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Mariela Castro marches in gay parade

The daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, Mariela Castro (C), marches in a gay parade in Havana, on May 15. (Photo by: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Cuba Goes Both Ways on Gay Rights

United Nations vote opens room for dissent

BY Achy Obejas

‘The most important thing for me is to see how forceful the gay movement has become,’ says Alejandro Armengol. ‘Gays in Cuba have demanded their rights and been heard.’

In its 52 years, the Cuban Revolution has had a less than stellar queer history, complete with on-the-record anti-gay statements by Fidel Castro, sanctioned anti-gay persecutions and purges, and labor camps in the 1960s created for LGBT people.

Officially, all that has changed. Fidel Castro apologized for the persecution of gays on his watch, there are no explicitly anti-gay laws on the books, and LGBT rights have found an unlikely champion in Mariela Castro, President Raul Castro’s daughter, a sexologist who runs the National Sex Education Center (CENESEX, as its known by its Spanish acronym).

But, unofficially, there’s still plenty of police harassment of LGBT people (documented by both pro- and anti-government bloggers, mostly for foreign readers), and no recognition of LGBT citizens and their families, which effectively frustrates, if not denies, access to housing, certain medical services, adoption and travel.

Cuba’s split personality on LGBT issues came onto the international stage at the United Nations in November, when it was the only Latin American country that voted to have “sexual orientation” removed from a list of discriminatory motivations for extrajudicial executions. The amendment would have changed the LGBT-specific language to the vague phrase, “for discriminatory reasons, whatever they may be.” Citizens around the globe raised such an outcry that, a month later, the international body reversed itself and passed an inclusive resolution.

In a second round of voting, to re-insert the original inclusive language, Cuba abstained.

Breaking with Cuban officialdom, pro-government Cuban bloggers joined dissident bloggers–in defiance of a complete blackout on the matter in official Cuban media–in criticizing the Cuban U.N. delegation for the anti-gay vote.

Usually, the U.N. resolution on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions is a routine, biannual (and, as it is nonbinding, purely symbolic) referendum. In 2008, Cuba supported it without the slightest controversy even though it included the language it voted to repeal this time around.

The resolution against unjustified killing of vulnerable people in several categories–ethnic, racial, religious and sexual orientation–ultimately passed with 122 yes votes (including Cuba), 62 abstentions (including the United States) and only one vote against (Saudi Arabia).

So what happened with Cuba’s confusing series of votes, especially in light of its eventual support of the resolution?

Last month, in an unusual press release, Mariela Castro parted company with the party line on Cuba’s first U.N. amendment vote: “Even though in [the approved version of] the amendment, our nation expresses support for condemning [these executions]…in practice we have voted alongside those countries whose laws view homosexuality as a crime, five of which apply the death sentence.” (Of the 79 countries that voted in favor of the language change, 76 criminalize homosexuality.) She reminded Cuba’s U.N. diplomats that the island is a signatory to the 2008 General Assembly declaration of rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity (her complete statement in Spanish can be read at www.cenesex.sld.cu/webs/diversidad/declaraciononu.html).

The president’s daughter was not alone. Bloggers immediately joined her disapproval, but none went so far as Francisco Rodriguez Cruz, an editor at Trabajadores, Cuba’s labor newspaper. Cruz wrote a letter to Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, the foreign affairs minister, and published it on his blog. He wrote:

As a Cuban citizen, communist militant and member of the LGBT community on the island, I wish to express my total and passionate disagreement with the Cuban delegation’s vote. I wish to point out how incomprehensible this diplomatic exercise seems in light of the policies our nation has in place to deal with these issues.

Shortly after, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a short note re-affirming its pro-LGBT commitment and explaining its position: “Cuba voted in favor of the amendment…because it considered it sufficiently general and inclusive.”

Amazingly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs then invited Cruz and a couple of activists associated with CENESEX to a meeting with the minister himself. “The minister attributed the first vote to ‘an unforeseen and temporary circumstance’,” Cruz said. “I interpreted this, including the quick meeting at the ministry, as a diplomatic way of letting us know that it was a mistake on the part of the Cuban U.N. delegation. I can’t think of any other explanation.”

But in the second vote, Cuba only softened the mistake by abstaining. It could have done otherwise: 23 nations changed positions from the first to the second amendment vote, including Cuban allies Bolivia and Nicaragua, who went from absent to yes.

“Votes like Cuba’s on this occasion imply that sexual rights, reproductive rights and sexual diversity, which are all part and parcel of the same anti-patriarchal package as far as I’m concerned, are negotiable and disposable to make whatever political alliances,” Yasmin Portales Machado, a Cuba-based, self-described Marxist blogger, told the Inter-Press Service.

As the United States rallied the General Assembly to take up the language change amendment a second time, their role in the resolution was assailed by Cuban diplomats at the U.N. as a “manipulation”; they pointed out that the U.S. has a long history of being accused of extrajudicial executions at home and abroad. Mark Kornblau, spokesperson for the U.S. U.N. delegation, told Politico that the U.S. abstained on the final resolution, as it always does, because it “obscures the relationship between international humanitarian law and human rights law “

In Miami, Herb Sosa, president of Unity Coalition, a LGBT organization that has provided materials and resources to gay groups on the island, accused the Cuban government of also engaging in extrajudicial executions. “There are tens of thousands of documented executions within Cuba that continue to occur without…legal representation or any sense of fairness,” he says. “Gays are routinely picked up en masse on the streets, beaten, jailed indefinitely…and persecuted by the very government grandstanding at the U.N. The U.S. also has a long way to full equality for its LGBT citizens, but at least we do have freedom, a vote and a voice here.”

Police harassment in Cuba, including arrests, has been reported on gay Cuban blogs, particularly the Reinaldo Arenas Memorial Foundation, whom Cruz accuses of being dupes for anti-revolutionary interests. But Cruz himself has also reported problems with police on his blog. “It’s not like everybody here likes what I’m doing,” he says. “But things are getting better. Not as fast as some of us would like, but not as slow as some Castrophobes say either.”

For Alejandro Armengol, a Miami-based commentator and veteran observer of Cuban politics, what is most significant about the U.N. incident is less Cuba’s vote than the machinations behind it. “The most important thing to me is to see how forceful the gay movement in Cuba has become,” says Armengol. “This is the second time that gays in Cuba have demanded their rights and been heard. The first was the ‘little e-mail war’. “

(The “little e-mail war” broke out in January 2008 after a retired bureaucrat known for gay purges was being prepped for a return to government service, and gay Cubans and their supporters began a successful e-mail campaign to keep him from being brought back. The discussion quickly evolved into a more involved and wrenching exchange among hundreds of readers about past purges and possible reforms.)

“There are times when Cuba uses gays, or certain gays, especially writers and artists, to show how things have gotten better,” says Armengol. “That’s how they throw the focus off matters of censorship and repression, for sure. But that can’t erase that there’s real progress in this area, sometimes even more than the government bargained for.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this report stated that during the 1960s labor camps were “specifically” created for LGBT people. In fact, while they were overwhelmingly meant for gays, they were not exclusively used for that group of Cubans.

Achy Obejas, a Havana-born member of the In These Times Board of Editors, is the author of Ruins (Akashic 2009, akashicbooks.com) and Aguas & Otros Cuentos (Editorial Letras Cubanas, 2009). A former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, she is also the translator, into Spanish, of Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead 2008). She is currently the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College, Oakland, Calif.

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