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Thursday, June 29, 2006


Cuba confronts LGBT issues

The "Cuba mistreats homosexuals" meme is one that comes up routinely, as it did here two days ago, and previously as well. In a comment on a recent post, I linked to two articles on the subect (here and here). Just by coincidence, today two new articles have appeared which are quite relevant to the question.

The first is this Reuters article, which discusses some proposed new legislation in Cuba:

Mariela Castro is leading a Cuban revolution less well known than her Uncle Fidel's: one in favor of sexual tolerance within the island's macho society.

Castro, 43, is leading the charge from her government-funded National Center for Sex Education, based in an old Havana mansion.

As director of the group, she promoted a soap opera that scandalized many Cubans in March by sympathetically depicting bisexuality. The controversial show depicted, among other story lines, the life of a construction worker who leaves his wife and children for the man next door.

Now President Castro's niece is pushing for passage of a law that would give transsexuals free sex change operations and hormonal therapy in addition to granting them new identification documents with their changed gender.

A draft bill was presented to parliament last year and was well received, she said. It is expected to come up for a vote in December.

If approved, it would make Cuba the most liberal nation in Latin America on gender issues.

Castro says her goal is to bring the revolution her uncle and father, Defense Minister Raul Castro, fought 47 years ago to the terrain of sexuality. Her group has also campaigned for better AIDS prevention as well as acceptance of homosexuality, bisexuality and transvestites.

"I want to bring the revolution's humanity to those aspects of life that it hasn't reached because of old prejudices," she told Reuters.

Much has changed, she says, since the 1960s when homosexuals were sent to work camps, or the 1970s when gay men and women were denied certain jobs as "ideological deviants."

"None of that exists anymore," she said. "But that is not to say the same for homophobic attitudes."
And the second is an excerpt from a book (Cien Horas Con Fidel by Ignacio Ramonet, published by the Cuban Council of State, April 2006), which Walter Lippmann has sent to his CubaNews list. It's worth reproducing in its entirety here:
One of the things the Revolution was criticized about in its first years is that it was said to display an aggressive, repressive attitude towards homosexuals, that there were camps where the homosexuals were locked away and repressed. What can you say about that?

In two words, you're talking about a supposed persecution of homosexuals.

I have to tell you about the origins of that and where that criticism came from. I do assure you that homosexuals were neither persecuted nor sent to internment camps.

But there are so many testimonies of that...

Let me tell you about the problems we had. In those first years we were forced to mobilize almost the whole nation because of the risks we were facing, which included that of an attack by the United States: the dirty war, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Missile Crisis. Many people were sent to prison then. And we established the Mandatory Military Service.

We had three problems at that time: we needed people of a certain school level to serve in the Armed Forces, people capable of handling sophisticated technology, because you could not do it if you had only reached second, third or sixth grade; you needed at least seventh, eighth or ninth grade, and a higher level later on. We had some graduates, but also had to take some men out of the universities before graduation. You can't deal with a surface-to-air rocket battery if you don't have a University degree.

A degree on Sciences, I assume.

You know that very well. There were hundreds of thousands of men who had an impact on many branches, not only on the preparation programs, but economic branches as well. Yet some were unskilled, and the country needed them as a result of the brain-drain we enforced in production centers. That's a problem we had then.

Second, there were some religious groups which, out of principles or doctrines, refused to honor the flag or accept using weapons of any kind, something some people eventually used as an excuse to criticize or be hostile.

Third, there was the issue of the homosexuals. At the time, the mere idea of having women in Military Service was unthinkable. Well, I found out there was a strong rejection of homosexuals, and at the triumph of the Revolution, the stage we are speaking of, the machista element was very much present, together with widespread opposition to having homosexuals in military units.

Because of those three factors, homosexuals were not drafted at first, but then all that became a sort of irritation factor, an argument some people used to lash out at homosexuals even more.

Taking those three categories into account we founded the so-called Military Units to Support Production (UMAP) where we sent people from the said three categories: those whose educational level was insufficient; those who refused to serve out of religious convictions; or homosexual males who were physically fit. Those were the facts; that's what happened.

So they were not internment camps?

Those units were set up all throughout the country for purposes of work, mainly to assist agriculture. That is, the homosexuals were not the only ones affected, though many of them certainly were, not all of them, just those who were called to do mandatory service in the ranks, since it was an obligation and everyone was participating.

That's why we had that situation, and it's true they were not internment units, nor were they punishment units; on the contrary, it was about morale, to give them a chance to work and help the country in those difficult circumstances. Besides, there were many who for religious reasons had the chance to help their homeland in another way by serving not in combat units but in work units.

Of course, as time passed by those units were eliminated. I can't tell you now how many years they lasted, maybe six or seven years, but I can tell you for sure that there was prejudice against homosexuals.

Do you think that prejudice stemmed from machismo?

It was a cultural thing, just as it happened with women. I can tell you that the Revolution never promoted that, quite the opposite; we had to work very hard to do away with racial prejudice here. Concerning women, there was strong prejudice, as strong as in the case of homosexuals. I'm not going to come up with excuses now, for I assume my share of the responsibility. I truly had other concepts regarding that issue. I had my own opinions, and I was rather opposed and would always be opposed to any kind of abuse or discrimination, because there was a great deal of prejudice in that society. Whole families suffered for it. The homosexuals were certainly discriminated against, more so in other countries, but it happened here too, and fortunately our people, who are far more cultured and learned now, have gradually left that prejudice behind.

I must also tell you that there were -and there are- extremely outstanding personalities in the fields of culture and literature, famous names this country takes pride in, who were and still are homosexual, however they have always enjoyed a great deal of consideration and respect in Cuba. So there's no need to look at it as if it were a general feeling. There was less prejudice against homosexuals in the most cultured and educated sectors, but that prejudice was very strong in sectors of low educational level -the illiteracy rate was around 30% those years- and among the nearly-illiterate, and even among many professionals. That was a real fact in our society.

Do you think that prejudice against homosexuals has been effectively fought?

Discrimination against homosexuals has been largely overcome. Today the people have acquired a general, rounded culture. I'm not going to say there is no machismo, but now it's not anywhere near the way it was back then, when that culture was so strong. With the passage of years and the growth of consciousness about all of this, we have gradually overcome problems and such prejudices have declined. But believe me, it was not easy.
Lippmann has lots more on the subect, including earlier Castro interviews on the subject, here.

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