference it hosted last spring that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from across the Caribbean and the Americas to Havana and the beach resort of Varadero.

He also noted efforts to amend the island’s labor law to include LGBT Cubans.

Cuban lawmakers in 2013 approved a proposal to add sexual orientation to the statute. Mariela Castro — a member of the Cuban Parliament who publicly supports marriage rights for same-sex couples — voted against it because it did not include gender identity.

Mariela Castro’s supporters also note the country’s national health care system has offered free sex reassignment surgery to trans Cubans since 2008. Estrada and others with whom the Blade has spoken claim only a few dozen trans people have undergone the procedure.

“Our work is public,” Vázquez told the Blade. “We have concrete results; results that we share with all communities and others in spaces of dialogue.”

He repeatedly described CENESEX as a “state institution” that works with the Cuban Ministry of Health to implement the country’s sexual education curriculum.

“One of this program’s initiatives is to promote the recognition and value of sexual rights for everyone with an emphasis on the rights that LGBTIQ people seek,” said Vázquez.

Vázquez spoke to the symposium less than five months after the Obama administration announced it would begin to normalize relations with the Cuban government.

President Obama on Saturday is scheduled to meet with Raúl Castro during the Summit of the Americas in Panamá.

Two independent Cuban human rights advocates were among those who met with Obama on Friday before the summit began in the Panamanian capital. Supporters and opponents of the Cuban government earlier in the week clashed outside the Cuban Embassy in Panama City.

Juana Mora Cedeño, a Cuban LGBT rights advocate who has previously criticized the Castro government, in February met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of the U.S. House of Representatives during their trip to Havana. Marío José Delgado González of Divine Hope LGBTI Christian Group, which seeks to promote acceptance of LGBT Cubans among the country’s churches, told the Blade he was unable to attend a meeting with members of a Code Pink delegation who were in Havana earlier that month because security officials “arbitrarily detained” him.

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

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