Cuba Wants You To Think It’s a Gay Paradise. It’s Not.
Cuba has come a long way on LGBT rights since putting gays in labor camps. But don't believe the Castro family's gay-friendly PR.
TRINIDAD, Cuba — I’m surprised to see a rainbow flag outside a tiny bar called Gats Loco in Trinidad, an old sugar town on Cuba’s Caribbean coast. With a population of just under 75,000 and a reputation for well-preserved colonial architecture, not cruising, a gay bar seems an improbable niche-filler.
As of 1979, being gay is no longer a crime in Cuba, although under Article 303a of the country’s Penal Code, “publicly manifested” homosexuality remains illegal, as does “persistently bothering others with homosexual amorous advances.” While I wonder whether or not Gats Loco’s conspicuous signage qualifies as a violation of Cuban law, I watch a stray dog’s legs collapse underneath it in the withering midday heat. Gats Loco is the only bar in the area and they claim to have cold beer. I head inside.
I sit down at the small counter, getting the impression that I am the first customer they’ve had in a while. I ask the bartender for a Bucanero Fuerte, the watery lager that is Cuba’s go-to brew. He hands me a cold one and sits down beside me. He says his name is Osmel, but everyone calls him SiSi.
SiSi is an English professor who moonlights at the bar for extra cash. He sharpens his grasp of American idioms by listening to heavy metal and writing out the lyrics every night when he gets home. I figure he’ll love the copy of the Atlantic that I’m carrying in my backpack, which features a headline across the cover reading, “What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples.” But when I hand it to him with a conspiratorial wink, he looks perplexed. Then he breaks into a wide grin.
“Are you gay?” SiSi asks.
I tell him I am not. Neither is he. Nor is the owner. Nor are any of the employees. Though incongruity is practically an art form in Cuba — a place where cabdrivers outearn cardiologists and Fidel Castro’s son is a golf champion — I’m too curious not to ask how Gats Loco came to be.
“You know our president, yes?” SiSi asks, seeming to make a point of not saying “Raúl Castro” out loud. “In 2010, he changed the rules and we were allowed to open our own businesses. So, a friend of mine, he opened this place.”
He can see that he hasn’t answered my question.
“Okay, so, this rainbow flag outside — we are the only place in Cuba with this flag in front,” SiSi says. “I think it is European, and means ‘inclusiveness.’ Some people, I guess, know it as the gay flag, too. I think the owner figured it might be good for business.”
The gambit has already started to pay dividends. Not because Gats Loco offers something unique to Cuba’s gay community. Rather, it’s because Mariela Castro, daughter of Raúl, niece to Fidel, and the director of the state-run National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), has emerged as Cuba’s leading voice for the LGBT community in recent years. As the story goes, when the straight, married mother of three heard about Gats Loco and its rainbow flag, a representative sent word that Mariela would be making an official visit to “sponsor” the bar. SiSi isn’t sure what the sponsorship entails beyond something about uniforms and logoed aprons for the staff. There are other gay bars on the island, but a gay bar willing to work with the regime rather than against it is unusual. For Mariela, it’s a ready-made propaganda opportunity. And Gats Loco’s owner wasn’t going to pass up a chance to ingratiate himself with a Castro.
The island is undoubtedly evolving, experiencing its first glimmers of free enterprise in 55 years, but one thing has remained very much the same: In Cuba, the regime is your ultimate customer. LGBT rights have undeniably improved in Cuba over the past 50-odd years. But while there have been some gains, many problems remain. The social stigma attached to being gay in predominantly Catholic Cuba is present in the same ways it is everywhere else in the world. Though the Castro family is no longer sending LGBT people to labor camps as they did in the 1960s and 1970s, the only permitted LGBT movement in Cuba is the official, state-run one that Mariela Castro has created. To that end, while the rest of the world was celebrating Pride Week over the past several days, Cubans weren’t. The government in Havana refuses to recognize the international week of LGBT rights celebrations, allowing only an officially sanctioned gathering on May 17 — under Mariela’s patronage — to mark International Day Against Homophobia, which commemorates the day the World Health Organization decided to remove homosexuality from its classification of diseases.
With Cuba essentially having been run as a family business since the Castros took over in 1959, it’s only natural that 52-year-old Mariela ended up working for her dad. Daughter of President Raúl and niece to “Maximum Leader” Fidel, Mariela, known pretty much exclusively by her first name, occupies an interesting place in the Cuban zeitgeist, a sign of a liberalizing society — but only so far. “Brokeback Mountain” may have aired on Cuban state television in 2008, but the control Mariela and CENESEX wield over the LGBT agenda doesn’t give many Cubans a sense of ownership in their own cause.
On paper, Mariela is perfectly qualified to run CENESEX, where she has been since 1990. She has degrees in psychology and human sexuality from two of Cuba’s premier universities. However, the LGBT Cubans I spoke to almost universally described Mariela as a creation of the state propaganda machine, a benevolent face the world can see calling for tolerance while the regime’s usual brand of everyday totalitarianism continues. After all, Cuba’s biggest industry is tourism, with more than 2 million visitors last year. Western tourists prefer a “friendly Cuba” to a notorious human rights violator.
The state announced in 2008 that, per Mariela’s direction, the national health-care system would begin providing free gender-reassignment surgeries to those who qualified. In May 2013, Mariela traveled to Philadelphia to receive the Equality Forum’s International Ally for LGBT Equality Award, followed by a trip in October to Montreal, where she was honored by the Conseil Québécois LGBT. This past December, the Cuban parliament passed a new labor code that included a clause outlawing employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. (It can’t hurt Cuban Communist Party legislators to keep the boss’s daughter happy.) On its face, it would seem that Mariela has tried — and continues to try — valiantly to move the LGBT agenda forward.
