A torrential downpour was passing over the Cuban capital on May 11 when Violeta Cardoso and her partner of 32 years, Isabel Pacheco, arrived at a coffee shop in the Vedado neighborhood.
The women soon began to speak passionately about LGBTI-specific issues with Juana Mora and Lidia Romero of Acepto, a group that advocates for marriage rights for same-sex couples in Cuba. It was sweltering inside the coffee shop because of a power outage, but the women nevertheless spoke with each other for more than an hour as they drank iced tea and coffee.
“I am optimistic,” Cardoso told the Washington Blade.
Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the country’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), during a May 4 press conference said her organization will submit proposals to the Cuban National Assembly that would extend marriage and other rights to LGBTI Cubans. Cardoso and Pacheco met with Mora and Romero at the coffee shop a week later.
The National Assembly is expected to consider amendments to the country’s constitution — which currently defines marriage as between a man and a woman — when it reconvenes later this month.
Neither Mariela Castro nor CENESEX have publicly commented on how they plan to build support for their efforts in the National Assembly. Acepto and other independent LGBTI advocacy groups are nevertheless optimistic, citing recent legal and societal advances on the Communist island.
A three-judge panel in Havana last October granted Cardoso custody of her late daughter’s three young children who she is raising with Pacheco.
The ruling is believed to be the first time the Cuban government has legally recognized a same-sex couple. Cardoso pointed out to the Blade that one of the three judges — a man who she described as a “big black man” — who heard her case was crying after he and the other two judges ruled in her favor.
“There was no problem,” said Cardoso.
Cardoso, Pacheco and their children were among the thousands who took part in an International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia march in Havana on May 12 that CENESEX organized. Pacheco at the coffee shop told the Blade she is also optimistic because new President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who was born after the 1959 revolution that brought Mariela Castro’s uncle, Fidel Castro, to power, is more supportive of LGBTI issues than his predecessors.
“This is a good moment,” she added as Cardoso, Mora and Romero listened. “Our president is a man who was born with the revolution.”
Pacheco also noted Díaz-Canel supported El Mejunje, an LGBTI cultural center in Santa Clara, when he was secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in Villa Clara Province.
“He does not reject the community,” Pacheco told the Blade. “He does not see the community as a danger at all.”
Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, in 2016 traveled to Cuba. Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith and other U.S. activists has also met with same-sex marriage advocates on the Communist island.
Cuban church groups publicly oppose marriage
More than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service were sent to labor camps known by the Spanish acronym UMAP after the revolution. The Cuban government until 1993 forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria.
Cuba in 1979 repealed its sodomy law. Fidel Castro in 2010 apologized for the work camps during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.
Cuba since 2008 has offered free sex-reassignment surgeries through its national health care system, although only a few dozen people have been able to receive them. Mariela Castro, who is a member of the National Assembly, in 2013 voted against a proposal that sought to add sexual orientation to Cuba’s labor law because it did not include gender identity.
Independent LGBTI activists with whom the Blade has previously spoken say they face harassment and even arrest if they publicly criticize Mariela Castro or the Cuban government. Nelson Gandulla, the former president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, and Victor Manuel Dueñas, an activist who helped launch the “Nosotros También Amamos” campaign in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Cuba in 2015, are currently seeking asylum in Spain and in the Netherlands respectively.
Five Evangelical church groups late last month publicly expressed their opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples in a statement they posted on Facebook. The Cuban government subsequently denied their request to hold a march in Havana.
Maykel González, an independent Cuban journalist and activist who contributes to the Blade, included a copy of the declaration in an article he wrote for OnCuba, a Miami-based magazine that covers Cuba.
“The family is a divine institution created by God and marriage is exclusively a union of a man and a woman, according to Biblical teaching, the word of God,” reads the declaration.
“Gender ideology has no relation whatsoever to our culture, our fights for independence nor with the revolution’s historical leaders,” it adds. “At the same time, there are no links to other Communist countries, say the former Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and even less so North Korea.”
González reported CENESEX-affiliated LGBTI activists criticized the declaration. Yadiel Cepero, who created a social network for LGBTI Cubans on Facebook in 2017, is among the independent activists who echoed these sentiments.
“The five churches that signed the declaration from last June 28 showed their position in defense of patriarchy, machismo, sexism and hegemonic thinking that is stuck in the past,” Cepero told the Blade on Tuesday in an email.
Cepero added the churches’ use of the phrase “gender ideology” to argue against marriage rights for same-sex couples is “an attack against feminism, the just struggle of women, the contributions of science and gender studies in general.” Acepto in a statement it posted to its Facebook page on July 6 made a similar argument.
“They oppose all LGBTI rights because they feel that we distort human rights through legal institutions that guarantee our lives, abortion, women’s rights in general because they threaten patriarchy,” it reads.
‘We know the damages caused by the lack of marriage equality’
Romero did not explicitly criticize Mariela Castro while speaking with the Blade on May 11, although she said, “who knows” when asked about how she and CENESEX will convince lawmakers to support marriage rights for same-sex couples. Romero added CENESEX-affiliated activists and those who work independently of it nevertheless recognize the need to advance the issue in Cuba.
“Everyone talks about the need for the recognition of or the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples,” said Romero.
“In Mariela’s case, what she is really doing is responding to what all LGBTI people are saying,” she added. “I also think it is a good time to do it. It is a good time because of the big economic, judicial changes…and because of social changes. Cuban society has changed enormously and I think this has opened the door.”
Moisés Rodríguez of Corriente Martiana, a Cuban human rights organization that supports marriage rights for same-sex couples, largely agreed with Romero when he spoke with the Blade at his home in Cabañas in Artemisa Province on May 11.
“I think Mariela Castro really believes in what is needed,” he said, pointing out gay and lesbian Cubans who are in same-sex relationships have lost their homes and belongings after their partners have passed away. “We know the damages caused by the lack of marriage equality.”
Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights President Leandro Rodríguez was far more critical of Mariela Castro.
He described her statements in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples as “marketing” and “politics” when he spoke with the Blade last month from Villa Clara Province where he lives with his mother, Tanía García Hernández, who created a hotline for LGBTI Cubans.
“It’s one more falsehood, it is one more lie that she says,” said Leandro Rodríguez. “She [Mariela Castro] is a liar.”