May 25, 2017 at 6:00 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
EXCLUSIVE: Cuban LGBT activist faces growing persecution

Nelson Gandulla, Cuba, Cuban Federation fro LGBTI Rights, gay news, Washington Blade

Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights President Nelson Gandulla speaks exclusively to the Washington Blade at his home in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on May 16, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

CIENFUEGOS, Cuba — An independent Cuban activist says the government continues to target him because he publicly criticizes President Raúl Castro’s daughter who spearheads LGBT-specific issues on the communist island.

Nelson Gandulla, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, told the Washington Blade on May 16 during an exclusive interview at his home on the outskirts of the city of Cienfuegos that three security officials interrogated him for two and a half hours last December.

Gandulla told the Blade the interrogation took place on Dec. 10 — International Human Rights Day that commemorates the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 — in Cienfuegos, which is roughly three hours southeast of Havana on Cuba’s southern coast.

Gandulla said he had just returned from Switzerland and Spain where he participated in a U.N. forum and met with several officials. Gandulla also criticized Mariela Castro, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education, while he was in Europe.

The interrogation about which Gandulla spoke to the Blade took place 15 days after Mariela Castro’s uncle, former Cuban President Fidel Castro, died. His ashes were interred at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in the city of Santiago on Dec. 4.

The grave of former Cuban President Fidel Castro at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago, Cuba, on May 8, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Gandulla said the authorities who interrogated him threatened to kill him and told him “something could happen to my family and me.” Gandulla told the Blade the authorities also said they “could take me to prison for contempt for attacking Mariela Castro’s authority.”

Gandulla, who is a doctor, said the authorities also threatened to rescind his medical license and prevent him from leaving Cuba.

“I was accused of being a worm, a mercenary,” he told the Blade. “They told me that I was an employee of the CIA and that they could also accuse me of the crime of illicit misappropriation of funds and economic activity.”

Gandulla accused of having ‘clandestine Internet network’

Gandulla said he was waiting to pass through immigration at Havana’s José Martí International Airport on Jan. 9 in order to board a flight to Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport when security agents “pulled me out of the line” and said he was not allowed to leave the country. Gandulla was to have flown from Panama City to the Colombian city of Cartagena in order to attend a workshop organized by Caribe Afirmativo, an LGBT advocacy group, that focused on documenting human rights abuses.

Gandulla told the Blade he and his partner returned to Cienfuegos two days later. He said they were arrested when they asked local immigration officials why he was prevented from leaving the country.

Gandulla said authorities took their passports and cell phones and placed his partner in a cell. He told the Blade they accused him of having a “clandestine Internet network” inside his home, even though the only thing he said they found was a DirecTV receiver.

Gandulla said authorities took pictures of his home as they walked through it.

He told the Blade they also had “witnesses” who “showed their discontent” over flyers the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights distributed throughout the country “that talk about the Cuban reality.”

Gandulla had a poster on the outside of his home that described Mariela Castro as a “fraud” when the Blade visited it in 2015.

A poster at the home of Nelson Gandulla, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, in May 2015 describes Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, as a “fraud.” (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

He told the Blade those who criticized the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights flyers in January were “prisoners.”

Gandulla told the Blade authorities fined him the equivalent of $60. His salary is roughly $45 a month.

Gandulla prevented from meeting U.S. activists in Havana

Gandulla said police on May 3 detained his partner because he was working as a journalist without official government credentials. He told the Blade agents interrogated him for two hours and took his camera, cell phone and tripod.

“They wanted to send him to prison for illicit economic activities,” Gandulla told the Blade in an email shortly after the alleged incident took place. “They wanted to say that he receives money from abroad, which is not the case. He has never received money. They threatened him that if they saw him on the street filming or with a camera he would go directly to prison without a trial.”

Gandulla also alleges authorities prevented him from traveling to Havana in order to attend a May 12 meeting with Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith and other U.S. LGBT advocates.

Gandulla told the Blade he received a summons that ordered him to report to police headquarters in Cienfuegos at 8 a.m. on May 12 for an “interrogation.” The meeting began in Havana at the same time.

