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The ‘gay-friendly’ president

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel supported LGBT-friendly cultural center



Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel (Photo public domain)

Editor’s note: Tremenda Nota is an independent e-magazine in Cuba that reports on the country’s LGBT and other minority communities and young people. It is a Washington Blade media partner in Latin America.

Tremenda Nota originally published this story on its website in Spanish.

The new Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, has defended the presence of Cuba’s gay Pride mecca, El Mejunje. However, his gay-friendly record conflicts with his support of other kinds of censorship, such as independent media. How tolerant is Raúl Castro’s successor?

The new head of state is remembered in Villa Clara, a province in the center of Cuba, as a kind of revolutionary messiah: The man who always greeted strangers on the street, who mixed with the common people and asked for their opinions to solve problems in the community.

People would make the names of other Villa Clara leaders diminutives to feign some kind of familiarity. Humberto Rodríguez, the former president of the Provincial Assembly of People’s Power, was nicknamed Humbertico. Omar Martín and Julio Lima, each first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in Villa Clara at different times, were called Omarito and Julito. But Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez has always been Díaz-Canel, showing familiarity with respect.

In the early 1990s, when he was named the first secretary of the PCC in the province, Díaz-Canel was a scrawny young man with a strawberry-blonde mane who went to work on a bicycle and wore frayed striped pullovers. People say he was a Santa Clara sex symbol, who mastered a look that was “feline, naval and powerful.”

However, according to El Mejunje’s founder, Ramón Silverio, in the late 80s and the early 90s Díaz-Canel was “a charismatic man, like a Hollywood star, very elegant. He knew how to dress and he was very sensitive to the culture.” He was in power at a difficult time; he had to find resources when there were none.

Silverio believes that El Mejunje’s continued existence is thanks to the new president and he is grateful. In Cuba the relationship between a citizen and a politician is not so much between representative and represented but rather between a debtor and creditor. The asymmetry makes all the power flow upwards.

Silverio, El Mejunje’s mentor, is about to turn 70. He is a person with an unhurried nature, contrasted by his deep voice. His eyes are always half closed and his small hunchback is only slightly noticeable. He does not have any children but he is the father and grandfather of many generations, “the savior of the marginalized.”

When some decision makers of the province and other conservatives with political influence attempted to defame El Mejunje and its “suspicious” activities (referring to the LGBTI+ meetings that were held there) Díaz-Canel understood the value of a place where a diverse range of sexual preferences, people and opinions could be expressed. At the time Ramón Silverio himself was concerned that people would be able to understand what El Mejunje was about.

El Mejunje is an LGBT cultural center and nightclub in Santa Clara, Cuba. President Miguel Díaz-Canel supported El Mejunje when he was first secretary of the Communist Party in Villa Clara Province. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Side by side

Nelys Valdés was a member of the team chosen by Díaz-Canel in the early 90s to develop Villa Clara’s cultural sector with the limited resources available. Thanks to him she visited El Mejunje for the first time. Díaz-Canel convinced her that “nothing negative can happen in a place that is so frequented by artists and writers.” Nelys says, “I’ll never forget that night.” “He had an objective vision about artistic hierarchies. He always knew that you have to take risks.”

Nelys, the former provincial director of Culture, is retired from the Santa Clara’s nightlife. Her hair is going grey now but at the time she was in the prime of her life and worked “side by side” with Díaz-Canel to defend the artistic events generated by El Mejunje.

Now it is almost an honor to be a mejunjero, but Nelys and Silverio both concede that at the time there was a lot of prejudice around homosexuality and diversity in general. Silverio recalls that, “While he [Díaz-Canel] was around there was no fear. You wouldn’t hear about any campaigns against any issues connected with El Mejunje, whether it was a Miss Travesti or a Halloween event. There was never a threat against the cultural center.” The founder believes that “El Mejunje gets closest to the kind of country we’d like to have.”

Although the Cuban president has never made a public statement regarding the definitive approval of equal marriage in Cuba, he has participated in galas against homophobia and transphobia in the Karl Marx Theater. To date he has been “the state leader and highest ranking politician who has supported the Cuban Days [Against Homophobia and Transphobia],” according to the Cuban journalist and LGBTI+ activist Francisco Rodríguez Cruz in an article published in his blog Paquito el de Cuba.

