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Cuba increasingly popular travel destination for LGBT Americans

More than 160,000 U.S. citizens visited island in 2015



The Adonia, gay news, Washington Blade

The Adonia, a U.S. cruise ship, docked in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on May 19, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

CIENFUEGOS, Cuba — The tropical sun was already beating down upon the Cuban city of Cienfuegos shortly before 10 a.m. on May 19 as hundreds of American cruise ship passengers were waiting to board tour buses that were parked along José Martí Park.

Charles Karasik of New York and his wife, who were visiting Cuba for the first time, were talking with David, a resident of Cienfuegos, in the patio of a coffee shop that overlooks the park as they waited for their tour of the city to begin. Karasik pointed out to David and the Washington Blade before leaving that the U.S. Embassy in Havana flew the rainbow flag on May 17 to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

“My expectations are completely different than what I found on the ground,” Karasik told the Blade in response to a question about his first impressions of Cuba. “Havana has just blown me away.”

Americans are still prohibited from traveling to Cuba for tourism-specific reasons, but the number of U.S. citizens who have visited the Communist island has increased significantly since Washington announced the normalization of relations with Havana on Dec. 17, 2014.

Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told reporters at a Havana press conference last month that 161,233 Americans visited the country in 2015, compared to the 94,000 U.S. citizens who traveled to the island in 2014.

Marrero said 94,000 Americans visited Cuba in the first four months of this year, which is a 93 percent increase from the same period in 2015.

The Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce organized a trip to the Communist island in February in which D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and other officials from the nation’s capital, Maryland and Virginia took part. Fourteen members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles traveled to Havana in the same month to meet with Mano a Mano, their Cuban counterparts who are scheduled to perform in the U.S. this summer.

Cuba is ‘such a beautiful country’

Troy Petenbrink of Northwest Washington and a group of friends were in Cuba from Feb. 28-March 5 on a “people-to-people” trip, which is one of the 12 categories under which Americans can legally travel to the Communist island.

Petenbrink and his friends hired a gay guide who gave them a tour of Havana. They also visited the beach resort of Varadero and Viñales, a town in the province of Pinar del Río that is the heart of Cuba’s tobacco industry.

“Americans have a view of Cuba only through a U.S. lens,” Petenbrink told the Blade on Tuesday. “Being there gives you great insight and makes the issues less black and white.”

Karin Bogliolo of San Jose, Calif., visited Cuba for the first time last October.

Bogliolo and her wife, Judy Rickard, who had previously visited the Communist island three times, traveled to the cities of Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo, Bayamo, Camagüey, Sancti Spíritus, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara with the Latin American Working Group that focuses on social justice issues. The couple also visited an organic farm in Belic, a town in the province of Granma on Cuba’s southern coast.

Karin Bogliolo, gay news, Washington Blade

Karin Bogliolo of San Jose, Calif., dances with a Cuban man in Guantánamo, Cuba, in October 2015. She and her wife, Judy Rickard, traveled to the Communist island last fall with the Latin American Working Group. (Photo courtesy of Judy Rickard)

“I was impressed by the country and by the people from the moment I stepped off the plane,” Bogliolo told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview from her home. “Cuba is such a beautiful country. The people were wonderful.”

Gay men sent to labor camps after 1959 revolution

Havana, which is slightly more than 100 miles from Key West, Fla. across the Florida Straits, was a popular destination for American tourists until the 1959 Cuban revolution toppled then-President Fulgencio Batista.

Fidel Castro in the years after he came to power sent thousands of gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production. The Communist island’s government also forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Castro apologized for the camps, known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, during an interview with a Mexican newspaper in 2010. His niece, Mariela Castro, over the last decade has spearheaded LGBT-specific issues as director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education.

Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raúl Castro, led marches in Havana and in the city of Matanzas last month that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Transgender actress Candis Cayne marched alongside Mariela Castro in Havana. Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, and Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida, a Cuban American who has relatives in Matanzas, also took part in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorations.

International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, IDAHOT, Cuba, Matanzas, gay news, Washington Blade

A march to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia took place in Matanzas, Cuba, on May 17, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Mariela Castro’s supporters note that she supports marriage rights for same-sex couples and pushed the Cuban government to offer free sex-reassignment surgeries under its national health care system. Independent LGBT rights advocates on the Communist island have criticized Mariela Castro and her father’s government over human rights and other issues.

