May 16, 2016 at 11:03 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
An afternoon at the gay beach in revolutionary Cuba

Mi Cayito, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

The beach at Mi Cayito, which is east of Havana, on May 15, 2016. (Washington Blade photos by Michael K. Lavers)

EL MÉGANO, Cuba — Mi Cayito, which is Havana’s unofficial gay beach, on Sunday afternoon turned into quite the party. Beachgoers were dancing perreo (an overtly sexual dance to reggaeton music) that leaves very little to the imagination. A group of men were playing volleyball while a lesbian couple cuddled under a makeshift umbrella they set up nearby. A young boy was flying a kite.

It was a relaxing afternoon on my first full day in Cuba, which brought me to this section of Playas del Este that is roughly 15 miles east of Havana. The trip thus far seems a bit less uncertain — and dare I say less complicated — than when I visited the Communist island for the first time in May 2015.

The process through which an American must go in order to travel to Cuba remains unnecessarily complicated, even though the Obama administration has formally restored diplomatic relations with the country. The cost of a 45 minute charter flight from Miami to Havana is simply absurd. The need to check into it four hours before its scheduled departure — which was at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday at Miami International Airport for me — is even worse. With this complaining aside, the little things appear to have been made a bit less complicated on this side of the Florida Straits.

I was able to book the casas particulares (private houses) in which I am staying while in Cuba through Airbnb. I also reserved my rental car online — and with a credit card — from D.C.

Airbnb was not available in Cuba last year. I also had to present a voucher for my rental car and needed to pay for it in cash.

Access to the internet has improved significantly since May 2015. There are now public hotspots throughout Havana, but one still must buy coupons from the state-run telecommunications store to go online. The cost to access the internet for an hour has dropped 50 percent from last year.

I was also able to purchase a Cuban cell phone, a SIM card and minutes for 66 CUC ($66) at the state-run telecommunications store on Sunday. The woman with the aforementioned operation at Havana’s José Martí International Airport told me last year upon my arrival in the country that I would have had to pay nearly $200 for a cell phone.

Needless to say I did not buy it.

Cuba is ‘not North Korea’

I am certainly not at all naive to the economic challenges and other immense problems facing the Cuban people because of policies that are beyond their control. I am also acutely aware of the fact that the system that remains in place in this country is exceedingly inefficient. It does appear to this American observer, however, that things have become ever so slightly less difficult for the Cuban people who have welcomed me to their beautiful island with open arms.

One could point to the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. as a reason.

I clearly remember a gay Cuban activist telling me last year while I was interviewing him on a Havana street that his country “is not North Korea.” This island is certainly connected to the rest of Latin America — and the world — and it seems that Cubans have eagerly welcomed the restoration of diplomatic relations between their country and the U.S. This feeling is tangible with the Cuban and American flags that taxi drivers display in their cars. It also presents itself in the fact that Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida, Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson and transgender actress Candis Cayne have all participated in events organized by the National Center for Sexual Education, which is directed by Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, that have commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

President Obama’s trip to Havana in March was a watershed moment for both Cuba and the U.S. There is nevertheless little doubt that the Castros remain firmly in charge of this Communist island.

The Castros have been in power since Fidel Castro, Mariela Castro’s uncle, led the revolution that toppled then-President Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Pictures of Fidel and Raúl Castro, along with Che Guevara and other revolutionaries, remain on prominent display throughout Havana.

Fidel Castro in the years after the revolution sent thousands of gay men and others to work camps known as Military Units to Aid Production. The Cuban government also quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Cubavision, the state-run television station, aired a lengthy feature story during Monday’s morning news cast that highlighted the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. It also contained interviews with several LGBT rights advocates who work outside of Havana. Cubavision on Sunday promoted its social media pages at the end of a public affairs-type program on sexual and other forms of diversity as a way to keep connected to “our revolution.”

¡Esa es la revolución cubana en el siglo XXI!

This is the Cuban revolution in the 21st century!

Mi Cayito, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

The beach at Mi Cayito, which is east of Havana, on May 15, 2016. (Washington Blade photos by Michael K. Lavers)

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

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