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Cuba: Interview with Mariela Castro, director of the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX)
By Bernard Duraud for the French newspaper L’Humanité, published December 9. Published in Spanish on the Cubadebate website, December 14. Translation by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews, edited by Marce Cameron for Cuba's Socialist Renewal.
* * *
The daughter of Cuba's President Raul Castro and the late Vilma Espin, a key figure in the Cuban Revolution, Mariela Castro Espin, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), is a tireless campaigner for the rights of gays, lesbians and transsexuals, who have suffered discrimination for a long time. She is the initiator of important changes that concern them.
L’Humanite: For many years now you’ve been struggling for the freedom to express one’s sexual orientation and gender identity in Cuba. What is the current situation regarding these freedoms?
Mariela Castro: This is a good moment. It’s the result of several years of work. Since the creation of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) in the 1960s, the road was opened to gradually doing away with prejudices related to sexuality and gender. This work has allowed us to tackle other forms of everyday discrimination in our culture and society. It’s not easy to change the thinking of society as a whole about homophobia. But each initiative can succeed through educational work that is supported by the media, TV and radio, as part of a complex strategy. We have to reach out to everyone. This implies the existence of the political will to carry out all these changes, which will be embodied in a specific law, explicit, to deal with this problem.
You have prepared a draft for this law. Is there any progress?
One of our legislative proposals is related to the Family Code, a civil law compendium that was put forward by the FMC and was discussed widely before being approved in 1975. This code works, but for more than 15 years now we have participated, as an institution, in the struggle of the FMC to modify it so that it better upholds the rights of women, children, the handicapped and the elderly. To this end, CENESEX proposes the inclusion of a new article on freedom of sexual orientation and gender identity. We’re not talking about an obligatory code, but one that would serve to instil values within the family.
Once this code is approved [by Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power – editor’s note], it will include other elements, because many other laws are going to change as well. With the new law, transsexuals will have the right to modify their identity documents. This presupposes access to gender reassignment surgery. In 2008 we managed to establish, under the Health Ministry, a number of specialised health-care procedures needed by transsexuals, including gender reassignment. These operations are totally free and are included in the state budget. Ours is the only country to have made such procedures completely free of charge. However, it’s still the case that one’s official gender identity does not change unless one has undergone the surgical procedure. This is what the new law aims to change. It’s already drafted and only needs to be put forward for political debate.
You haven’t faced any obstacles of a political or religious nature?
The obstacles are not the prejudices of the population as a whole. In this heterogeneous society in which we live, in the churches, and even in other institutions, there are people who support us and people who don’t. There are religious leaders who agree with us and others who don’t. There is no confrontation with Cuban Communist Party (PCC) and its Ideological Department, or with its liaison who has been most attentive and respectful. We have presented our case to them and they themselves have discussed it with religious leaders who were not in agreement. There is no discomfort, concerns yes, but no unease. We’ve talked about our own concern that we don’t run ahead of people, that we don’t upset them. Only dialogue can resolve disagreements. But there are things we won’t concede, such as gender reassignment surgeries. We consider these to be a question of health care and we won’t compromise on this. They have to be done, it is a right.
We know that several churches do not approve of same-sex marriage. Before we create a category of same-sex marriage, which is not necessary [i.e. any two consenting adults should be able to marry – editor’s note], we propose a legal union that would guarantee the rights of people of the same gender. They should not be discriminated against or excluded. The aim is that they have the same rights as heterosexual couples, above all in terms of property and inheritance. Our proposal is for consensual unions: same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples. There [should be] no difference.
Adoption is another question. Even this could be considered, but I think it would come up against resistance. As our population advances in terms of gender equality, this will not be a concern. We’ve observed the progress of the legislative process in other countries, including in Europe, and they had to proceed in the same way: start with one thing and then move on to another. In our case, we’re proposing neither same-sex marriage nor adoption. We’re making progress in the acknowledgement of the rights of the population and gender rights.
Is this a struggle for emancipation in the framework of the Cuban revolutionary process?
Of course! This is the framework, the context. I have Marxist training that allows me to understand the society in which I live and how we conceive of socialism. A society in transition to socialism, such as Cuban society, must be vigilant against reproducing the pre-existing mechanisms of domination. I see this struggle for the full dignity of people as being in harmony with the process of social transformation for the emancipation of human beings that is socialism. We cannot lose sight of this idea; without it we would just continue to reproduce the same attitudes towards women, gays or immigrants.
For the first time in the history of the PCC, sexual orientation rights are mentioned in the draft document that will be presented to the party’s National Conference in January 2012. This is being discussed by the general public. We at CENESEX have made several suggestions, particularly the inclusion of the concept of gender identity and not only that of sexual orientation, because with this concept of identity people will have gender rights.
You speak of respect for the human being and of full and integral rights. Aren’t there other struggles to be fought for freedom of expression?
