Rainbow Cuba: the sexual revolution within the revolution

March to celebrate LGBTI rights in Havana, May 2009.

By Rachel Evans

December 23, 2011 (updated January 28, 2012) – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- When I was 16, I went to a Cuba solidarity event in my home town. At the end of inspiring speeches about Cuba’s health record, education standards, and the revolution’s policy of sending doctors and teachers to impoverished countries, a rousing “Cuba si! Yankee no!” chant erupted. It was electric. Much better than the fake feeling, singing and dancing we’d experienced in the church hall on Sunday. I was impressed and resolved to visit the country and see the revolution for myself. Years later and having come out of the closet, I decided my trip to Cuba could help prove or dispel the oft-uttered line of Cuba being homophobic.

This work will help put to bed the lies and distortions propagated by the powerful United States (US) propaganda machine: that the Cuban Revolution is undemocratic, homophobic and tyrannical. My visit to and study of Cuba finds that there is no basis to these claims.

Rainbow Cuba timeline

1939 – Cuban Social Defence Code – anti-gay laws

1959July 26 revolution

1965 and 1968 – Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) program

1971 – the first National Congress of Education and Culture

1975 – the limits on employment of homosexuals in the arts and education were overturned by the Cuban Supreme Court

1974 – Federation of Cuban Women demanded sex education in the state curriculum

1975 – new ministry of culture was established, as well as a commission to study homosexuality

1975 – first congress of the Cuban Communist Party agreed on the complete and absolute equality of women, which included sex education

1976 – inauguration of the Family Code which called for equal participation by men in child-raising and household work

1977 – the Cuban National Group for Sexual Education (precursor to CENESEX) was established, headed by a Cuban physician Celestino Lajonchere and East German sexologist Monika Krause

1979 – homosexual acts decriminalised, but failed to legalise homosexual behaviour in the public sphere – leaving intact anti-gay laws dating to the Cuban Social Defence Code of 1939.

1979 – transgender issues began to be discussed

1979 – The life of males and females had been first published in the German Democratic Republic. “Homosexuals should be granted equal rights, respect and recognition, and that any kind of social discrimination is reprehensible.”

1979 – 24 transsexual Cubans won support from CENESEX

1980 – with economic sanctions biting, more than 120,000 Cubans fled Cuba under the “Mariel boatlift”

1981 – Are you beginning to think about love publication was more ambivalent about homosexuality

1981 – ministry of culture produced a publication titled In Defence of Love that described homosexuality as a variant of human sexuality

1981 – AIDS in the US first diagnosed

1985 – first AIDS case diagnosed in Cuba – a Cuban man who'd returned from defending the people of Mozambique

1985 – Cuba screened the island's entire blood supply and spent $3 million to buy reactive agents and equipment to set up labs in blood banks, hygiene and epidemiology centres around the country

1986 – Cuba opened 13 sanatoria that provided care for 99 people – 20% of whom were thought to have contracted HIV through same-sex loving. Involuntarily quarantined

1987 – offence of homosexual acts in public places was removed from Cuba’s penal code and people charged under the law were released from jail

1989 – first transgender surgery performed

1993the age of consent for homosexuals in Cuba became 16 years, equalling heterosexuals

1993homosexuals able to join the Communist Party for the first time

1993 – Strawberry and Chocolate, a film criticising Cubans' intolerance of homosexuality

1995 – Cuban drag queens lead the annual May Day procession

1995 – Gay Cuba produced by Sonia de Vries, a series of interviews with gay and lesbian Cubans and shown at the Havana International Festival of Latin America Cinema to public and critical acclaim

1996 – Pablo Milanes, a popular Cuban singer who’d been incarcerated in a UMAP in the 1960s, dedicated a song about gay men to all Cuban homosexuals

1996 – National program for sex education with gender focus accepted and implemented

2000 – at the film festival in Havana, half the Latin American films shown had gay themes

2001 – four local young males, ranging in ages from 17-22, held a double same-sex marriage ceremony outdoors, in front of loved ones and neighbours, in south-east Havana

2003 – 16th World Congress of Sexology met in Havana

2003 – CENESEX created its own website, www.cenesex.sld.cu

2004 – Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly: “We are trying to see how to do that, whether it should be to grant them the right to marry or to have same-sex unions. We have to redefine the concept of marriage. Socialism should be a society that does not exclude anybody.”

2004 – FMC-CENESEX law reform proposals: assisted reproduction services to single mothers and lesbians

2004FMC-CENESEX national strategy for of transvestites, transsexuals and transgender persons – transvestites and transsexuals accepted into secondary school and institutions of higher learning and has involved awareness-raising efforts among the police.

2004free gender reassignment operations begin to be carried out on a greater scale

2006popular soap opera The Hidden Face of the Moon includes bi-sexual character

2007 – Cuba commemorated International Day of Action Against Homophobia with CENESEX leading a debate around sexual diversity with film screenings. Rallies have been held every years since.

2007 – Sex-reassignment surgery as part of public health care in Cuba as a pilot program

2007 – Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly: “We have to abolish any form of discrimination against homosexuality.”

2008 – Sex-reassignment surgery institutionalised on a larger scale


The revolution in Cuba bought hope for people suffering from a legacy of colonial and imperialist domination. A wave of people’s power against the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, culminated in a general strike on January 1, 1959. A new chapter in dignity opened up for the small Caribbean island. Landless peasants were granted soil to till and city dwelling toilers granted homes, almost rent free. Copper mines, agricultural, telecommunication and electricity firms run by foreign companies were nationalised by the new Cuban government. With resources returned to the country, wages increased for many workers and health care and education were provided free. The revolution lifted the mass of Cubans out of poverty and gave them a political voice. Decisions previously made in homes and parlours of the rich were now made in mass assemblies of workers and peasants in city plazas.

After the revolution, women and Afro-Cubans were granted equality in law and measures to advance their status were implemented by the new state. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people did not fare so well in this anti-imperialist renaissance. While the uprising benefited the vast majority of Cubans, some early revolutionary government policies reflected the weight of Spanish and US colonial baggage, and discriminated against LGBTI people. These practices and laws began to be removed from the 1970s onwards. Today, Cuba is more advanced in LGBTI rights than many global South nations and, I contend, than many global North countries. In a comparative study in this dissertation – Australia and the US fall behind Cuba’s LGBTI record on many fronts.

Cuba’s revolution took place 145 kilometres off the US coast of Miami. The nationalisation by Cuba of industrial and agrarian enterprises owned by US citizens drew the ire of the world’s most powerful and militarised nation. The US government attacked the revolution militarily, economically and through a disinformation campaign. Claims that the Cuban government is undemocratic, repressive and homophobic continue to be propagated by opponents of the socialist government.

This essay will examine claims that the Cuban Revolution was extremely homophobic and remains so. It will do so first by exploring the history of Cuban LGBTI life. It will examine the conditions for the community before the revolution – during the Spanish colonial occupation of Cuba and the subsequent US ‘sexploitation’ from the early 1900s. Secondly, the research will assess the nature of the Cuban Revolution and the homophobic pressures on it from the US and the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). Three specific phases of Cuban government policy identified as homophobic will be examined. These are the incarceration of homosexuals in “military units to aid production” (UMAPs) between 1965 and 1968, the alleged mass exodus of homosexuals from Cuba in the 1981 Mariel boatlift and the alleged targeting of homosexuals for involuntary treatment for HIV care in health sanatoriums. A study of Cuba’s homophobic laws will also feature.

Finally, this essay will explore the way in which changes in Cuba have led to its very good international position in terms of transgender rights, same-sex sex education, HIV treatment, cultural LGBTI expression and formal legal equality. This study finds that, while institutional homophobia (repressive laws) have been removed, prejudice has not disappeared. As a leading Cuban sexual rights organization, the Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX), says, work remains to be done to eliminate homophobic and transphobic ideas and barriers for the LGBTI community in Cuba.

This research is a study of same-sex attracted and gender variant/sex and gender diverse peoples. “LGBTI” and “sex and gender diverse” are the accepted terms to describe this group in Australia. In the US, “gender variant” is used to describe transgender, transsexual, cross-dressing and intersex people. Within Cuba, this community is referred to as “LGBT”. In this report I will use LGBTI people, gender variant, and sex and gender diverse interchangeably.

Chapter 1: Cuba’s colonial history

Feudal Spain’s homophobia and transphobia

As a class-divided system, feudalism was the first state structure to actively and voraciously repress sexual nonconformists. State repression of gender variance and homosexuality developed in conjunction with class society. Class society promoted private property, the state and the monogamous family unit, and criminalised the LGBTI community and subjugated women (Brewer 2008, p. 5). Feudal Spain’s homophobia was codified in 13th century Castile law, which punished same-sex sexual practices with castration and stoning (Encyclopaedia of GLBTQ Culture, 2004, paragraph 2).

Spain’s anti-gay stance hardened with the Spanish Inquisition, launched by Pope Sixtus IV in October 1483. The Inquisition was born out of the war to drive the Moors off the Iberian Peninsula (Austin Cline 2004, paragraph 1).

[It] targeted nonconformists with savagery. Since the Moors tolerated a greater degree of homosexual expression, anal sex came to be seen as a Moorish perversion that needed to be expunged from Spanish society. ‘Sodomites’ were burned to death for their sins. (Lumsdan, 1991, p. 16.)

The Inquisition prosecuted thousands.

Records from three cities – Barcelona, Valencia and Sargossa – show 1,600 convictions between 1560 and 1640. A fourth city, Seville, burned 70 people for sodomy between 1567-1616  (Baird, 2001, p. 58).

The Spanish occupation of Latin America and the Caribbean included a war against the sexual nonconformists in that region. Before Spanish invasion, Indigenous Latin America and the Caribbean were sexually diverse, and tolerant of same-sex relationships and cross-dressing. According to the Queer Heritage timeline,

In 1551, Portuguese missionary Father Pero Correia, writing from Brazil, asserts that same-sex eroticism among indigenous women is quite common, in fact as widespread as in Africa, where he was previously stationed. Native Brazilian women, he observes, carry weapons and even form same-sex marriages (Queer Heritage, paragraph 6).

Cuba was invaded and claimed as a Spanish colony in 1492 (Slee, 2008, p. 4). Its inhabitants suffered the same punishment for sodomy as the Spaniards did themselves. Latin sexuality writer Max Mejía notes:

The conquerors treated ‘sodomy’ as a special Indian sin and hunted it down and punished it as such on a grand scale. They orchestrated crusades like the Holy Inquisition, which began burning sodomites at the stake as a special occasion, as in the memorable auto-da-fé of San Lázaro in Mexico City. (Feinberg, 2007b, paragraph 4.)

Queer Heritage’s timeline comments:

During Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s colonial expedition across Panama he saw men dressed like women; Balboa learnt that they were sodomites and threw the king and 40 others to be eaten by his dogs, a fine action of an honourable and Catholic Spaniard (Queer Heritage, paragraph 8).

Cuba under Spanish rule

In Cuba, the Indigenous people were massacred by the Spanish and forced into slavery. Over a period of a few hundred years, the majority of Cuba’s Indigenous people were wiped out (Slee, 2008, p. 4). Colonial Spain targeted Cuba’s sexual nonconformists for particularly vile punishment. Spanish colonial authorities in Cuba castrated those they considered sodomites and forced them to eat their own testicles coated with dirt (Feinberg, 2007b, paragraph 6). Inspired by José Martí, the second war of independence in 1895 broke Spanish rule. A different colonial power stepped into its place. In 1898, the US intervened under the guise of helping the independence fighters. A year later, a military government was established headed by a US general (Slee, 2008, p. 5).

US control of Cuba

From 1898 to 1959, Cuba was a US neo-colony:

US corporations controlled 40% of sugar production, 75% of arable land…  they owned 50% of the railways, 100% of the oil refineries and 90% of cattle ranchers. US banks held more than a quarter of bank deposits (Saney, 2004, p. 9).

In addition to providing cheap natural resources to the US, Cuba was also a holiday resort for the rich and powerful in the US. As a US playground, the Cuban prostitution industry both heterosexual and gay expanded. The nature of US exploitation of the island developed into an explicitly sexual one. Throughout the neo-colonial period, homosexuality remained illegal in Cuba. The 1938 Penal Code was based on Spanish laws and remained in force until 1979. It penalised “habitual homosexual acts, homosexual molestation, scandalous, indecent behaviour, [and] ostentatious displays of homosexuality in public” (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 7). The legal prohibition on homosexuality did not supress the homosexual prostitution industry, but it did criminalise sex workers.

Lourdes Arguelles, a Cuban who regularly travels to Cuba from the US, in collaboration with B. Ruby Rich, conducted research on the experiences of lesbians and gay men within Cuban émigré enclaves in the US, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Spain between 1979 and 1984 (Arguelles & Rich, 1984, p.1). They note:

The only occupational sector (prior to the 1959 revolution) showing substantial growth was that connected to tourism, drug distribution, gambling and prostitution. This sector was mostly controlled by American organized crime and members of an indigenous bourgeoisie directly linked to Batista's political apparatus. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 688.)

This industry employed more than 200,000 workers as petty traders, casino operators, entertainers, servants and prostitutes. Leonardo Hechavarría and Marcel Hatch, in a 2001 movie review of Before Night Falls, note that, before 1959:

Life for lesbians and gays was one of extreme isolation and repression, enforced by civil law, augmented by Catholic dogma. Patriarchal attitudes made lesbians invisible. If discovered, they'd often suffer sexual abuse, disgrace in the community and job loss. Havana's gay male underground some 200,000 was a purgatory of prostitution to American tourists, domestic servitude and constant threats of violence and blackmail. The closet was the operative image. Survival often meant engaging in fake heterosexual marriage, or banishment to the gay slum. Existence for queers in Cuba paralleled that of other countries. (Hechavarria and Hatch, 2001, paragraph 12.)

Arguelles and Rich elaborate:

Havana of the 1950… was not easy for the working-class or petty-bourgeois homosexual. Unemployment was high and had been steadily increasing throughout the decade. The scarcity of productive occupations demanded a strictly closeted occupational life. For all women and especially for lesbians, employment almost invariably entailed continual sexual harassment. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 688.)

Under US domination, machismo an arrogance towards the needs of women and a celebration of male virility exacerbated anti-gay sentiment.

Chapter 2: The Cuban Revolution

Cuba throws out US domination

Cuban subservience to the US was broken with a mass uprising on the January 1, 1959, against President Fulgencio Batista. Batista, who seized power in a military coup on March 10, 1952, operated as the “steward of sugar barons, banks, gambling syndicates and the great corporate interests of North America” (Hickson, 1996, paragraph 2). Batista was brutal and:

answered any opposition with assassination, breaking strikes with machine-gun fire and using repression against the Cuban people to maintain the massive exploitation of sugar workers, farmers and women (ibid, paragraph 3).

Batista’s regime killed an estimated 20,000 Cubans (Revolutionary Museum, Havana, 2009). The general strike that unseated the dictator had its origins in 1953, when the July 26 Movement (J26M) a small group of revolutionary guerrillas attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, the eastern headquarters of the military dictatorship (ibid, paragraph 4).

Fidel Castro was one of few who survived the failed attack and was put on trial. He delivered his now famous “History will absolve me” speech in the courtroom and inspired the nation to fight its neo-colonial oppressors. From 1954 to 1959, in liberated areas where imperialist class interests and national capitalists subservient to US interests had been expelled by the J26M and their supporters, democratic institutions flourished. There were aims to eradicate illiteracy in these areas. August Arnold, author of Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-98 Elections, noted:

The liberated areas, known as Territorio Libre de Cuba, were not liberated only in the sense that it pushed the neo-colonial army out. They were liberated because they started to adopt new laws and to build new political, economic and social/political structures in place of the old ones…objectives were to assure the economic, social, and other rights of the citizen, working out the orientation and stimulation of industry, farming, and road improvement as well as the construction of offices and schools.  (Arnold, 1999, p. 164-165).

LGBTI Cubans were involved in the fight against Batista. Transsexuals fought alongside other guerrilla fighters (Motley, 2005, paragraph 5).

The revolution consolidated political and economic power in the hands of Cuban toilers, and took it away from the US. “Lands larger than 1,000 acres…were nationalized with compensation,” noted author August Arnold.  

Between August and October 1960, 41% of land was expropriated, 95% of industry was nationalised, 98% of construction, 95% of transport, 75% of retail and 100% of wholesale trade (Arnold, 1999, p. 174).