The famous Cuban blogger emphasizes that the most important event demonstrating the new Cuban president’s understanding of diversity and sexual rights happened during the Labor Code debate in December 2013. Díaz-Canel suggested entrusting a parliamentary commission with the definitive redaction of a law in favor of LGBTI+ rights, and sought to reach consensus around some parliamentarians’ technical (presumably prejudiced) arguments against it.

Argentinian journalist Martín Caparrós recently revealed details about his meeting with the new president over 20 years ago. The journalist asked the Cuban leader if it was true that he had declared himself to be, “The secretary for all, the workers, students, farmers, homosexuals.” Díaz-Canel responded, “I didn’t say it, but I have always said that we have to give a space to everyone, to work for everyone.”

Mariela Castro, Raúl Castro’s daughter and director of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), also said that when Díaz-Canel was an official in the Young Communist Union he was responsible for working with CENESEX. Therefore, he had received training in the area of sexual rights when he became first secretary of the PCC in Villa Clara.

Nevertheless, many are not hopeful about a constitutional change that recognizes all of the rights related to sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. Díaz-Canel also has a tough position. No one could guarantee that he would support all parties and positions.

Months before his “election” the Cuban president appeared in a leaked video where he advocated closing down independent media, some members of which are spokespeople of the Cuban LGBTI+ community.

The alternative digital media appearing in Cuba over the last decade has brought to light the stories of many transsexuals, gays and lesbians in Cuba for the first time, which had not found a place in official newspapers. An article published in the digital newspaper Infobae adds that the orthodox image of Díaz-Canel contrasts with the perception of him as a simple man, affable but demanding, that many of his fellow citizens in the Villa Clara Province have of him.

After less than a month of becoming the president of the Councils of State and Ministers of Cuba it is only possible to confirm that Díaz-Canel, while he encouraged El Mejunje and has discretely supported the LGBTI+ community, has also repressed or tolerated the repression of other groups, such as independent journalists, political activists and dissident artists. None of these groups have received the same kind of “encouragement” from the president as the homosexual community; quite the opposite in fact.

Conjecture aside, opinion leaders like Ramón Silverio, cross their fingers and hope “Díaz-Canel is not homophobic at all. If he was, he would have been a detractor and not a defender of El Mejunje.” Silverio remembers that the current president often attended children’s activities with his children and, at that time, he wasn’t even the first secretary of the PCC. Back then parents who took their children to El Mejunje were more progressive. Díaz-Canel would recommend many that many artists, many important people like Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada (former president of the National Assembly of People’s Power) visit El Mejunje. In the cultural center they still believe that Díaz-Canel speaks about it and that he recognizes it as an important part of Cuban culture and uses it as an example.

María Caridad Jorge has been manager of El Mejunje, the most inclusive venue in Cuba, since the 1990s when it moved to its current location. She is a lesbian and a LGBTI+ community activist in Santa Clara. She can easily remember Díaz-Canel’s visits to El Mejunje. “He supported us in every sense,” she states. María Caridad believes that Díaz-Canel had a long-term vision of the work that was being achieved and he was someone who understood that LGBTI+ groups also have the right to participate in culture. María sees Díaz-Canel as just an average run of the mill person. This is important because she believes “there’s no point leading a country where the people don’t know you.”

Miguel Díaz-Canel was not part of the revolutionary generation that believed that homosexuality was an aberration and that the “deviants” should be punished and locked up. Will he promote equal marriage now that he holds this new position of ultimate authority in the country? His actions will indicate whether his experience in El Mejunje was a precedent or an anecdote. If he promotes the rights of the LGBTI+ community but cuts short those of journalists, opposition or critical artists, his tolerance will be a frustrated synecdoche: One part will not be enough to triumph over the rest.

