September 7, 2018 at 1:04 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
New U.S. government radio program highlights LGBTI issues in Cuba

Joe Cardona hosts “Arcoíris,” program on Radio Martí that highlights LGBTI issues in Cuba. (Photo courtesy of Joe Cardona)

A U.S. government radio station that broadcasts into Cuba has launched a program that focuses on LGBTI-specific issues on the Communist island.

“Arcoíris,” which means “rainbow” in Spanish, first aired on Radio Martí on July 28.

The program airs each Saturday and Sunday from 4-5 p.m. Joe Cardona, a Cuban American filmmaker and ally who directed “The Day It Snowed In Miami,” a documentary that highlights Anita Bryant’s 1977 campaign against Dade County’s gay rights ordinance, hosts “Arcoíris.”

Nelson Gandulla Díaz, founder of the Cuban Federation for LGBTI Rights, an independent advocacy group, appeared on “Arcoíris” on Aug. 25. Gandulla, a vocal critic of Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro who spearheads LGBTI-specific issues in Cuba as director of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), spoke with Cardona from Spain where he has asked for asylum.

“Arcoíris” on Sept. 1 highlighted the experiences of gay prisoners in Cuba. Ignacio Estrada Cepero, founder of the Cuban League Against AIDS who now lives in Miami with his wife, Wendy Iriepa Díaz, a transgender woman who once worked for CENESEX, has also appeared on the program.

Cardona’s family is originally from Havana and Matanzas Province. He told the Washington Blade last month during a telephone interview from Miami his program is “all about taking LGBT issues to the mainstream in Cuba.”

LGBTI rights advocates of Cuban descent in South Florida have welcomed the program.

“‘Arcoíris”‘ is an important window to the outside world for the Cuban LGBTQ community,” said SAVE Executive Director Tony Lima in a Radio Martí press release.

Program host ‘looks beyond’ Mariela Castro

“Arcoíris” debuted roughly three months after Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel took office. It also began to air against the backdrop of the debate over the country’s new constitution with an amendment that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The Cuban government is currently holding meetings that allow members of the public to comment on the new constitution. The National Assembly later this year is expected to finalize it before a referendum that is scheduled to take place in February 2019.

This debate, which includes public opposition from evangelical churches, is taking place less than 60 years after gay men were among those sent to labor camps following the 1959 revolution that brought Mariela Castro’s uncle, Fidel Castro, to power.

Supporters of Mariela Castro, among other things, note Cuba now offers free sex-reassignment surgeries through its national health care system. Gandulla and other independent Cuban LGBTI advocates with whom the Blade has spoken insist they face harassment and even arrest if they publicly criticize Mariela Castro, who is a member of the National Assembly, or the Cuban government.

“I almost look beyond Mariela Castro,” Cardona told the Blade. “I look at CENESEX as another government apparatchik.”

Mariela Castro, gay news, Washington Blade

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

Cuban government sharply critical of Radio Martí

Radio Martí began broadcasting to Cuba in 1985.

The Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which is a branch of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, funds Radio Martí and Televisión Martí. The two outlets have a combined annual budget of $28.1 million.

The Cuban government has sharply criticized Radio Martí and Televisión Martí.

The Miami New Times last month reported less than 10 percent of Cubans listen to Radio Martí broadcasts and less than 1 percent of Cubans watch Televisión Martí programs, in part, because the Cuban government has been able to block them from reaching the island. Critics continue to urge the federal government to decrease its funding of Radio Martí and Televisión Martí.

A 2014 agreement the Cuban government reached with the Obama administration to normalize diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington included expanded internet access in Cuba.

President Trump last year reinstated travel and trade restrictions with Cuba, even though his company and several associates have reportedly violated the U.S. embargo against the Communist island. Internet access in Cuba remains limited and expensive, even though there are now more than 700 public Wi-Fi hotspots across the country and a pilot program the state-run telecommunications company has launched allows Cubans to have Internet connections in their homes.

“I’m not the guy to prohibit anybody from traveling there,” Cardona told the Blade on Friday from Miami. “Obviously I encourage it, but I say to people, go there with eyes open.”

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

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