June 1, 2018 at 6:00 am EDT | by Laura Rodríguez Fuentes
The ‘gay-friendly’ president

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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