Nobody can stop us saying what we think. This is a myth. Nobody can shut us up in Cuba. The Spanish colonial system could not silence us, nor US colonialism, not even the military dictatorship[s] imposed by the US. We have always spoken our minds. Each one of us is the master of what we say, what we do, and must also be responsible for what we say and how we act. Freedom means accepting freedom’s responsibilities, risking one’s all and making decisions. This has universal validity. In terms of press freedom, I’m tempted to say that is doesn’t exist anywhere. It depends on who controls the media, the owners, the financial institutions, the shareholders, the editors, state policies. In Cuba there are a great many independent blogs and thousands of interesting bloggers who are courageous in their criticisms and who assume their responsibilities, without receiving money from a country [i.e. the US] that wants to control us and harass us.
In fact, only a small number of these bloggers receive money from the US government to make up stories to discredit Cuba. For more than 50 years we’ve suffered a real ideological war aimed at destroying the revolution. The media campaign against Cuba grows stronger day by day. The US State Department has allocated more than US$20 million to this campaign. With this money it pays bloggers, US and European journalists to discredit us. But who really knows, and not through disinformation, the everyday reality of Cubans and their capacity to move forward? With regard to Cuba, I would like to see a more critical press that does real investigative journalism. Criticism does not mean disrespect if it is carried out according to journalistic ethics.
Is it enough to have only one party dominating Cuban politics?
Well, the inspiration for the idea of a single party wasn’t Fidel, but [19th century independence leader] Jose Marti. In the face of external threats, there was no other option but to unite the will of the Cubans in what Marti called the Cuban Revolutionary Party. The PCC is the heir to that Revolutionary Party founded by Jose Marti. Thanks to the unity expressed in this sole party, independence from Spain was achieved, but it was thwarted by US intervention. The Cubans united once again to win their sovereignty [in the 1959 revolution]. It is for this reason that the PCC is a party of great diversity, including religious diversity, and with different viewpoints. But it is united around the principles of national sovereignty, the defence of this sovereignty and the development of the country on the basis of social justice and equality. This is the project. The Cuban people have what they desire. The PCC does not nominate candidates in our electoral system, it is the people in the neighbourhoods that nominate and decide who the candidates will be.
What does your father Raul Castro mean when he says, “We must move forward one step at a time?”
Any abrupt change could be very irresponsible. The process of construction [of the new socialist model] and of changing opinions takes time, much more than carrying out a popular consultation. When he says “one step at a time”, he means consolidating each step that is taken, not being superficial and not leaving anyone behind. Several times he has counselled me to try to educate the population before putting forward a proposal for a new law, otherwise it will never gain support. This is what we have done; we have raised awareness among Cubans and the National Assembly deputies. This is how he works, and I think he’s a good strategist. There are people who would like Cuba to hasten the changes. He responds: “I would like to hurry, but I cannot make impositions.” We have to achieve a certain consensus, or at least have the support of the majority.
What are the priorities for Cubans today?
A great many! Above all, to strengthen our economy so that it is self-sufficient. To some extent tourism can help us make progress. Despite the US economic and commercial blockade of Cuba, American tourism has surged. Americans want to visit Cuba; many come indirectly to avoid being penalised in the US when they return. By the way, the fact that they are punished by the laws that enforce the blockade [embargo] is a violation of the rights of the US citizens and of their Constitution. So yes, we have to move forward, create new mechanisms. And this is coming! [Here, Mariela appears to be referring to changes to Cuba's foreign travel and immigration policies foreshadowed by President Raul Castro.] Cuba always surprises, we even surprise ourselves.
After his election, Obama had raised some hopes with regard to Cuba, but nothing changed…
Obama has not renounced the responsibilities of his position [as CEO of US imperialism]. The US remains hegemonic. They’re the world’s cops, they control all of us. I note that Europe has followed in their footsteps by establishing a common position against Cuba. How very cynical! This shows that they are subordinated to US policy.
You are the daughter of Raul Castro and the niece of Fidel. Is it too hard to live up to this legacy?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no! No, it’s up to all of us to try to live up to this family legacy. Some people imagine a responsibility to this legacy that they’d like to see me take on, but which is not for me. Others would like me to be a future Cuban president. If they knew me well they wouldn’t wish for that! I have no such aspirations whatsoever. On the other hand, I receive many gratifying comments about them in Cuba and abroad. People have said very beautiful things, full of admiration, respect, affection and gratitude. They've told me anecdotes about my parents that I was unaware of. So I feel proud of the family to which I was born. They have instilled in me values, ethics. If I’m a rebel, it’s not my fault, it’s theirs. [Fidel and Raul] have been much more rebellious than I am, and they still are, which is why I admire them so much. But no, I don’t want to be like them.
Raul as seen by Mariela …
First of all, I must say that my Dad is very nice, a fun person to be around. He has a way of saying things that is very direct. I’ve had a lot of fun with him and I’ve also been upset with him, but with much love. We’ve come to understand each other. I’ve never been afraid to tell him what I think, even when he doesn’t agree. I’ve learned from him that one has to be like this in life and take the risks involved. He is very methodical, very organised. He likes to dialogue, to work in a team, and he doesn’t waste time. Things are the way they are and he doesn’t like to embellish them. Thanks to my mother, he has supported me in my struggle; she laid the groundwork. I’m not just my father’s daughter. Consequently, I do things attentively and carefully. But I inherited from him a tendency to tell it like it is.