Havana Rights

I will admit up front that I will be among the first in line to visit Cuba once the U.S. government eases travel restrictions to the island.  Ever since I saw the movie–and, okay, read the book–Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas, I’ve wanted to visit the country that most Americans are forbidden from visiting.

So I was especially curious about Michael Rowe’s piece in the Advocate on Mariela Castro Espín, who has become the leading voice of LGBT rights in Cuba.  It’s a terrific interview and Rowe clearly got great access to government officials and voices.

It strikes an onlooker as poignant that all this celebration happens within sight of the 16th-century El Morro fortress, perched high on a rocky promontory near the entrance of the Bay of Havana, where openly gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas was jailed for two years in the 1970s for “ideological deviation” — a post-revolutionary code for open homosexuality — and for unlawfully publishing his books abroad. As the light fades completely from the sky, El Morro itself seems to recede into the darkness like a bad memory, leaving only the revelry of the Malecón.

While authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene have extolled the worldly sophistication of Havana nightlife, homosexuality was only decriminalized in Cuba in 1979, following decades of harsh judicial treatment. The very real dangers associated with public displays of same-sex affection increase exponentially the further one travels from the urban core of Havana, but Cuban attitudes towards its LGBT minority have evolved, much in part to an unexpected and powerful ally.

Mariela Castro Espín is a slender, pale, and elegant mother of three children. Married to an Italian photographer, she is straight, even though some Havana gossips have suggested otherwise. She also happens to be the 47-year-old daughter of President Raúl Castro, who last year officially succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, as president of Cuba. As director of the government-run National Center for Sex Education, or CENESEX, Castro Espín has used her guile — and her dynastic clout — to push for gay rights in a country where hard-labor, “reeducation” camps were once vaunted as an antidote to homosexuality. “Homophobia in Cuba is part of what makes you a ‘man,’” she says. “It’s part of the masculine role. Boys are taught to have violent reactions so they can show their masculinity. Boys are destroyed in this country this way.”

The story is well written and President Raul Castro’s daughter appears to be a strong, passionate advocate. But I used the word “appears” for a reason. Any time you cover a government official in a country like Cuba, it seems there needs to be a certain sense of suspicion about their motivations and “spin.”

So I kept waiting and waiting for voices of people who disagree with the government, who trumpet the concerns over political oppression in the country, or who can provide some perspective on Espín’s comments. It just wasn’t there. After leading the story with a discussion of El Morro and Arenas, there’s no discussion of political prisoners or political oppression since only government voices are quoted.

Is anyone suspicious of the pro-gay rhetoric coming from the regime? What does Amnesty International or Freedom House or the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission have to say about Cuba? How about gay voices inside the Cuban-exile community in South Florida? If Cuba is a gay rights success story, how about someone from outside the government who can confirm that.

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