“It is an issue we continue to raise with the Cubans,” said State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told the Washington Blade in response to a question about a Cuban transgender rights advocate who sharply criticized her country’s government earlier this week during an interview in Havana. “Even while we are working to normalize relations and open and embassy and re-establish diplomatic relations, we know we will still have very serious concerns with what is happening on the human rights front.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged to the Blade in a response to a question about the same trans advocate — Leodan Suárez Quiñones — that concerns over Havana’s human rights record include the treatment of LGBT Cubans.
“You heard the president say many times that he doesn’t believe that people should be treated differently just because of who they love,” said Earnest. “That means that LGBT Cubans, or Americans, deserve the same rights and protections that everybody else gets.”
“And that means that the concerns that we have about the way the Cuban government has all too often trampled the universal human rights of the Cuban people,” he added. “There are similar concerns with the way that the Cuban government has failed to protect the basic human rights of even LGBT Cubans as well.”
Harf reiterated Earnest’s point, referring to increased contact between Americans and Cubans that could stem from normalized relations between the two countries.
“If Cuba’s more open to the world on all these issues, including LGBT issues, we think that’s a net positive,” said Harf.
Earnest further elaborated in response to the Blade’s questioning.
“The president is hopeful that through greater engagement that we can open up more economic opportunities both in Cuba and the United States, that through that greater engagement, including economic engagement, that we will be able to apply additional pressure to the Cuban government and support the Cuban people in their aspirations for a government that reflects their will and a government that is willing to respect and even protect their basic human rights,” he said. “That kind of support and that kind of effort will continue and we think will be more effective with this policy change.”
The administration’s comments came after the fourth round of talks in the process to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba that President Obama announced in December.
The delegations — led by Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal of the Cuban Foreign Ministry — at the end of their two-day meeting in Washington did not announce any agreement on the opening of embassies in D.C. and Havana and allowing diplomats to travel more freely in their respective countries.
“We did make significant progress on a number of substantive issues in this round,” said Harf. “This round of talks was a productive one.”
This latest round of talks took place less than a week after Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, led an LGBT Pride march in the Cuban city of Las Tunas. The National Center for Sexual Education, which she directs, organized a series of events in the provincial capital and Havana this month to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Mariela Castro and her organization face frequent criticism from independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates, Cuban-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and others. Juana Mora Cedeño of Proyecto Arcoiris, an independent LGBT advocacy group, is among the Cuban human rights advocates who met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress in February during their trip to Havana.
Manuel Vázquez Seijido, a lawyer who works with Mariela Castro’s organization, last month dismissed advocates who continue to criticize the National Center for Sexual Organization and the Cuban government.
“Their goal is to simply criticize institutions like CENESEX and of course the Cuban government,” Vázquez told the Blade during a global LGBT rights symposium that took place at Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, New Jersey.
Mariela Castro has repeatedly not returned the Blade’s requests for comment about criticism of her organization and her father’s government.
Chris Johnson contributed to this article.