Editor’s note: Tremenda Nota is the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba. Tremenda Nota published this article on their website on May 20.
HAVANA — This past Monday the LGBTI+ community celebrated the first anniversary of the march of May 11, 2019, when several hundred people demonstrated in Havana. This protest followed the cancellation of an official event for the LGBTI+ community that had taken place every year for a decade.
The independent march was also inspired by the previous year’s debates about Article 68, a proposed revision to the Cuban Constitution that would have allowed marriage equality. Article 68 was suppressed in the new Constitution’s final revision, which was submitted to popular referendum in February 2019, creating tension between the community and the Cuban government.
The government responded to the May 11 march with violence, dispersing the crowd with dozens of policemen who arrested activists and other participants. It also discredited the event in official state-run media.
This police violence drew parallels with incidents such as Stonewall, an iconic moment for the international LGBTI+ movement, and caused May 11 to be considered by some activists as the Day of the LGBTIQ Cuban Movement.
Taking this perspective, the Miami-based influencer Alex Otaola celebrated the anniversary with an online forum on Monday morning. Otaola is known for his show “Hola Ota-Ola”, where he has promoted controversial campaigns against artists who publicly sympathize with the Cuban government.
That afternoon, independent LGBTI+ activists who work in Cuba — that is, those unaffiliated with the Cuban government — held their own virtual forum. The forum was broadcast on Facebook after a hacking attack reportedly disabled the website originally planned to host it, according to complaints the organizers shared by social media.
The activist Jancel Moreno told Tremenda Nota, “At about 9 a.m., I could no longer access my page ‘Give Me Your Hand.’ After I complained publicly about this, my mobile data connection completely disappeared.”
The forum organized from Havana began hours late because of the hacking, which Moreno denounced.
The majority of the forum’s panelists were activists who participated in the march of May 11th and analyzed the LGBTI+ community’s challenges, including the upcoming debate about revising the Cuban Family Code. This revision represents the country’s best chance to legalize marriage equality, among other rights and protections for LGBTI+ Cubans and their families.
They also related their experiences of May 11 and spoke about its historical significance.
For example, the poet and critic Norge Espinosa Mendoza described the independent march as “a turning point in the history of the relationship between political powers and diverse sexualities in Cuba, a history that’s densely packed, fragmented, and very complex.” Espinosa was among the activists who first waved a rainbow flag at a public event in Cuba more than 20 years ago.
“What happened on May 11th can definitely be understood as a phenomenon that gave voice and visibility to other needs of Cuban society beyond sexuality,” he said.
Activists disagree with the boycott of CENESEX workers
Above-mentioned influencer Alex Otaola is a South Florida-based opinion leader of the Cuban exile community. He said this Monday that the Cuban LGBTI+ movement is “divided” because many of those who drove the march of May 11, 2019, refused to participate in the special anniversary program he hosted from Miami.
“There’s a group that participated in that march but didn’t want to celebrate with us today because they think … that I’m a very politicized figure and that it won’t be the kind of homage the event deserves.”
The activist Ulises Padrón mentioned Otaola’s program in a Facebook post, where he said that “his histrionic approach to politics, his oversimplified arguments, and his incitement of hate keep him from presenting a more heterogeneous picture of Cuba.”
But Victor Manuel Dueñas, a supporter of Otaola’s virtual event, and Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, an exile activist in Washington, believe that some participants in the 2019 march represent an activism “built in the Obama era specifically with the objective of creating a vision of opening, a vision of independence for the LGBT movement.”
Durung the virtual event, Dueñas launched a petition asking the U.S. government to cancel visas and financing to employees of Cuba’s National Center of Sexual Education (CENESEX), who are referred to in the text as “ex-government officials.”
Cenesex, led by Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raúl Castro and niece of Fidel Castro, is an official state agency whose social mission includes assuming the leadership of LGBTI+ activism in Cuba.
Dueñas’ petition denounces recent statements in which Mariela Castro spoke about the forced labor camps established by the Cuban government in the 1960s. People considered a threat to Cuba’s revolutionary society were sent away to the camps, including political dissidents and homosexual men. Castro’s statements minimized the human rights violations reported to have taken place at these camps.
The petition argues that, based on these recent statements by Mariela Castro and other reasons not fully explained, the U.S. State Department should prohibit a dozen people involved with CENESEX from entering the U.S. to prevent “the financing of the National Center of Sexual Education by institutions and individuals in U.S. territory.”
At time this article was published, the petition has more than 4,000 signatories on change.org, a platform that cannot be accessed from Cuba.
Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, one of the petition’s authors, told Tremenda Nota that Mariela Castro is already prohibited from entering the U.S., but that “she can send some of those who are mentioned in the petition” in order to “raise funds for her agency.”
Mayeta was unable to confirm for Tremenda Nota whether in fact CENESEX currently receives any funds sent from the U.S.
Tremenda Nota inquired about this point with Manuel Vázquez Seijido, one of the government officials named in the petition to the State Department.
Seijido, deputy director of CENESEX, said that the agency will not issue any statements about alleged funding from the U.S. and that there was “no news” in the petition by the exile activist community.
Some independent activists who have worked with CENESEX or have accessed its services made statements on their social networks about the petition.
“Yesterday Otaola tried to draw all the attention around [May 11] to himself. During his show, apart from hosting guests who all share a single political position (it should have been more diverse), he made statements and petitions far from the program’s stated purpose,” said Ulises Padrón referring to the petition promoted on Monday.
Padrón opined that “to disallow the activities of [CENESEX] and the activism it promotes represents an infantile, dangerously ideological attitude.”
Mel Herrera, a transsexual woman who collaborates with the independent publication “Q de Cuir” (“Q as in Queer”), said on Facebook that “thanks to CENESEX, I’ve been able to realize many of the goals I had for myself, and this has helped me stay away from the possibility of suicide.”
She emphatically stated, “Don’t count on me for this boycott.”