HAVANA — The sun had already set over the Florida Straits on May 13 by the time Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay journalist and advocate, and Miguel Angel Plasencia Rodríguez arrived at a section of Havana’s Malecón, an oceanfront promenade, near the iconic Hotel Nacional that is a popular late-night gathering place for LGBT Cubans.
Musicians were playing conga drums and guitars along the oceanfront promenade as couples danced salsa and street venders sold candy, soft drinks and flowers. Rodríguez was wearing a rainbow Pride bracelet as he wrapped his arm around Plasencia’s and held his hand.
“To sit on the Malecón as a couple like any other is one of those daily acts of love in Cuba that may not have been so easy five or 10 years ago for gay people,” Rodríguez told the Washington Blade. “It’s not that it was specifically prohibited, but the looks of disapproval and perhaps even some unfounded police action most likely would have been brought against us for this ‘exhibitionism.’”
LGBT Cubans over the last decade have become increasingly visible as efforts to extend rights to them have gained traction.
Transgender people have been able to obtain free sex-reassignment surgery under Cuba’s national health care system since 2008. Adela Hernández in 2012 became the first openly trans person to hold public office on the island when she became a member of the Caibarién Municipal Council.
The country’s lawmakers in late 2013 approved a proposal that banned anti-gay discrimination in the workplace. Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the National Center for Sexual Education, which is part of the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, has publicly backed marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington last month accepted Mariela Castro’s formal invitation to travel to Cuba in July and perform with a gay chorus in Havana.
These positions and overtures stand in stark contrast to the treatment of LGBT people in the years following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Then-President Fidel Castro in the 1960s sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production or the Spanish acronym UMAP. Cuba repealed its sodomy law in 1979, but trans people continued to face persecution.
Hernández spent two years in prison in the 1980s for what the Associated Press described as “dangerousness” because of her gender identity. The Cuban government forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.
Fidel Castro during a 2010 interview with a Mexican newspaper described the persecution of gay Cubans that included sending them to work camps in the years following the revolution as a “great injustice.”
Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates and their supporters in the U.S. and elsewhere insist the government continues to persecute those who criticize it through arbitrary detentions, the enforcement of public assembly laws and social isolation. The normalization of relations between Washington and Havana that President Obama announced late last year has done little to temper these criticisms inside Cuba and abroad.
Part of a ‘marvelous island’
Mariela Castro has publicly championed a number of LGBT-specific initiatives in the Communist country over the last decade through the National Center for Sexual Education, which is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX. One source with whom the Blade spoke in Cuba said she is expanding upon the work that her late mother, Vilma Espín, began on behalf of LGBT Cubans when she was president of the Cuban Federation of Women.
CENESEX over the last eight years has organized a series of events in Havana and across the country to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Pastors from the U.S. and Canada on May 9 blessed the relationships of 20 Cuban same-sex couples in Havana during a series of events marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Singer Thelma Houston also performed.
Mariela Castro a week later led a march through Las Tunas, a provincial capital about 410 miles southeast of Havana, to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
She ran under a large rainbow flag after stepping out of a gray van and joined her supporters who had gathered on Las Tunas’ main street before they and hundreds of others marched to the center of the city. Two CENESEX-affiliated advocates placed a wreath of flowers and palm fronds from the organization under a statue of Vicente García, a leading figure in the 10 Years’ War from 1868-1878 during which Cubans fought for Independence from Spain, that noted its events commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Mariela Castro paid homage to García in a brief ceremony before speaking to her supporters. A handful of journalists and photographers from Cuba and the U.S. were also present.
“We are working for the social participation of everyone,” said Mariela Castro during her speech.
Mariela Castro did not speak to journalists after her remarks, but she greeted supporters at a community fair that featured CENESEX-affiliated LGBT and HIV/AIDS advocacy groups from Las Tunas and Havana. Dozens of dancers, musicians and other performers took to the stage at Las Tunas’ main theater before a CENESEX party with drag queens and dancers took place at Cabaret Taíno, a local nightclub.
Restaurants and other businesses in Las Tunas hung signs supporting the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. These included a CENESEX poster in a local food stall that read “homosexuality is not a danger” and a picture inside a nearby home that depicted gay and lesbian families.
More than half a dozen gay men and a drag queen who took a horse-drawn cart from Cabaret Taíno around 3:15 a.m. on May 17 — the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia — did little to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity to the two drivers and passersby. They were among the hundreds of people who drank beers and rum at an after-party that was taking place at a bar on the outskirts of Las Tunas.
