May 30, 2018 at 9:00 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Cuba LGBTI delegation includes Christine Quinn, D.C. activist

A 14-member delegation with the Center for Democracy in the Americas was in Cuba from May 11-15, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Ubuntu Olson)

A 14-member delegation that included former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and an LGBTI rights activist from D.C. traveled to Cuba earlier this month.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas delegation arrived in Havana on May 11 and returned to the U.S. on May 15.

The trip coincided with a series of events the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) — an organization that Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro, directs — organized around the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

The delegation — which included Ryan Ubuntu Olson, a senior advisor for the Palladium Group — attended a CENESEX gala and march in Havana. The delegation also met with LGBTI activists who work independently of CENESEX, artists, academics, entrepreneurs and officials at the U.S. Embassy.

Quinn, Olson and other members of the delegation met with representatives of CubaOne, a Miami-based organization that brings young Cuban Americans to Cuba.

The delegation did not meet with Mariela Castro. Quinn on Wednesday noted to the Washington Blade during a telephone interview from Madrid the delegation did meet with the director of Cuba’s National Center for the Prevention of STDs and HIV/AIDS.

“I loved it,” said Quinn, referring to the trip.

Olson echoed Quinn.

“As a global LGBTI human rights advocate and HIV and sexual and reproductive champion, I was honored to join a trip of experts to learn more about the experiences of LGBTI Cubans, their resiliency and hope for the future,” Olson told the Blade in a statement.

Ryan Ubuntu Olson of D.C. attends a march in Havana on May 12, 2018, that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. He was part of a 14-member delegation with the Center for Democracy in the Americas that was in Cuba from May 11-15, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Ubuntu Olson)


The Center for Democracy in the Americas is a D.C.-based organization that supports U.S. engagement with Cuba.

Quinn last October traveled to the Communist island with the Center for Democracy in the Americas. U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) was also part of the delegation that focused on LGBTI issues and Cuba’s growing private sector.

Cuba’s LGBTI efforts a ‘180-degree turn from their horrible past’

Mariela Castro earlier this month said CENESEX is planning to submit proposals to the Cuban National Assembly that would extend marriage and other rights to LGBT Cubans.

Gay men are among those who were sent to labor camps — known by the Spanish acronym UMAPs — in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought Mariela Castro’s uncle, Fidel Castro, to power. The Cuban government until 1993 forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria.

Fidel Castro in 2010 apologized for the camps during an interview with a Mexican newspaper. Cuba in 2015 became the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.

Cuba since 2008 has offered free sex-reassignment surgeries through its national health care system. Quinn on Wednesday also noted CENESEX is working to combat anti-LGBTI bullying in the country’s schools.

“It’s a 180-degree turn from their horrible past,” she said. “That is real and it is part of history, but rarely do you see a country do a total turnaround.”

Independent LGBTI rights advocates with whom the Blade has previously spoken have said they face harassment and even arrest if they publicly criticize Mariela Castro or the Cuban government. Three activists — Victor Manuel Dueñas and his cousin, Onasis Torres, and Nelson Gandulla, founder of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI rights — since January have requested asylum in the Netherlands and Spain respectively.

Quinn said Cuba’s human rights record is “clearly problematic.” She also pointed out racism against Cubans of African descent remains a serious problem.

“Two things can be true at the same time,” Quinn added, noting the U.S. has close diplomatic relationships with countries that have poor human rights records. “One can deserve recognition and the other must demand recognition.”

Quinn criticizes Trump’s Cuba policy, U.S. embargo

The delegation traveled to Cuba less than a month after the National Assembly chose Miguel Díaz-Canel to succeed Raúl Castro as the country’s president. The trip also took place against the backdrop of President Trump’s decision nearly a year ago to reinstate travel and trade restrictions with Cuba the Obama administration lifted in 2014 when it moved to normalize diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Communist island.

Quinn told the Blade she was “obviously very upset when President Trump rolled things back.” She also criticized the U.S. embargo against Cuba that has been in place since 1962.

“So much about Cuba is kind of cartoonized in America,” Quinn told the Blade. “So to go there you see the poverty, you see the embargo is hurting no one but the people. The Castros are fine.”

“It’s important for Americans to see their government’s policies in real time,” she added.

Former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, right, attends a march in Havana on May 12, 2018, that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. She was part of a 14-member delegation with the Center for Democracy in the Americas that was in Cuba from May 11-15, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Ubuntu Olson)

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

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