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.“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.
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.
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.