Castro’s daughter and the fight for gay rights in Cuba

Story posted May 13, 2014 in CommMedia in Cuba by Leah Polakoff


HAVANA -- As the sun sets along the Malecón, a five-mile stretch of sidewalk and sea wall of Old Havana, lovers come out to walk in the moonlight and enjoy the romance of waves crashing against the uneven, stony path.

Around midnight, a different group of lovers appear.

Two women lie in an embrace atop the seawall. Two men walk, holding hands, one stealing a kiss when nobody is looking. Two couples play music, one man sings to another, who rests his head on his partner’s lap.

This meeting spot for gays, in the middle of the long, curving stretch of the Malecón, is a halfway point in more ways than one. Though protected by laws and facing little overt discrimination in the workplace, Cuban gays say they are still struggling for wider acceptance in Cuba’s traditionally machismo culture.

And while some gay people complain that they are the target of disparaging remarks and barbed comments, they can also boast of an advocate who bears Cuba’s most powerful family name: Castro.

Mariela Castro, daughter of president Raul Castro, heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and wins praise for hard work in fighting discrimination, sexually transmitted diseases and equal rights for the LGBT community.

“I really would like to say thanks to Mariela Castro for all of her help,” says Ahmed Fallat, a gay man who works at the Humboldt bar, one of the few gay bars in Havana.


Surrounded by dim lighting and placed below street level, the bar is hard to find. Once inside, the male bartenders stir up sugary, sweet mojitos at the bar, which features posters of shirtless men and scantily clad cowboys.

Mariela Castro makes frequent visits to Humboldt to show her support for the gay community. Pictures of Mariela and the Humboldt staff hang on the wall.

“Mariela Castro has done a lot. She enjoys the issue and she’s a good person,” Fallat says.

In doing this work, Castro is following in her mother Vilma Espín Castro’s footsteps. Espín was a Cuban revolutionary who fought for women’s rights through the Federation of Cuban Women.

Still, even with the backing of the Castro family, many of Cuba’s gays believe that progress has been slow. Some say that Mariela Castro’s CENESEX could go one step further and advocate same-sex marriage, which is illegal in Cuba. Members of the machismo society are not willing to accept change.

Yasmany Diaz Figuero, coordinator of international projects at CENESEX, says that despite the amount of political changes that have been made to help homosexuals, acceptance will always be an issue.

“You can change political views, but you can’t change a person’s way of thinking. It’s a process between the political ideas and the culture of where you live,” acknowledges Figuero.

Not far from the University of Havana, communications professor Yaremi Suarez lives with her girlfriend, Wendy Gonzalez-Torres. The couple, who share the apartment with Suarez’s brother, have been in a committed relationship for three years and living together for two.

Suarez says that because of the society she grew up in, marriage has never been an option. “I’ve never actually thought about marrying my girlfriend,” Suarez says. “It’s a very far away subject, nobody thinks about it. In another situation, I would think about it. I would really like to have a family some day.”

Communist Cuba is officially an atheist country yet as in most of Latin America, millions of Cubans still uphold Catholic traditions. The Church here, as elsewhere, is opposed to gay marriage.

While it is not illegal in Cuba to be homosexual, it is still not consistent with conventional Catholic ways. Same-sex couples cannot adopt or get married and due to the “macho-man” society of Cuba, it’s highly frowned upon for men to be with other men or for women to date other women.

In May 2008, the Archdiocese of Havana published an editorial in their monthly magazine “Palabra Nueva”, saying that they do not endorse the work of CENESEX. The editorial was signed by magazine director and Cuban Catholic spokesperson Orlando Marquez.

"Respect for the homosexual person, yes,” the editorial said. "Promotion of homosexuality, no."

For Fallat, this culture means hearing disparaging remarks when expressing his sexuality.


“I would like more places we can go…I’d love for the government to change the stereotype,” he said. “I would like to have the government talking openly. They need to recognize that you have to do something for the gay people.”

At CENESEX, which has been leading the way since 1989, workers are much more optimistic. Posters that say, “Humanity is diversity” and “No violence against women” line the pale yellow walls of the building.

Mayelín Gonzalez Rodriguez, a CENESEX official, says that she believes that with the right education, same-sex marriage, as well as equal rights for homosexuals on all levels, will be implemented in the next year. Rodriguez says that a law to recognize the union of homosexual people is currently under review.

But even she acknowledges that Cuban society is not ready to take this step. “We have to further educate the society,” Rodriguez said.

Since its founding, CENESEX has been helping gay people accept their sexuality. But now, Rodriguez says she would like to see people focus more on education. CENESEX has implemented many classes and organizations to help educate those in the LGBT community to accept their sexuality.

The education efforts begin in an old yet smartly renovated villa in a leafy neighborhood in downtown Havana. The building carries no signs or markings. From the outside, CENESEX looks like the home of wealthy person.

Through research, classes and educational programs focusing on sexual health, violence, child adolescence and social communication, CENESEX is working toward better community education. Therapy is also available with psychologists and sexologists to help those struggling with their identity.

“We all have rights, sexual rights, and we need to protect our rights with responsibility,” Figuero says on CENESEX’s work. “Because when you have rights, you have to be responsible with those rights. When you are responsible with yourself, you are responsible with all of society.”

Figuero, who studied human sexuality and has his master’s degree, says, “It’s the patriarchal culture in Cuba, they teach us that the sex is only our reproductive organs, and that is wrong. The men cannot cry and cannot express their feelings.”

For those who believe they do understand their sexuality, CENESEX provides support. In 2009, a commission of doctors was made through the Ministry of Health to perform sex change surgeries. Since 2009, 29 people have undergone free surgeries through CENESEX and the Ministry of Health.

There is a two-year program that each person who is going to have the surgery must complete. The program is highly selective, only taking five to six people per year. Each candidate receives counseling and therapy to ensure that the surgery is the right one. More counseling and therapy is required after the surgery to help the person transition back to a normal life. Because of this therapy, Rodriguez says that nobody has regretted their decision after the surgery.

CENESEX aims to end all discrimination, and institute officials say they are succeeding. Rodriguez says that homosexual couples are able to hold hands in public with no problems, and that everybody has the right to live and work without discrimination.

But others think they should be doing more. An educator herself, Suarez says that CENESEX should also be focusing more on educating the rest of the community.

“What they should put emphasis on is advertising, more learning or teaching people to be more tolerant toward one another,” she says. “We are very intolerant here.”

This intolerance Suarez says, is particularly strong among the older generation and is difficult to overcome even for an institute headed by the famous daughter of the country’s president.

“CENESEX is a small institution, but they don’t have power, even when Mariela is the daughter of the president,” Suarez says. “ They still have very powerful forces to fight against.”

Intolerance is a reoccurring theme in Cuba. In the 1970’s, Raul Castro’s late wife, Vilma Espín Castro, was an active feminist and Cuban revolutionary. As the president of the Federation of Cuban Women, Espín fought for equal opportunity for women.

Rodriguez says that Espín wanted to help women who had problems with violence, poverty, sexual education and social rights. Espín worked with the Federation of Cuban Women to create Grupo Nacional Trabajo de Educacion Sexual (GNTES), which in 1988 was transformed by the Ministry of Health into CENESEX.

“Vilma Espín is still an icon in our society,” Rodriguez says. “She was always taking care of the organization until her death, with national and international prestige.”