LA HABANA — Mariela Castro Espín sparked another controversy this past Tuesday at the socially-distanced, online launch of the annual Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. The organization she leads, Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), has organized the event since 2008.
The legislator, government official, and LGBTI activist, broadcasting together with the lawyer Manuel Vázquez Seijido and the journalist Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, took the opportunity to denigrate those who pursue activism outside of Cuba’s governmental institutions. She referred to them as “cheap junk” and “little ticks.”
In Cuba’s revolutionary tradition, anyone who speaks without the government’s backing is pre-emptively discredited as prejudiced. For those with a militant anti-Castro mindset, anyone who speaks from the government’s institutions is similarly discredited.
So as not to play this game myself, and to give Mariela Castro the credit she deserves, I have to mention that she has advanced LGBTI rights in every area she could influence. And she’s fought for them in the Cuban parliament, closed as it is to any debate. All the prestige she enjoys among international LGBTI organizations was earned.
The legal aid, educational, and health services CENESEX offers decisively favor the aspiration of equality of the gay, lesbian, and trans community in a country that has had more homophobic and transphobic policies than other western nations, particularly since the Cuban revolution.
For the LGBTI community, the work of this agency and the discussion spaces it has promoted were a revolution. People far from Cuba and with other perspectives have criticized this as “pinkwashing.” Here, in our day-to-day lives, considering the charismatic leadership she exercises as a “fag hag,” she’s seen as an all-powerful fairy godmother.
For the fags arrested in some cruisy spot, or for the trans people rejected when they apply for a job, Mariela’s name is a talisman. She’s a “boss” who inspires the same degree of devotion that most of the Cuban people dedicated to Fidel Castro.
This cult-like mentality is not how healthy institutions function, but it’s become normalized in Cuba. The people justify it, undoubtedly because they lack other experiences of political participation. I do not know how she sees it herself, nor if, in her most revolutionary moments, she critiques this model.
Where CENESEX and Mariela Castro have contributed nothing to LGBTI activism is when it comes to horizontality, transparency, and coherency, all qualities this movement demands as its size and ambition grow.
That a heterosexual, cisgender person, not a fag, not a dyke, not trans-anything, would be the activist with most recognition and authority, reveals the incoherent foundation underlying Cuba’s official activism.
Mariela Castro also fails to critique the system she inherited, a social project that excluded sexual dissidence. When she has had to take sides, as in 2018 — when Cuban politicians suppressed a revision to the constitution about marriage equality and agreed to submit it to a national referendum in two years — she aligned herself with the official position and asked her followers to do the same, betraying themselves in order to remain loyal to the system.
There is a moment that marked the close of Mariela Castro’s time as an activist, leaving her role as a government official intact. The dilemma she lived for years was resolved on May 11, 2019, the day when hundreds of LGBTI people and allies marched through Havana to protest the cancellation of one of the public activities that Mariela herself promoted for a decade.
She had to speak about this on television, and what came out was the voice of an official. At that time, denying her activist side and offering no evidence, she said that the independent march was not legitimate, that it was paid for by the enemies of the state. In contrast to those who referred to it as “the Cuban Stonewall,” she said it did not deserve a place in the LGBTI history of Cuba and the world.
Her attitude towards the events of May 11, the only attitude she could hold as a government official, liquidated all Mariela’s prestige as an activist. The violent images we all remember were the government’s response to its LGBTI citizens.
Some of the “little ticks” she referred to yesterday had to leave the country after May 11. Others continue in Cuba and struggle to work independently, despite the legal limits imposed by the government when it prevents them from incorporating legally or raising funds, as CENESEX does.
The metaphor of the “little ticks” reminds us of Mariela’s other controversial phrases with the same folksy flavor. And in this case, it’s very apt. Out-of-control activists are insects that bite. The legislator, fixated as she is on disobedient activists, wants an insecticide. May 11 was the end of arrests. The plague must be treated with a spray.
Yesterday, Mariela said that independent LGBTI activists lack “political culture,” but this should be read only as a lack of adherence to the authoritarian social project of the Communist Party of Cuba. Among these activists, there are liberals, those who sympathize with the U.S. sanctions, but also anarchists, libertarian communists, and anticapitalists.
Mariela gives the traditional response of the political class in Cuba towards the conservative opposition, as though there were no other to give, as thought she was left without adequate language for the “Elvis-Presleyans,” as Fidel called them.
What does Mariela Castro have to say to those of us who disapprove of U.S. interference into Cuba’s affairs, but also reject the authoritarian style of the Cuban government?
Her anachronistic response, her willful lack of understanding — as though her previous blunders and insulting metaphors weren’t enough — will cost her more than silence would, with all the “cheap junk” who marched through Havana, against tradition, without the White House and without Revolution Square.