With wealth in the hands of the Cuban people, the social wage increased dramatically. The revolution instituted free education, free health care, and cheap housing and public transport. A summary of advances from the revolution until 1999 is recounted in The Cuban Revolution – defying imperialism, building the alternative:

Infant mortality has fallen from over 60 to 6.4% for every 1000 live births, life expectancy has increased by over 20 years to reach 74 years for men and 76 years for women, illiteracy has fallen from more than 40% to 3.8%...Housing rents, which used to absorb over 50% of income, have disappeared with most homes now being owned by their occupants, unemployment has fallen to below 5%. (Democratic Socialist Party, 2005, p. 37)

Mass participation, contrary to myths about the Cuban Revolution propagated by the Western media, was a key feature of the revolution. After the revolution mass assemblies of up to a million and a half people, were held in Cuban town plazas and made decisions on the revolution.

At one point in the mass meetings, Fidel Castro himself introduced the possibility of holding elections, and the proposal was actually booed down by the people attending the mass rally (Arnold, 1999, p. 184).

Arnold explains, “In the minds of the people, elections were associated with the neo-colonial regime's multi-party system or the even more fraudulent elections under the open dictatorship, the last of which took place in 1958” (ibid, p. 185). At a million strong mass Havana Declaration Assembly in 1960, “according to the University of Texas Castro Speech Data Base… the people spontaneously chanted for over seven minutes against the holding of elections.” (ibid, p. 197)

Democratic structures in Cuba were consolidated and formalised, shifting from general assemblies and “committees in defence of the revolution” (CDR) into “organs of people’s power” between 1974 and 1976:

Representative institutions of workers democracy were created on the local, provincial and national levels…These are not legislative bodies on the parliamentary model, but working bodies that combine legislative and administrative functions. (Lorimer, 2000, p. 39.)

This flowering of democracy within the revolutionary process included an expansion of civil and democratic rights that benefited black Cubans and women. Before the revolution, at least a one-third of Cuba’s population was of African descent, yet blacks were banned from many clubs, bars, restaurants, movie theatres and beaches. After the revolution, all laws discriminating against blacks were removed (Spencer, 2000, p. 15). Women’s rights were enshrined from January 1959. Women won near full equality under the law, including pay equity, the right to child care, abortion and to do military service. A number of lesbians benefited from these programs (Hechavarria and Hatch, 2001, paragraph 14). Many LGBTI people, on the bottom of the economic and social strata under Batista, benefited from the revolution’s redistribution of wealth. The mafia-controlled prostitution trade was broken. A massive productive period for the Cuban economy began, democratic participation for the mass of Cubans thrived, and the rights of Afro-Cubans and women flourished.

But civil rights for LGBTI people were not expanded at the beginning of the revolution, as were women’s rights and those of Afro-Cubans. Arguelles and Rich note:

The revolution of 1959 eradicated the Havana underworld and initiated the development of a productive economy… At the same time, the revolutionary leadership rallied against the evils of capitalist vice which were often associated with homosexuality (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 690).

Material basis for homophobia and bigotry towards gender variance

Raising children the next generation of workers is an expensive business. If capitalists were forced to pay for raising children, including child-care, food halls and cleaning, this expense would eat into their profits substantially. Capitalists, and the state that supports them, avoid this responsibility by perpetuating the idea that individual men, and particularly individual women, have a “natural” responsibility for raising their children within individual family units. This is the material basis for women’s oppression in capitalist society.

Class society distorts all human relationships by transforming social interaction into relationships between property owners. Children become primarily heirs and property. Women are reduced to the status of breeding machines and domestic slaves (Brewer, 2008, p. 6).

Analogous to the sexist idea of women’s “natural” and primary role as child-bearers and carers is the homophobic idea of fixed (“natural”) male and female reproductive roles. Men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women challenge this ideology and suffer from the homophobic idea that such sexual and emotional relations are unnatural, deviant and/or immoral. As author Sherry Wolf explains, LGBTI oppression, like women’s oppression:

is tied to the centrality of the nuclear family as one of capitalism’s means to both inculcate gender norms and outsource care for the current and future generations of workers at little cost to the state. In addition, the oppression of LGBT people under capitalism, like racism and sexism, serves to divide working-class people from one another, especially in their battles for economic and social justice. (Wolf, 2009, pp.19-20.)

Furthermore, “the persecution of homosexual behaviour arose as a by-product of oppression of women, as a result of the need to portray the family as ‘natural’ and inevitable” (Brewer, 2008, p. 6).

LGBTI oppression in Cuba has to be contextualised. The island endured 500 years of Spanish subjugation and half a century of US pillaging. Guaranteeing economic independence for women with the flow on benefits for the LGBTI community was not an easy task. Resources were diverted into surviving imperialist attacks (Harnecker, 1979, p. xvi), including the Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) invasion in 1961, the nuclear threat against the island in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, at least 634 assassination attempts on President Fidel Castro (Butler, 2008, paragraph 1), and the world’s harshest economic blockade. The US commercial, economic and financial embargo against the Cuban government, established in February 1962, has inflicted an estimated cost of more than US$ 79.325 billion for Cuba (Nichols, 2005, p. 4). The new revolutionary state’s inability to rapidly socialise women’s work within the home (raising children, cooking, cleaning, caring for the elderly) meant that the structural basis of women’s oppression and homophobia remained.

Chapter 3: Cuban Revolution: vehemently homophobic?

In 1999, the US Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration Services produced a report titled Cuba: Status of Homosexuals, which argued:

Freedom for Cuban gays and lesbians continued to be limited. Gay social life remained discreetly centred around private parties in people’s homes and there are no openly gay bars… Moreover, social intolerance remains widespread, particularly outside the capital of Havana, stemming from the strong strain of machismo in Cuban cultural which had reinforced by decades of government persecution. As a result, many gays and lesbians continue to fear being identified as openly gay either at home or in the workplace. (US Department of Homeland Security, 1999, paragraph 4.)

The US government’s critique of gay rights in Cuba is hypocritical. Before 2003, 14 states in the US held that sodomy was a crime. Until 2003, the felony of sodomy in Michigan was punishable by 15 years in jail for the first conviction and life imprisonment for the second conviction (Wikimedia Foundation, 2010, paragraph 6).

US government criticism of Cuba’s treatment of its LGBTI community is parroted by some LGBTI commentators, including some socialists. Gay activist Peter Tatchell incorrectly condemns Cuba in a 2002 article, stating, “in the name of the new socialist morality, homosexuality was declared illegal in Cuba and typically punishable by four years’ imprisonment” (Tatchell, 2002, paragraph 5). Cuba’s new revolutionary government did not institute new anti-homosexual laws; it inherited the 1938 Penal Code from the Spanish. What was introduced by the First National Congress of Education and Culture in 1971 was a “policy of parameters”, which people were to meet to gain employment (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 695). This, and a decree at the congress that “no homosexual shall represent Cuba” (Hechavarria and Hatch, 2001, paragraph 17), discriminated against LGBTI Cubans. The decree was rescinded two years later in court (ibid, paragraph 17).

“The Castro regime has been ferociously anti-gay”, exclaims Dale Carpenter in Outright, an online gay magazine. Agustin Blazquez compares the Cuban government’s treatment of gay and lesbians to life under fascism:

Many naïve gay[s] and lesbians, as well as members of the US media… return praising the open gay life on the island. I marvel at their ‘observations’. It reminds me of the many American tourists and reporters who visited Hitler’s Germany and failed to see the horrible reality of the Nazis. (Blazquez and Sutton, 2007, paragraph 12.)

In International Socialist Review (ISR), Paul D’Amato argues that homosexuals were better off under the US-backed dictatorship of Batista. “While there was terrible anti-gay discrimination in Cuban society before the revolution, homosexuality was never an issue (positively or negatively) of government policy. Only after the revolution did it become a matter of state policy for the worse.” (D’Amato 2007, paragraph 54.) Moreover, argues Hector Reyes, also in ISR, anti-gay laws indicate that Cuba’s revolution is not socialist:

If socialism is about the liberation of all humanity, why did it take the PCC (Cuban Communist Party Spanish spelling) until 1987 nearly 30 years after the revolution to remove the law penalising public homosexual behaviour, which had been in effect since 1938 when Batista ruled the country? The answer again is that the Cuban regime has nothing to do with socialism. A nationalist armed uprising is not a socialist revolution. (Reyes, 2000, paragraph 6.)

The Cuban government did send homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists to prison farms and labour camps (Carpenter, 2001, paragraph 3), but in a context of militarisation against a feared US invasion. This will be discussed in the next chapter. The other charges against Cuba have no basis. Opponents of the Cuban Revolution do not balance their analysis with an acknowledgement of significant rectifications that took place from the late 1970s. The International Lesbian and Gay Association’s Latin American representatives’ March 2003 report on Cuba states: “Sexual minorities seem to be living better times now in Cuba. In the medium term, even better than the rest of Latin America.” (Sanchez, 2004, paragraph 12.)

Chapter 4: Militarism and homophobia

The US tried to undermine the Cuban Revolution. The economic blockade was one tactic, but the US also trained an invasion force of right-wing Cuban exiles. The exiles were taken to the Cuban coast with US ships where, in April 1961, they tried to invade Cuba at Playa Giron (Slee, 2008, p.  31).

Arguelles and Rich note that, after the 1961 invasion:

Realistic fears and objective dangers gave rise to paranoia and (as in the McCarthy years here) anyone who was “different” fell under suspicion. Homosexual bars and La Rampa cruising areas were perceived, in some cases correctly, as centers of counterrevolutionary activities and began to be systematically treated as such… In this climate of post-invasion paranoia, private space was invaded as never before. Not surprisingly, deep suspicion came to dominate the everyday life of Cuban lesbians and male homosexuals-a feeling exacerbated by the fact that legal migration to the United States had been halted by new American immigration limitations and quotas. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 692.)

Military training and conscription became part of Cuban life in this period because, while the US failed at Playa Giron, it launched many more attempts to invade, assassinate leaders and undermine the revolution throughout the 1960s (Saney, 2004, p. 164). In light of the increased military threat, the Cuban government introduced military conscription for young men. Some young men, who were considered unreliable and/or unsuited to life in the army, were assigned to civilian work under military discipline. They were put in “military units to assist production” (UMAPs).


Between 1965 and 1968, homosexual men were among those incarcerated in UMAPs. José Yglesias, the author of a book about the early years of the Cuban Revolution, noted that UMAPs were:

to take care of young men of military age whose incorporation into the Army for military training was considered unfeasible. Young men known to avoid work and study were candidates; so were known counter-revolutionaries; and also immoralists, a category that included homosexuals. (Lumsdan, 1991, pp. 65-66.)

Ian Lumsdan, author of Machos, maricones and gays Cuba and homosexuality, notes:

Homosexuals were among those most affected by the UMAP camps, but there is no evidence that these were created with homosexuals exclusively in mind. Together with homosexuals the camps contained such sexually incompatible companions as Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, conscientious objectors to military service whose religious faiths are notoriously homophobic (ibid, p. 66).

Lumsdan notes that these were terrifying times for many homosexuals, particularly those in entertainment, culture and education. As one leading designer recalled, they carried within them the “ever-present fear that at any moment there might be a knock on the door to report for an interrogation, or simply to be perfunctorily shipped out by truckload to the countryside” (ibid, p. 70).

Prominent Cubans were incarcerated in the UMAPs. The most famous was Pablo Milanes, Cuba’s well-known singer and songwriter. Milanes remains in Cuba and, in 1996 dedicated a song about gay men to all Cuban homosexuals. UMAP conscripts were paid seven pesos a month and had to work in Cuba’s countryside, mostly in the province of Camaguey. In this period there was a huge shortage of labour in the province. Seven pesos was much less than normal wages and draftees could leave the camps only under military escort (ibid, p. 66). Ernesto Cardenal, who would become minister of culture in Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government, interviewed a former UMAP inmate in his book En Cuba. The interviewee said, “work is hard because it’s nearly always in the sun. We work 11 hours a day (cutting marble in a quarry) from seven in the morning to seven at night, with one hour’s lunch break” (ibid, p. 68). While these are certainly harsh working conditions, on the basis of this testimony, it is unfair to compare these work camps to Nazi concentration camps.

In an interview with Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro said:

We were involved in a mobilisation of almost the whole country...  we created compulsory military service and we faced three problems  education for those joining the army groups of religious people who refused to serve in the army and homosexuals who were not called up for military service. You faced problems of strong resistance against homosexuals [because] the macho element was very strong in our society and ideas prevailed against the presence of homosexuals in military units.

With those three categories of those who for one reason or another were excluded, the Military Units in Support of Production (UMAP) were created, where people of those categories could participate. These units were created in the whole country and carried out work, mainly in support of agriculture. That is, it didn’t only affect those who were homosexual, although there were certainly a group of those, who were called to compulsory military service, an obligation in which everyone participated.

They weren’t units of internment or punishment… However, after a visit I discovered the distortion in some places, of the original idea, because you can’t deny that there were prejudices against homosexuals. I personally started a review of this matter. Those units only lasted three years. (Ramonet, 2006, pp. 253-55.)

The UMAPs were closed down in 1968 following protests to the government by the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists Federation (UNEAC) and Raquel Revuelta who had been a prominent Cuban Communist Party member before the 1959 victory (Roques, 2004, paragraph 2). Arguelles and Rich comment, “While short-lived and denounced extensively within and outside Cuba ever since their abolition, the camps remain a damnable episode in revolutionary history” (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 694).

Chapter 5: The effect of Stalinism on the Cuban Revolution

Historically, the socialist, Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution was very pro-LGBTI. Stalinism, the political counter-revolution within the Russian Revolution, was not. Under attack from its powerful neighbour, the Cuban government reached out for help from the Stalinist USSR. The 1917 Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia was a mass uprising of peasants and workers against capitalist war and hunger. But, from mid-1925, Stalin’s regime led a political backlash against the revolution and its leaders. It

had to imprison or kill literally millions of workers, party members and officials, including the majority of party members of 1917. Purges, imprisonments, exiles, secret trials and executions without trial were constant features of Soviet life from the late 1920s. (Bainbridge, 2000, paragraph 6.)

The 1917 revolution in Russia opened up a new era of rights for women and LGBTI people. The Bolsheviks were heavily influenced by the German sexologists who had established the exceptional German Scientific Humanitarian Committee (GSHC). Under the leadership of Marcus Hirschfeld, the GSHC organised four world congresses of the World League for Sexual Reform, which Bolshevik leaders attended (Brewer, 2008, p. 20). Germany’s influence, combined with other factors, resulted in the Bolshevik revolution being profoundly pro-homosexual.

Within two months of taking power, the Bolsheviks began the process of abolishing all laws against homosexual acts. Homosexuality was completely decriminalised in the new Soviet criminal code of 1922 and treated “no differently than heterosexuality in the clauses dealing with minors or assault”(Brewer, 2008, p. 19). Soviet courts approved of marriage between homosexuals and there are also records of sex change operations in the 1920s (Wolf, 2009, p. 89.) Similar to the Cuban revolutionary experience, cross-dressing women who served in the Red Army were “given positions of authority” (ibid, p. 97).

The Stalinist bureaucracy

betrayed the political program of the Bolsheviks in order to protect and improve the privileges it had secured for itself. Thus soviet democracy was replaced by bureaucratic tyranny; revolutionary internationalism was replaced by the conservative theory of ‘socialism in one country’; and the Communist movement abroad was directed to become a prop for the foreign policy of the Soviet elite. (Bainbridge, 2000, paragraph 9.)

Homophobia was formally embraced by the USSR leadership in 1928, at the International Congress of World League for Sexual Reform.

A USSR delegate referred to homosexuality as “potential social peril” and to abortion as “evil”. In January 1934 the Stalinist state conducted mass arrests of gay men in several Soviet cities. In March the same year all Soviet states were required to adopt a statute punishing homosexual acts with imprisonment. The Soviet press denounced homosexuality as the ‘degeneracy of the fascist bourgeoisie. (Brewer, 2008, p. 22.)

The Stalinist USSR assisted, albeit in a self-serving manner, the Cuban Revolution. The Cubans, in turn, reached out to the USSR for their help to repel the United States. Although wary of an alliance, the Cubans were desperate for aid against the nearby superpower with a demonstrated willingness to use nuclear weapons.

Stalinism compounded homophobia in Cuba and magnified the ideological influence of the Catholicism. Lumsdan writes:

Stalinist ideological tenet was that homosexuality was a decadent bourgeois phenomenon… Much of the public image of homosexuality in pre-revolutionary Cuba, as perceived by its new leaders, would have supported the Soviet belief that it represented "moral degeneration," a legacy of capitalism that could not be "tolerated in a socialist society”. (Lumsdan, 1991, p. 64.)

