The future of socialism and LGBTI rights in Cuba -- Interview with Mariela Castro Espín

January 1, 2009 -- In Havana, Mariela Castro Espín speaks to Anastasia Haydulina of Russia Today Television. Mariela Castro is director of CENESEX –- the National Center for Sexual Education -- and a leading authority and proponent of LGBT freedoms in Cuba and globally. She addresses how Cuban society is dealing with changing perceptions of sexuality and concrete measures benefiting LGBTs. Castro also reflects on new legislation, transsexualism, same-sex unions, gay rights, AIDS, her father President Raúl Castro, her mother Vilma Espín, founder and President of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the woes caused by the US economic blockade of Cuba and her views on US President-elect Barack Obama, as well as the history of the revolution. Sections of the interview have been translated and transcribed below.

Anastasia Haydulina One day your uncle Fidel Castro… is going to die. Do you think his death will change the status quo of your Cuba?

Mariela Castro Espín First of all, the death of Fidel will bring great suffering for the Cuban people, and it will be an enormous loss. But as far as I can see, the Cubans are willing to continue on the path of socialism even when our Comandante is no longer with us, even when my father and other forefathers of the revolution are not. Our people want socialism. Of course, we're very self-critical, so what we need is a better and rich social reform that will resolve most of the existing contradictions. People themselves are proposing actions necessary for the survival of our socialist society, a society that should always guarantee social justice, equality and solidarity within the nation, as well as in relations with others. We want welfare, but not as exaggerated as that of consumer societies. I think that socialism in Cuba will survive and become what we have considered to be a utopia.

Haydulina Same-sex unions in a Communist, originally Catholic, state?

[In] socialism it will surely be possible to make fundamental changes in the lives of men and women according to their sexual orientation.
Castro Yes, I believe that, in societies like ours, same-sex unions are possible. It's true that, in the history of countries that have tried to create socialism, sexuality-related prejudices from the capitalist past have persisted. But in the Cuban version of socialism it will surely be possible to make fundamental changes in the lives of men and women according to their sexual orientation and other elements of their sexuality that haven't been contemplated by other socialist nations to date. Of course there are very strong influences of religions predominant in our cultures, but they are not going to become obstacles to achieving the aim of guaranteeing human rights socialism must guarantee. That is why we proposed a bill to legalise same-sex unions to parliament.

Haydulina What makes you feel you can overcome the stigma within the Communist Party and legislative barriers to pass it as well?

Castro As head of the National Center for Sex Education, not as daughter of the president, I presented an educational strategy strongly based on the mass media to bring the attention of the Cuban society to various expressions of sexuality within it.

Haydulina Realistically, when do you think we are going to see this bill passed here in Cuba?

Castro We've already accomplished a lot. For example, we've achieved a resolution by the public health ministry that guarantees transsexuals specialised attention, including sex change surgeries. The first of these types of operation are about to begin. They were first performed in 1988 but were interrupted due to people's incomprehension. We're proposing important changes to the family code that include the right of people of the same sex to legalise their unions. We're also working on a gender identity decree law that will make it easier for transsexuals to change their sex and identity papers, regardless of the sex change surgery. Because not all of them are automatically eligible for this operation, but nevertheless people do need society to recognise them in accordance with their gender identity, not by biological sex.

Haydulina Tell us more about the history of homophobia in this country.

Homosexuality is a reality to be taken into account, not got rid of.
Castro Just like any other patriarchal societies in the world, Cuban society is homophobic. In the 1960s and 1970s, it expressed itself as a political decision that discriminated against homosexuals, especially men. That was a general criterion coming from not only religions but even from sciences. Psychiatry classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. There were even therapists to change homosexuals into heterosexuals, since that's what was considered normal and healthy. So, the Cuban politicians, educationalists and doctors acted in accordance with the scientific precepts of the time as well. Neither teachers nor doctors could be gay. Today, no military person can be gay either. But there are homosexuals everywhere, whether out in the open or not. So we attend to them in our centre, because humanity is about diversity. The most important thing here is that there have been discussion and change ever since. And in order to avoid this [homophobia] in the future, we've got to be explicit in our laws and policies. Homosexuality is a reality to be taken into account, not got rid of.

Haydulina Two-thirds of Cubans with HIV/AIDS are homosexual men. Are they provided due treatment? Are the Cubans with HIV provided the treatments they need?

Castro In 1983, when Fidel learned about the existence of AIDS, he asked the doctors of the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine to carry out research to avoid the tragedy on our island. Since then the state began designing its policies for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. Each patient infected with the virus is provided with all the medical assistance at the cost of the state. Although the medicines are very expensive, as well as prevention matters, these are fundamental to avoid the spreading of the epidemic. Even though Cuba maintains the lowest level [of infection] in the region and in the world, it keeps rising, so we need much more effective prevention and treatment. For example, the island buys condoms for the pharmacies, but many are donated and distributed free of charge as part of the center's educational activities across the country. Thanks to this efficient work, [HIV] infection hardly occurs among adolescents. Unfortunately the existing prejudices impede us from many of the educational activities planned for the homosexual male population.

Vilma Espin, founder and president of the Federation of Cuba Women.
Vilma Lucila Espín Guillois (1930-2007), mother of Mariela Castro Espín, was a feminist and revolutionary married to Raúl Castro, the current Cuban president. Espín was founder and President of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) from 1960 until her death. The FMC has a membership of over 3.5 million women. Espín was also a leader in the Council of State, as well as a member of the central committee and the political bureau of the Communist Party of Cuba from 1980 to 1991.

Haydulina Your mother was an internationally recognised champion of women's rights. What challenges remain for women in Cuba?

Castro There are still the remains of machismo and inequality between men and women. Although there are few women in top governmental positions, we observe rising percentages of women technicians, lawmakers, vice-ministers, ministers, as well as among the regional party leadership. Besides, in the last two hurricanes that hit the island, the actions of the women governing the two worst affected provinces made Cubans, and especially women, very proud. In troubled families, women keep returning to household chores and the upbringing up of children, because most of them still think that is our job, that "nobody can do it better than us." But men's participation in all these household duties is no less fundamental, especially in a time of crisis.

Haydulina What other changes would you like to see in Cuba?

Castro I would like the US government to lift the financial, economic, and commercial blockade that it has imposed on our island for fifty years against the Cuban people and that has considerably prevented us from achieving our development goals. It has affected our economy, commercial relations, and financial mechanisms. Cuba doesn't receive credit from any bank, and it's very difficult for us to survive in the field of international economy. The companies that trade with Cuba are being penalised. We have big problems with the internet without the access to optical fibre. It would be fundamental for life in Cuba to change, for its economy to grow, the salaries to rise. Then, we'd be able to produce, obtain, more materials and use the latest technologies. For example, I'd like to see improvements in democratic participation mechanisms on the island, so that our government could function more fluently. It has a very peculiar and good structure, like no other in the world, and we like its maturity. That's why we need to cultivate mechanisms for people's participation. It's one of the things that preoccupy me most and will bring about a whole range of other changes.

[This interview first appeared on Russia Today Television and was prepared for the web by LGBTCuba, and has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]