HAVANA — The daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro on Saturday led a march through the Cuban capital that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Mariela Castro, who directs Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education that is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX, and more than 2,000 people marched from the Havana’s oceanfront to a pavilion that is near the Habana Libre hotel in the Vedado neighborhood.
She noted to her supporters after the march that CENESEX first commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia — which is May 17 — in 2007.
This year’s International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia campaign will feature events in Havana and in the city of Santa Clara that highlight anti-bullying efforts in Cuban schools. Mariela Castro told her supporters the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorations help promote acceptance of LGBT people on the Communist island.
“Each time more people understand that homosexuality is not a sickness, but phobias . . . continue to be,” she said, referring to the previous International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia events that have taken place in Cuba. “People understand that homosexuality is not dangerous, but homophobia and transphobia are.”
CENESEX on Friday honored Rev. Troy Perry, who founded the Metropolitan Community Church, at a gala in Havana. He is among those who rode alongside Mariela Castro in 1950s-era cars and joined her on stage at the pavilion as she spoke.
New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Gender Rights Maryland Executive Director Dana Beyer, representatives of the British Embassy in Cuba and Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida are among those who also attended the march. Several Cuban LGBT rights advocates who work independently of CENESEX and have publicly criticized Mariela Castro were also walking alongside march participants and listening to her speech.
“I’m here to just lend support, solidarity, to build bridges with the community, to let them know that they have support from the diaspora abroad,” Mark-Viverito, who is In Havana with a delegation of more than a dozen Latino leaders from the U.S. and Puerto Rico, told the Washington Blade during an interview before the march began.
Reynaldo, an activist from Havana’s Playas del Este area who works with CENESEX, told the Blade as he and a handful of his colleagues were standing along the march route before it began that it is important to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia in Cuba because it is a “Socialist,” “machista” and “sexist” country.
“We have the need to make our fight against all types of discrimination, whether it is because of sexual orientation, because of gender identity, more visible,” said Reynaldo. “We have this need to be recognized socially.”
Diva, a transgender woman from Havana’s Miramar neighborhood, told the Blade as she marched along the city’s oceanfront that it was important for her to participate because the fight for tolerance and acceptance of LGBT Cubans is one that has been taking place for “many years.”
“It is important because we are fighting for our rights as the gay community, the LGBT community,” said Diva.
Jovanna from Havana was marching with her oldest son. She was concise when she told the Blade why she was taking part.
“I am a lesbian,” she said.
Supporter refers to Mariela Castro as ‘our new president’
Mariela Castro’s uncle, former President Fidel Castro, in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought him to power sent gay men and others to work camps that were known by the Spanish acronym UMAPs. The government forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.
Fidel Castro in 2010 publicly apologized for the UMAPs during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.
The Cuban government since 2008 has offered free sex-reassignment surgeries to trans women.
Mariela Castro told reporters last week during a Havana press conference that 35 people — roughly half a dozen a year — have undergone the procedure. Independent activists with whom the Blade regularly speaks have pointed out the low numbers of sex-reassignment surgeries that have taken place in Cuba.
The Cuban constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban National Assembly, on Saturday made no mention of independent activists’ campaign to spur lawmakers to discuss the issue of nuptials for gays and lesbians.
Mariela Castro told Hatzel Vela, the Havana-based reporter for WPLG, a South Florida television station, in a recent interview that her father “understands” her LGBT-specific efforts and is “supportive” of them. She has also repeatedly denied speculation that she will succeed her father as president in 2018 when he expected to step down.
A woman who was listening to Mariela Castro’s speech at the pavilion described her as “our new president” to her friends.