Arguelles and Rich point to the negative influence Stalinist homophobia had on the Cuban leadership:

Major ideological changes (in 1960) also were taking place. The influential Popular Socialist Party (PSP) moved to fill an analytical vacuum on homosexuality by lending "scientific" credibility to the anti-homosexual harangues of the revolutionary leadership and to the homophobia of the Cuban people. The leaders of the PSP, with an attitude resembling that of Soviet society in the thirties and forties, saw homosexuality as a product of bourgeois decadence. Further, the PSP leaders considered expression of sexuality not a private affair or a personal freedom but a fulfilment of obligation to society. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 693.)

From 1968, changes in the Soviet Union foreshadowed a more progressive LGBTI policy. Flowing on from Germany’s sexually progressive history, East Germany legalised homosexual acts between adults (ibid, p. 11). Combined with the rise of the LGBTI rights movement elsewhere in Europe and the historic Stonewall riots in the US, this had a positive effect on the Cuban leadership’s understanding of homosexuality. From the late 1960s, everyday life for gays and lesbians began to significantly improve (ibid, p. 12).

Chapter 6: The 1970s − positive changes

Three events marked the “gradual but continual improvement of life conditions of gay men and lesbians in Cuba during the seventies” (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p.693). These included the First National Congress on Education and Culture, the promulgation of the Family Code and the creation of a national group on sexual education.

In 1971, the First National Congress of Education and Culture suggested a change of attitude. For the first time in an official document, homosexuality was referred to in medical and psychological, rather than criminal, terms. Transgender issues began to be discussed (Arreola, 2006, paragraph 13). Customary denunciations of homosexuals as decadent were gone; homosexuality was no longer seen by the revolutionary leadership as a fundamental problem in Cuban society, “but instead [as] a form of sexual behavior requiring study” (ibid, p. 12).

Despite these advances, as previously outlined, the congress launched a policy of “parameters”, which required people to meet specific parameters to have access to certain jobs and public positions. The parameters discriminated against homosexuals (ibid, paragraph 9). Another declaration by the congress stated that “no homosexual shall represent Cuba”. However, two years later, the decree was challenged in court by a theatre group, and rescinded (Hechavarria and Hatch, 2001, paragraph 17).

Arguelles and Rich interview a lesbian photographer, Mayra, about these years:

You were not totally accepted by the revolution and there were positions you could not get if you were open about [being gay] unless you were in the arts. Still ... there was no persecution unless you were involved in counterrevolutionary activities. Then you were in trouble, and usually it was blamed on the weakness of being a homosexual. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p.693).

In 1976, the celebrated Family Code, which called for equal participation by men in child-raising and household work, was passed. In 1977, the Cuban National Group for Sexual Education was established, headed by Cuban physician Celestino Lajonchere and East German sexologist Monika Krause. The new Cuban National Group for Sexual Education worked primarily with those involved in health and education (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 695). In 1979, homosexual acts were removed from the Penal Code, however, “ostentatious displays of homosexuality” were still against the law, as were “homosexual acts in public places” (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 10). This legislation provided a “rationale for gay paranoia” (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 696), but it was not until 1987 that those crimes were struck down and the people who had previously been convicted of them were released (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 11).

Homosexual behavior still suffered minor legal restrictions until the 1990s (Arreola, 2006, paragraph 11), with public scandal laws remaining on the books until 1997 (López-Trigo, 2011, personal communication, Oct 11). As of 2010, there was no reference to the homosexuality in the Cuban Penal Code.

Chapter 7: The Mariel boatlift and CIA extortion of the LGBTI community

Commentators cite the Mariel boatlift as evidence of institutionalised homophobia in Cuba. In the spring of 1980, Fidel Castro threw open the port of Mariel to unlimited emigration to the US. The Cuban government claimed to be ridding the country of criminals and counter-revolutionaries. Amongst the 120,000 people who left the island were a large number of homosexuals.

There is evidence to suggest that the Cuban immigration department did facilitate male homosexuals leaving for the US. In an article by Susana Peña, “`Obvious gays’ and the state gaze: Cuban gay visibility and U.S. immigration policy during the 1980 Mariel boatlift”, she quotes an assessment drawn by Margarita Garcia from 180 interviews with Mariel entrants. Garcia concluded, “who went to the police station and declared him or herself to be a homosexual could get an exit permit” (Peña, 2007, paragraph 12).

The US government used the comparatively large number of LGBT Cubans leaving as a basis to allege homophobia by the Cuban state. However, the US exaggerated the number of homosexuals who left the island.

Reporting for the publication Paris Match, Nina Sutton cited a “non-official State Department source” as saying, “at least 10,000 Cuban homosexuals had emigrated at Mariel” (Feinberg, 2007a, paragraph 7). A more realistic assessment was provided by Julia Preston of the New York Village Voice on December 10, 1980, who stated, “As many as 3,000 gay Cubans passed through refugee camps this summer. Now about 350 are left, almost all men, the others having been sponsored out mainly to gay communities throughout the country.” (ibid, paragraph 24.) Three thousand is still a significant number, but Arguelles and Rich reflect, “for all the gay men and the few lesbians who left, there were many more who chose to stay. Their lives had been constantly improving.” (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 697)

It is also important to note that, in order to accept Cuban homosexuals, the US unofficially lifted part of the 1952 US Immigration and Naturalization Act, which had previously been used to bar and deport those it labeled “sexually deviant”. An exemption to this homophobic legislation was granted only to gay Cubans (Feinberg, 2007a, paragraph 17).

Before the boatlift, the US had a history of using immigration policy as a weapon against the Cuban government. Before 1980, it had allowed Cuban immigrants to travel to and from their old country freely, because, “the visits of ‘the American cousins’ increased consumer envy and added to the effectiveness of counter-revolutionary propaganda” (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 696).

Arguelles and Rich document other methods employed by the US to use the LGBTI community against the Cuban government:

Lesbians and gay men were particularly vulnerable… The CIA targeted the homosexual intelligentsia and worked to persuade its members to defect, promising generous academic grants and publishing contracts. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 696)

Blackmail was also used, especially against those gays less willing to leave, in the hope that political anxiety would force victims into exile. Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Madrid-based anti-Castro writer, for example, published two full pages listing names of homosexuals inside Cuba in an attempt to discredit them and encourage them to migrate. Such cynical “assistance” in coming out continues to be a favoured weapon against lesbians and gay men who are well integrated into the revolution (ibid, p. 696).

Even taking into account exaggeration and the machinations of the CIA, the Mariel boatlift did indicate that there were several factors pushing Cuban homosexuals to emigrate. The boats carried many who had waited years for a visa from the US. These included gays, mostly male, opting for the comparatively more open gay life promised in the US (ibid p. 14). There was another “uniquely gay reason for leaving”: the age-old, pre-revolutionary tradition in which families encouraged gay offspring to emigrate in order to avoid family stigma (ibid, p. 696).

“Significantly, there were few lesbians in the Mariel exodus”, report Arguelles and Rich (ibid, p. 697). They argue that the smaller number of lesbians, compared to gay men, who left points to the fuller integration of women into Cuban society. The increased status and freedom enjoyed by lesbians, as women, under the revolution, meant that fewer lesbians chose to leave.

In an interview with Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro acknowledges this history of discrimination that led to gay and lesbian emigration.

The revolution promoted the struggle against distinct types of prejudices. In relation to women there were prejudices and very strong ones and also in relation to homosexuals... that society emanating from injustice was saturated with prejudices. Certainly homosexuals were victims of discrimination. In other places much more than here, but in Cuba, yes there was discrimination.(Ramonet, 2006, p. 256.)

However, Fidel Castro also noted, “In the more cultured sectors there was less prejudice against homosexuals. In the same way, discrimination and machismo are today inversely proportional to the level of culture and knowledge of our compatriots.” (Ramonet, 2006, p.  256.)

At the end of Arguelles and Rich’s research period (1984), they concluded:

Homosexuals are nonetheless a visible feature of the Cuban social landscape. They appear at every level of the hierarchy in Cuban society, in government and of course in the arts. They are no longer confined to an underworld economy or alienated from the mainstream of social life as they were in the pre-revolutionary era. Particular individuals are well known and pointed to with pride as evidence of revolutionary nondiscrimination. (Arguelles and Rich, 1984, p. 699)

Chapter 8: Sex education and HIV treatment

The revolution saw a flowering of democratic organisations for women, youth, culture, Afro-Cubans and defence organisations. The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) established the Centre for Sexual Education (CNES) in 1977. Dr Celestino Alverez Lajonchere, then director of the National Institute of Sex Education in Havana, said, “In 1974, the Federation of Cuban Women has already insisted that sex education had to be done. They had been working on this since the early 1960s.” He continued:

The First Party Congress of 1975 agreed on the declaration of the complete and absolute equality of women. The elaboration of that declaration included the need to organize a system of sex education. (Feinberg, 2009, p. 41.)

Before CNES started its work, “sexual education was a practically unknown phenomenon in Cuba, as in the rest of Latin America… In this light, Cuba’s sexual education is ground-breaking.” (ibid, p.  41.)

The first sex education book published by CNES, in 1979, was Sigfried Schnabl’s The Intimate Life of Males and Females. The book was first published in East Germany in 1978. Bjorklund records that Intimate Life, “clearly stated that homosexuals should be granted equal rights, respect and recognition and that any kind of social discrimination is reprehensible” (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 14). This book served as guidance for the work of the CNES and at pedagogical colleges. It was hugely popular. Alverez remembers, “We sold it at about five pesos but in addition the buyer had to have a paper signed by me saying he or she had the right to sell the book. Otherwise the books would have disappeared from the bookstores within two hours.” (Feinberg, 2009, p. 41.)

In 1981, the Cuban Ministry of Culture produced In Defense of Love, which stated that homosexuality was a variant of human sexuality (ibid, p. 43). However, another government publication from 1981, titled Are you beginning to think about Love?, was more ambivalent. It was intended for a broader audience and argued that homosexuals have the same ability to function in society as other people, but “can never be as happy as married people” (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 15).

In an article titled “Homosexuality is not illegal in Cuba, but like elsewhere, homophobia persists”, Eva Bjorklund adds that a second edition of Schnabl’s book published in 1989 declared:

There is no cure for homosexuality and it is no kind of sickness. Therefore, nobody should be criticized for his orientation, nor pressured to change. On the contrary, they should get the support they need to be able to live happily. (Bjorklund, 2000, paragraph 10.)

The book stresses that sexual orientation of minors has no causal relationship to sexual orientation and that, “since nobody is responsible for his or her sexual orientation, homosexuals must be just as respected as heterosexuals” (Feinberg, 2009, p. 43).

A national program for “sex education with a gender focus… was finally accepted in 1996 and now its taught throughout the country; since then it has reduced school dropouts from early marriages and childbirth by one half” (Reed, 2006, paragraph 10).

Anderson writes:

A scientific, open approach to human sexuality assisted in Cuba dealing with the HIV-AIDS crisis. Under the Cuban constitution the state guarantees “that every sick person will have medical attention” and that “[a]ll have the right to attention and protection of their health [including] free medical and hospital attention”. (Anderson 2009, paragraph 37.)

Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first diagnosed in the US in 1981. Cuba diagnosed its first case in 1985 when “soldiers, doctors and others helping the South Africans cast off the yoke of apartheid bought HIV back home” (Krales, 2005, paragraph 32). Two years before the disease appeared in Cuba, health workers had begun to prepare for it with the establishment, in 1983, of a National Commission on AIDS to educate the population about the disease (Fawthrop, 2003, paragraph 5). When the first cases presented, the Cubans placed all those infected inside health sanatoria, involuntarily. They:

treated HIV/AIDS as a public health emergency: HIV patients were quarantined indefinitely and their sexual partners traced and tested; Cubans who had visited Africa were tested, as were pregnant women; HIV positive women were given drugs to prevent transmission to their unborn children, their babies were delivered by caesarian section (Fawthrop, 2003, paragraph 4).

Opponents of Cuba charged the revolution with violating human rights and individual freedom. In a November 1988 Los Angeles Times article, New York city health commissioner, Dr Stephen C. Joseph, lambasted the program, stating it “can only be termed totalitarian. They test people involuntarily. They lock up people who test positive. They take away their employment. And they do so knowing that these people will be locked up for life.” (Zonana, 1988, paragraph 18.)

The 2005 UNAIDS executive director, Peter Piot, disagreed. He praised Cuba as, “one of the first countries to take AIDS seriously as a problem and provide a comprehensive response combining both prevention and care” (Krales, 2005, paragraph 5). Cuba enjoys status as a world leader in HIV-AIDS prevention because there has been “no dramatic increase in HIV transmission since the first case was diagnosed in 1986 and the country's HIV infection rate 0.05 per cent is one of the lowest in the world and exceptional in a region with some of the highest infection rates in the world” (Fawthrop, 2003, paragraph 3). By comparison, throughout the English-speaking Caribbean that borders Cuba, AIDS is the largest cause of death among men between the ages of 15 and 44 (Bauza and Collie, 2001, paragraph 6).

As to critiques from the US, this is the country that allowed thousands to die and demonised its victims.

During the early days of the epidemic Ronald Reagan was president [and] he managed not to utter the word AIDS for six of his eight years in office. The media used the word GRID Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), further demonizing gays, even after the Centre for Disease Control coined the term AIDS in 1982. (Krales, 2005, paragraph 34.)

US blood banks used their existing supplies and refused to screen their blood until 1985. Thousands of hemophiliacs became infected and many died through contaminated blood clotting agents between 1982 and 1987 (ibid, paragraph 34). It is no surprise that a 2003 report revealed, “Cuba had an HIV infection rate nearly eleven times lower than [that of] the United States” (Hansen and Groce, 2003, paragraph 3). This achievement was realised largely without access to the modern AIDS drugs, which were available in the global North countries from 1996, but unavailable in Cuba until 2001. Journalist Edwin Krales notes, “even today, the criminal US embargo prevents Cuba from buying any kind of medications anywhere on the world market” (Krales, 2005, paragraph 24).

Media criticism of Cuba’s quarantine program was even more hypocritical given that US states practiced the policy themselves. Dr Tim Anderson notes in his paper, “HIV/AIDS in Cuba: A rights-based analysis”, that “between 1987 and 1990… more than a dozen [US] states brought AIDS within the scope of state quarantine statutes” (Anderson, 2009, paragraph 7).

Cuban patients began to come and go from sanatoria in 1989 and, in 1993, an alternate non-sanatoria based day-care program was introduced (ibid, paragraph 7). Since 2001, Cuba has produced its own generic HIV medication (Krales, 2005, paragraph 31). Currently, Cuban practice is to:

maintain a comprehensive database of those infected and their chain of sexual partners; and although patients are still required to attend an eight-week course in a sanatorium, HIV testing is no longer compulsory though it is strongly recommended for pregnant women and those in high-risk groups (Fawthrop, 2003, paragraph 9).

Anderson refers to Cuban doctor J. Pérez, who states in the book AIDS: Confessions of a Doctor that, “early quarantine practice followed a strong political directive to protect public health and was the result of uncertainty over the nature of the disease… fear of the disease, including among professionals, may have unnecessarily prolonged this quarantine period.” (Anderson, 2009, paragraph 38.) Anderson concludes, “This extension was an unreasonable deprivation of liberty”, but adds that it was not a homophobic policy. “The early period and its privations do not appear to have been directed at gay and bisexual men, who formed a minority of the HIV-positive cohort at that time” (ibid, paragraph 39).

Chapter 9: Developments in the 1990s and the new century

The 1990s and the new century produced public education campaigns, queer films, rallies for LGBTI rights and sex-change operations for transgender Cubans. In 1993, Strawberry and Chocolate, a film criticising Cubans' intolerance of homosexuality, was produced by the government-run Cuban film industry. It was the only film that the state produced in 1993. The film played simultaneously at 10 to 12 theatres in Havana for months, with queues to see it several blocks long (Oberg, 1997-2000, paragraph 7).

In 1995, Cuban drag queens led the annual May Day procession, joined by two queer delegations from the US. Together with members of Cuba's Action Group for the Liberation of Sexual Choice and Expression, they carried a 10-metre rainbow flag at the front of the May Day march (Spencer, 2000, p. 35). In the same year, the documentary Gay Cuba was produced by Sonia de Vries. This series of interviews with gay and lesbian Cubans was shown at the Havana International Festival of Latin America Cinema to public and critical acclaim. In December 2000, at the film festival in Havana, at least half of the Latin American films selected had gay themes (Roques, 2004, paragraph 16). In 2007, Cuba commemorated for the first time the International Day of Action Against Homophobia with the Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX) leading a discussion about sexual diversity, with film screenings (Feinberg, 2007, paragraph 10).