“We are part of the marvelous island of Cuba,” said Morgot, a drag queen who performed at Cabaret Taíno during the CENESEX party.
Mercedes García, a Havana resident who is a member of the CENESEX-affiliated Humanity for Diversity Network, told the Blade after the Las Tunas march she feels the events around the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia provide “open spaces where we can share among ourselves independent of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
“It is more important to see the support for the large community…from the government,” said García.
Gala, a Havana-based drag queen and HIV/AIDS educator who performs at Humboldt 52, a gay bar near the Hotel Nacional, was quick to applaud Mariela Castro and CENESEX during a May 13 interview with the Blade. She performed earlier in the evening before highlighting a campaign to fight HIV among men who have sex with men that featured colorful balloon animals engaging in sexual activity.
Gala also traveled to Las Tunas to take part in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorations.
“We are seeing advances thanks to Mariela Castro and CENESEX,” Gala told the Blade. “They give us a chance.”
Rodríguez and other supporters of CENESEX and Mariela Castro concede that homophobia, transphobia and anti-LGBT discrimination remain problems on the island.
Frank Padrón, a prominent gay theater critic who has a weekly show on Cuban television, told the Blade during an impromptu interview on a street near the Riviera Movie Theater in Havana’s sprawling Vedado neighborhood on May 13 that police continue to harass trans people and cross-dressers who they suspect are sex workers. He said that CENESEX and “individual activists have worked to change this.”
“We are not yet a society that is free from homophobia,” said Padrón. “We are not satisfied.”
Mariela Castro and her supporters who marched with her in Las Tunas sought to frame the expansion of LGBT rights on the island as a continuation of the revolution that toppled then-President Fulgencio Batista and brought Fidel Castro to power nearly six decades ago.
Marchers chanted “yes to Socialism, no to homophobia” as they worked their way through the provincial capital. A large banner containing a picture of Fidel Castro against the backdrop of the Cuban flag with a slogan reading “We will defend this flag, this sky and this land at any cost” provided a backdrop for Mariela Castro’s speech.
Mariela Castro is ‘a fraud’
Cuban advocates who work independently of CENESEX have a vastly different opinion of Mariela Castro, her father’s government and the state of LGBT rights on the Communist island.
Nearly 20 LGBT advocates and independent journalists spoke with the Blade at the home of Nelson Gandulla Díaz, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights in the city of Cienfuegos on May 15.
A poster reading, “Mariela Castro is a fraud” with the acronym CENESEX crossed out in a rainbow-colored circle hung prominently next to the entrance of Gandulla’s home as the advocates spoke. A gay flag was flying outside in the front yard that overlooks one of Cienfuegos’ main streets.
Gandulla told the Blade that more than a dozen independent LGBT rights advocates from across the country are members of his organization that he founded last year. He said his group’s primary mission is to “defend the rights of the LGBTI community in Cuba” and to speak out against anti-LGBT discrimination.
“We come together in this sense as the entire LGBTI community in Cuba, regardless of ideology, regardless of belief, regardless of who you are,” said Gandulla.
Gandulla told the Blade that Mariela Castro declined to take part in a June march in Havana to commemorate Pride month.
He also questioned the effectiveness of her efforts to build support for marriage rights for same-sex couples. Maykel González Vivero, a gay blogger who is a member of Proyecto Arcoiris, another independent LGBT advocacy organization, told the Blade during an interview at his apartment in the city of Sagua la Grande on May 17 that Mariela Castro previously said that Cuba is “not ready for marriage.”
“She did this as though she was speaking on behalf of the LGBTI community,” said González. “Clearly, as is frequently the case in Cuba, she speaks on behalf of everyone and does not consult with anyone.”
Tanía García Hernández of the LGBTI Help Line, which is based in the province of Villa Clara, told the Blade as she attended the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights meeting in Cienfuegos with her son Leandro that CENESEX only “answers to the government.”
“It is one more office of the government,” said García. “It corresponds with the objectives of the government and she (Mariela Castro) is there.”
Many of the independent LGBT rights advocates with whom the Blade spoke insisted that fewer than 30 trans Cubans have been able to receive sex-reassignment surgery. Navid Fernández Cabrera, president of Proyecto Shui Tuix, an independent LGBT advocacy group named for one of the gay parties he organized in the Cuban capital in 2008, told the Blade during a May 14 interview in his one-bedroom apartment in Havana’s 10 de Octubre neighborhood that CENESEX subjects potential candidates to a lengthy screening process that includes meeting psychologists and other health care professionals.
“It’s not a lot,” said Fernández.
