Saturday, June 28, 2008

Cuba: 1st-ever gay pride march canceled, organizers claim intimidation, others differ

Photo: Mario José Delgado González, Vice President of the Reynaldo Arenas in Memoriam LGBT Foundation, speaks to media at Habana's Quijote Park on the day the pride march was cancelled (CSM/Cuba Encuentro)

Of all the recent developments in LGBT rights throughout Latin America, few have been as fascinating as the Cuban government's increasing openness towards the island's LGBT population (particularly in light Fidel Castro's repressive record on LGBT issues during his mandate).

When Fidel finally relinquished his dictator's throne earlier this year to make way for his brother Raúl some commentators said that they expected little to change in the island. But things had already begun to change in Fidel's waning years as a ruler and economic and political pressures on the Cuban government seemed to indicate that it had to change or else.

And so, since Raúl took over, the island has indeed seen a series of changes such as allowing regular citizens to buy DVD-players, PC's, cell phones, scooters and other products; allowing Cuban citizens to book rooms at luxury hotels previously only available to wealthy tourists (which doesn't mean necessarily that the average Cuban has the money to do so anyway); and, most recently, institute a new wage system which would reward workers for good performance.

When it comes to LGBT rights, it helps that Mariela Castro is Raúl's daughter. It also helps that she is a sexologist and heads Cuba's National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX). And, as with other changes in the island, she had already begun to lay the groundwork to open up official recognition of the rights of LGBT Cubans even before Fidel stepped down.

These efforts are beginning to bear fruit this year. First came an official ceremony on May 17th commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia ("Cuban Government Backs Calls to Combat Homophobia," AP, May 17, 2008) - as public a government-sponsored LGBT-rights event in Cuban history. Then came news earlier this month that a long-gestating government resolution to have the Public Health Ministry cover the costs of sexual reassignment surgeries for transgender Cubans had been approved ("Free sex-change operations approved," IPS, June 6, 2008).

As IPS reports, the next step will probably be recognizing same-sex partnership rights:

"The [proposed] reformed Family Code would stipulate that the family has the responsibility and duty to accept and care for all of its members, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. It would also recognize the same civil, patrimonial, inheritance and housing rights for homosexual and heterosexual couples, while opening the door for legal recognition of same-sex civil unions."

Imagine that! Cuba granting same-sex couples all rights afforded to heterosexual couples even before the United States does it [Oh! And on the eve of the May 17th event, Cuban television broadcast "Brokeback Mountain" on national television].

And yet...

In October I wrote about the birth of a small gay rights organization in the island called the Cuban Movement for Homosexual Liberation ("Independent reporter says a gay rights organization has been launched," October 24, 2007). Leanes Imbert Acosta, one of the founders, told reporters that they planned to "denounce the cases of repression and human rights violations to which [gays] are subjected by the government of this island" [Back in February Luiz Mott, one of Brazil's leading LGBT rights activists, echoed those thoughts by demanding that Fidel Castro "ask for forgiveness for the persecution of gays in Cuba"]. The government, while lamenting some polices from the past, has never indicated that it would do such a thing.

It wasn't the first time that LGBT Cubans criticized their own government from the inside, of course. But considering all the recent changes, would any dissent from the official norm be tolerated?

1st ever Cuban LGBT pride march suddenly announced:

On Tuesday I received a press release from Miami's Unity Coalition announcing that the Cuban Movement for Homosexual Liberation was among a number of Cuban organizations planning the first ever gay pride march (other organizations included the Cuban Commission on Human Rights for people with HIV and Sexual Races, the Cuban League against AIDS, the Elena Mederos Foundation, the Reinaldo Arenas in Memoriam LGTB Foundation, the Havana Transsexual Collective and the Havana LGTB Cultural Center.

The march was scheduled for 10 am the next day under the theme "You are not alone." Marchers would gather at the Don Quixote Park and make their way to the Ministry of Justice were the plan was to hand a list of demands including "the cessation of violence and repression against Cuban homosexuals," an acknowledgment that gays and lesbians have been and are currently discriminated in the work place and from national political think tanks, a review of the cases of those gays and lesbians currently imprisoned under a "Dangerous Index" law enforcement policy, an better treatment for individuals with HIV/AIDS including those in prison.

Specifically, organizers said that they would ask Raúl Castro to "apologize to the Cuban people for the introduction in the 60's of UMAP concentration camps that were created by the dictator Fidel Castro, to suppress and punish homosexuals and the religious youth who opposed his Marxist ideology." (UMAP stands for Military Units to Aid Production).

They also said that they wanted to raise awareness about Jordanys Tamayo Aldama, a man they allege is serving a seven year prison sentence for "contempt towards the figure of Fidel Castro" for having publicly stated that Fidel was a homophobic.