LGBTI organisation

The International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) is an international homosexual advocacy organisation founded in 1978. It has close to 700 member groups in 110 countries. Carlos Sanchez, the 2004 ILGA representative for Latin American and the Caribbean, noted in March 2004 that there were five Cuban organisations working on LGBTI issues. Two were state institutions: CENESEX and the Federation of Cuban Women. A third was the Protestant church-affiliated Martin Luther King Centre, and a other two were non-government organisations, the Centre for HIV/Aids Prevention and the Felix Varela Centre. (Sanchez, 2004, paragraph 16.) Sanchez met with lesbians and gays at CENESEX and, after talking with them, concluded that, “neither institutional nor penal repression exists against lesbians and homosexuals” and, “there are no legal sanctions against LGBT people and transformismo [transitioning from one sex to another], is well accepted by the majority of Cubans” (ibid, paragraph 19). His study also revealed that, while this was the case, “people are afraid of meeting and organising themselves”. He commented:

this is mainly based on their experience in previous years, but one can assume that this feeling will disappear in the future if lesbians and gays start to work and keep working and eventually get support from the government (ibid, paragraph 17).

Sanchez concluded: “Sexual minorities seem to be living better times now in Cuba. In the medium term, even better than the rest of Latin America.” (ibid, paragraph 23.)

The pivotal role of CENESEX and Mariela Castro Espin

CENESEX is the Cuban government organisation that combats prejudice towards LGBTI people, carries out HIV/AIDS awareness programs, oversees education programs in schools, in the community and on television, coordinates rallies, marches and film festivals, and provides a space for LGBTI people to meet and organise.

CENESEX director, 48-year-old Mariela Castro Espin, is internationally renowned. A sexologist by training, she is the daughter of President Raul Castro and late revolutionary feminist Vilma Espin, long-time president of the Cuban Women’s Federation. Mariela Castro also edits Sexology and Society, a medical journal published in Cuba. Espin says that CENESEX’s goals are to contribute towards, “the development of a culture of sexuality that is full, pleasurable and responsible, as well as to promote the full exercise of sexual rights” (Reed, 2006, paragraph 1) .

CENESEX includes a gender educative approach. Castro explains to Gail Reed in an interview published in the journal Health and Medical News of Cuba:

We have to include a gender perspective promotion of new constructs of masculinity and femininity and not just take an epidemiological approach. For example, an epidemiologist might simply say: prevent HIV use a condom. But we have to take into consideration how condoms are viewed in the “macho” framework  as a barrier to full sexual enjoyment, to which the “macho” is entitled at all costs, in a relation in which he’s exerting his power. So, for him to use a condom, he has to begin to construct and define his masculinity in a different way, that doesn’t put a premium only on his own pleasure. In the end, this stereotype is very dangerous to his own health as well as his partner’s and this can be true for homosexual as well as heterosexual couples, whenever a relationship defines that one partner has hegemony over the other. So, you need to combine both an epidemiological and a gender approach to these very intimate issues. This is why, for example, our posters and other materials emphasize that protection of your partner against HIV and STIs in general is a sign of caring and that means it’s a responsibility of both partners in a relationship. (ibid, paragraph 6.)

In the interview, Castro comments on necessary steps forward:

The country now has policies that legitimize sexual orientations and has brought laws in line with a gender perspective. But on the legislative front, there is still a lot to be done. For example, homosexuals now live within the law in consensual relationships, but gay marriage is not recognized, so you have many issues such as inheritance that aren’t fully resolved. (ibid, paragraph 3.)

Advances: transgender rights, reproductive technologies, civil unions and marriage equality

At the 5th International Culture and Development Congress, held in Havana on June 11-14,  2007, the Communist Party of Cuba welcomed an update of the revolutionary Family Code to include same-sex and transgender rights (Feinberg, 2007, paragraph 6).

Within the 2007 changes to the Family Code, CENESEX worked with the public health ministry to help three lesbian couples gain access to assisted reproduction services. The reform, “would also recognise the right of any woman to assisted reproduction services, which are currently limited to married couples” (ibid, paragraph 7). On transgender rights, Cuba leads the world. The first sex change operation to take place in Cuba was on May 22, 1988 (Motley, 2005, paragraph 11). Sex reassignment surgery, as part of public health care in Cuba, “began in 2007 as a pilot program and was institutionalized on a larger scale in 2008. Like all medical procedures in Cuba, it is free.” (Orsi, 2011, paragraph 6.) Changing identity documents is an easy process. The CENESEX trans rights campaign, “has helped to get transvestites and transsexuals accepted into secondary school or institutions of higher learning and has involved awareness-raising efforts among the police” (Feinberg, 2007, paragraph 9).

The CENESEX sexual diversity program operates year-round, but concentrates on the month of May with special attention to May 17, which is the International Day of Action Against Homophobia. The month features, “conferences and debates in different sectors of society, film and video screenings, performance galas including drag artists and a conga against homophobia in Havana” (Acosta, 2011a, paragraph 14). Mariela Castro comments: “Although our activities take place year-round, [May] is the time of greatest visibility" (ibid, paragraph 15). She also noted, “The Communist Party has specifically expressed the intention to involve the media in the effort against homophobia” (ibid, paragraph 14).

A further reform of the Family Code to recognise the family's responsibility and duty to accept and care for all of its members, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, and a recognition of same-sex marriage, is soon to be introduced in parliament (ibid, paragraph 12).

The Cuban government opened up one gay establishment 25 years ago El Mejunje in Cuba’s "gayest city", Santa Clara (a four-hour drive southwest of Havana).

The small open-air venue is an entertaining paradise for the LGBT community. [It is] famous for its outlandishly flamboyant drag shows and party atmosphere. (Orsi, 2011, paragraph 13.)

According to a June 2011 article by Peter Orsi, “Report from Cuba: living out, proud, loud (at last)”, there are now three well-known gay hangouts in Havana. These include:

two gay bars, the Bim Bom and Piropo… the Bim Bom is swarmed on Friday and Saturday nights with hundreds of mostly gay men and transsexuals. A block away, the more intimate Piropo is a popular smoke-filled hang out that has the feel of a café. The closest thing to a gay club in Havana is the "fiesta"  which is held every Saturday night starting around 11pm… In recent years, indicating a remarkable shift in attitudes toward homosexuals, "the fiesta" has settled in either of two open-air parks. (ibid, paragraph 10.)

Outstanding issues for LGBTI Cubans

Three outstanding issues remain for LGBTI Cubans. One is police harassment. Police are known to harass transgender people and same-sex couples who are kissing. Journalist Delia Acosta notes in an article, “Cuba: sexual diversity in a sexist city”, that while:

such displays of affection do not constitute a crime they are still considered offences under decree-law 141 of the Council of Ministers, which imposes a fine of 40 pesos (less than two dollars) on persons whose “indecent exhibitions” offend the public (Acosta, 2011b, paragraph 13).

However, in the same article, lawyer Alexis Batista, and expert with the provincial justice authority, states:

A police officer who sees two homosexuals kissing, or dressed as women and puts them in jail is breaking the law, because those are not crimes (ibid, paragraph 14).

Batista acknowledges that the decree-law “should be changed” (ibid, paragraph 10). CENESEX has been working with the police, the supreme court and the education ministry to move towards the design and implementation of policies and strategies that would help reduce this harassment (Acosta, 2011a, paragraph 12).

Another outstanding issue is that gays in the Cuban military have to be in the closet. No military person can be openly gay (Haydulina, 2009, paragraph 4). Third, statutes in the Communist Party of Cuba need to be clearer about there being no tolerance towards homophobia, and ban sex and gender discrimination, said Alberto Guerra in the opening of a panel on “The family and society” during World Anti-Homophobia Day in Cuba in 2010. Guerra said:

Despite a number of appropriate and positive changes along these lines that we have seen in this political organization, some of its members still believe that “homosexuality is a remnant of the bourgeoisie and contrary to socialist morals…Failure to address this issue in the statutes surely paves the way for discrimination. (Guerra, 2010, paragraph 7.)

These outstanding issues are being aired, campaigned around and are in the process of being acted on. In 2007, Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, stated, “We have to abolish any form of discrimination against homosexuality... Socialism should be a society that does not exclude anybody.” (Feinberg, 2007, paragraph 10.)

Chapter 10: Comparing Cuba with other countries

Cuba, the Caribbean and other Latin American countries

Cuba is a leader on LGBTI rights in its region. In Latin America and the Caribbean, significant laws enabling gay marriage and civil unions have been approved only in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. Draft laws are under consideration in Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile and Uruguay. The other  Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, still have laws that severely punish homosexual relations (Acosta, 2007, paragraph 12).

Cuba, the United States and Australia

Cuba surpasses the US on LGBTI rights. It was only in June 2003 that the US Supreme Court struck down Texas’ same-sex sodomy law. The supreme court ruling Lawrence v. Texas made other US states’ sodomy laws unconstitutional, in regards to private acts between consenting civilian adults (Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest, 2007, paragraph 1). Currently, there are still 36 states in the US where it is legal to fire a person for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (Krales, 2005, paragraph 39).

The Australian government is also an international pariah on LGBTI rights. It amended the Marriage Act on August 13, 2004, barring same-sex couples from getting married (Iqbal, 2009, paragraph 2). Comparatively, Cuba repealed its homophobic laws in 1979 and removed public scandal laws in 1997. There is no reference to homosexuality in the Cuban Penal Code and there is much talk in Cuba’s national parliament about legalising same-sex marriage.

Sex change operations in Cuba are free. In Australia, male to female transitions can cost up to $30,000 (Evans, 2006, paragraph 3). In the US, the costs can be as high as $50,000 for a “mid-range transition” (Cost Helper, 2009, paragraph 3).

Because of the high levels of education and awareness about human rights, gay bashings in Cuba have been absent since 1959, argue journalists Hechavarria and Hatch (2001, paragraph 13). Comparatively, hate crimes in the US and Australia remain disturbingly numerous. In the US, “hate crimes directed at people because of their sexual orientation have risen over the past two years 1,017 were reported in 2005, 1,195 in 2006 and 1,265 in 2007” (Hansen-Weaver, 2009, paragraph 5). In Australia, statistics are not readily available, but individual instances are documented, such as the documentation of the brutal bashing of “Craig” and “Shane” in Sydney’s gay strip, Oxford Street, in 2007 (Stanford and Wilkinson, 2009, paragraph 2). There are high rates of internal homophobic violence in Australia, a result of growing up in a homophobic culture. One study estimates that 30% of Australian LGBTI youth attempt suicide (Nicholas and Howard, 1998, paragraph 33). In comparison, Cuba is promoting internal pride with positive “sexual diversity is natural” advertising on state television (Evans, 2009, paragraph 4). The US and Australian governments have not funded an equivalent program.

Chapter 11: Conclusion

The 1959 Cuban Revolution nationalised agribusiness, telecommunications and petrol, and ended the pillage of the island by foreigners. Previously, Cuba was a US “pleasure island”: mafias made money out of prostitution (gay and straight) and gambling. The revolution threw off this interference and guaranteed free education, health care and food for its population. LGBTI people benefited from those measures. Democratic and civil liberties flourished, with women and Afro-Cubans given legal equality early on in the revolution. But Spanish Catholic influence, machismo, US support of the sex industry, Stalinist ideological pressure and general cultural backwardness meant that LGBTI people did not gain civil rights at the same time as other marginalised sectors.

Cuba’s critics have alleged institutional homophobia by the Cuban state, even comparing the island to a concentration camp (Blazquez and Sutton, 2007, paragraph 12). Three instances singled out by these critics are the UMAP camps, the Mariel boatlift and the involuntary treatment of HIV cases.

Incarceration of homosexuals in UMAPs occurred between 1965 and 1968. This was a “terrifying time” for Cuba’s homosexuals (Lumsdan, 1991, p. 70). However, the camps lasted for only a short time.

The Mariel boatlift did not see a mass of LGBTI Cubans flee the island because of institutionalised homophobia, as claimed by Cuba’s critics. A large number did leave due to factors including pressure from the US government, cultural factors and a desire for adventure. Many more, especially lesbians, stayed, rather than leaving

There were six years of involuntary HIV treatment while the island developed its approach to managing the disease. As a result, Cuba has the lowest rate of HIV infection in the region, which is of enormous benefit to the LGBTI community. The current approach allows people to enter and leave sanatoria freely.

Cuba’s critics fail to consider the evolution of government and public attitudes towards gender variance that has occurred in the small nation since 1959. The repeal of homophobic laws began in 1979 and, as of 2011, none remain in force. Sex change operations are free, there are nationwide LGBTI rights festivals and marches every May, sexual diversity rights are on television, there are limited hate crimes against LGBTI people, and same-sex marriage rights and civil unions are being discussed for implementation. Problems continue with police harassment of LGBTI couples in public, but there are measures being undertaken by CENESEX to address this discrimination. LGBTI Cubans still have yet to gain formal access to the military, but given the overt government support for media campaigns and public discussion about marriage equality, it can only be a matter of time before the military also opens its doors.

There is substantial evidence that the extent of homophobia in Cuba, in state policy and popular culture, is low compared to the rest of Latin America, Australia and the US. Indeed, today Cuba is more advanced in LGBTI rights than most countries in the global South and, on the evidence presented, the US and Australia.

As in all other countries, individual discrimination against LGBTI people existed and persists in Cuba. However, institutional discrimination has ended and the further measures being undertaken by the government and civil society are overwhelmingly positive.


Books and journals

Anderson, T., 2009. “HIV/AIDS in Cuba: a rights-based analysis”, Health and Human Rights An International Journal, 11.1.

Arguelles, L. and Rich, B.R., 1984. “Homosexuality, homophobia and revolution: notes toward an understanding of the Cuban lesbian and gay male experience, Part I”, Signs, Vol. 9, No. 4, The University of Chicago Press, pp. 683-699.

Arnold, A., 1999. Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-98 elections, José Martí Publishing House, Havana.

Baird, Vanessa, 2001. A no-nonsense guide to sexual diversity, Verso, London.

Brewer, Pat, 1995. Socialism and the struggle for the rights of lesbians and gay men, New Course Publications, Australia.

Democratic Socialist Perspective, 2005. The Cuban Revolution defying imperialism, building the alternative. Resistance Books, Australia.

Escalante, Fabian, 2004. CIA covert operations 1959-62 The Cuba Project  the secret war, Ocean Press, Melbourne.

Feinberg, L., 2009. “Rainbow solidarity in defense of Cuba”, World Form Review, New York.

Fitzgerald, F., 1994. The Cuban Revolution in crisis from managing socialism to managing survival, Monthly Review Press, New York.

Harnecker. Marta, 1975. How people power works, Cuba: dictatorship or democracy, Lawrence Hill & Co, Connecticut.

Howard, J., Nicholas J., Brown N. and Karaca, A., 2002. “Same sex attracted youth and suicide”. In Rowling L., Martin G. and Walker L. (eds), Mental health promotion and young people: concepts and practice, McGraw-Hill, Sydney, pp. 153-171.

Lumsdan, Ian, 1991. Homosexuality, society and the state in Mexico, Canadian Gay Archives, Toronto.

Lorimer, Doug, 2000. The Cuban Revolution and its leadership a criticism of Peter Taaffe’s pamphlet Cuba: Analysis of the Revolution, Resistance Books, Australia.

Ramonet, Ignacio, 2006. Cien Horas con Fidel: convervaciones con Ignacio Ramonet, Oficina de publicaciones del Consejo de Estado, 2nd ed, Havana.

Roman, P., 1999. People's power: Cuba's experience with representative government, Westview Press.

Spencer, Neville, 2008. Cuba as alternative -- an introduction to Cuba’s socialist revolution, Resistance Books, Australia.

Saney, Ian, 2044. Cuba a revolution in motion, Fernwood Publishing, New York.

Slee, Chris, 2008. Cuba: how the workers and peasants made the revolution, Resistance Books, Australia.

Stiglitz, J. “Incentives and institutions in the provision of health care in developing countries: toward an efficient and equitable health care strategy”, Speech to The World Bank IHEA Meetings, Rotterdam, June 7. Available at: http://www.worldback.org/knowledge/chiefcon/articles/rotter.htm [viewed October 20, 2011].

Wolf, Sherry, 2009. Sexuality and socialism history, politics and theory of LGBT liberation, Haymarket Books, Chicago.

Newspaper articles/online journals

Acosta, D., 2011a. “Cuba: month-long offensive against homophobia”,

Inter Press Service-IPS. Available: http://www.transcend.org/tms/2011/05/cuba-month-long-offensive-against-homophobia/ [viewed November 10, 2010].