But not everyone’s buying it.
“The reality for the LGBT community in Cuba is very different from that described by the international media,” Ignacio Estrada, a 33-year-old gay man from Santa Clara, tells me. “We live under constant government surveillance and harassment, while at the same time being manipulated for their political purposes.”
Ignacio is married to Wendy Iriepa, 40, a transgender Havana native who once worked very closely with Mariela Castro at CENESEX. Under a 2007 pilot project, after pledging loyalty to the Revolution, she became the first Cuban to receive government-sponsored sex-reassignment surgery and underwent a full male-to-female transition.
Wendy may have been in Mariela’s good graces, but as the founder of the independent, and thus illegal, Cuban League Against AIDS, Ignacio was considered a dissident. When Wendy marched with Ignacio and about 20 others in a small, unauthorized Pride Day parade in Havana in June 2011, Mariela confronted Wendy, asking how she “could live, in bed and in a home, with an enemy of the revolution.” Wendy resigned from her position at CENESEX immediately. Two months later, she and Ignacio were married in Havana. The nuptials took place on August 13, 2011 — Fidel Castro’s 85th birthday. The guest list also sent a powerful message. Opposition bloggers Yoani Sánchez and her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, were there. Mariela wasn’t invited.
“Mariela is a chameleon; she can change her character very easily,” says Ignacio. “She is very sociable with the people who work for her, but never does anything for anyone without expecting something back in return.”
Mario Jose Delgado is a gay activist and independent journalist in Havana who also believes the outside world is being duped by Mariela. He and other LGBT Cubans are “very unhappy about the awards and recognition” she has received abroad, insisting, “It does not reflect the feelings of the gay community on the island.” Delgado says the realities of LGBT life in Cuba are much uglier.
Last November, Delgado was headed home to the Alamar section of Havana when three men in civilian clothes threw him into the backseat of a car. They drove him to the outskirts of town, where he was beaten in the face with a rock.
Delgado says the men, who have never been identified, were interested only in the information he was carrying, which included names of members of a Christian LGBT group Delgado belonged to called Divine Hope. The attackers took his cellphone and USB drive, as well as his notes and calendar, where the details of a demonstration Divine Hope was planning to hold the next month were stored. They also took his baseball cap for good measure.
Delgado is certain his attackers were state security agents, though it is impossible to know for sure what exactly prompted the beating. He’s gay, he’s Christian, and he’s a blogger who is outspokenly anti-regime. It’s a volatile combination in Cuba, where activists of all stripes who dare to organize independently are regularly targeted by the security services.
Delgado doesn’t have much to lose by speaking to reporters. But there are plenty of LGBT Cubans who have settled into relatively comfortable lives by not calling too much attention to themselves.
In Havana, I rent a room in a private home (the Cuban government legalized this in 1997). Two men live here and it is obvious they are a couple, though they never say it. One of them has carved out a successful career working for the state theater, something that doesn’t happen by making waves on social issues. The dial-up connection in their duplex apartment is a luxury in Cuba, but looks like an antique to me. What also seems oddly outdated is the way they refer to one another as “friends,” something I haven’t heard since the 1970s.
They obviously feel awkward about their situation. But living in relative peace like this is a quantum advance from the era when same-sex couples lived in fear of being rounded up and sent to a labor camp.
Even Fidel has come a long way. In a 2010 interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, he placed the blame for Cuba’s historical persecution of gays squarely on his own shoulders, calling it “a great injustice.”
“If anyone is responsible, it’s me,” he said. “We had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life or death. In those moments, I was not able to deal with the matter of homosexuals.”
Mariela, on the other hand, tends to adopt an oddly casual, even defensive, tone when discussing Cuba’s history of homophobia. She seems to view the people sent away by her father and uncle as some sort of accidental by-catch, human turtles mistakenly caught in tuna nets. In May 2012, Mariela was questioned by a Cuban-American audience member about her uncle Fidel’s “concentration camps for gay men” during an appearance at the New York Public Library. Mariela quickly corrected her interlocutor, taking exception to the term and insisting they were segregated “training camps.”
The exchange between Mariela and her audience brings to mind a Cuban saying: Cada cual habla de la feria según le va en ella. “Everybody experiences reality in a different way.” The reality Mariela packages and sells may not be anyone else’s but her own. Similarly, the reality of Cuba’s LGBT population is unknowable to the rest of the island.
“As a country, we are so isolated and lost that we don’t even know what is going on in the neighboring town,” says Mabel Cuesta, a lesbian who left Cuba in 2006 and is now a professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston.
Cubans are prevented from fully communicating with one another. Internet access is scarce, expensive, and slow. Mobile phone penetration is the lowest in Latin America, at 11 percent. Vehicle ownership has been described by analysts as “exceptionally low,” and the public transportation system is a disaster, hampering intercity travel.
This explains a lot about life on the island, Cuesta says — including some misperceptions about Gats Loco. “The first bar in Cuba with a rainbow flag was actually El Mejunje, an LGBT center in Santa Clara that opened in the early ’90s,” she says.
Like Gats Loco, Cuesta says, El Mejunje also began as an independent operation. And, like Gats Loco, they also quickly found themselves being offered “assistance” by the government. “Following the usual practice that the Cuban regime has always had toward anything powerful and out of their control, they made it official very soon.”
Correction, Feb. 28, 2019: This story has been updated to clarify that International Day Against Homophobia is not organized by the World Health Organization.