Fernández and five advocates who are affiliated with his organization spoke with the Blade for nearly two hours about Mariela Castro, CENESEX and the harassment and discrimination they said they have experienced.
Leosbel Heredia Azafares, a cross-dressing sex worker who goes by the nickname Doris la Exploradora (Doris the Explorer in English) when he works in Havana’s Carlos III area that trans prostitutes frequent, told the Blade that Cuban police officers routinely harass him and others known as jineteros or jineteras in Cuban Spanish by taking their money and forcing them to have sex with them. Hand-painted red signs along the National Highway in the city of Camagüey read “no prostitution” and “no illegal activities” without providing any specifics.
“Trans life is not recognized on the part of the police,” said Heredia, who presented himself as a man while at Fernández’s apartment.
Fidel Malvarais Pelegrino, 24, who represents Proyecto Shui Tuix in the city of Santiago de Cuba, said authorities detained him last June for seven days because he was in Havana without permission from the government. Marino López Borell, 28, who lives in the San Miguel del Padrón area of Havana, told the Blade the police stopped him and his Cuban American partner who lives in Florida last year while they were along a dark portion of the Malecón.
“The police officer only wanted money and wanted sex,” said López.
“CENESEX does not care about these stories,” added Fernández.
Juana Mora Cedeño, a member of Proyecto Arcoiris who met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress in February at the home of Jeffrey DeLaurentis, chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, told the Blade during an interview at a colleague’s home in Vedado that there are few “spaces” for LGBT Cubans to gather freely.
LGBT-specific events take place at bars and clubs throughout Havana, but Mora said the government operates many of them.
Hundreds of people on May 17 attended a state-sponsored party at Mi Cayito, a gay beach east of the Cuban capital, to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. A small, tattered gay flag was flying over the beach when the Blade visited it the following day, but Mora and other independent LGBT advocates said police have previously conducted raids there.
A police officer was sitting under a thatched umbrella on May 18, casually talking to men who rent chairs to beachgoers and bring them food and drinks from a restaurant adjacent to Mi Cayito’s parking lot.
A picture that González posted to his blog on the same day shows two Cuban police officers at an LGBT rights march in the city of Santa Clara that he said were “apparently” there to “provide security.” Fernández and other independent advocates told the Blade that authorities have also sought to intimidate those who attend their events that are not authorized by the government.
“We are not included in any governmental organization or any party,” said Gandulla. “What happens is that none of the official people, like Mariela Castro, want to work with us.”
González said he has faced harassment at the state-run radio station in Sagua la Grande where he works because of his public criticism over the omission of statistics from the 2012 Cuban Census that noted the number of same-sex couples who live together in the country. He told the Blade that CENESEX did not invite him and other independent advocates to a 2014 conference in the beach resort of Varadero that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from across the Americas and the Caribbean.
González and other independent advocates have also questioned how the government will enforce the law that bans anti-gay discrimination in the workplace.
“There is a risk of quickly falling into a sort of social isolation zone,” González told the Blade. “People quickly assume that you are a dangerous person because you are someone who asks questions.”
Gandulla said that members of his group are “very afraid” of the Cuban government. He added it is “very dangerous” for them to criticize Mariela Castro or any other member of her father’s government during interviews with foreign journalists.
“It is only dangerous for us to meet with you because we don’t agree (with the government),” said García.
Neither Mariela Castro, nor CENESEX responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the criticisms that García, Gandulla, González, Fernández and other independent advocates made against them. 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 Newark, N.J., dismissed those who publicly oppose his organization and the Castro government.
“Their goal is to simply criticize institutions like CENESEX and, of course, the Cuban government,” said Vázquez in response to a Blade question on the issue.
Rodríguez in an email to the Blade on Tuesday acknowledged there are independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates who are “honest people” who “want to advance their own projects without the tensions that working within the political commitment to the framework of a state institution entails.” He nevertheless described the activists who continue to criticize CENESEX and Mariela Castro as “not truly independent.”
“They only follow the instructions in a disciplined manner from the centers of power in the United States and other countries that don’t accept the possibility of an alternative policy to capitalism,” Rodríguez told the Blade. “They finance whatever force or individual that makes it easier for them to achieve their goals of destabilizing the country.”
Rodríguez did not provide any additional comment on the specific groups in the U.S. and elsewhere that he believes provide funding to the Cuban LGBT advocates who criticize the government. His assertion is a common one among Mariela Castro’s supporters when asked about Cuban LGBT rights advocates who publicly criticize her and CENESEX.