Acosta, D., 2011b. “Sexual diversity in a sexist city”, Cuba Human Rights, May 20, 2011. Available: http://cubarights.blogspot.com/2011/05/sexual-diversity-in-sexist-city.html [viewed November 10, 2010].

Acosta, D., 2007. “Proposed reform would give Cuban gay couples equal rights”, Caribbean News Around the Caribbean 360, June 18, 2007. Available: http://www.caribbean360.com/index.php/news/12040.html#ixzz1bhjdzapo [viewed September 10, 2011].

Anderson, T., 2009. “HIV/AIDS in Cuba: a rights-based analysis”, Health and Human Rights An International Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1. Available: http://www.hhrjournal.org/index.php/hhr/article/view/138/220 [viewed September 10, 2010].

Arreola, G., 2006. “Plans to authorize sex change operations and modifications in identity documents Cuban Parliament”, La Jornada, January 9. Available: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2006/01/09/032n1mun.php [viewed October 15, 2011].

Austin, R., 2011. “Cultural insurrection: Cuban literacy at 50”, Green Left Weekly, April 3. Available: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/47219 [viewed November 10, 2010].

Austin, C., 2004. “This date in history: Spanish Inquisition”, about.com guide to atheism since 1998, August 2004. Available: http://atheism.about.com/b/2004/10/17/this-date-in-history-spanish-inquisition-3.htm [viewed November 10, 2010].  

Bainbridge,.Alex, 2000. “Trotsky's legacy for politics today”, Green Left Weekly, September 6. Available: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/21492 [viewed November 10, 2010].

Blazquez, A. and Sutton, J., 2007. “America's left and the double standard over gays in Cuba”, Newsmax.com, March. Available: http://archive.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2001/3/1/215217.shtml [viewed November 10, 2010].

Bauza, V. and Collie, T., 2001. “HIV-positive Cubans get care but live in quarantine”,

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, July7. Available: http://www.cubanet.org/CNews/y01/jul01/09e15.htm [viewed November 10, 2010].

Bjorkland, E., 2000. “Homosexuality is not illegal in Cuba, but like elsewhere, homophobia persists”, Swedish-Cuban Association, Summer. Available: http://www.angelfire.com/pr/red/cuba/homosexuality_in_cuba.htm [viewed November 10, 2010].

Butler, Simon, 2008. “Failing to kill Fidel”, a review of Executive Action: 634 ways to kill Fidel Castro, by Fabian Escalante, Green Left Weekly, July 19. Available: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/39935 [viewed November 10, 2010].  

Carpenter, D., 2001. “Gay Cuba libre!”, Outright, March. Available: http://www.indegayforum.org/news/show/26636.html  [viewed November 10, 2010].

Costhelper US, 2009. “What people are paying: Sex reassignment surgery cost

How much does sex reassignment surgery cost?”, August. Available: http://www.costhelper.com/cost/health/sex-reassignment-surgery.html  [viewed September 10, 2011].

D’Amato Paul, 2007. “Race and sex in Cuba”, International Socialist Review, Issue 51, January-February. Available: http://www.isreview.org/issues/51/cuba_race%26sex.shtml.

Encyclopaedia of GLBTQ culture, 2010. “Latin America”, GLBTQ Inc., Chicago. Available: http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/latin_america_colonial.html [viewed October 15, 2011].

Evans, Rachel, 2006. “Transgender hate crimes remembered”, Green Left Weekly, December 2. Available: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/36735 [viewed September 10, 2011].

Evans, Rachel, 2011. “The truth about queer rights in Cuba”, Green Left Weekly, August 21. Available: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/42274  [viewed September 10, 2011].

English Global Voices, 2011. “The world is talking, are you listening? Cuba: Cuba votes for LGBT resolution at UN Human Rights Council”, Global Voices, June 25. Available: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/06/25/cuba-cuba-votes-for-lgbt-resolution-at-un-human-rights-council/  [viewed November 10, 2010].

Feinberg, L., 2007. “Cuba surpasses world on same-sex, trans rights”, Workers World. Available: http://www.newscloud.com/read/86538 [viewed November 10, 2010].

Feinberg, L., 2007a. “Behind the 1980 'Mariel boatlift'”, Workers World. Available: http://www.workers.org/2007/world/lavender-red-95/  [viewed November 10, 2010].

Feinberg, L., 2007b. “Western rulers impose anti-gay laws”, Workers World. Available: http://www.workers.org/2007/world/lavender-red-112/  [viewed November 10, 2010].

Fletcher, K., 2003. “Cuba: US employs weapons of mass migration”, Green Left Weekly, May 14. Available: http://www.greenleft.org.au/2003/537/30315 [viewed November 11, 2010].

Fawthrop, T., 2003. “Cuba: is it a model in the HIV/AIDS battle?”,Panos London Illuminating Voices, Promoting dialogue, debate and change, December 17. Available: http://panos.org.uk/features/cuba-is-it-a-model-in-the-hivaids-battle/  [viewed November 2010].

Green Left Weekly, 2005. “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: worst terror attacks in history”, August 3. Avaiilable: http://www.greenleft.org.au/2005/636/34157 [viewed November 10, 2010].

Green Left Weekly, 2007. “Cuba: artists demand end of blockade”, reprinted from Granma International, November 23. Available: http://www.greenleft.org.au/2007/733/37961  [viewed November 11, 2010].

Hansen, H. and Groce,.N., 2003. “Human immunodeficiency virus and quarantine in Cuba”, Journal of the American Medical Association 290. Available: http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/290/21/2875.full  [viewed September 11, 2011].

Hansen-Weaver, J., 2009. “Behind the wave of anti-gay hate crimes”, Socialist Worker, January 19. Available: http://socialistworker.org/2009/01/19/anti-gay-hate-crimes [viewed September 10, 2011].

Haydulina, A., 2009. “Is Cuba a homophobic country?”, Russia Today Television International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, July 15. Available: http://ilga.org/ilga/en/article/lXT0AyH1zH [viewed November 10, 2010].

Hechavarria, Leonardo and Hatch, Marcel, 2001. “Gays in Cuba, from the Hollywood school of falsification. A movie review of Before Night Falls”, October. Available: http://www.walterlippmann.com/lgbt-cuba-003.html [viewed November 13, 2010].

Hickson, Jill, 1996. “The day that launched the Cuban Revolution”, Green Left Weekly, July 24. Available: http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43b/084.html [viewed November 11, 2010].

Iqbal. Farida, 2009. “Queers fighting for marriage rights”, Green Left Weekly, May 23. Available: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/41713 [viewed September 10, 2011].

Krales, E., 2005. “Cuba’s response to AIDS a model for the developing world”, Cuba Solidarity Campaign, January 21. Available: http://www.cuba-solidarity.org/cubasi_article.asp?ArticleID=46 [viewed November 17, 2010].

MEDICC Review Health and Medical News of Cuba, 2006. “Interview with Mariela Castro, MS Director, National Center for Sex Education”, Vol. VIII, No. 1, March/April. Available: http://www.medicc.org/medicc_review/0406/mr-interview.html  [viewed November 17, 2010].

Motley, B., 2011. “Cuba’s revolution in attitudes about gays, HIV+: a first-hand report”, The Edge, May 24. Available: http://www.edgeboston.com/index.php?ch=news&sc=international&sc3=&id=119924 [viewed November 17, 2010].

Oberg. Larry, “Art and Life: ‘Before Night Falls’ (film) and the status of gays and lesbians in Cuba”, Gay Cuba News and Reports 1997-2002, Global Gayz.com. Available: http://www.globalgayz.com/country/Cuba/view/CUB/gay-cuba-news-and-reports-1997-2002#article8 [viewed November 17, 2010].

Oris, P., 2010. “Trans wedding in Cuba”, Associated Press, 15 Aug. Available: http://www.edgeboston.com/index.php?ch=news&sc=&sc2=news&sc3=&id=123363 [viewed November 17, 2010].

Peña, S. 2007. “’Obvious gays’ and the state gaze: Cuban gay visibility and U.S. immigration policy during the 1980 Mariel boatlift”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 16, No. 3. Available: http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_sexuality/v016/16.3pena.html#REF15 [viewed November 17, 2010].

Reed, G.A., 2006. “News of Cuba HIV in Cuba: prevention of mother-to-child transmission”, MEDICC Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1. Available: http://www.medicc.org/publications/medicc_review/0406/mr-interview.html [viewed September 10, 2011].

Reyes, H., 2000. “Cuba: the crisis of state capitalism”, International Socialist Review, Issue 11, Spring. Available: http://www.isreview.org/issues/11/cuba_crisis.html  [viewed October 15, 2011].

Rush, A. “Queer heritage a timeline”, Gay Facts. Available: http://www.aaronsgayinfo.com/timeline/FtimeBC.html [viewed October 15, 2011].

Roques, R., 2004. “Gay rights in Cuba”, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism, No. 181. Available: http://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/index.php/cuba/383-gay-rights-in-cuba--frfi-181-oct--nov-2004 [viewed October 15, 2011].

Sanchez, C., 2004. “Carlos Sanchez, ILGA Latin American Caribbean representative tells us about his Cuban experience”, International Gay and Lesbian Organisation. Available: http://www.ilga.org/news_results.asp?LanguageID=1&FileCategory=10&ZoneID=5&FileID=26 [viewed October 15, 2011].

Stanford, T. and Wilkinson, K., 2009. “Holding hands”, Queer Screen, September 5. Available: http://www.queerscreen.com.au/event/105/  [viewed September 10, 2011].

Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest, 2007. “Sodomy Laws Sodomy laws around the world”, November 24. Available: http://www.glapn.org/sodomylaws/usa/usa.htm  [viewed September 10, 2011].

Tatchell, P., 2002. “Gay rights and wrongs in Cuba”, Gay and Lesbian Humanist, Spring issue. Available: http://www.pinktriangle.org.uk/glh/213/cuba.html [viewed September 15, 2011].

US Department of Homeland Security, 1999. “Cuba: status of homosexuals”, Citizenship and Immigration Services Responses, August 9. Available: http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/print?tbl=RSDCOI&id=3ae6a6a40 [viewed September 10, 2010].

Wikimedia Foundation, 2010. “Sodomy laws in the US”, Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias. Available: http://dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/214915 [viewed September 14, 2011].

Wearing, M., 2006. “Family First’s anti-gay campaign”, Sydney Star Observer, Issue 840. Available: http://www.ssonet.com.au/display.asp?ArticleID=5906 [viewed November 10, 2010].

Zonana, V., 1988. “Cuba's AIDS quarantine center called 'frightening'”, Los Angeles Times, November 4. Available: http://articles.latimes.com/1988-11-04/news/mn-1196_1_aids-quarantine-center [viewed November 10, 2010].


Anderson, Tim, 2006. Confronting Aids/HIV in Cuba.


Cuban Consul-General for Australia, Nelida Hernandez, October 15, 2006, Surry Hills, Australia.


Revolutionary Museum, Havana, personally visited July 15, 2009.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sun, 05/20/2012 - 17:38


In May 2012, for the fifth consecutive year, Cuba will hold a Day Against Homophobia to the satisfaction of many people in our country and the distress of others who still hold prejudice against free sexual orientation and gender identity, and who do not understand the need for the full exercise of the human rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders.

A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.
Interview originally posted April 18, 2012.
Photos: Marta María Ramírez

This time I move away from the colloquial tone of my logbook, to reproduce almost entirely the long dialogue I held last week with Mariela Castro Espín. The director of Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (CENESEX) [National Center for Sex Education] discussed the significance of the Event, what has been done, what is still to be done, and several of the most debatable issues in the work of the Institution.

PAQUITO: What is the importance of this 5th celebration? What are the main novelties?

MARIELA: When we started we didn’t dream we would reach this stage. We are talking about 5 years of stable, consecutive work that has been improved year after year.

We began with a one day celebration on May 17  in 2007, and in 2008 we began the Jornadas [several day celebrations] with the support of some institutions of the state and civil society.

We began outlining a strategy, defined our objectives and a plan of activities where we stressed the academic program and our work at universities.

This year we have reached an agreement with the Ministry of Higher Education to work in all the universities in the country; not particularly related to the Day Against Homophobia, but on things related to sexual education and promotion of sexual health. It was an old dream and this is the first time we have such a concrete meeting with the Minister for Higher Education.

This year we could also agree on another project with the Medical Universities. It includes a strategy for the promotion of sexual health and will contribute to the preparation of all students - Cuban and foreigners - on these subjects. At the moment there are 19 thousand foreign medical students. The preparation includes the professors and it will be offered through elective summer and winter courses with contents associated to the different subjects. 

This sexual health promotion is based on a document from the World Association for Sexual Health of which we are members. It establishes eight goals closely linked to the Millenium Development Goals.

We are doing this with the methodology of Educación Popular [Popular Education] a tool that will serve the doctors when they start working in their areas of primary health care in Cuba, or abroad if they work in cooperation programs. It will also assist the foreign students when they reach their countries of origin so that, according to the characteristics of their ethnics and cultures, they can start introducing, step by step, some promotional elements of sexual health.

This includes, of course, not only the subject of the right to sexual orientation and gender identity, but also some issues such as the right to truthful information at all ages and the sexual health services needed by the population, especially by teenagers and women. In other words, these are goals that comprise many elements upheld by international agreements.

At this 5th. Jornada we will be celebrating not only the Día Internacional contra la Homofobia y la Transfobia [International Day Against Homophobia and Transsexual phobia], but also everything we have achieved with the National Program for Sexual Education.


We are making progress in the reorganization of the research topics coordinated by CENESEX. Many aim at social policy; that is, at providing enough support for particular issues to be included in social policy, be it in a particular institution of the state, or as general policy which would include specific legislation.

For example, I coordinate a branch of research on comprehensive care for transsexual persons in Cuba as a humanitarian social policy. This is the general formulation that is composed of several specific research projects that will supply proposals for the policy to develop for these people through the national health system, the Ministry of Education, the work with the families and the specialized services.

There are other topics such as the establishment of a critical route in the national health system for the care of abused women, the treatment of sexual abuse in children and child abuse in general, for the development and training of human resources, there are many topics…

PAQUITO: You said in public there will be a historical research on the Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción (UMAP) [Military Units to Aid Production]…

MARIELA: Yes. One of the research projects is related to sexual policies, the evolution of sexual policy in Cuba and how the subject of sexuality was considered. This will include the exploration we are now making - and the one we made before, in order to design the research- based on interviews to people who had something to do with UMAP: people who did their military service there when they were young and officials.   


These five years since the holding of the first Day against Homophobia have given us experience. We learned and this time better organized our work teams for the preparation of the events. We have heard proposals for the different activities. It began as a single Day, then it was a week, and now it is going to be practically a full month of events. 

The idea of involving a different province each year has been quite significant for strengthening the work of our social networks in those territories. This aims at making the population more sensitive and at involving the territorial authorities in the task, as well as the press that is becoming better prepared to deal with the subject.

Therefore this helps to strengthen the work of the province chosen to prepare the central events for each May 17, and opens possibilities for the alliances that must be established to organize this type of celebration with all the relevant educational influences. This is actually the main objective.

The artistic element has also become stronger. Since last year la Gala contra la Homofobia   [Gala Night against Homophobia] has had a special organization and style. We can say that these shows include cross-dressing as artistic events.

This is the result of many years of work not only at these Gala Nights, but at nightclubs by the groups that perform cross-dressing acts. They have received training at CENESEX so that cross-dressing can become an artistic act and with their performances they can contribute to the promotion of sexual health and the prevention of diseases. And not only have the actors received training, but also the art directors of the centers, so this widens the range of people who can participate in the activities.

PAQUITO: The participation of the population in public debates will be repeated this year…

MARIELA: Last year we had the experience in Santiago de Cuba. We organized discussion panels in different areas of the Parque Dolores. The population took part in the debates with specialists, officials and trained social network LGBT activists. It was very interesting. We also had for the first time the participation of an officer from the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria who answered questions from the population. We believe this was very positive and we will repeat it in Havana and Cienfuegos, because we think it was useful.

For this year’s event it has been difficult to work with Cienfuegos, because not all the authorities were equally sensitive and committed to the task. We’ve had great support from the Party and the Government there and mainly from the Ministry of Culture, the Provincial Office for Culture and the Ministry of Health.

We chose Cienfuegos because of the significant work and great efforts of the network of activists there. We believed they deserved support in their work. We also chose the municipality of Rodas in the province with the purpose of discussing the problem of HIV/AIDS prevention, because this is one of the municipalities with the highest incidence in the transmission of the epidemic.