Gandulla said the police called him on May 11 and told him he “wasn’t able to go to work” the next day because the director of Cienfuegos’ local health office was going to be visiting. He told the Blade the police also told him he could not leave Cienfuegos province.

Gandulla said a police officer came to his home before then-President Obama visited Cuba in March 2016 and asked whether he “was going to move around Cuba or my province in the coming days.” Gandulla told the Blade he was “publicly admonished in front of his colleagues” last October after he traveled abroad and his salary was reduced by 25 percent for three months.

He said he was unable to work for several months. Gandulla told the Blade he has started working in another office and his salary has been restored.

Persecution ‘worse now’ because group is more visible

He told the Blade that authorities have repeatedly threatened to send him to prison and regularly harass activists who work with his organization. Gandulla also said the Cuban government has placed him under surveillance.

This reporter on May 16 saw four Cuban soldiers standing along the road on which Gandulla’s house is located. Two men who Gandulla described as security agents drove past in motorcycles shortly after the interview began.

A police officer on a motorcycle stopped this reporter while driving on the highway between Cienfuegos and Cuba’s Autopista Nacional roughly an hour after leaving Gandulla’s home.

The police officer asked for this reporter’s passport, visa, driver’s license and Cuban press credentials. He returned to his motorcycle and began speaking to someone through his radio. The police officer wrote something down on a piece of paper before returning to this reporter’s car less than 10 minutes later and allowing him to drive away after returning his documents.

Gandulla has criticized Mariela Castro in previous interviews with the Blade and other international media outlets. He told the Blade the government’s persecution against him “is worse now because we and the foundation are more visible.”

“We are doing things,” said Gandulla.

“We don’t have any type of legal recognition from the Cuban authorities,” he added, referring to the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights and other groups and advocates who are not affiliated with the National Center for Sexual Education. “They have turned us into illegal people inside of Cuba and describe us as dissidents.”

Gandulla: Mariela Castro promotes Cuba as ‘LGBT paradise’

Gandulla spoke to the Blade a day before Mariela Castro led a march in the city of Santa Clara that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Gender Rights Maryland Executive Director Dana Beyer, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Church, are among the more than 2,000 people who took part in an International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia march in Havana that Mariela Castro led. The National Center for Sexual Education, its supporters and independent LGBT rights advocates organized other events across the country that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Mariela Castro, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, leads an LGBT march through Havana on May 13, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Fidel Castro in the years after the 1959 Cuban revolution that brought him to power sent gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps, which were known as Military Units to Aid Production or UMAPs in Spanish. The Cuban government forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Fidel Castro in 2010 apologized for the work camps during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.

Mariela Castro’s supporters frequently point out that Cuba offers free sex-reassignment surgery through its national health care system.

Independent LGBT rights advocates have pointed out that only a few dozen transgender women have undergone the procedure since 2008. Mariela Castro told reporters during a press conference in Havana on May 3 that 35 people — roughly half a dozen a year — have undergone sex-reassignment surgery in Cuba.

Gandulla acknowledged there is more public awareness and “more recognition” of LGBT-specific issues in Cuba because of Mariela Castro’s efforts. He said discrimination based on gender identity and a lack of legal recognition for same-sex couples are among the problems that LGBT Cubans continue to face.

“Mariela Castro’s role is to sell a different image of the community to the world,” Gandulla told the Blade.

“She sells Cuba as an LGBT paradise and everyone knows that this is not the case,” he added. “She wants to whitewash the historic homophobia that has sustained the Cuban revolution for more than 50 years.”

The Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights was scheduled to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Cienfuegos on May 17. Gandulla told Radio y Televisión Martí, a Miami-based radio and television station that broadcasts into Cuba, the organization decided to postpone the event “in order to protect those who were invited and activists.”

Gandulla told the Blade there are few places where LGBT Cubans can gather and talk openly.

“The LGBT community in Cuba is discriminated against every day,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Cuban government in Havana has not returned the Blade’s request for comment on Gandulla’s allegations.

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

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