¡Cuba! ¿Libre?

Changing American policy has recently allowed more Americans to visit Cuba – an opportunity that many are taking advantage of, and while American tourism trends are changing at a fast rate, social policy changes in regards to gay marriage in Cuba are relatively slower. American tourists want to visit a country they see as stuck in time; however, what they do not see is the extraordinary changes afoot in Cuba. Cuba has changed radically in the last 20 years, a fact that is evident in its social policy. While Cubans still face egregious restrictions on personal freedoms, some subsets of the population are gaining more liberty. Notably, gay people in Cuba are closer than ever to gaining the right to same sex marriage. Last year Cuba began the process of constitutional reform, which included language specifically defining marriage as being between two people with “absolutely equal rights and obligations.” This change would have allowed same-sex couples to marry. However, dominantly evangelical protesters in Havana lobbied for the language to be excluded from the reforms. The Cuban people have not historically spoken against their government (which still regularly jails dissidents), making the protest especially surprising. Indeed, the movement was even more unexpected in light of changing social sentiments in Cuba, making for a more inclusive society than in the past. While sexual discrimination is still a reality in Cuba, more people are accepting of varied sexual relations and identities today than ever before. Regardless, the protests were successful in blocking the language in the reform, showing that Cuba still has farther to go. For now, the national assembly is debating policy change separately from the constitutional reform. While this derailing of the policy may sound discouraging, the mere possibility of same sex marriage in Cuba was once an outrageous ideal and debate on the topic stands to prove how far the country has come on some social issues. Moreover, the relative change apparent in the last twenty years indicate that Cuba will continue to reform. However, this change must start from the outside. While citizens are not as free to demand change, Cuba is eager to please its business partners. International bodies and countries that conduct business with Cuba should increase their insistence for social change. Since the Cuban government is already willing to consider the matter, international insistence could superseded the demonstrations in Havana.  

LGBTQ issues have long been a divisive topic in Cuba. After toppling the Batista regime in 1959, the revolutionaries started constructing a country based on their movements ideals; ideals which include a distinct image of what a good revolutionary was. Many Cubans did not fit the mold, including LGBTQ individuals. The Castro regime defined homosexuality as dissident behavior and treated such individuals as such. In a 1965 interview Castro told a reporter:

We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true communist militant. […] A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant communist should be.

Che Guevara is also cited as rejecting homosexuality and believed that it was a bourgeois decadence, incompatible with the revolution. To understand this sentiment, it is important to acknowledge Machismo. Machismo is a strong sentiment of male pride that permeates Spanish speaking societies. Its cultural importance substantial enough to define ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, and ‘out’ groups are shunned by society. Interestingly the history of machismo does not infer homophobic sentiments necessarily. The stereotype of the Latin Gay is still considered within the bounds of Machismo, as long as he remains dominant. It is not a requirement to be straight, it is a requirement of domination: that the man maintains the power structure he was born into. As stated by Annick Prieur from the University of Chicago, “contempt for the effeminate homosexual is exactly what makes bisexuality acceptance [sic] for masculine men, and this is why homophobia, machismo and widespread male bisexuality make a perfect fit.” Therefore, bisexual or gay man are not necessarily condomed per their sexuality, only by their behavior. It is not the violation of sexuality that offends others, it is the degradation of being submissive. However, this contradiction explicitly persecutes transgender women who face even greater discrimination for fully breaking with machismo to switch or want to switch gender to the less desirable and less powerful gender: a sentiment that completely goes against Machismo. In regard to gay or bisexual men, the different sentiments tied to sexual ‘roles’ goes back to the Aztecs. When two men were caught having sex during the time of the Aztecs the ‘active’ partner was tied to a stake and left to die while the ‘passive’ man was tortured to death. Neither is accepting of course, but in one case the individual completely violated cultural norms while the other maintained their prescribed identity while engaging in an illegal activity. A shadow of resemblance to this system is reflected in Cuba.

To suppress the perceived gay ‘thereat’ to the Castro regime Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) were created in 1965. These ‘units’ were forced labor camps to reeducate a variety of persons deemed ‘anti-revolutionary,’ including gay people.  An estimated 800 LGBTQ individuals were imprisoned in the camps. There is not an abundance of information on UMAPs, however one former inmate, Emilio Izquierdo, stated that gay people were “separated … from the rest and put together work teams with just gay people, those who were active and passive.” While this fact alone cannot confirm a standing cultural norm, it does indicate similar sentiments. In 1968, the camps closed, but discrimination against LGBTQ individuals did not end, causing many to hide behind public personas. Homosexuality was finally decriminalized in 1979, but the change in legality did little to affect people’s lives as all ‘publicly manifested’ homosexuality remained illegal. While this legal change did offer some reprieve, violent crackdowns were common. In August 1997, Cuban police infiltrated a gay nightclub, arresting 800 people and beating many of the gay Cubans in attendance. During the whole month of August an estimated 500 LGBTQ individuals were arrested. Indeed, many more incidents have gone unpublicized. Since 1980, small policy changes have eased hardships formerly endured by the LGBTQ population. As the Castro government sought international aid and acceptance, it altered a number of its social policies.