Why has this been difficult? Well, as there has been little coverage in national media on what takes place during the event, other provinces do not have a reference of what they can do.

If in Cienfuegos they had known what had been done in Santa Clara and in Santiago de Cuba, they could have had more previous motivation to play a good role as a province this time. And this is what should happen from now on for with rest of the provinces -as a dominoes effect- if the national press helps introducing these subjects and covering these educational and artistic activities.

Still, I think the Cuban Day against Homophobia in Cienfuegos will be a good experience.


PAQUITO: How can the event contribute to los objetivos de trabajo del Partido Comunista de Cuba [the Objectives for the work of the Cuban Communist Party] concerning the struggle against discrimination based ib sexual orientation, as well as reflecting in the media all the diversity of the Cuban population?

MARIELA: The event contributed to the inclusion of these objectives in the agreements of the Party Conference. The mere fact that they are explicitly formulated within the policy of the Party and, of course of the country, opens the doors for this strategy.  

That is, it has been expressed that the country needs to work against all forms of discrimination, and that homophobia, transphobia and every form of discrimination associated with sexuality issues need to be fought against as corresponds to an emancipating society, as the true essence of socialism.

I can’t think of socialism coexisting with forms of discrimination, and this is one of them. Work on this problem requires a deep cultural change, and this is achieved through education, through the policy that supports the strategy, through the media and the laws. There are several institutions in the social structure that need to be involved in all these processes. One day is not enough, the work of CENESEX and the Ministry of Health is not enough… and the fact that The Party gives a green light and harbors the objective is essential.

Besides, this is a task for the Party, because according to Marxist ideas, the Party is the vanguard, the group that carries the new ideas to take us to a new society. If the Party cannot articulate these new ideas, after it has rid itself of all the prejudices that create inequalities, how could It prepare the conditions for us to be able to really create a fair and equitable society?  Therefore, I think that the fact that they so decided was absolutely relevant and historic.

PAQUITO: What satisfactions, disappointments and frustrations have brought for you and for CENESEX these five years of celebrating the Day against Homophobia?

MARIELA: The decision of many people as well as of institutions and organizations to cooperate in the preparation and development of these events has given me great satisfaction.

I have been pleasantly impressed by the understanding we have found in the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Party and the support we have received from that Department with which we have been in a permanent dialogue, sharing ideas and getting advice on how to channel many of our initiatives.

The silence of the press, of the national media was disappointing. It hurt a lot to see that most of the information was being handled only by the international press –which has played an important role that I appreciate. The national press did not play that role and it is national media we value the most: the capacity of our press to inform the population and disseminate what we were doing. It hurt a lot that it wasn’t happening, but now I’m very pleased, because since last year, the national press began to participate more actively.

Another source of satisfaction has been the great number of artists who have spontaneously participated. They have come in an organized way to request it. Several international organizations have praised our initiatives to celebrate May 17th, and how we do it, our originality, and the fact that the event is for the population at large, not only for LGBT people.

The thing is that prejudices and homophobia are present in the whole society, not only in heterosexual people. Within the LGBT population there is also homophobia and there are many prejudices that need attention; there is a tendency to discriminate against one another, to practically establish a caste system; and this is the essence of what we need to change.    

There has been praise for the way we have integrated different forms of discrimination; that is to say that in these events we try to focus on homophobia as a form of discrimination that we believe should not exist in a socialist society, that it is related to other forms of discrimination and that they should all be treated together.

We cannot believe that by eliminating homophobia we would be eliminating the problem of discrimination in Cuban society. We need to eradicate the trend, the archaic model of an exploitative society that makes up parameters to establish differences and inequalities. We cannot keep on reproducing these.

This is why the educational work we do is aimed at transforming our consciousness, our culture. I hope that at some point our conga against homophobia that is danced along our main avenues becomes a tradition. We’ll have to make it more artistic, find better ideas to make it richer as a cultural option, so that perhaps it becomes a historical tradition and one day, when there is no longer homophobia in Cuba, somebody would say, “remember when in Cuba this was done because there was discrimination and this conga was danced to call people’s attention to the need to eradicate homophobia!”…  


All of us participants have been very close trying to make every moment and every activity in the event relevant, avoiding discontent and generating curiosity and the wish to know what this is all about. We have seen that the people who have felt curious and have approached the activities have asked many questions, and by doing this they have learned, and by learning they have changed.

And the anecdotes I’ve been told…! In each activity people come and tell me things. And I -who love to listen to those stories-, feel great satisfaction by realizing we are doing well.

Among those who come there are people who have suffered as victims of homophobia and whose lives have changed with these activities, whose families have changed, and who say that even the police have changed, the population has changed…

There are also people who have been homophobic and come to tell me how important these events have been; that if they had known the harm they were causing, they would not have done it. They are grateful for all the elements we give them so they can also change as human beings and not discriminate others. I wish I could record all those beautiful things people tell me at the activities. This gives me energy and satisfaction in those days of tension and exhaustion.

PAQUITO: Cuban men and women who live abroad also participate in these Events…

MARIELA: Many people have come from Miami. Cubans who live in the United States or reside in other countries. Also foreigners have come and have told me beautiful things, because they are also amazed! They heard about an activity, and arrived without knowing exactly what it was about, and then they were very surprised and have said very interesting and beautiful things. 

PAQUITO: There are those who say that all the gays, lesbians and transexuals that left the country are full of scorn…

MARIELA: On the contrary. Many come to thank us for this. They come because they want to see it. They have told me, “I want to see it with my own eyes; that’s why I came, and I’m so surprised, so amazed, it’s wonderful.” I remember a lesbian who lives in Canada and her partner lives here and does not want to leave; she is doing economically very well in Canada and she told me, “If there is a chance that we can legalize our relationship here, I’ll return; I’ll come back.”

And so on, and on; so many interesting and beautiful things they have told me from which I have learned a lot. People also write a great deal: letters, e-mails, with lovely expressions… 

PAQUITO: What other institutions and persons would you convene to contribute to the event and with what purpose?

MARIELA: The Ministries of Health and Culture are strongly committed. I would like the press to be more committed on a permanent basis, and not exclusively during the activities for the Day, because this is an educational strategy that has its most visible moment in May, but it is a permanent strategy through which we deal not only with homophobia, but also with other many issues related to sexual health and sexual wellbeing.

I think the absence of the Ministry of Education is remarkable; and its presence is fundamental. They can suggest what type of activities we could carry out. The only progress we have made in this field is related to some activities in the pedagogical universities. We have given priority to the medical and pedagogical universities to organize talks in each and every province where we have been, but I don’t think this is enough. I believe all the teacher training institutions should be involved and the subject must be debated within the Ministry of Education itself.

The Ministry of Higher Education is involved through activities of university extension. I think the Federación Estudiantil Universitaria (FEU)  [University Student Federation] should be more involved. The Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (UJC) [Communist Youth] as well, because it is one of the organizations with more responsibilities in the Programa Nacional de Educación Sexual [National Program for Sexual Education], but we have not achieved a good articulation for the UJC to be the transmitter of these ideological and revolutionary messages.

Who can be better than the young people to transmit the new ideological and revolutionary messages? This is why when the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas (FMC)  [Cuban Women's Federation] conceived the Programa Nacional de Educación Sexual it was thought the UJC should be involved to disseminate the messages. However there is a great resistance we have not been able to quench

PAQUITO: What could the trade union movement do, for example?

MARIELA: We have had links with the trade union movement, but they have not taken part in the Days against Homophobia. We have not approached them either, because we don’t know how they could be involved. It would be good to have a trade union representative in our Organizing Committee so from the perspective of their own reality they could suggest what they could do.

I think it would be very important to promote as one of the rights of workers, the right of people not to be discriminated because of their sexual orientation and gender identity; trade unions could also contribute on subjects such as the prevention of gender violence and the promotion of sexual health issues among workers. 

That is, the trade unión movement can also do activism among workers, because, for example, a significant number of people have come to the juridical information service of CENESEX with frequent concerns and complaints about the violation of their work rights just because they are homosexual or transgender. The role of the union is to act so that these rights are not violated. 

We have been having more impact on and a better response from the judicial sector. So much so that there is already la red de Juristas por los Derechos Sexuales  [a Network of Jurists for Sexual Rights]. This is the result of a systematic effort. For a long time we wanted it; we toyed with the idea; we spurred them –in a professional way- to get a response; that is to make them decide to work more with us. And we keep moving forward. 

PAQUITO: What is the importance of this network of jurists now that the economic and social policy in the country is being adjusted?

It is fundamental, because the process of sensitization on these issues is extended to judicial personnel. We have streghtened the participation of professors from CENESEX at the courses organized by the Unión Nacional de Juristas de Cuba (UNJC) [Cuban National Union of Jurists], the School of Law; the People’s Supreme Court always invites us to their seminars…

Now this network of jurists will attract lawyers, paralegals, and other professionals whom we need to prepare so that the administration of justice can be really fair, because it is not always so. When the person who administers justice has prejudices and carries them to its job, real justice is not always served. I think this network is going to help a lot in the process of extending the sensitization of jurists.


PAQUITO: During these five years CENESEX has moved from being only a center of studies in a state institution to being the leader, coordinator, and promoter of a program of citizen activism for the rights of LGBT persons. For some, this goes beyond its social charter. How do you feel about this evolution and how would you conceive a Cuban LGBT movement in the future?

MARIELA: Community work and training health promoters are within the social purpose of CENESEX. Starting with the initiative of a group of lesbian women in Santiago de Cuba, Las Isabelas, there was a spontaneous interest in a number of people who wanted to receive the attention of CENESEX. This originated the emergence in different places in the country of other groups who have requested to be articulated and sponsored by CENESEX.  

In this way, when CENESEX receives funding from a civil society organization abroad, we dedicate it to the work with these networks that have been structured. And this has been really very good because we have used the financing to strengthen the network of activists and sexual health promoters. These groups have become important channels for educational work with impact on society.  

I don’t know how it will be in the future… We said, let’s begin and those who come forward will be trained as activists. It’s not just giving them the information, but training them so they have the power of knowledge and an interactive methodology to work in the community. This is very important because it is needed to extend the influence. 

I believe that so far these social networks are happy working with CENESEX. I don’t know if in the future they would want to become independent. I also think that for a social network it is comfortable to have the support of a state institution, and of one that follows the rules of respect. We have built this space and this network structure with the participation of all the people involved. The style is very democratic; people feel good; they want to keep strengthening it and new groups emerge with new ideas, always following these objectives and the ethical principles taken from popular education.

Step by step, we have articulated what we have named a Cuban LGBTI and H movement, because we have integrated intersexual and heterosexual persons, a whole diverse population working for the same objectives.

PAQUITO: There are people who criticize the fact that you, a heterosexual woman, leads this movement…

MARIELA: The thing is that to participate in the movement of afro descendants and against racism you don’t need to be afrodescendant or black; to support the feminist movement and the movement of women rights, you don’t need to be a woman, there are men who take active part in these processes; to support disabled persons, you don’t need to be disabled; to support men in the struggle against hegemonic masculinities you don’t have to be a man, you can be a woman who wants to fight against those hegemonic masculinities; to support the rights of peasants, you don’t have to be a peasant. You see, Marx supported the rights of workers and peasants, but he was an intellectual, and there were so many other people like him…


Mariela Castro: No concibo al socialismo con discriminación

Por quinto año consecutivo Cuba celebrará en mayo próximo la Jornada contra la Homofobia, para beneplácito en nuestro país de muchas personas, e incomodidad de otras que todavía albergan prejuicios en relación con el respeto a la libre orientación sexual e identidad de género y no entienden la necesidad del reconocimiento pleno de todos los derechos humanos de lesbianas, gays, bisexuales y transgéneros.


Fotos: Marta María Ramírez

Me aparto, pues, en esta ocasión del tono coloquial de mi bitácora, para reproducir casi íntegramente el extenso diálogo que sostuve la pasada semana con Mariela Castro Espín, durante el cual la directora del Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (CENESEX) abordó la significación de este acontecimiento, lo hecho y lo que falta por hacer, y varios de los aspectos más polémicos de la labor de esa institución.

PAQUITO: ¿Qué importancia le concede a la celebración de esta 5ta Jornada? ¿Cuáles son las principales novedades?

MARIELA: Cuando empezamos no soñábamos que estaríamos en esta etapa, pues ya es un lustro de un trabajo estable, sostenido, que se ha ido perfeccionando de año en año.

Comenzamos con una celebración de un solo día, en el 2007, el 17 de mayo, y a partir del 2008 iniciamos estas Jornadas con apoyo de algunas instituciones del Estado y de la sociedad civil.

Así, comenzamos a esbozar una estrategia, definimos objetivos y un plan de actividades donde dimos importancia al programa académico, por ejemplo, a trabajar en el ámbito de las universidades.

Ya este año hemos logrado un acuerdo con el Ministerio de Educación Superior para trabajar en todas las universidades del país, no especialmente en relación con las Jornadas contra la Homofobia, sino en todo lo que es educación integral de la sexualidad, promoción de salud sexual. Era un viejo sueño y es la primera vez que tenemos esta reunión tan precisa con el Ministro de Educación Superior.

Con las universidades médicas hay otro proyecto que también se logró precisar este año, el cual comprende una estrategia de promoción de salud sexual para contribuir a la formación en estos temas de todos los estudiantes cubanos y extranjeros —estos últimos son 19 mil actualmente— y de sus profesores, mediante cursos electivos de verano y de invierno, y como contenidos transversales de las distintas materias.

Esta promoción de salud sexual la basamos en un documento de la Organización Mundial de Salud Sexual a la que nosotros pertenecemos, la cual establece ocho metas que están estrechamente vinculadas al cumplimiento de los Objetivos de Desarrollo del Milenio.

Lo hacemos, además, con la metodología de Educación Popular, una herramienta que les servirá a los médicos cuando empiecen a trabajar en sus áreas de salud en la atención primaria dentro del país o como cooperantes cuando laboren fuera de Cuba, y también a los estudiantes extranjeros cuando lleguen a sus lugares de origen, para que de acuerdo con las peculiaridades de sus etnias y sus culturas, puedan ir introduciendo poco a poco algunos elementos de la promoción de salud sexual.

Ello incluye, por supuesto, no solamente el tema de los derechos por orientación sexual e identidad de género, sino también otros aspectos como el derecho a la información verídica en todas las edades, o a los servicios de salud sexual que las poblaciones necesitan, especialmente las adolescentes y las mujeres. Es decir, son metas que recogen muchos elementos defendidos en acuerdos internacionales.

O sea, que en esta 5ta Jornada estaremos celebrando no solamente el Día Internacional contra la Homofobia y la Transfobia, sino todo lo se ha logrado en el Programa Nacional de Educación Sexual.


Estamos avanzando en la reorganización de las líneas investigativas que coordina el CENESEX, y muchas apuntan hacia la política social. Es decir, a dar argumentos suficientes para que determinadas temáticas sean trabajadas en el ámbito de esa política social, ya sea a nivel de algún organismo específico del Estado, o como política general, lo cual incluye las legislaciones al respecto.

Por ejemplo, yo coordino una investigación ramal sobre la atención integral a las personas transexuales en Cuba como política social humanista. Esa es su formulación general, que tiene como salidas varias investigaciones específicas, que aportan propuestas de políticas a seguir con estas personas, ya sea a través del sistema nacional de salud, el Ministerio de Educación, el trabajo con las familias y los servicios especializados.

Hay otros temas como el establecimiento de una ruta crítica en el sistema nacional de salud pública para la atención a las mujeres maltratadas, el tratamiento del abuso sexual infantil y el maltrato infantil en general, la formación de los recursos humanos, son muy diversos…

PAQUITO: Usted dijo públicamente que habría una investigación histórica sobre las Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción (UMAP)…

MARIELA: Sí, una de las investigaciones tiene que ver con las políticas sexuales, la evolución de la política de la sexualidad en Cuba, cómo se fue llevando en política los temas de sexualidad. Y esto va a incluir la exploración que estamos haciendo, y que ya hemos hecho previamente para el diseño de la investigación, a partir de entrevistas a personas que tuvieron que ver con la UMAP, jóvenes que pasaron allí el servicio militar y funcionarios.


A cinco años de iniciar la celebración de la Jornada Cubana contra la Homofobia hemos adquirido experiencia, hemos hecho aprendizajes, hemos organizado mejor nuestros equipos de trabajo para prepararla, se han ido enriqueciendo las propuestas de actividades. Así, empezó siendo un día, luego pasó a ser una semana y ahora prácticamente el mes de mayo lo estamos dedicando a la Jornada.