A Pride flag hangs from a balcony at El Mejunje, an LGBT-friendly cultural center in Santa Clara, Cuba, on May 15, 2018. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel supported the center when he was first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in Villa Clara Province. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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D.C. mayor to lift all restrictions on bars, nightclubs on June 11

‘We will definitely be celebrating Pride’ next month



Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Monday that she will fully lift capacity and other restrictions on most businesses, including restaurants and places of worship, on May 21. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced at a news conference on Monday that a continuing trend of significantly lower numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths in the city has enabled her to fully lift capacity and other restrictions on most businesses, including restaurants and places of worship, on May 21.

The mayor said bars and nightclubs will be allowed to increase indoor capacity from the current 25 percent to 50 percent on May 21, with all capacity restrictions for bars and nightclubs to be removed on June 11.

The mayor’s announcement came after representatives of the city’s nightlife businesses, including the city’s gay bars and restaurants, expressed concern that D.C. had yet to lift its capacity restrictions beyond 25 percent while surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia had already lifted most restrictions.

“On May 21, restrictions on public and commercial activity, including capacity limits, types of activities, and time restrictions, will be lifted,” the mayor’s directive says.

It says restrictions for bars and nightclubs would continue at a 50 percent capacity from May 21 through June 11. The directive says restrictions for large sports and entertainment venues would also continue from May 21 to June 11, which includes a requirement such events apply for a waiver of the restrictions on a case-by-case basis.

“On June 11, capacity limits and restrictions will be lifted on those venues that cannot fully reopen on May 21,” the directive says.

In response to a question at the news conference, Bowser said the June 11 date would essentially end all restrictions on nightclubs and bars, including the current requirement that they close at midnight rather than the pre-epidemic closing times of 2 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.

In a development that could have a major impact on plans for D.C.’s LGBTQ Pride events, the mayor’s revised health directive announced on Monday includes the lifting of all capacity restrictions on large outdoor and indoor sports and entertainment events beginning on June 11.

That change would remove restrictions that have, up until now, prevented D.C.’s Capital Pride Alliance from holding its annual Pride Parade and Festival in June during Pride Month.

Capital Pride Executive Director Ryan Bos told the Washington Blade shortly after the mayor’s announcement that Capital Pride is assessing its options for expanding its current plans for in-person events in June.

“We will definitely be celebrating Pride in June,” Bos said. “We just received this information as well. So, we will be getting further information,” he said. “We have not been informed that they will be issuing any permits yet, so at this time we are moving forward with our original plans for doing things.”

Bos was referring to a city requirement for obtaining permits for street closings and use of other public spaces for events such as a parade or street festival. He said existing plans, among other things, call for an informal parade of cars and other vehicles on June 12 that will drive throughout the city to view homes and businesses that will be decorated with Pride displays such as signs, photos, and other symbols of Pride.

Those familiar with the city’s past Pride events don’t think there will be enough time for Capital Pride to organize the traditional large parade and street festival in time for June. But Capital Pride officials have talked about holding a possible parade and festival in October, and the lifting of the capacity restrictions announced by Bowser on Monday would likely make that possible.

In addition to lifting all capacity restrictions on May 21 for restaurants, the mayor’s May 21 timeframe for lifting restrictions includes these additional venues and events:

  • Weddings and special events
  • Business meetings and seated conventions
  • Places of worship
  • Non-essential retail
  • Personal services
  • Private at-home gatherings
  • Libraries, museums, galleries
  • Recreation Centers
  • Gyms and fitness centers
  • Pools
  • Office space
  • Schools
  • Childcare

“We’re very pleased that over the last several days, we have seen our case spread, our community spread numbers, venture out of the red into the yellow and fast approaching the green,” Bowser said in referring to a health department chart that shows the changes in coronavirus cases in the city.

“You might remember that our daily case rate peaked in January at 45.9. And today you can see it’s down to 6.6,” she said at her news conference on Monday.

“Throughout this process I have said how proud I am of D.C. residents and businesses who have responded, who have followed health guidance and have worked together to help protect our community throughout the pandemic. And we see it in these numbers today,” she said.

“Containing the virus will continue to require all of us to be focused on maintaining a robust health system,” the mayor said, adding that while over 200,000 D.C. residents have been fully vaccinated since December 2020, “many more thousands” still need to be vaccinated. “Vaccines are free and available on demand at walk-up sites across the District,” she said.

