October 20, 2017 at 6:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Takano visits Cuba with LGBT, entrepreneur delegation

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) was part of a delegation that traveled to Cuba last week. The delegation focused on LGBT issues and the country’s private sector. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

California Congressman Mark Takano and former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn were among the members of a delegation that traveled to Cuba last week.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas — a D.C.-based organization that supports U.S. engagement with the Communist island — organized the trip that focused on LGBT issues and Cuba’s growing private sector. It began on Oct. 14 and ended on Tuesday.

Josefina Vidal, who is Cuba’s general director of U.S. affairs, on Tuesday posted pictures to her Twitter account that show her meeting with Takano, Quinn and other members of the delegation at the country’s Foreign Ministry in Havana.

“Honored to receive at the Cuban Foreign Ministry California Congressman Mark Takano and his delegation on a visit to learn Cuba’s (sic) work on LGBT issues,” said Vidal.

The National Center for Sexual Education, a known by the acronym CENESEX that Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who spearheads LGBT-specific issues in the country, posted onto its Twitter account a picture of Takano holding a t-shirt.

CENESEX said the delegation met with Deputy Director Manuel Vázquez.

Takano — a Democrat who represents California’s 41st Congressional District that includes the city of Riverside — told the Washington Blade on Wednesday during a telephone interview from California that the delegation did not meet with Mariela Castro because she was out of the country.

Takano said the delegation met with activists who work independently of Mariela Castro and CENESEX. He described them to the Blade as “not hostile to the regime.”

“It’s kind of the same thing what (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi calls the inside-outside game about members of Congress and working with outside advocacy groups,” said Takano.

Juana Mora, an independent LGBT rights advocate who is among those who are campaigning in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Cuba, on Thursday told the Blade she met with Takano and the other members of his delegation.

“We talked about the community,” she said. “We had dinner with them to talk about the work that we are doing in Cuba.”

Takano told the Blade the delegation met with an official at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The delegation also visited the Latin American School of Medicine, a medical school in the outskirts of Havana the Cuban government operates.

Takano said he first traveled to Cuba in 2015.

He told the Blade he met Mariela Castro at CENESEX’s offices. Takano said they had “some very constructive dialogue about advancing LGBT equality in both countries and she invited me . . . back.”

“That’s what this trip was about,” he said. “It was about enlarging the points of contacts among LGBT leaders in this country and LGBT leaders in Cuba.”

Cuba has human rights ‘challenges’

Fidel Castro, who was Mariela Castro’s uncle, in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought him to power sent gay men and others to work camps known by the Spanish acronym UMAPs.

Cuba in 1979 decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations.

The Cuban government until 1993 forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria. Fidel Castro, who died last November, apologized for the UMAPs in 2010 during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.

Mariela Castro over the last decade has spearheaded LGBT-specific issues on the Communist island, with her supporters noting the country since 2008 has provided free sex-reassignment surgeries through its national health care system. They also highlight Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban Parliament, in 2013 voted against a proposal to add sexual orientation to Cuba’s labor law because it did not include gender identity.

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was among the more than 2,000 people who took part in an International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia march through Havana’s Vedado neighborhood in May that Mariela Castro led. Hundreds of people participated in a second IDAHOT march in the city of Santa Clara that took place a few days later.

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito attends an International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia march in Havana on May 13, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Independent activists with whom the Blade regularly speaks say they face harassment and even arrest if they publicly criticize Mariela Castro or her father’s government. They include Maykel González, a journalist and LGBT activist in the city of Sagua la Grande who said police detained him and his partner last month as they tried to report on preparations ahead of Hurricane Irma, which devastated the country’s north central coast.

“We didn’t speak with any dissidents,” Takano told the Blade. “We did meet with some independent voices, observers who talked about the pluses of how the government deals with LGBTQ people and the minuses.”

“We know there are challenges that Cuba still has with human rights, but our focus was really not on human rights in general,” he added. “Our focus was specifically on LGBTQ and ways in which the lives of LGBTQ people in Cuba could be improved and ways in which the government was doing that. We also saw people in the entrepreneur space too.”

Takano criticizes Trump’s Cuba policy

The delegation traveled to Cuba roughly four months after President Trump reinstated of travel and trade restrictions with Cuba that the Obama administration lifted.

The Trump administration late last month announced a 60 percent reduction of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana after mysterious sonic attacks against at least 22 diplomats. The White House earlier this month expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S.

“I am saddened that the momentum of the normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States has been slowed by recent events involving American diplomats and what appears to be some sort of misery sustained by a phenomenon that is not well understood,” Takano told the Blade. “I have not seen or heard of any conclusive evidence that squarely puts this on the hands of the Cuban government.”

Takano noted Trump this week “did make an accusation that he believes the Cuban government is behind this.” He told the Blade “It seems as though the White House began to walk back those comments and seems to justify the reduction in American embassy staffing and expulsion of Cuban diplomats that’s predicated on the idea that Cuba is not able to keep American diplomats safe.”

“My sense is the Cubans are very much eager to cooperate in unprecedented ways,” said Takano.

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

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