Nelson Gandulla, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, told the Blade in a previous interview that a police officer harassed him at his Cienfuegos home before President Obama arrived in Cuba on March 20.

This reporter saw several police officers forcibly remove a man from a house in Matanzas on May 17 and throw him into the back of a patrol car. The incident took place hours after Mariela Castro led the march through the city that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Cuba has ‘things that are really worth seeing’

Dayron Ortíz, a Havana-based tour guide, told the Blade on May 20 during an interview at the Habana Libre hotel in the Cuban capital’s Vedado neighborhood that he has had more American clients since the U.S. normalized relations with the Communist island.

Ortíz said most of his American clients are gay.

He told the Blade that the majority of them take sightseeing tours of Havana. Ortíz said some of them are also interested in visiting gay bars and clubs in the Cuban capital.

Café Cantante Mi Habana, a club near Havana’s Revolutionary Square, hosts El Divino, a popular gay party, every Saturday night.

Ortíz, who promotes El Divino online, told the Blade that he is able to secure VIP access for his clients. They are able to enter Café Cantante Mi Habana without waiting in the line that is often more than a block long.

“It’s very, very convenient, mostly when I’m working with Americans who are not very patient,” he joked. “When you get there and see almost 100 people trying to get in, they get nervous.”

Petenbrink and his friends hired Ortíz’s business partner, Yunior Crespo, as their tour guide in Havana. Ortíz and Crespo also work with Al and Chuck Travel, a Florida-based company catering to LGBT travelers that has organized three cruises to Cuba from Jamaica so far this year.

Al and Chuck Travel are planning a fourth cruise to the Communist island that is scheduled to take place in April 2017.

“Many gay tourists don’t know much about Cuba as a gay destination,” Ortíz told the Blade, noting he welcomes the National Center for Sexual Education’s efforts to promote LGBT-specific issues on the Communist island. “It’s not a very big gay destination, but it has a few things that are really worth seeing.”

Bogliolo and Rickard’s guide “tracked down” an LGBT community center in Santa Clara for them after Rickard mentioned the city was the “lesbian capital of Cuba.”

The women photographed the building while other members of their group were eating lunch. Bogliolo and Rickard were unable to go inside because they had to go to the airport for their flight back to the U.S.

Rickard attended a meeting at the National Center for Sexual Education’s headquarters in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood during her 2014 trip to Cuba. Mariela Castro did not attend, but Rickard told the Blade that a man thanked her for coming out as a lesbiana.

“I have never felt uncomfortable in Cuba,” said Rickard.

Petenbrink agreed, comparing the Cuban capital to Raleigh, N.C., within the context of conservative North Carolina.

“I did find [Cuba] generally very open and welcoming, especially in Havana,” he said.

American visitors should see Cubans ‘as people’

David told the Blade after Karasik and his wife left for their tour of Cienfuegos that it is “good” that more Americans are visiting Cuba. Rickard and Bogliolo agreed, but they conceded they worry about the impact that an influx of U.S. tourists may have once they are allowed to legally travel to the Communist island.

“I don’t think it will be too bad until the Castros die,” Bogliolo told the Blade. “My dread is that there will be McDonald’s at every corner.”

“I want people to understand Cuba and see the people as people,” said Rickard. “Depending upon which Americans go to travel, the Cubans may see an America that I don’t embrace or like.”

Robyn Ochs, a bisexual activist and writer who is a member of MassEquality’s board of directors, was part of a U.S. delegation that traveled to Cuba in 2014 to participate in an LGBT conference. Mariela Castro was president of the local committee that organized the gathering that drew hundreds of advocates from across Latin America and the Caribbean.

“There will undoubtedly be significant costs as well as significant benefits associated with the U.S. influx to Cuba,” Ochs told the Blade on Tuesday.

“I hope that LGBTQ folks from the U.S. will visit and — when doing so — make every effort to meet LGBTQ Cubans and engage in conversations with them,” she added.

Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Robyn Ochs, on right, with Malu Cano, a Cuban transgender rights advocate, during her 2014 trip to Cuba. (Photo courtesy of Robyn Ochs)

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D.C. mayor to lift all restrictions on bars, nightclubs on June 11

‘We will definitely be celebrating Pride’ next month



Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Monday that she will fully lift capacity and other restrictions on most businesses, including restaurants and places of worship, on May 21. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced at a news conference on Monday that a continuing trend of significantly lower numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths in the city has enabled her to fully lift capacity and other restrictions on most businesses, including restaurants and places of worship, on May 21.

The mayor said bars and nightclubs will be allowed to increase indoor capacity from the current 25 percent to 50 percent on May 21, with all capacity restrictions for bars and nightclubs to be removed on June 11.

The mayor’s announcement came after representatives of the city’s nightlife businesses, including the city’s gay bars and restaurants, expressed concern that D.C. had yet to lift its capacity restrictions beyond 25 percent while surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia had already lifted most restrictions.

“On May 21, restrictions on public and commercial activity, including capacity limits, types of activities, and time restrictions, will be lifted,” the mayor’s directive says.

It says restrictions for bars and nightclubs would continue at a 50 percent capacity from May 21 through June 11. The directive says restrictions for large sports and entertainment venues would also continue from May 21 to June 11, which includes a requirement such events apply for a waiver of the restrictions on a case-by-case basis.

“On June 11, capacity limits and restrictions will be lifted on those venues that cannot fully reopen on May 21,” the directive says.

In response to a question at the news conference, Bowser said the June 11 date would essentially end all restrictions on nightclubs and bars, including the current requirement that they close at midnight rather than the pre-epidemic closing times of 2 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.

In a development that could have a major impact on plans for D.C.’s LGBTQ Pride events, the mayor’s revised health directive announced on Monday includes the lifting of all capacity restrictions on large outdoor and indoor sports and entertainment events beginning on June 11.

That change would remove restrictions that have, up until now, prevented D.C.’s Capital Pride Alliance from holding its annual Pride Parade and Festival in June during Pride Month.

Capital Pride Executive Director Ryan Bos told the Washington Blade shortly after the mayor’s announcement that Capital Pride is assessing its options for expanding its current plans for in-person events in June.

“We will definitely be celebrating Pride in June,” Bos said. “We just received this information as well. So, we will be getting further information,” he said. “We have not been informed that they will be issuing any permits yet, so at this time we are moving forward with our original plans for doing things.”

Bos was referring to a city requirement for obtaining permits for street closings and use of other public spaces for events such as a parade or street festival. He said existing plans, among other things, call for an informal parade of cars and other vehicles on June 12 that will drive throughout the city to view homes and businesses that will be decorated with Pride displays such as signs, photos, and other symbols of Pride.

Those familiar with the city’s past Pride events don’t think there will be enough time for Capital Pride to organize the traditional large parade and street festival in time for June. But Capital Pride officials have talked about holding a possible parade and festival in October, and the lifting of the capacity restrictions announced by Bowser on Monday would likely make that possible.

In addition to lifting all capacity restrictions on May 21 for restaurants, the mayor’s May 21 timeframe for lifting restrictions includes these additional venues and events:

  • Weddings and special events
  • Business meetings and seated conventions
  • Places of worship
  • Non-essential retail
  • Personal services
  • Private at-home gatherings
  • Libraries, museums, galleries
  • Recreation Centers
  • Gyms and fitness centers
  • Pools
  • Office space
  • Schools
  • Childcare

“We’re very pleased that over the last several days, we have seen our case spread, our community spread numbers, venture out of the red into the yellow and fast approaching the green,” Bowser said in referring to a health department chart that shows the changes in coronavirus cases in the city.

“You might remember that our daily case rate peaked in January at 45.9. And today you can see it’s down to 6.6,” she said at her news conference on Monday.

“Throughout this process I have said how proud I am of D.C. residents and businesses who have responded, who have followed health guidance and have worked together to help protect our community throughout the pandemic. And we see it in these numbers today,” she said.

“Containing the virus will continue to require all of us to be focused on maintaining a robust health system,” the mayor said, adding that while over 200,000 D.C. residents have been fully vaccinated since December 2020, “many more thousands” still need to be vaccinated. “Vaccines are free and available on demand at walk-up sites across the District,” she said.

