Behind the Cuban veil – Washington Blade sends first journalist into LGBTQ Cuba
Although travel restrictions have been made less severe in the past six months, crossing over the Cuban border as an authorized American remains a challenging feat.
The nation’s oldest LGBT newspaper, The Washington Blade, sent International News Editor Michael Lavers to Cuba last month to learn about Cuban’s LGBT community from first-hand experience, while interviewing LGBT rights advocates in Havana, Cienfuegos and Las Tunas.
As the Blade’s ongoing commitment to coverage of international LGBT issues, Lavers’ trip to Cuba was by far one of the most nerve-wrecking and most influential trips of the project thus far. “…I say it this way to people, it was one of the best experiences of my career, one of the most challenging experiences of my career, one of the most complicated experiences,” said Lavers in an interview with GayRVA. “Every adjective you can think of is probably appropriate to describe what it’s like to be in Cuba.”
Last December, President Obama ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in 50+ years. As a result of this, travel restrictions, including journalistic activity with an authorized press visa, are less severe.
“I’m laughing because it was extremely complicated,” said Lavers. “My editor and I had started talking about going to Cuba two years ago and I applied for press visa three times. We heard nothing back from the Cuban government on the first two applications, but we applied again last December… I once again heard nothing, and then I received a call from the Cuban Interests Section here in Washington towards the end of April saying that the government had approved our applications and we had 30 days to use it once we picked them up.”
Once down in Cuba, Lavers (top image) quickly discovered the new evolved standards of the Cuban people and how accepting the society had become in the years following the revolution.
“I would say Cuba is more open than other Latin American countries that I’ve traveled to throughout the region: Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, México, Colombia, Chile,” said Lavers, a fluent Spanish-speaker, who is the Blade’s leading South American reporter. “But I think in terms of LGBT acceptance or tolerance, Cuba, and this is a compliment to Cuba I would say, Cuba seems to be more open on these issues than other countries in the region.
“I saw same sex couples holding hands in Havana and walking around. There was a number of gay bars and clubs that you can go to…I talked to the cab drivers mentioning Mariela Castro’s LGBT rights events and they seemed to know what that was. I would say that in Cuba things are more open, but of course if you leave Havana, like any capital city, things are going to be a little more conservative and less excepting.”
Although social standards are more lenient near Havana, Cuba still has a strict political system and a government that attempts to control information and access to media, making it a challenge for the LGBT community to gain awareness. Especially those who object to Fidel Castro’s niece and LGBT rights advocate, Mariela Castro Espín, who is the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX) in Havana.
Supporters of Mariela Castro Espín take part in a march in Las Tunas, Cuba, on May 16, 2015, that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Photo by Michael K. Lavers)
“Basically there are two groups of activists; those who support Mariela Castro and those who oppose her,” said Lavers. “If you support Mariela Castro and her organization you’re able to access media, you’re able to access events that she and her organization put together and things like that. If you publicly criticize Mariela Castro and her organization as the gay right’s activist, these bases are not made available to you. So you have to use other means.”
Malecón, which is Havana’s oceanfront promenade, is a means for members of the LGBT community to share their stories and ideas in a safe and accepting environment. “…it’s about three miles long and everybody gathers there at night especially. It’s cool at that point and people just gather to talk and play music and things like that,” said Lavers. “It’s also a place for people to gather just to exchange ideas away from supporters of the government. One way to describe it is Havana’s living room. Everyone goes out there and it’s an extremely authentic experience, just to get out there and hang out and play music and things like that.”
Mariela Castro does her part to help the LGBT community gain awareness while also being a contextor of the Cuban Revolution and government policies, but there are many other advocates who need to be accounted for. “…Mariela Castro is just one side of the story. There are all these independent LGBT rights activists who are doing work down there…In many cases they take pretty serious risks of their lives or personal issues being ostracized or targeted by the regimes. So that’s another story that I really wanted to show our readers.”
Members of the Shui Tuix Foundation, an independent LGBT advocacy group, meet in a Havana apartment on May 14, 2015. (Photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Members of the Cuban Foundation for LGBT Rights are publicly critical of Mariela Castro and the National Center for Sexual Education, “There are some groups who put together their own publications independently of the government and a lot of them are done at home. I have a couple at home and some of them are kind of like a binder that’s put together for a class presentation or something like that.”
“I can tell you, I’ve heard some stories about an independent activist that I interviewed …I’m trying to explain it a proper way…their lives have been made more difficult by speaking out against Mariela Castro and her government. There was an activist that I interviewed…she was a part of a group who wasn’t allowed to attend the regional LGBT rights conference that happened in Cuba last May. And basically, Mariela Castro and her group organized it and they denied access to people who criticized them, and that’s one example.”
Lavers opens up about how he respects the persistence of the Cuban advocates and how they are able to do a lot of things with not many resources, which is a much different approach to advocacy than in America. As an objective journalist, it was simple for Lavers to detach his opinions of the American movement from Cuba’s, which made it all the more cherishing when members the Cuban LGBT community were extremely accepting and welcoming.
“The people I met were nothing but kind to me, they just wanted to sit down with me and share their story about what it’s like to be LGBTQ in Cuba and what they’re doing to get around that, supporters of the government and opponents of the government,” said Lavers. “One group made me cake and flan in their house outside of Havana, and I understand that certainly was not an easy thing for them to do. They really went out of their way to make me feel welcome in their house, their home, or their apartment. It really was a great opportunity to see Cuba for what it is, so I was really, really pleased with that. I’m really honored that they would treat me so well.”
The years after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, gay men, and other people who were “undesirable” were warehoused to agricultural work camps called UMAP (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción or Military Units to Aid Production). Fidel Castro visited one of the camps as an incognito attendee and witnessed the inhumane treatment, though they remained open through the 1960′s. Castro finally apologized for them in 2010 in an interview with a Mexican newspaper.
As the evolvement of Cuban government policies and societal standards progress, human rights and LGBT rights will, slowly but surely, continue to flourish for the Caribbean Island.
“It’s a beautiful country and the people are fantastic and I really hope that whatever happens with the new policies, that will hopefully take place, that the Cuban people will benefit from it. Because they suffered for a really long time and they have to endure what they’ve endure because of government politics and things like that.”
“…we have all these ideas of what it’s like to be in Cuba as Americans, but once you’re on the grounds it’s really a different thing. It’s important to experience it and view it with your own eyes and from a different perspective. And I think for Blade, it’s important that we have the opportunity to share that story and to share all of those stories that are coming out of Cuba because it is really important that we got a moment to be down there and see how the change of policy affects the LGBTQ rights movement and Cubans in general.”
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