Herb Sosa, a first-generation Cuban American who is president of the Unity Coalition, a Miami-based LGBT advocacy group, in 2013 blasted Equality Forum Executive Director Malcolm Lazin’s decision to honor Mariela Castro at his organization’s annual dinner in Philadelphia. Sosa and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who was born in Cuba, both criticized CENESEX’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to hold an international LGBT rights conference in Havana.
“Unfortunately, and we all wish this to be different, the LGBT community has little to no rights of free speech, right to congregate, march or speak against the government,” said Sosa, noting Cubans also have limited access to the Internet. “The list goes on.”
Robyn Ochs, a bisexual advocate and writer who is a member of the MassEquality board of directors, attended the LGBT rights conference in Varadero in 2013.
She acknowledged lingering concerns over Cuba’s human rights record that include a lack of freedom of speech on the island. Ochs also noted to the Blade that “like all political figures,” Mariela Castro, has “said and done things over time that are problematic,” but she insists her support of LGBT Cubans is “crystal clear.”
“Things are clearly moving in a positive direction,” said Ochs. “There is a great deal that is possible in Cuba now that was not possible a decade ago.”
Ros-Lehtinen in a statement to the Blade reiterated her long-standing criticisms of Mariela Castro and her father’s government.
“While Mariela Castro and the Cuban regime try to make the farcical case that they are LGBT-friendly, the reality the reality of their hostility to anyone who does not share their radical, Communist ideology is much harsher and well-documented,” said the Florida Republican who is an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights. “Interestingly, in its bid to promote its supposed LGBT record, the Castro regime has only spotlighted those who do not object to the regime’s history of repression. Sadly, any Cuban, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, who disagrees with the Castro brothers is subject to the same acts of repudiation, arrest and imprisonment that has characterized these tyrants’ rule.”
Impact of normalized relations unclear
Cuba’s LGBT rights movement is growing more visible as the process to normalize relations between Washington and Havana that President Obama began late last year continues to move forward.
The fourth round of talks between the two countries took place last week in Washington.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and State Department spokesperson Marie Harf both acknowledged to the Blade on May 22 that the treatment of independent LGBT advocates and other aspects of Cuba’s human rights record remain serious concerns for the U.S. as efforts to normalize relations with the Communist country continue.
“Human rights remain a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, including our approach to Cuba,” a State Department spokesperson told the Blade on Tuesday.
Cuban LGBT rights advocates remain mixed as to whether the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana will have a positive impact on their lives.
Mariela Castro last December described the prospect of normalized relations between Cuba and the U.S. as a “dream come true” during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
She called upon human rights advocates to urge Washington to end its decades-long embargo against her country, which a billboard near Havana’s José Martí International Airport describes as “the world’s longest running genocide.” Signs with nearly identical slogans are a common sight throughout the country.
Mariela Castro once again spoke out against it during the Havana commemoration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. She also celebrated the release of three of the so-called “Cuban Five” — intelligence officers from the Communist island who had been in federal prisons — as part of the agreement to begin normalizing relations with the U.S. that included the release of Alan Gross, a subcontractor with the U.S. Agency for International Development who had been held in a Cuban prison for five years after authorities arrested him for connecting a local Jewish community to the Internet.
“The embargo is the main obstacle to our development plan and for the guarantee of our rights, including the rights of LGBTI people,” she said.
López told the Blade that he feels the Cuban government uses the embargo as an “excuse” for the country’s ailing economy, poor infrastructure, food shortages and other problems — the power went out for about five minutes as he and others spoke with the Blade inside Fernández’s apartment. Raúl Márques, a gay man who works in the arts in Havana, said the average Cuban is focused more on meeting their basic needs as opposed to the status of relations between their country and the U.S.
“People here have had many problems,” he told the Blade. “You are not going to think about other things in your life.”
González shared an equally pessimistic view, joking sarcastically that the Cuban people have a “very special” relationship that dates back to the 19th century. He further noted he is “not an optimistic man.”
“It is an issue that almost nobody talks about,” said González, referring to the prospect of closer ties between Washington and Havana. “It is not in people’s daily conversation.”
Gala told the Blade after performing at Humboldt 52 in Havana that normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba will have no impact on her daily life, even though she said the country is “entering a beautiful moment.”
Mora said she hopes closer ties between Havana and Washington will help ease some of the problems that Cubans continue to face because of the island’s economic situation. She also expressed optimism for the future of her organization and other independent LGBT advocates on the island.
“All of us are agents of change,” said Mora. “I believe that if we all believe in something, we can change it.”