The mayor also noted that the city will continue to require residents and visitors to use a mask in accordance with existing and updated guidance set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mark Lee, coordinator of the D.C. Nightlife Council, an association that represents restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other entertainment venues, said the mayor’s directive on May 10 leaves some details to be addressed but will open the way to bring nightlife businesses back to life.

“What we do know is that on Friday, May 21, businesses begin returning to normal operations and, three weeks later, on June 11, all restrictions for all businesses in the District will end,” Lee said. “It’s a day we’ve long awaited and one that will save much of our community enterprise from financial ruin.”

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Family code bill to be introduced in Cuban Parliament in July

CENESEX made announcement during May 4 press conference



Mariela Castro at a CENESEX press conference


Tremenda Nota is the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba. A Spanish version of this story was published on May 6.

HAVANA — The National Center for Sexual Education on May 4 during a press conference in which it unveiled the program for the 14th annual International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia events in Cuba announced a bill to amend the family code will be introduced in Parliament in July.

CENESEX Director Mariela Castro Espín said during a meeting with official and foreign media outlets at the International Press Center that this year’s events are part of the process of amending the family code.

She added that this legal change will reflect several rights guaranteed in the constitution, which is why it is necessary to sensitize and educate the Cuban population to avoid prejudice and discrimination.

“I was able to appreciate that the majority of the population … is in favor of recognizing the rights of LGBTI+ people and especially the rights in the family sphere that include the possibility, the option, of marriage,” said Mariela Castro during the press conference.

The official referred to the results of the National Survey on Gender Equality in Cuba, conducted in 2016 and published in 2019. According to this official study, 77 percent of the Cuban population between 15 and 74-years-old said that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people should have the same rights as any other citizen.

CENESEX’s director, however, did not use this information in the 2018 parliamentary debates sparked by Article 68 of the bill to amend the constitution. The idea that it was not the appropriate time to implement same-gender marriage in Cuba eventually won out.

Mariela Castro told Tremenda Nota a few days before the referendum in which Cuban voters approved the current constitution that she was aware of the survey, but she did not explain why she did not use the data it revealed as an argument (in favor of marriage equality.)

“It was a wasted tool that now we can only use in the next referendum,” then-MP Luis Ángel Adán Roble told Tremenda Nota during a February 2019 interview, as did Mariela Castro.

The moment that Adán Roble mentioned has arrived.

It became known during the May 4 press conference that the family code will be introduced in the scheduled parliamentary session in July. The Council of State on March 22 appointed a commission that will be in charge of preparing the bill, but the list of its members was not made public until April 30. None of them are openly LGBTI+.

Activists over the last few weeks have demanded that Parliament reveal the identities of those who make up the commission and the deadline they have to prevent the Family Code. The May 4 press conference resolved the last outstanding point.

The Cuban IDAHOBiT program

Mariela Castro and CENESEX Deputy Director Manuel Vázquez Seijido explained that numerous activities with the goal of making visible and fighting against all types of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will virtually take place from May 4 through May 30.

The IDAHOBiT events in Cuba have a program that includes academic dialogue, social activism and artistic presentations from virtual spaces.

Forum debates are among the activities. The Juventud Rebelde newspaper will host the first one with the theme “Deconstructing myths around same-sex families and partners” and Cubadebate will hold the second called “Constitution and Sexual Rights in Cuba: Progress and Main challenges.”

They also announced at the press conference the books “Paquito el de Cuba: A Decade of Online Activism” and “Non-Heteronormative Sexualities and Gender Identities. Tensions and Challenges for Human Rights” will be presented.

There will be virtual panels titled “Diverse Families: Histories of Non-Hegemonic Lives,” “National Program for the Advancement of Women: Opportunities to Confront Homophobia and Transphobia,” “Keys for Inclusive Communication” and “Sexual Rights and Religious Fundamentalisms.”

Castro Espín explained that CENESEX will use its social media accounts to promote the program, contribute to the sexual education of Cubans and the recognition of rights for all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

A show against homophobia and transphobia that will officially end the events will be broadcast on social media and on television.

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards



Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade


A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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