June 1, 2015 at 5:18 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
An ‘authorized’ reporter in Cuba

Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Driving on Cuba’s National Highway between the cities of Santa Clara and Sancti Spíritus on May 15, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The prospect of passing through customs at Havana’s José Martí International Airport on May 19 with several interviews of LGBT rights advocates in Cuba who openly criticized their government saved to my phone was something that made me anxious ahead of my scheduled departure. A picture of a poster declaring Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who has publicly spearheaded LGBT rights on the Communist island, a “fraud” that I had uploaded to my laptop several days earlier only exacerbated the anxiety.

I discreetly placed my phone with the potentially suspect interviews into my bag before I walked up to the customs booths. I took a couple of deep breaths before approaching a young agent.

She quickly examined my passport before stamping the paper press visa that had allowed me to work as an “authorized” journalist for an LGBT publication in her country. She said “buen viaje” and within 10 minutes I was sitting in a small restaurant on the other side of the security checkpoint where I ordered a cheese sandwich, a Cuban coffee and one last shot of ron blanco. I then transcribed an interview with a transgender woman who told me her government wants to “destroy us.”

This anticlimactic moment was the end of my week in Cuba reporting on the country’s LGBT rights movement.

I had never been to the Communist island, so I had no idea what to expect once I arrived. The seven days I spent on the island were among the most exciting, complex and challenging of my career.

The Cuban people were exceptionally kind and more than willing to share their stories with me. A group of independent LGBT rights advocates with whom I met in the city of Cienfuegos offered me homemade cake, flan and juice after I interviewed them for nearly an hour. More than half a dozen gay Cubans and a drag queen welcomed me onto their horse-drawn cart at 3 a.m. that brought them to a bar on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Las Tunas where I covered events commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia that the National Center for Sexual Education, a group known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX that Mariela Castro directs, organized.

A young man and a local mechanic in the city of Santa Clara quickly changed the tire on my rental car that had gone flat while I was at a gas station. I would have been lost without them.

These and many other interactions with the Cuban people took place against the myriad challenges that made reporting from their country exceedingly difficult.

Coupons from the government-run telecommunications company to access the island’s underdeveloped Internet network in order to file stories and pictures and upload videos cost up to $8.50 an hour. Finding bottled water outside of Havana was not always possible. And driving through the provinces on Cuba’s highways was a bone-jarring experience.

The stories of abuse and harassment that independent LGBT rights advocates have suffered at the hands of their own government are far more serious than the aforementioned challenges that are trivial in comparison.

I shook my head in disbelief as Fidel Malvarais Pelegrino of Proyecto Shui Tuix told me that authorities detained him last June for a week without the ability to bathe and obtain new clothes simply because he was in Havana without permission. One of his colleagues said a police officer stopped him and his Cuban American boyfriend who were sitting along Havana’s Malecón simply because he wanted money and sex.

I am extremely conscious of not perpetuating the stereotype of the obnoxious and entitled American while on assignment overseas, but I am not at all naive to the fact that my status as a credentialed foreign journalist with access to sought after hard currency afforded me a significant amount of privilege in Cuba. This advantage, however, did not make me immune to some less than pleasant experiences with the country’s totalitarian government and its supporters.

Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

On assignment in Las Tunas, Cuba, on May 16, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

CENESEX staffers kept a close eye on me while I was with them in Las Tunas to cover the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia events. One of them walked up to me near the bathroom of a nightclub where a party was taking place in order to make sure that I was “okay,” before walking me back to the table where I was sitting with her and her colleagues.

A Cuban police officer the next day stopped me at a checkpoint outside of Havana. She and her colleague scrutinized my passport, visa and government-issued press credentials for nearly 15 minutes before allowing me to continue on to the Cuban capital. Those moments that I was standing behind my car on the side of the highway were scary for someone who had never experienced a direct interaction with authorities who work on behalf of a government that routinely violates the human rights of its people and controls the media.

Almost all of the Cubans I met have experienced needless hardship under the decades-long U.S. embargo against their country. The Cuban government has also exploited this situation in order to maintain its firm control over the country’s roughly 11 million people.

It is my sincere hope that the outcome of the process to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba will improve the lives of the Cuban people who have suffered for far too long. It is also my sincere hope that the Cuban government will begin working to remedy its human rights record and address many of its other failures with the rapprochement between it and Washington.

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

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