December 19, 2016 at 1:48 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
U.S., Cuba mark two years of normalized relations

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The U.S. Embassy in Havana in May flew a rainbow flag in honor of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba)

Saturday marked two years since the U.S. and Cuba began the process of normalizing diplomatic relations.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters last week during a conference call that the U.S. and Cuba have reopened their embassies in Havana and Washington. He also noted 10 American airlines now provide regularly scheduled service to the Communist island.

President Obama in March became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to Cuba in 88 years. The Adonia, which the Carnival Corp. operates, a few weeks later became the first cruise ship to sail between the U.S. and Cuba in more than five decades.

Rhodes also noted the U.S. participated in peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a leftist guerrilla group, that took place in Havana.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba remains in place, although Obama has used executive power to chip away at it.

“It was two years ago, in December of 2014, that the president publicly decided to break with 50 years of a failed policy of seeking to isolate Cuba,” said Rhodes.

U.S. officials attended Fidel Castro memorial service

The U.S. cut diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro toppled then-President Fulgencio Batista.

Castro in the years after the 1959 Cuban revolution sent thousands of gay men and others to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production or UMAPs in Spanish. His government also quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Castro apologized for the UMAPs during a 2010 interview with a Mexican newspaper. His niece, Mariela Castro, who is Cuban President Raúl Castro’s daughter, has spearheaded LGBT-specific issues in the country over the last decade as director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education.

Fidel Castro died on Nov. 25 at the age of 90. Rhodes and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, were among those who attended a memorial service for Fidel Castro in Havana’s Revolution Square.

Cuban, U.S. activists have ‘more systemic relationship’

Rhodes told reporters during the conference call that human rights are among “the significant challenges that remain and differences that remain between our two governments.”

The Human Rights Foundation on Friday said in a press release that plainclothes Cuban security agents arrested Kimberley Motley, an American lawyer, and two dissidents as they tried to hold a press conference outside the National Assembly in Havana. Motley represents Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado, a Cuban artist who was arrested after celebrating Fidel Castro’s death.

Nelson Gandulla Díaz, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, an independent advocacy group, told the Washington Blade that security agents on Dec. 10 interrogated him for more than two hours about his work with a Colombian LGBT organization. He said they threatened to arrest him and told him he cannot leave the Cuba.

Authorities in October arrested Maykel González Vivero, a gay independent journalist and LGBT activist, while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in the city of Baracoa. They released him three days later.

“[Obama’s] gifts of political communication highlighted the oldness, the ineffectiveness of the governing discourse in Havana,” wrote González in an op-ed the Blade published after Fidel Castro died.

Other Cubans told the Blade the normalization of relations have also benefited them.

“The beginning of a more systemic relationship with U.S. LGBTI leaders has been made possible,” said Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a Havana-based gay blogger and activist who works with Mariela Castro and her organization.

Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson and Tico Almeida, the Cuban American president of Freedom to Work, traveled to Cuba in May to take part in a series of events that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Transgender actress Candis Cayne is among those who participated in an IDAHOT march in Havana that Mariela Castro led.

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From left: Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida, U.S. Chief of Mission in Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis and Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on May 13, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Tico Almeida/Freedom at Work)

Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington traveled to Havana in March and July 2015 respectively. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in February met with Mariela Castro while in Havana as part of a Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce delegation.

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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser presents CENESEX Director Mariela Castro with a Nationals jersey during her trip to Cuba in February. (Photo courtesy Twitter)

Rodríguez told the Blade that U.S. Embassy officials wanted to meet with him in late 2015 to “listen to ideas about” Special U.S. Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Randy Berry’s “possible visit” to Cuba this year.

Rodríguez said the meeting did not take place.

Two independent LGBT rights advocates and other members of Cuban civil society met with Obama in March in Havana. Berry was not among the U.S. officials who traveled to Cuba with the president.

“A lot has changed in Cuba,” Keyler Matos Moreira, a journalist in the city of Camagüey who works for a pro-government radio station, told the Blade last week.

Curtailing relations ‘would hurt the Cuban people’

President-elect Trump has previously described the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba as “a very week agreement.”

Reports that emerged before the election indicate Trump’s company violated the U.S. embargo in 1998 and again in late 2012 or early 2013. It remains unclear whether the president-elect will seek to rollback the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana once he takes office.

“Sustaining this policy will allow for further opening, further travel, further U.S. business opportunities,” Rhodes told reporters during last week’s conference call. “Turning it off would hurt the Cuban people.”

Matos agreed.

“I hope that everything keeps going on the current paths,” he said.

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

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