Castro was one of about 80 Cuban academics invited to attend the LASA congress, an event that regularly draws several thousand university professors and researchers in Latin American studies, the majority from the U.S. but many from other countries including Cuba.
Washington granted visas to 70 Cubans but arbitrarily denied entry to 10 other well-known Cubans, many of whom have previously been granted visas to teach or lecture in the U.S.
LASA officials and others condemned the visa denials. Meanwhile, opponents of the Cuban Revolution raised a howl of protest over the visa to Mariela Castro because, as Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey put it, she is “a vociferous advocate of the regime” and a daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro.
In San Francisco, Castro spoke to 150 people who packed into a room at the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Center, where she answered questions by local TV personality Liam Mayclem. On May 29, at a meeting of about 150 people at the New York Public Library, she answered questions from Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In all the meetings Castro received an appreciative hearing from many in the audience, encouraging questions, including highly critical ones, and giving straightforward answers, often sprinkled with humor.
Advances for womenAt the LASA congress, Castro led a panel discussion on sexual diversity attended by nearly 200 people. She began her remarks by explaining that with the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Cuban people won their national sovereignty and established a government that defends the interests of the majority, including women.
“Popular participation in the revolution was decisive,” she said. Women joined in the mass mobilizations to begin to change society, from the campaign that rapidly wiped out illiteracy to the popular militias that were key to defeating Washington’s attempts to overthrow the revolutionary government. “The revolution brought about substantial changes in the conditions of women,” she said.
In 1960 the Federation of Cuban Women was formed, “not to attack men as the problem but to encourage the participation of women together with men in the revolution,” Castro said. The percentage of working-age women in the workforce has grown from 13.5 percent in 1953 to 59 percent in 2008. A substantial number of child care centers were set up for working women. Access to abortion services was provided as part of the national health care system, a public service provided free of charge. “Women have been part of the leadership of this entire process,” she noted.
Fighting antigay prejudiceAt the New York Public Library meeting, Castro said the FMC, whose central leader was Vilma Espín, “has fought against homophobia for many years.” She noted, however, that “in all social processes, there is always a permanent struggle between progressive ideas and retrograde, dogmatic ideas.” Prejudice and discrimination against gays that existed in prerevolutionary Cuba continued, Castro said.
In the discussion period, a questioner said that in the 1960s gay men had been consigned to “concentration camps” and asked Castro whether the Cuban leadership was going to apologize for that.
She replied, “First of all, no, there were no concentration camps.” During those years, she noted, the Cuban people had been mobilizing to defend themselves against imperialist-organized armed assaults and all men were called up for universal military service. Those who did not serve in regular combat units—including religious and conscientious objectors, gays, and others—were assigned to military units engaged in agricultural work known as UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production).
Assigning homosexuals to those units, however, was “humiliating and discriminatory,” she said in the LASA conference discussion. Those units “continued the pattern of homophobia and stigmatizing of gays that prevailed in Cuban society. They lasted only three years, and were closed in 1968.” She noted that “Fidel [Castro] has taken responsibility for this,” referring to a 2010 interview where the Cuban leader said “those were moments of great injustice” against homosexuals and “if someone is responsible, it’s me.”
Replying to the questioner in New York, Castro said calls on the Cuban government to apologize “are hypocritical. That won’t change the past.”
“If it was so simple that all it takes is an apology, then all colonial powers would have to apologize to colonized peoples. All invaders would have to apologize to all invaded countries. All men would have to apologize to women, and so on,” she said to laughter from the audience. “No, what we must do is what we’re doing now in Cuba to change the discriminatory attitudes of the past.”
Describing how changes began, Castro said that in 1972 the Federation of Cuban Women created the National Work Group on Sex Education, a precursor of CENESEX that encouraged public debate on sexual issues. In 1979 the publication of El hombre y la mujer en la intimidad (Men and women in intimacy) by East German sexologist Siegfried Schnabel helped combat antigay prejudice by explaining, for the first time in a scientific book in Cuba, that homosexuality is not an illness. “It created a scandal, but it was a best-seller,” she said.
A group of lesbians in Santiago who called themselves Las Isabelas were among the first groups to contact the National Center for Sex Education for support, Castro said. They have been joined by two similar associations, Fénix in Cienfuegos and Oremi in Havana.
In 2007, CENESEX and other gay rights advocates established May 17 as a day to hold an annual March Against Homophobia in Havana and other cities. In a PowerPoint presentation at the LASA congress, Castro showed photos of this year’s march, pointing out prominent Cuban figures in the front contingent such as Miguel Barnet, president of Cuba’s National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC), who was also present at the LASA discussion.
Castro said the fight to eliminate barriers to gay and transgender people has often encountered resistance, but continues to advance as prejudices break down. In 2008 Cuba began performing sex-change operations as part of the health care system. And in January 2012 the Cuban Communist Party adopted a resolution “opposing all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation,” she said.
“We continue to fight against any form of discrimination and all injustice,” she said to applause at the San Francisco LGBT Center, where many in the audience were supporters of gay rights but had little knowledge about the Cuban Revolution beyond negative coverage they read in the U.S. mass media.
Castro was asked how Cuba has achieved a low rate of HIV infection—much lower than any other Latin American country or the United States. She cited then-President Fidel Castro’s initiatives in the early 1980s that led to systematic, free HIV testing combined with widespread sex education. In an effort to quarantine the disease, HIV-positive individuals initially were not allowed to freely leave sanitariums established by the ministry of public health, which she called an “unfortunate experience.” Residence at these facilities is now voluntary. Patients receive quality treatment including free antiretroviral drug therapy.
At the New York Public Library meeting, host Rea Carey questioned whether Castro’s advocacy for LGBT rights was not inconsistent with what Carey implied were limits on broader human rights.
Castro replied that Washington targets Cuba because the majority of the Cuban people “have chosen socialism as an experiment in the road toward full human freedom. That puts us in the position of dissidents who confront a world power.” But Cubans “have a right to take the path we have chosen to achieve freedom,” she added.
The U.S. government’s restrictions on travel to Cuba are not only an attack on the Cuban people, she noted, but “violate the rights of Americans to freely travel to and trade with Cuba.”
Asked at the LGBT Center forum what she would say to President Obama if she ever met with him, Castro said she would ask for the release of the Cuban Five, who were framed up and jailed by the U.S. government.
“We have a right to defend ourselves as a people,” Castro said. She noted that the five men had been informing the Cuban government about the actions of counterrevolutionary groups in the Miami area who have a long history of organizing armed attacks on Cuba from U.S. soil.
Betsey Stone reported from San Francisco, Martín Koppel from both San Francisco and New York. Joel Britton in San Francisco contributed to this article.
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