El hecho de ir involucrando cada año a una provincia ha sido muy significativo para fortalecer la labor de nuestras redes sociales en esos territorios, y de alguna manera sensibilizar más directamente a la población, involucrar a sus autoridades en esta tarea, también a la prensa que se va preparando para abordar mejor el tema.

Por tanto, esto ayuda a fortalecer el trabajo de la provincia que se selecciona para preparar las actividades centrales cada 17 de mayo, abre posibilidades para las alianzas que se deben establecer para organizar este tipo de celebraciones, con todas las influencias educativas que ello implica, lo cual es el objetivo principal.

También se ha fortalecido mucho el componente artístico. Desde el año pasado la Gala contra la Homofobia ha tomado una organización y un estilo muy peculiar. Ya podemos considerar que estos espectáculos integran al transformismo como un hecho artístico.

Esto es el resultado de un trabajo de muchos años, no solamente en estas galas, sino de los grupos y centros nocturnos que realizan actividades de transformismo, los cuales han podido recibir formación en el CENESEX para lograr que el transformismo sea un hecho artístico, y que además desde sus espectáculos se pueda trabajar la prevención y la promoción de salud sexual. Y no solo reciben capacitación los artistas, también los directores artísticos y de estas instalaciones, de modo que eso amplía la fuente de personas que pueden participar en estas actividades.

PAQUITO: La participación de la población en debates públicos se repetirá este año…

MARIELA: El año pasado tuvimos la experiencia en Santiago de Cuba, en el parque Dolores. Se organizaron paneles de discusión en distintos puntos del parque y la población asistió a los debates e intercambió opiniones con especialistas, funcionarios y activistas ya formados en los grupos LGBT de las redes sociales. Fue muy interesante, incluso participó un oficial de la Policía Nacional Revolucionaria y respondió preguntas del público, por primera vez se logró… Nos pareció muy enriquecedor y lo vamos a repetir en La Habana y en Cienfuegos, porque consideramos que fue útil.

Para esta Jornada ha sido difícil trabajar con Cienfuegos, en el sentido de que no todas las autoridades estaban sensibilizadas e involucradas de la misma manera en la tarea. Hemos tenido un importante apoyo del Partido y el Gobierno allí, y sobre todo del Ministerio de Cultura, de la dirección provincial de Cultura y del Ministerio de Salud.

Se seleccionó a Cienfuegos por el trabajo de su red social de activistas, que había hecho una labor respetable y muchos esfuerzos. Consideramos que merecían un apoyo en ese sentido. Se escogió también el municipio de Rodas, en esa provincia central, con el propósito de abordar también el tema de la prevención del VIH/sida, porque es uno de los municipios del país con más alta incidencia en la trasmisión de la epidemia.

¿Por qué ha sido también difícil?  Pues como no ha habido una suficiente divulgación en los medios nacionales de comunicación sobre lo que sucede durante las Jornadas, otras provincias no pueden tomar la referencia de lo que pueden hacer.

Si en Cienfuegos hubiesen conocido lo que se hizo en Santa Clara, en Santiago de Cuba, habrían podido tener previamente mayor motivación para hacer un buen papel como provincia en esta Jornada. Y eso es lo que tendría que suceder en lo adelante con las demás provincias, como un efecto dominó, si la prensa nacional ayuda a ir introduciendo dosificadamente estos temas y a comunicar estas actividades educativas y artísticas.

De todos modos, creo que la Jornada Cubana contra la Homofobia en Cienfuegos también va a salir y que va a ser una buena experiencia.


PAQUITO: ¿Cómo puede contribuir la Jornada al cumplimiento de los objetivos de trabajo del Partido Comunista de Cuba en cuanto a enfrentar la discriminación por orientación sexual y reflejar toda la diversidad de la población cubana en los medios de comunicación?

MARIELA: La Jornada contribuyó a que esos objetivos estuviesen dentro de la Conferencia del Partido. Pero aparte, el hecho de que ya estén dentro de esos compromisos, explícitamente expuestos en la política del Partido y por supuesto del país, le abre puertas a esta estrategia.

O sea, se está diciendo que el país necesita trabajar contra todas las formas de discriminación, y que la homofobia, la transfobia y todo lo que se asocie a temas de sexualidad como forma de discriminación debe ser también enfrentado como esencia misma de una sociedad emancipadora, como esencia misma del socialismo.

Yo no concibo al socialismo conviviendo con formas de discriminación, y esta es una de ellas, en la que para trabajar, hay que hacer una intervención de cambio cultural profundo, el cual se logra a través de la incidencia educativa, de la política que avala esa estrategia, de los medios de comunicación, de las leyes. Hay varias instituciones en la estructura social que tienen que estar participando en todos estos procesos. No basta con la Jornada, no basta con la labor del CENESEX, no basta con el trabajo del Ministerio de Salud… y el hecho de que el Partido dé luz verde y conscientemente acoja este objetivo, es fundamental.

Además, le corresponde al Partido, porque según las posiciones marxistas, es la vanguardia, el grupo que está impulsando las ideas nuevas para llevarnos a una sociedad nueva, y si el Partido no logra articular estas ideas nuevas, después que se haya despojado de todos los prejuicios que establecen desigualdades ¿cómo podría propiciar las condiciones para que realmente seamos capaces de crear una sociedad justa y equitativa? Entonces, me parece que fue absolutamente coherente, y yo considero que resultó histórico el hecho de que lo hayan dejado así establecido.

PAQUITO: ¿Qué satisfacciones y sorpresas, desencantos y frustraciones, le reportaron en lo personal y al CENESEX estos cinco años de Jornadas contra la Homofobia?

MARIELA: Me ha dado enorme satisfacción la disposición de muchas personas a colaborar en la organización y desarrollo de estas Jornadas, también de instituciones y organizaciones.

Me ha sorprendido mucho la comprensión que hemos hallado en el Departamento Ideológico del Comité Central del Partido, el apoyo que hemos recibido de ese departamento, con el cual nos hemos mantenido en un diálogo permanente, consensuando algunas ideas y recibiendo orientaciones de por dónde encaminar muchas de estas iniciativas.

Me resultaba muy chocante el silencio de la prensa, de los medios nacionales. Me dolía mucho que toda la información estuviese manejándose desde la prensa internacional solamente —porque esta realmente ha jugado un papel importante que aprecio— y que la prensa nacional no pudiese desarrollarse, porque realmente es la que más nos ha importado, la capacidad de nuestra prensa para informar a la población y para transmitir lo que estábamos haciendo. Me dolía mucho que no sucediera y ahora estoy muy satisfecha de que ya desde el año pasado la prensa nacional comenzó a participar más activamente.

Por otro lado, me ha dado gran satisfacción la numerosa cantidad de artistas que espontáneamente han participado, y que han venido de manera organizada a solicitar hacerlo. Diversas organizaciones internacionales han elogiado esta iniciativa que hemos tenido de celebrar el 17 de mayo y el modo en que lo hacemos, la originalidad con que lo hacemos, el hecho de que esta jornada esté dirigida a toda la población, no solo a las personas LGBT

Porque además los prejuicios y la homofobia están presentes en toda la sociedad, no solo en las personas heterosexuales, también en la población LGBT hay homofobia y muchos prejuicios que se deben trabajar, tendencias a discriminarse unos a otros, a establecer sistemas de castas prácticamente, y esta es la esencia de lo que tenemos que modificar.

Han elogiado, por ejemplo, la manera en que hemos integrado distintos formas de discriminación; es decir, tratamos con estas Jornadas de llamar la atención contra la homofobia, como una manifestación discriminatoria que consideramos no debe convivir en una sociedad socialista, y que está relacionada con otras expresiones de discriminación, y que todas juntas deben ser tratadas.

No podemos creer que por eliminar la homofobia estaremos resolviendo el problema de la discriminación en la sociedad cubana. Hay que erradicar esa tendencia, ese modelo arcaico de sociedad explotadora que crea parámetros para establecer diferencias y desigualdades, y nosotros no podemos seguir reproduciéndolas.

Por eso el trabajo educativo que hacemos se propone una transformación de la conciencia, de nuestra cultura. Aspiro en algún momento a crear una tradición con esa conga contra la homofobia por nuestras principales avenidas. Tendremos que hacerla mucho más artística, buscar mejores ideas para enriquecerla como propuesta cultural, para que tal vez fragüe como una tradición histórica, y que cuando ya no haya homofobia, alguien diga “¡se acuerdan cuando en Cuba hacían esto porque había discriminación, y había que hacer este tipo de conga para llamar la atención contra la homofobia!”…


Hemos estado muy unidos todos los que participamos, para cuidar cada momento de la Jornada,  que cada una de las actividades sea pertinente, que no genere malestares, sino curiosidad y deseos de saber de qué se trata. Hemos visto que las personas que han tenido la curiosidad y se han acercado a estas actividades, han hecho muchas preguntas, y al hacerlas, han aprendido, y al aprender, por supuesto, han cambiado.

¡Y las anécdotas que me han contado…! En todas esas actividades se me acerca mucha gente a contarme cosas, y a mí, que me encanta escuchar esas historias, me da satisfacción darme cuenta de como estamos haciéndoles bien.

Vienen personas que han sufrido como víctimas de la homofobia y que su vida ha cambiado con estas actividades, que su familia ha cambiado; resaltan, incluso, que la policía ha cambiado, la población ha cambiado…

También se me acercan personas que han sido homofóbicas, para decirme qué importante es esto, que si hubiesen sabido el daño que hacían, no lo hubiesen hecho; agradecen que les demos todos estos elementos para ellos también cambiar como seres humanos y no discriminar a otros. Quisiera grabar todas las cosas lindísimas que la gente me dice en todas estas actividades, es lo que me da energía y satisfacción en esos días de tanto agotamiento y tensión.

PAQUITO: cubanos y cubanas que viven fuera también participan en estas Jornadas…

MARIELA: Han venido muchas personas de Miami, cubanos que viven en los Estados Unidos o que radican en otros países, también han participado extranjeros, me han dicho cosas preciosas, porque además ¡se sorprenden! Se enteraron de una actividad, llegaron sin saber exactamente de qué se trataba y allí se han sorprendido mucho y me han dicho cosas muy interesantes y bonitas.

PAQUITO: Hay quienes afirman y repiten que todos los gays, lesbianas, transexuales que se fueron del país están llenos de rencor…

Al contrario, no pocos vienen a agradecerlo, vienen porque quieren verlo. Me han dicho “yo quiero verlo con mis ojos, por eso vine, yo estoy tan sorprendida, tan asombrada, qué maravilla”. Recuerdo una lesbiana que vive en Canadá y su novia estaba aquí y no se quería ir; a ella allá las cosas le estaban yendo bien desde el punto de vista económico, y me decía “si se da la posibilidad de que podamos legalizar nuestra pareja, yo regreso para acá, yo regreso”.

Así, cantidad de cosas que me han dicho, tan interesantes y tan bonitas, y de las que además he aprendido mucho; también escriben muchísimo, por carta, por correo electrónico, expresiones muy hermosas…

PAQUITO: ¿A qué otras instituciones y personas convocaría para contribuir a la Jornada y con cuáles propósitos?

MARIELA: Los ministerios de Salud y de Cultura están fuertemente comprometidos. Quisiera que los órganos de prensa se comprometieran más, de una manera permanente y no exclusivamente durante las Jornadas, porque esta es una estrategia educativa que tiene su momento de mayor visibilidad en mayo, pero es una estrategia permanente, donde no solo abordamos la homofobia, sino que tratamos también muchas otras temáticas vinculadas con la salud sexual y el bienestar en relación con la sexualidad.

Me parece que está faltando de una manera notable el Ministerio de Educación, y es fundamental que esté, que propongan qué tipo de actividades podemos hacer. Lo único que hemos logrado en ese campo son actividades en las universidades pedagógicas. Hemos priorizado las enseñanzas de ciencias médicas y pedagógicas, como universidades para organizar las charlas en cada una de las provincias donde hemos ido, pero me parece que no es suficiente. Creo que se deben involucrar todas las escuelas formadoras de maestros, y además introducir el debate del tema en el seno del Ministerio de Educación.

El Ministerio de Educación Superior se involucra a través de las actividades de extensión universitaria. Creo que la Federación Estudiantil Universitaria (FEU) debería estar más involucrada. También la Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (UJC), porque forma parte de las organizaciones con mayor nivel de responsabilidad en el Programa Nacional de Educación Sexual, y no hemos logrado una buena articulación para que sea la transmisora de estos mensajes ideológicos, revolucionarios.

¿Quién mejor que los jóvenes para transmitir los nuevos mensajes ideológicos, revolucionarios? Por eso fue que cuando la Federación de Mujeres Cubanas (FMC) concibió el Programa Nacional de Educación Sexual decidió que debía estar la UJC, para que transmitiera esos mensajes; sin embargo, hay una gran resistencia que no se ha logrado superar.

PAQUITO: ¿Qué pudiera hacer el movimiento sindical, por ejemplo?

MARIELA: Con el movimiento sindical hemos tenido vínculos, pero no han participado en las Jornadas contra la Homofobia. Tampoco los hemos convocado porque no sabemos de qué manera pudieran sumarse. Sería importante que el movimiento sindical envíe un representante a nuestro comité organizador y propongan desde el conocimiento que tienen de su propia realidad, qué podrían hacer.

Me parece que sería muy importante promover dentro de los derechos laborales, el derecho de las personas a no sufrir discriminación por orientación sexual e identidad de género; también podrían aportar en los temas de la violencia de género y en la promoción de salud sexual entre los trabajadores.

O sea, el movimiento sindical también puede hacer un trabajo de activismo entre los trabajadores, porque a los servicios de orientación jurídica del CENESEX, por ejemplo, han llegado un grupo importante de personas, entre cuyos malestares más frecuentes están las problemáticas relacionadas con la violación de sus derechos laborales solo por ser homosexuales o transgéneros. El sindicato tiene que velar porque no se violen esos derechos.

Hemos estado teniendo además una mayor incidencia y una mejor respuesta del mundo jurídico, tanto que ya se creó la red de Juristas por los Derechos Sexuales. Esto es el resultado de un trabajo, pues hace tiempo que lo deseábamos, le dábamos vuelta a la idea, provocábamos —en un sentido profesional— para tener una respuesta, o sea, una disposición a trabajar más ampliamente con nosotros, y cada vez vamos alcanzando un poquito más.

PAQUITO: ¿Qué importancia le concede a esa red de juristas en este momento cuando se está readecuando la política económica y social del país?

Es fundamental, porque se extiende el proceso de sensibilización sobre estas temáticas al personal jurídico. Se ha fortalecido la presencia de profesores del CENESEX en cursos que organizan la Unión Nacional de Juristas de Cuba (UNJC), la Facultad de Derecho; el Tribunal Supremo Popular nos invita siempre a sus seminarios…

Ahora esta red de juristas atraerá a los abogados y otros profesionales y operadores del Derecho, a quienes necesitamos preparar para que en la administración de justicia sean verdaderamente justos, porque no siempre es así. Cuando el administrador de justicia tiene prejuicios, los lleva a su trabajo y realmente no se logra una verdadera justicia. Pienso que esta red va a ayudar mucho a ampliar el proceso de sensibilización de los juristas.


PAQUITO: Durante estos cinco años el CENESEX ha pasado de ser un centro de estudios de un organismo del Estado solamente a liderar, coordinar y amparar una labor de activismo ciudadano que aboga por los derechos de las personas LGBT, lo cual para algunos excede su razón social ¿cómo valora esa evolución y de qué manera concebiría un movimiento LGBT cubano en el futuro?

MARIELA: Dentro del objeto social del CENESEX está el trabajo en las comunidades y la formación de promotores de salud. Pero a partir de la iniciativa un grupo de mujeres lesbianas en Santiago de Cuba, Las Isabelas, fue surgiendo espontáneamente el interés de personas que querían recibir atención del CENESEX. Eso dio lugar a que nacieran otros grupos en diferentes lugares del país, que han solicitado ser articulados y atendidos por el CENESEX.

De ese modo, cuando el CENESEX recibe fondos de alguna organización de la sociedad civil de otro país, los dedicamos al trabajo de esas redes que se han ido conformando. Y ha sido muy bueno, porque hemos utilizado tales financiamientos para capacitar activistas, promotores y promotoras de salud sexual. Esos grupos se han ido constituyendo como redes sociales comunitarias, que se han convertido así en una fortaleza importante del trabajo educativo y de incidencia en la sociedad del CENESEX.

