“Definitely for a situation like ours (in Cuba,) human rights are something that are suppressed,” Maykel González Vivero told the Blade on May 18 as he sat at a table in the small apartment in the city of Sagua la Grande that he shares with Carlos Alejandro Rodríguez Martínez, his boyfriend of three years. He discussed the Cuban government’s crackdown on political dissent and disapproval of unauthorized gatherings, intimidation and other issues.
“As activists we have concluded that it is important that we integrate all of these issues into our work,” said González.
González, who is a reporter for a government-run radio station in Sagua la Grande, which is roughly 165 miles east of Havana along Cuba’s Atlantic coastline, began his blog Nictálope, a Spanish word that describes a person or an animal that can see better at night than during the day, in 2007.
He told the Blade that his blog initially did not have a “clear LGBT perspective.” González noted this position began to change when he decided to publicly challenge Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who has emerged as the public face of Cuba’s LGBT rights movement as director of the National Center for Sexual Education.
“Bit by bit we said that we had discovered the need, the urgency to offer an alternative image, a distinct option to what CENESEX and Mariela Castro is offering,” said González.
González, 31, spoke with the Blade a day after Mariela Castro led a march in the city of Las Tunas that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Members of Proyecto Arcoiris, an independent LGBT advocacy group of which González has been a member since last year, organized their own events in Sagua la Grande and in the nearby city of Santa Clara to mark the annual commemoration and to highlight their support of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Cuba.
A picture that González posted to his blog on May 18 shows two Cuban police officers at the Santa Clara march. He said they were “apparently” there to “provide security.”
“In other Cuban cities, as has been recently reported, the police maintain its aggressive homophobic practices,” González told the Blade.
Criticizing Mariela Castro brings ‘risks’González told the Blade that CENESEX, which works with the Cuban Ministry of Health, did not invite him and other independent advocates to a 2013 conference in the beach resort of Varadero that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from across the Americas and the Caribbean.
“The only Cubans who went to the conference were those who were involved in CENESEX’s work or those who CENESEX considered politically acceptable,” he said, noting he supports Cuban Socialism.
González in 2012 publicly objected to the omission of statistics from the Cuban census that noted the number same-sex couples who live together in the country. He told the Blade that CENESEX’s reaction “was silence,” even though he said he and Rodríguez provided evidence of what they described as the “homophobic removal” of the information.
“Mariela Castro apparently thought it was important to maintain her politically correct attitude, rather than coherently stick to her activism and denounce the homophobia uncovered in the census,” González told the Blade.
Mariela Castro publicly supports marriage rights for same-sex couples. Clergy from the U.S. and Canada earlier this month blessed the relationships of 20 gay and lesbian couples in Havana during another series of events that marked the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
The Cuban Constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman, but Mariela Castro and her supporters claim that CENESEX is working to build support for nuptials for gays and lesbians among the country’s lawmakers. González told the Blade that Mariela Castro has remained silent about the status of the issue in the Cuban Parliament, even though she is a member of it.
“She even said a few years ago that we are not yet ready for marriage,” said González. “And she did this as though she was speaking on behalf of the LGBTI community. Clearly, as is frequently the case in Cuba, she speaks on behalf of everyone and does not consult with anyone.”
González added he feels CENESEX’s influence outside of Havana is minimal, even though Mariela Castro frequently travels abroad to promote its work on behalf of LGBT Cubans.
A government-run radio station in the city of Camagüey on May 15 advertised the Las Tunas march and other events in the provincial capital that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. González told the Blade that Cuban television showed Mariela Castro paying tribute to Vicente García, a leading figure in the 10 Years’ War from 1868-1878 during which Cuba fought for independence from Spain, in Las Tunas after leading the march through its streets.
“Trans people, gay people, lesbians in Sagua la Grande don’t really feel that CENESEX is working for them,” said González.
González told the Blade there are “risks” for criticizing Mariela Castro or any other government official and organization. He said he has faced harassment at his job and difficulties accessing the Internet because of his independent advocacy.
“There is a risk of quickly falling into a sort of social isolation zone,” he said. “People quickly assume that you are a dangerous person because you are someone who asks questions. As a result you find yourself in this zone where you are seen as a social pariah…it is very problematic.”
Neither Mariela Castro, nor CENESEX responded to the Blade’s request for comment on González’s criticisms. Manuel Vázquez Seijido, a lawyer who is a senior CENESEX staffer, last month during a speech at a global LGBT rights conference at Rutgers University School of Law in New Jersey dismissed independent advocates who criticize his organization and the Castro government.
“Their goal is to simply criticize institutions like CENESEX and of course the Cuban government,” Vázquez told the Blade.
Cuban people have ‘love and hate’ relationship with U.S.
González spoke with the Blade days before officials from the U.S. and Cuban governments met in Washington for the fourth round of negotiations in the process of normalizing relations between the two countries.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and State Department spokesperson Marie Harf both told the Blade on May 22 that the expansion of rights to LGBT Cubans factors into the process of normalizing relations between Washington and Havana.
González joked sarcastically that the Cuban people have a “very special” relationship with the U.S. that can be described as one of “love and hate,” which dates back to the 19th century. He told the Blade he is “not an optimistic man” when asked about the future of his country and his thoughts about the normalization of relations between it and the U.S.
“It is an issue that almost nobody talks about,” González told the Blade, referring to the prospect of closer ties between Washington and Havana. “It is not in people’s daily conversation.”