Finally they also said that they would raise attention about the political nature of Mariela Castro's activities at CENESEX.

Unity Coalition said that they would support their efforts by opening an "information center" at Club Azucar, a Miami gay bar, and by holding an afternoon community rally in solidarity.

Sudden cancellation:

Just before noon on Wednesday, the day of the march, an e-mail message from Unity Coalition stated that "as organizers arrived at the scheduled starting point, several of them were met by Cuban police, who beat & arrested several of them."

Ray Sanchez from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Havana bureau reported on the arrests ("Cuba's Gay Pride Parade Canceled", June 25, 2008), although he says that a local activist alleged they had happened the day before the march.

"Activist Mario José Delgado [pictured above] announced the cancellation of the march moments before it was to start Wednesday at a park in Havana. He said two organizers who were to deliver a set of demands to the Justice Ministry were detained one day earlier. Delgado said he has no details of the arrests."

"'The president of the Cuban League Against AIDS and the president of the Foundation LGTB Reinaldo Arenas in Memoriam have been arrested,' Delgado said. 'They were to be here with our written demands but now we cannot carry out our activity.'"

The Sun-Sentinel also reported that a passer-by who identified himself as being gay dismissed the activists.

40-year-old Felix Lopez, told the paper that it was unnecessary: "Important strides have been made. We don't need to be instructed by people in Miami or any other part of the world. We're slowly gaining a space in our society and that's important."

The paper also said that they had tried to reach Mariela Castro at CENESEX for comment but that her secretary stated that no statements would be released.

On Thursday, Cuba Encuentro published their take ("Police stops independent march for the Day of Gay Pride," June 26, 2008, Spanish language). They said that Ignacio Cepero Estrada, coordinator of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights for people with HIV had been detained by police for two hours and let go and that an unnamed official from CENESEX told a reporter from the ANSA news agency "We have no knowledge of any manifestation that might happen. No one has informed us about this and, as such, we cannot say anything."

They also quote "independent reporter" Carlos Serpa Maceira as having seen a number of law enforcement agents surrounding the area and quote Cuban dissidents on human rights violations by the Cuban government.

As with everything related to Cuba, there are other versions:

I didn't find the direct quote at ANSA, but did find a brief article ("Homosexual protest, one detained," June 25, 2008) which does report that one of the organizers was detained. Interestingly they contradict other statements and say that there was no discernible presence of law enforcement officers in the area. As for the protest? They note that an organizer was detained but also say that the protest was cancelled because of lack of participation as only twenty people showed up.

Call me a right-wing anti-communist imperialist pig (although some of those might call me a rabid commie for mentioning some LGBT rights advances in Cuba), but I am a little more inclined to trust The Guardian and the Sun-Sentinel versions.

I also have long believed that social change doesn't happen without visibility and leadership which is what personally bothers me about the fact that the only face presented on LGBT rights in Cuba is Mariela Castro and the only version on advancement of LGBT rights seems to be hers. Why not allow LGBT leaders to speak on their own?


Blogland has had some reaction.

Over at Babalu Blog, a 2006 Weblog Awards winner for "Best Latino, Caribbean or South American Blog" which features posts from different US based Cuban bloggers and describes itself as "an island on the net without a bearded dictator," George Moneo wasn't surprised that the march might have been shut down by the Cuban government.

Interestingly when Val Prieto posted the image on the right on the same blog yesterday without any commentary, another Babalu blogger who uses the nickname pototo was so incensed by other Babalu bloggers expressing support for gays in Cuba that he decided to leave Babalu (that according to this post today from Manuel A. Tellechea at "Review of Cuban-American Blogs").

Gay Canadian blogger Jonathan Higbee reacts to the Guardian's piece and says
"[Wednesday's] despicable start to Cuba's first gay pride shows that the country is not quite ready to move forward."

In a reply Calvin from the UK begs to differ and says that "A media fraud is being perpetrated here in the interests of the United States" and calls the march "a stunt designed in Miami by far right Cuban-American sects, and funded by the US Government."

He also says that "The 'gay rights' organisations in Cuba said to be behind the parade, do not exist in any meaningful sense. Rather, they are tiny political front organisations populated by the same group of two to three hundred professional 'dissidents' who run dozens of non existent 'institutes', 'independent libraries', 'trade unions', 'human rights centres' and the like" and alleges that most are on the United States payroll.

I guess you can read anything into something depending on ideology. I don't discount his assertion that these organizations might be small in numbers but that in itself does not mean that they shouldn't have the right to protest or to demand their rights - or that they are flush with US dollars.

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