The mayor also noted that the city will continue to require residents and visitors to use a mask in accordance with existing and updated guidance set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mark Lee, coordinator of the D.C. Nightlife Council, an association that represents restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other entertainment venues, said the mayor’s directive on May 10 leaves some details to be addressed but will open the way to bring nightlife businesses back to life.

“What we do know is that on Friday, May 21, businesses begin returning to normal operations and, three weeks later, on June 11, all restrictions for all businesses in the District will end,” Lee said. “It’s a day we’ve long awaited and one that will save much of our community enterprise from financial ruin.”

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Family code bill to be introduced in Cuban Parliament in July

CENESEX made announcement during May 4 press conference



Mariela Castro at a CENESEX press conference


Tremenda Nota is the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba. A Spanish version of this story was published on May 6.

HAVANA — The National Center for Sexual Education on May 4 during a press conference in which it unveiled the program for the 14th annual International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia events in Cuba announced a bill to amend the family code will be introduced in Parliament in July.

CENESEX Director Mariela Castro Espín said during a meeting with official and foreign media outlets at the International Press Center that this year’s events are part of the process of amending the family code.

She added that this legal change will reflect several rights guaranteed in the constitution, which is why it is necessary to sensitize and educate the Cuban population to avoid prejudice and discrimination.

“I was able to appreciate that the majority of the population … is in favor of recognizing the rights of LGBTI+ people and especially the rights in the family sphere that include the possibility, the option, of marriage,” said Mariela Castro during the press conference.

The official referred to the results of the National Survey on Gender Equality in Cuba, conducted in 2016 and published in 2019. According to this official study, 77 percent of the Cuban population between 15 and 74-years-old said that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people should have the same rights as any other citizen.

CENESEX’s director, however, did not use this information in the 2018 parliamentary debates sparked by Article 68 of the bill to amend the constitution. The idea that it was not the appropriate time to implement same-gender marriage in Cuba eventually won out.

Mariela Castro told Tremenda Nota a few days before the referendum in which Cuban voters approved the current constitution that she was aware of the survey, but she did not explain why she did not use the data it revealed as an argument (in favor of marriage equality.)

“It was a wasted tool that now we can only use in the next referendum,” then-MP Luis Ángel Adán Roble told Tremenda Nota during a February 2019 interview, as did Mariela Castro.

The moment that Adán Roble mentioned has arrived.

It became known during the May 4 press conference that the family code will be introduced in the scheduled parliamentary session in July. The Council of State on March 22 appointed a commission that will be in charge of preparing the bill, but the list of its members was not made public until April 30. None of them are openly LGBTI+.

Activists over the last few weeks have demanded that Parliament reveal the identities of those who make up the commission and the deadline they have to prevent the Family Code. The May 4 press conference resolved the last outstanding point.

The Cuban IDAHOBiT program

Mariela Castro and CENESEX Deputy Director Manuel Vázquez Seijido explained that numerous activities with the goal of making visible and fighting against all types of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will virtually take place from May 4 through May 30.

The IDAHOBiT events in Cuba have a program that includes academic dialogue, social activism and artistic presentations from virtual spaces.

Forum debates are among the activities. The Juventud Rebelde newspaper will host the first one with the theme “Deconstructing myths around same-sex families and partners” and Cubadebate will hold the second called “Constitution and Sexual Rights in Cuba: Progress and Main challenges.”

They also announced at the press conference the books “Paquito el de Cuba: A Decade of Online Activism” and “Non-Heteronormative Sexualities and Gender Identities. Tensions and Challenges for Human Rights” will be presented.

There will be virtual panels titled “Diverse Families: Histories of Non-Hegemonic Lives,” “National Program for the Advancement of Women: Opportunities to Confront Homophobia and Transphobia,” “Keys for Inclusive Communication” and “Sexual Rights and Religious Fundamentalisms.”

Castro Espín explained that CENESEX will use its social media accounts to promote the program, contribute to the sexual education of Cubans and the recognition of rights for all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

A show against homophobia and transphobia that will officially end the events will be broadcast on social media and on television.

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards



Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade


A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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