En el futuro no sé cómo será… Dijimos, vamos a empezar y a la gente que se acerque la formamos como activistas. No es solamente darles información, sino prepararles para que tengan en sus manos el poder de un conocimiento y una metodología participativa para trabajar con las poblaciones. Esto es muy útil, porque hace falta para poder extender toda esta influencia.

Pienso que hasta ahora estas redes sociales se sienten felices trabajando con el CENESEX; no sé si en un futuro se quieran independizar, aunque creo incluso que como red social es muy cómodo tener el amparo de una institución del Estado, y de una además que sigue reglas de respeto. Hemos ido construyendo este espacio y esta estructura de las redes con la participación de todas las personas que están involucradas. Su estilo es muy democrático, la gente se siente bien, quiere seguir fortaleciéndolo y cada vez surgen nuevos grupos con nuevas ideas, siempre siguiendo estos objetivos y principios éticos que se toman de la educación popular.

Poco a poco se ha ido articulando lo que hemos identificado como un movimiento cubano LGBTI y H, pues tenemos la peculiaridad de haber integrado a las personas intersexuales y a las personas heterosexuales, toda una población diversa trabajando por los mismos objetivos.

PAQUITO: Hay críticos que cuestionan que siendo una mujer heterosexual, usted lidere este movimiento…

MARIELA: El problema es que para participar del movimiento de afro descendientes y contra el racismo no hay que ser afro descendiente ni ser negra; para apoyar el movimiento feminista, los movimientos de mujeres por sus derechos, no hay que ser mujer, hay hombres que participan y apoyan en estos procesos; para apoyar a las personas discapacitadas no hay que ser discapacitada; para apoyar a los hombres en la lucha contra las masculinidades hegemónicas, no hay que ser hombre, hay que ser mujer que quiere luchar contra esas masculinidades hegemónicas; para apoyar los derechos de los campesinos no hay que ser campesina. Mira, Marx apoyó los derechos de obreros y campesinos y era un intelectual, y así mucha gente más…


Submitted by Terry Townsend on Thu, 05/24/2012 - 02:39


By Donald McNeil Jr., The New York Times, May 7, 2012

Juan Carlos Miranda, an AIDS patient, with Dr. Victor Maracha
at an AIDS treatment sanitarium near Havana.
Photo credit: Jose Goitia 
HAVANA — Yudelsy García O’Connor, the first baby known to have been born with H.I.V. in Cuba, is not merely still alive. She is vibrant, funny and, at age 25, recently divorced but hoping to remarry and have children.

Her father died of AIDS when she was 10, her mother when she was 23. She was near death herself in her youth.
“I’m not afraid of death,” she said. “I know it could knock on my door. It comes for everyone. But I take my medicine.”
Ms. García is alive thanks partly to lucky genes, and partly to the intensity with which Cuba has attacked its AIDS epidemic. Whatever debate may linger about the government’s harsh early tactics — until 1993, everyone who tested positive for H.I.V. was forced into quarantine — there is no question that they succeeded.
Cuba now has one of the world’s smallest epidemics, a mere 14,038 cases. Its infection rate is 0.1 percent, on par with Finland, Singapore and Kazakhstan. That is one-sixth the rate of the United States, one-twentieth of nearby Haiti.
The population of Cuba is only slightly larger than that of New York City. In the three decades of the global AIDS epidemic, 78,763 New Yorkers have died of AIDS. Only 2,364 Cubans have.
Other elements have contributed to Cuba’s success: It has free universal basic health care; it has stunningly high rates of H.I.V. testing; it saturates its population with free condoms, concentrating on high-risk groups like prostitutes; it gives its teenagers graphic safe-sex education; it rigorously traces the sexual contacts of each person who tests positive.
By contrast, the response in the United States — which records 50,000 new infections every year — seems feeble. Millions of poor people never see a doctor. Testing is voluntary, and many patients do not return for their results. Sex education is so politicized that many schools teach nothing about protected sex; condoms are expensive, and distribution of free ones is haphazard.
Cuba has succeeded even though it has the most genetically diverse epidemic outside Africa. Almost all American cases are of one strain, subtype B. Cuba has 21 different strains.
The genetic diversity is a legacy of its foreign aid. Since the 1960s, Cuba has sent abroad thousands of “internationalists” — soldiers, doctors, teachers and engineers. Stationed all over Africa, they brought back a wide array of strains. According to a study in 2002, 11 of Cuba’s 21 strains are unknown elsewhere, formed when two others mixed.
And Cuba’s success has come despite its being a sex tourism destination for Europeans and Canadians.
While the police enforce laws against overt streetwalking, bars and hotel lobbies in downtown Havana are filled with young women known as jineteras — slang for “jockeys” — who approach foreigners, asking if they would like to go for a drink, or perhaps dancing, with the unspoken assumption that it will lead to more. Even so, of the roughly 1,000 new infections diagnosed each year, 81 percent are among men and very few among young unmarried women.
“Most of those who sleep with tourists know to use condoms,” said Dr. Ribero Wong, an AIDS specialist here.
In a survey in 2009, 77 percent of all sex workers said they regularly used condoms.
There are male jineteras for gay tourists too, of course, “but we believe the main vector is within the people,” said Dr. Luis Estruch Rancaño, deputy minister for public health. “Mainly, the very promiscuous group in the homosexual community who have many partners and don’t take precautions.”
One example is Carlos Emilio García, 50, a registered nurse who lives and works at a former quarantine sanitarium outside Havana. He had negative H.I.V. tests at his job every six months from 1990 to 1996, but became infected in 1997.
He admits to having had many partners; as he put it, “No, I don’t know who my assassin is.”
Asked why a well-educated nurse would risk sex without a condom, he waved his hands in the air and replied, “You know — because we all do crazy things sometimes.”
The few Cuban women who are infected usually get the virus from partners who are secretly bisexual, experts said.

“Homo-bisexual transmission” is its own category in Cuba; socially, a man who occasionally has sex with other men is not considered gay if he is a “top” — the penetrative partner, explained Ramón Arango García, a fashion designer and educator at the National AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention Center.

Heroin use, which drives epidemics in many countries, is virtually nonexistent in Cuba, officials insist.
And since 1986, only 38 babies have been born with the virus. In Cuba’s cradle-to-grave health care system, pregnant women get up to 12 free prenatal checkups, during which they are tested for H.I.V. at least twice.
Before antiretroviral drugs were available, H.I.V.-infected women were offered abortions or, if they chose to deliver, Caesareans and free infant formula to discourage breast-feeding and reduce the risk of transmission. Now they get the drugs free.
Universal Coverage
As broken as it is economically, Cuba still points proudly to one legacy of its 1959 revolution: Basic health care is universal and free. Cuba has 535,000 health care workers (“We’re all either doctors or baseball players,” one hospital microbiologist joked) and each citizen is officially registered with a family doctor nearby; if a patient skips a checkup, the doctor is expected to find out why.
“I was trained to expect my patients to come to me,” said Dr. Rafael Mazín, senior AIDS adviser for the Pan American Health Organization in Washington, who is Mexican. “In Cuba, the doctor comes to you.”
Cuba is tied with the United States in both life expectancy and infant mortality.
Dr. Jorge Pérez Ávila is Cuba’s Tony Fauci, its best-known AIDS doctor. He is grandfatherly now, and clearly much loved by former patients like Ms. García, but he has memories of helping his bus driver father make gasoline bombs to throw at the police during the Batista government. As a teenager he dropped out of school to live in the mountains, teaching villagers to read under a literacy program after Castro came to power.
He treated Ms. García’s parents on their deathbeds and heard her father beg, “Do whatever it takes to help my daughter live.” (Her father, who had been a soldier in Angola, was a truck driver. He had nine girlfriends in different towns, five of whom he infected.)
Many medical authorities agree that Cuba had an early and effective response to the epidemic. In his book, “AIDS: Confessions to a Doctor,” published only in Spanish, Dr. Pérez gave his account of the meeting that galvanized Cuba’s response.
In 1983, Fidel Castro visited the Pedro Kourí Institute, Cuba’s top tropical disease hospital, to hear a presentation on malaria and dengue fever.
As it ended, he suddenly asked the director, “Gustavo, what are you doing to keep AIDS from entering Cuba?”
Dr. Gustavo Kourí, son of the institute’s founder, was caught off guard, Dr. Pérez said, and stammered: “AIDS, comandante? AIDS? It is a new disease. We don’t even know whether it’s produced by a bacteria, a virus or a fungus. There isn’t much data on it, just what’s been reported in the United States and a few cases in Europe. It will take time to know how big it is.”
Mr. Castro replied: “I think it will be the epidemic of this century. And it’s your responsibility, Gustavo, to stop it becoming a major problem here.”
This was two years before any American president publicly uttered the word “AIDS.” Asked how Mr. Castro could have been so prescient, Dr. Pérez struggled to find the right word, then said: “Castro has luz larga” — “big lights,” the Cuban slang for automobile high beams. “He reads a lot. He sees far ahead.”
Dr. Pérez is simultaneously both a fan of the Castro government and a bit of a cynic; on Dec. 1, he led a “Viva, Fidel!” cheer at his hospital’s World AIDS Day. But he also mentioned that Mr. Castro once praised him by saying: “Jorge, I’ve been reading your mail. Your patients say very nice things about you.”
The medical establishment reacted quickly. The first step was to throw out all imported blood — 20,000 units. That avoided the devastation that the hemophiliac populations in the United States and France suffered.
Doctors were sent to Brazil and France to study cases.
All of the country’s family doctors were ordered to watch for infections that indicate AIDS like Kaposi’s sarcoma or Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.
Because there was no H.I.V. test yet, the first cases were found late in the disease, leading doctors to think most patients died within a year — an erroneous assumption that helped justify the quarantine policy.
In 1986, blocked by the embargo from buying American test kits, Cuba bought 750,000 French ones.
According to Dr. María Isela Lantero, AIDS chief at the Health Ministry’s, Cuba’s 11 million citizens have been tested 43 million times; last year, more than two million tests were done. That is the equivalent of testing the sexually active population every three years, though in reality the focus is on high-risk groups, who are tested more often.
Cubans returning from abroad are routinely tested, as are pregnant women, prisoners, soldiers, hospital patients, health workers and anyone treated for venereal disease. So is anyone whose family doctor suspects he or she is gay, a sex worker or otherwise at risk.
Haydee Martínez Obregón, 33, who has lived in the AIDS sanitarium in Sancti Spíritus, in central Cuba, since she was 19, is an example of that. (She lives there by choice, she said, because she has no home outside.)

Asked how she learned she was infected, she said, “My family doctor thought it was a good idea to test me because I was so promiscuous.”
And how did he know that?
“My mother told him everything.”
Anonymous voluntary testing is also available at 700 clinics and hospitals.Anyone who tests positive gets an appointment with an epidemiology nurse, who asks for the names of everyone he or she has ever slept with.
By law, answering is voluntary.
“If they say no, nothing happens,” Dr. Pérez said.
But pressure is clearly applied. A patient who says no to the nurse gets an appointment with the doctor, then with a social worker and then sometimes with a psychologist. Then a team of H.I.V.-positive educators will make a home visit. So might the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Depending on whom one asks, those committees are the defenders of Cuban democracy, domestic spies or just state-sponsored Nosy Parkers.
Some still refuse. Arachu Castro, a professor of global health at Harvard Medical School who often works in Cuba, described one woman who absolutely insisted that she had never slept with anyone but her husband, who was virus-free.
“We called her the Immaculate Infection,” she said.
There are other subtle pressures, Dr. Castro said. Socialist education teaches Cubans to feel responsible for one another. Also, most Cubans subsist partly on government rations and the sick get extra food, and their lifesaving drugs, from the government.
Everyone who tests positive also must take a two-week course in “living responsibly with H.I.V.”
Rising Challenge
With mandatory quarantine long gone and the virus now mostly in gay and bisexual men, new infections are slowly but steadily rising. They now approach 1,000 a year, “and we’re waiting for the plateau,” said Dr. José Joanes Fiol, the Health Ministry’s chief epidemiologist.
Today, condoms and sex education are the chief weapons.
Cuban society is the opposite of puritanical; scanty clothing is routine, suggestive flirtation is common, and so are divorce and extramarital affairs.
The government distributes more than 100 million condoms a year. Every place with young customers, even pizzerias, is required to stock them.
“The first ones we got were from China, and had butterflies and penguins on the package,” Manuel Hernández Fernández, an AIDS educator for 25 years, said with a snort. “We had to Cubanize them.”
Now one shows a man groping a naked breast; another has two men.
During a condom giveaway for World AIDS Day, women laughed as volunteers — mostly gay men — dropped condoms into their cleavages.
“Just one?” one woman said. “What am I going to do with just one?”
Omairy Lorenzo, 18, a journalism student in Havana watching the giveaway, said she had been shown how to put a condom on a model penis at school when she was 12.
Her classmate Abel Lescaille, 20, said, “Sometimes they do so much sex education that you get tired of it.”
Until recently, Cuban society and government policies were deeply homophobic; in the revolution’s early days, gay men were sent to labor camps. Fidel Castro now publicly says he regrets that action.
Now there is more acceptance.
At the same time, the government controls virtually all real estate, and there are no gay bars or hotels. Cruising men often have unsafe sex in abandoned buildings or parks where muggers lurk and the police conduct raids, said Libán Molina, 41, a volunteer at an AIDS prevention hot line.
Only about half of the 11,674 Cubans living with H.I.V. are now on antiretroviral drugs.
In theory, Cuba would be an ideal laboratory for “test and treat,” the new protocol in which patients who test positive go on drugs immediately to reduce by 95 percent their chance of infecting anyone else.
However, it requires modern drugs and Cuba makes only the older, harsher ones. Only about 1,100 patients get new drugs, paid for by foreign donors.
“We know about test-and-treat,” Dr. Pérez said. “We would do it, if we could. But we need the funds.”

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sun, 01/27/2013 - 19:14


By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ Associated Press / November 16, 2012

HAVANA (AP) — Adela Hernandez, a biologically male Cuban who has lived as a female since childhood, served two years in prison in the 1980s for ‘‘dangerousness’’ after her own family denounced her sexuality.

This month she made history by becoming the first known transgender person to hold public office in Cuba, winning election as a delegate to the municipal government of Caibarien in the central province of Villa Clara.

In a country where gays were persecuted for decades and sent to grueling work camps in the countryside, Hernandez, 48, hailed her election as yet another milestone in a gradual shift away from macho attitudes in the years since Fidel Castro himself expressed regret over the treatment of people perceived to be different.

‘‘As time evolves, homophobic people — although they will always exist — are the minority,’’ Hernandez said by phone from her hometown.

Becoming a delegate ‘‘is a great triumph,’’ she added.

Because she has not undergone sex-change surgery, Hernandez is legally still a man in the eyes of the Cuban state: Jose Agustin Hernandez, according to the civil registry. Hernandez, who switched back and forth between feminine and masculine pronouns when referring to herself during an interview, said she hasn’t made a decision to seek an operation but doesn’t rule it out either.

Hernandez won office in early November by taking a runoff vote 280-170. Her position is the equivalent of a city councilor, and her election makes her eligible to be selected as a representative to Parliament in early 2013.

For years after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, authorities hounded people of differing sexual orientation and others considered threatening, such as priests, long-haired youths and rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts. But there have been notable changes in attitudes toward sexuality.

‘‘I would like to think that discrimination against homosexuals is a problem that is being overcome,’’ Fidel Castro told an interviewer some years ago.

Since 2007 the island has been covering sex-change surgery under its free health care system. Last year a gay man and a transsexual woman whose operation was paid for by the state garnered headlines for their first-of-its kind wedding.

The country’s most prominent gay rights activist is Mariela Castro, Fidel’s niece and current President Raul Castro’s daughter.

As director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, Mariela Castro has instituted awareness campaigns, trained police on relations with the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community and lobbied parliament to legalize same-sex unions.

Born in a sugar town in central Cuba, Hernandez was disowned by her family and said it was her own father who reported her to authorities, leading to her imprisonment. She had to change towns and defend herself physically from attacks.

Over the decades she found work as a hospital janitor, then as a nurse and most recently as an electrocardiogram technician. She also established herself in the community and as a longtime member of her neighborhood watch committee, which helped her win acceptance and laid the groundwork for her election.

‘‘My neighbors know me as Adela, the nurse,’’ Hernandez said. ‘‘Sexual preference does not determine whether you are a revolutionary or not. That comes from within.’’

As an elected official she promised to advocate for her constituents’ interests, but said she also wants to be a voice for gay rights.

‘‘I represent a community but I will always keep in mind the defense of gays,’’ Hernandez said.