December 17, 2015 at 12:15 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Cuba ‘the same’ a year after U.S. normalized relations

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Nelson Gandulla Díaz, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, stands outside his home in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on May 15, 2015. He told the Washington Blade that normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba has not had much impact on the island. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates maintain that little has changed in their country in the year since the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations.

Nelson Gandulla Díaz, president of the Cuban Federation for LGBTI Rights, told the Washington Blade from the city of Cienfuegos that “everything remains the same.” Fidel Malvarais Pelegrino of Shui Tuix Project, a Havana-based LGBT advocacy group, was equally as pessimistic.

“I don’t think it has had much impact,” said Malvarais, who is originally from the province of Santiago de Cuba. “There has not been any impact at the level of the general population.”

President Obama on Dec. 17, 2014, announced the U.S. would begin the process to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba that ended in 1961.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Richard Blanco, a gay Cuban American poet who took part in Obama’s second inauguration, are among those who attended the official reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana in August. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla presided over the reopening of his country’s embassy in Northwest Washington on July 20.

Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington earlier that month performed a series of concerts in Havana.

Cuban LGBT rights advocates over the last year have continued their efforts in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples on the island.

The Cuban Federation for LGBT Rights on Dec. 26 will host a public forum in Cienfuegos on the issue. Pastors from the U.S. and Canada in May blessed the relationships of 20 Cuban same-sex couples during a march in Havana that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

The National Center for Sexual Education, a group known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX that Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, directs, organized the Havana march. CENESEX on May 16 staged a series of events in the city of Las Tunas that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

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Mariela Castro speaks to her supporters in Las Tunas, Cuba, on May 16, 2015, during events that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Gay U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) in October met with Mariela Castro during his trip to Havana. Juana Mora Cedeño of the Rainbow Project, an independent LGBT rights organization, in February sat down with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other U.S. lawmakers who had traveled to the Cuban capital on an official delegation.

“There’s little doubt that normalizing relations with Cuba will positively impact its LGBT community,” Takano told the Blade on Wednesday in a statement. “Restoring diplomatic ties provides us a platform to pressure the Cuban government on a number of human rights issues, including its responsibility to treat all citizens with dignity and respect.”

Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban Parliament, publicly supports marriage rights for same-sex couples.

CENESEX in 2013 organized a conference in the beach resort of Varadero that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from across Latin America. Mariela Castro later that year voted against a proposed ban on employment discrimination based on sexual orientation because it did not include gender identity.

Cuba since 2008 has offered free sex-reassignment surgery through its public health system. Independent LGBT rights advocates and other critics of the island’s Communist government insist that less than 30 trans Cubans have been able to undergo the procedure.

“Cuba has made important strides on issues of equality under the leadership of Mariel Castro and other advocates, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement,” Takano told the Blade. “I’m optimistic that greater American engagement with Cuba will accelerate that improvement and promote greater acceptance of the LGBT community, not just in Havana but throughout the country.”

Gandulla noted to the Blade that Special U.S. Envoy for the Promotion of LGBTI Rights Randy Berry has not traveled to Cuba since he assumed his post within the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in April.

“It would be interesting if he could muster a meeting with us, like with CENESEX, and visit all the places in Cuba where the government represses the community,” said Gandulla.

Human rights among ‘areas of disagreement’

Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates and critics of the reestablishment of relations between Washington and Havana maintain the island’s human rights record has not improved over the last year.

Gandulla, Díaz and a transgender rights activist in July claimed that authorities at Havana’s José Martí International Airport harassed them and took their belongings as they tried to re-enter the country after traveling to Colombia to attend a workshop on documenting LGBT rights abuses. Leodan Suárez Quiñones, a trans advocate from the province of Pinar del Río, told the Blade in May during an interview along Havana’s oceanfront promenade that Cuban officials failed to adequately respond to the murder of a trans sex worker.

“They are not obligated to help us,” said Súarez, referring to the Cuban government. “Many of us have died, thanks to this government.”

Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who heads the U.S. Embassy in Havana, on Tuesday during a conference call with reporters from the Cuban capital acknowledged that human rights are among the “areas of disagreement” between the U.S. and Cuban governments. He nevertheless defended the process through which the two countries have normalized relations.

“Our experience over the past year is that engagement and not isolation is the most effective way to promote U.S. interests and values in Cuba,” said DeLaurentis.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who was born in Cuba, remains among the most vocal U.S. critics of the Cuban government and the normalization of relations.

“The open hand of the White House has been received by an iron fist,” said the Florida Republican in a statement. “Simply put, the policies of the Obama administration have only enriched the Castro regime and its followers.”

Neither the Cuban government nor Mariela Castro returned the Blade’s request for comment.

The Associated Press on Wednesday reported that the U.S. and Cuba have reached an understanding on the restoration of regular commercial flights between the two countries.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and 11 other lawmakers on Wednesday announced the creation of a congressional working group that will focus on Cuba.

The Senate Appropriations Committee in July voted to end the travel ban to the Communist island, but gay New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney and other members of the U.S. House opposed the move a few weeks earlier. Only Congress can act to repeal the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

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U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), center, is among the most vocal critics of the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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

1 Comment
  • we can thank pope Francis for opening up cuba who it the past went from control by the american mob to communism – one extreme to the other. Mariala castro has come to the usa to support marriage equality for her nation also, was in Phily at pride 2014

    As for marriage rights, dont hold your breath, the pope is still whining against even cvvil unions, obviously pissed off that the most catholic nation in the world cath Ireland changed the consttittution by referendum and the first civil law marriage of gays occurred very recently

    on ireand the church dug its own grave, eg christian brothers, magdalene laudries, the hidden child abuse scandal by sex starved psychologially immature priests

    natcch you can bet that right wing often extremist bag of feces, faux news didnt cover it-lies by omission are still lies

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