Changing Cuban sentiment is indicated by two specific policies passed since 2008. In 2008 the state announced that gender-reassignment surgeries and hormone replacement therapy would become available to qualified Cubans. Cuban healthcare is state provided and therefore under state control. There had been one previous operation in 1988 but widespread public opposition caused the government to end the program. The reignition of the policy in 2008 clearly demonstrates a change in public opinion from 1988. The 2008 policy was lobbied for by Mariela Castro (daughter of Raul Castro), who represented 28 Cubans who petitioned for the surgery at the time. Cuban doctors do not yet have the expertise to perform the surgeries, so the government invited Dutch surgeons to the island each year to perform up to five sex reassignments. Mariela Castro leads National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX). CENESEX is the only LQBT organization in Cuba because it is state-run. Other organizations are not allotted state support and are therefore illegal. The organization is a visible and globally acclaimed group that has successfully lobbied the government for many LGBT initiatives. While the organization benefits the Cuban people, it is important to note that it is led by a member of the Castro family and is given priority and funding by the state. These recognitions both empower and undermine the organization. Other organizations are not allowed in Cuba and likely the organization is favored because of Mariela Castro’s familial status. Also, due to the backing of the government, the organization is careful to promote initiatives within certain boundaries. Mariela Castro has spoken abroad on the situation in Cuba and is always careful to use state approved language, even referring to UMAP as training camps. LGBT Cubans have referred to her as a government propaganda machine designed to garner international support from LGBTQ accepting countries. However, regardless of the drawbacks of the program, it has prompted real change and benefitted many Cubans.

In addition to state provided sex reassignment surgeries, CENESEX also lobbied for improved sexual education and access to antiretroviral drugs and condoms— policies that are now in effect. Many of these policies are radical in a country that was strongly opposed to LGBTQ rights fairly recently. The government also passed anti-discrimination law in employment based on sexual orientation in 2016. Notably, Mariela Castro (a Cuban Assembly member) cast the only dissenting vote in Cuban history when voting on this policy as it did not protect transgender people. While her dissent is of little political consequence as the policy was going to vote regardless, it still drew attention to the drawbacks of the policy and antiquated sentiments of the Assembly. This balancing act is one perfected by CENESEX as it pushes the government to reform from the safety of its umbrella provided to it by the Castro family name. However, regardless of the drawbacks of the policy, the improvements that Cuba made in favor of LGBTQ rights in recently times have elevated it to one of the best countries in the Caribbean for LGBTQ individuals. Amnesty International’s Caribbean Team has stated that Cuba is “one of the most advanced countries in the protection and promotion of the rights of LGBTI people in the sub-region.” While more changes are needed, Cuba is leading the region with changing policy, changing public sentiment, and even changing government attitudes.

One of the most surprising changes for LGBTQ individuals in Cuba arrived by way of an interview with Fidel Castro. In 2010 Castro interviews with La Jornada newspapers in Mexico claiming responsibility for the negative treatment of gays. In an article titled “Soy el responsable de la persecución a homosexuales que hubo en Cuba” (I am responsible for the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba), Fidel blames himself for the persecution of LGBTQ individuals and called the regime’s past actions a ‘great injustice.’ Castro then continues to explain that after the regime’s actions it was hard to find alliances with European countries as their image of Cuba had deteriorated. This need for international alliance likely sparked some of the aforementioned changes. Also notable is the changing sentiment of Miami Cubans. Cuba is dependent on support from Miami Cubans and received $5.1 billion in remittances from Miami in 2013 alone: the number has continued to grow ever since. While Cubans in Miami are historically conservative, younger Cuban-Americans are leaning further left. Today they are about 50-50 on voting records and could be affecting change as Cuba looks to please a large source of its income. Regardless of Cuban-American political sentiments in the coming years, it is evident that Cuba is already warming to social change.

Cuba has changed significantly since the beginning of the revolution. LGBTQ individuals today are less discriminated against in both an official-state capacity and by the greater population. The community has a quasi-leader in Mariela Castro and has a valiant cause to support. With each step, LGBTQ Cubans come that more closer to a free Cuba. What is necessary to push the legislation is an outpouring of international support and resistance. As stated by Human Rights Watch, “given the effectiveness of Cuba’s repressive machinery and the Castro government’s firm grip on power, the pressure needed to bring progress on human rights cannot come solely from within Cuba.” Therefore, the international community is responsible for encouraging further change within Cuba. Given the demonstrated willingness and dependence of the government on the international community, pressure should be exerted to revolutionize Cuban social policy. Pressure can come in the form of increased economic support or trade, or the withholding of such relations. Issues that need to be addressed include same-sex marriage, the ability to adopt children regardless of sex or sexuality, and further protections for the LGBTQ community. Should Cuba incorporate these changes, it will be a leader of social policy in the Caribbean and help disseminate further change. Indeed, the situation is in such a state of flex that it can be spurred in either direction and international support will guarantee that the situation tips in favor of the LGBTQ community. Action should be taken quickly while the situation is still at a culmination. With luck, time, and support, the Cuban people will win their rights.



On February 24th the Cuban people voted in favor of the new Constitution. The constitution did not include the aforementioned language regarding marriage. However, the voting statistics marked notable dissent in Cuba. 87% of voters were in favor of the new constitution while 9% of votes counted were in dissent and 4% of ballots were left blank. Both the dissenting and refraining votes, in addition to those who chose not to vote, highlight a growing ease of dissent in Cuba.

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