SQUIRREL NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Outside of a small bar, you see a rainbow flag, to be honest, it’s quite surprising and a little out of the place. Since 1979 being gay is no longer a crime, however, under Article 303a of Cuba’s Penal Code "publicly manifested" homosexuality remains illegal, as does "persistently bothering others with homosexual amorous advances." The Caribbean island has undoubtedly evolved, for example, there are glimmers of free enterprise (a first in about 55 years). The one constant that remains is that Cuba is the regime is your customer. LGBT rights have improved in Cuba over the past decade, but while there have been some gains, several problems still remain. Cuba is still a predominately Catholic country, and the church still holds to the notion that being gay is a sin. Cuba (the Castro family) no longer sends LGBT individuals to labor camps as they did in the 60’s and 70’s, the only LGBT movement is a state-run overseen by Mariela Castro. While most of the world begins to celebrate Pride, Cubans are not allowed. Since the Government refused to recognize the international week of LGBT Pride. Under Mariela Castro, the LGBT community is allowed to come together and celebrate the World Health Organization’s “International Day Against Homophobia.”
Cuba by all accounts has been run as a family business since the Castro’s took over the country in 1959, so it’s no surprise that Mariela would end up working for her dad. As the daughter of President Raul and niece to "Maximum Leader" Fidel Castro, she holds an interesting place in the government. “Brokeback Mountain” might have aired on Cuban state television in 2008, but the complete control Mariela and CENESEX have over the LGBT community and agenda really don’t give Cubans a real sense of ownership of their own cause.
To the LGBT Cubans, I spoke with pretty much all agree that she is the creation of the state propaganda machine, a face to the world showing tolerance while the regime continues to hold a tight grip on society thus the totalitarianism continues. Why, well tourism is Cuba’s largest industry with more than 2 million visitors last year. Tourist (Western) would prefer a “Friendly Cuba” than one that is a notorious human rights violator. Ario a 24-year old gay man resents when gay men come to Cuba and think everything is fine, and that they somehow have these perceived freedoms. “They come from outside and know nothing about what we endure, they flaunt their money, and it’s insulting to us.” He further stated, “Tourist get to leave when their done having fun, we remain behind.”
One major announcement came in 2008, when the government announced that the national health-care system would begin providing free gender-reassignment surgeries to those that qualified. Then in 2014, the Cuban parliament passed a set of new labor laws that included language that outlawed employment based on sexual orientation. On the surface, it appears that Mariela is trying to move the LGBT agenda forward. BUT, not everyone is buying it!
"The reality for the LGBT community in Cuba is very different from that described by the international media," Diego Martinez (some names were changed to protect their identity), a 33-year-old gay man from Santa Clara, tells me. "We live under constant government surveillance and harassment, while at the same time being manipulated for their political purposes."
Martinez is married to a transgender who once worked at CENESEX, she pledged loyalty to the Revolution and became the first Cuban to receive government-sponsored sex reassignment surgery and completed a full male-to-female transition. Martinez’s partner started the illegal independent organization the Cuban League Against AIDS, they became dissident’s. They both participated in an unauthorized Pride Day parade in Havana in 2011 and the government responded by arresting all 20 participants. “The parade wall allowed to continue so not to allow any tourist to see the government position on homosexuality, but that night they came and arrested us all,” Martinez stated. Martinez married his partner in 2011 on August 13, 2011, and send a powerful message to the government. Opposition bloggers Yoani Sanchez and her husband, Reinaldo Escobar were there. Martinez wife stated about Mariela "Mariela is a chameleon; she can change her character very easily, and she is very sociable with the people who work for her, but never does anything for anyone without expecting something back in return."
Gay activist and independent journalist Mario Jose Delgado also thinks that the outside world has been duped by Mariela. He along with other LGBT Cuban are "very unhappy about the awards and recognition,” furthermore he stated, "It does not reflect the feelings of the gay community on the island." Delgado wants people to know that LGBT life in Cuba is more dire and uglier than what is projected by the government.
Delgado recounts about an incident several years ago, when he was heading home to the Alamar section of Havana when three men (in civilian clothes) pushed him into the backseat of a car and drove him to the outskirts of town where he was beaten in the face with a rock. The men have never been identified and were interested in the information he carried, mainly the names of members of a Christian LGBT group (Divine Hope) Delgado belonged to. The men took his cellphone and USB drive, along with his calendar which contained details about a demonstration the group was planning.
Delgado himself doesn’t have much to lose by speaking openly to reporters, but there are those in the LGBT community and don’t want to draw much attention to themselves. Most have settled into a relatively comfortable and safe life.
Luis and Sebastian live in a small apartment in Havana and it’s obvious they are a couple, even though they would never admit it. Sebastian has a successful career working for the state theater, which doesn’t happen by making social waves. What made an impression on me was that they refer to themselves as “friends”, something I haven’t heard since I was in my twenties. It’s apparent they are awkward about their situation. “Living in peace is much better and safer considering the era where same-sex couples lived in complete fear of being rounded up and sent to labor camps’” Luis said.
There is this casual somewhat laid-back attitude about the persecution of gay and homosexuality. The government tends to take a defensive tone when talking about Cuba’s history of homophobia. When directly questioned the use of term “concentration camps for gay men” seems to set off alarms, they quickly state “there was never concentration camps, but training camps,” one official told me when asked. There is a term that some would say to me Cada cual habla de la feria según le va en ella. "Everybody experiences reality in a different way."
72-year old Ernesto remembers many friends taken to “training camps,” and how many had to live in secrecy always afraid of the state police. “They would come in the dead of night and take you away, some never returned, some would come back get married have children. It was a difficult time, not much has changed” he stated. Cubans can’t communicate fully with each other as someone might be listening to your telephone conversations, internet access is scarce, mobile phone use is the lowest in Latin America, vehicle ownership is exceptionally low and public transportation is a complete disaster.
Ernesto talks about Gats Loco (a “gay bar” in Trinidad, Cuba), most believe it was the first gay bar in Cuba, but the first display of the rainbow flag that he remembers was an LGBT center in Santa Clara, that opened sometime in the early 90’s. El Mejune opened as an independent operation but quickly found itself being offered assistance from the government. “This follows the typical practice that the Cuban government does if it’s out of their control they just make it official,” explains Ernesto.
So, where does this leave the LGBT community in Cuba? Most understand they are fighting a battle not only with the Castro government but more so trying to change the perception of Cuban society towards LGBT individuals. Currently, there has been no movement to change the penal code or allowing Cubans to live freely as the government still has immense control over daily life. Unit the time comes that LGBT Cubans can live freely then continue to fight and do what they can.