Fabiola Santiago

Fidel called them sissies. But gay Cubans just showed more guts than most. Bravo! | Opinion

Cubans in Havana march for LGTBI rights

Dozens of Cubans gathered in Havana on May 11, 2019 to demand more LGTBI rights in the island.
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Dozens of Cubans gathered in Havana on May 11, 2019 to demand more LGTBI rights in the island.

Havana’s first independent gay-rights march was something to behold.

Despite threats from state security to stay home, Cuba’s brave gay activists gathered at Havana’s Parque Central and marched down the famous El Prado boulevard, their Cuban and rainbow flags blowing in the breeze.

The numbers weren’t so impressive; only dozens turned out.

But it was the act of disobedience — so seldom seen in this repressive state — that renders Saturday’s march historic and worthy of a shout out.


“¡Cuba diversa!” the crowd of more than 100 chanted surrounded by police in uniform and plain clothes. “¡Cuba diversa!

A diverse Cuba, they demanded.

And: “¡Sí se pudo! ¡Sí se pudo!”

Yes, they could — and they did — was the message.

They showed the world that they — the heirs of a homosexual community once called sissies by Fidel Castro in a state speech and shipped off to concentration camps in the 1960s — are willing to take to the streets without fear and peacefully demand rights.

Durante el gobierno de Fidel Castro, la comunidad LGBTI fue duramente reprimida, llegando incluso a internarse a los homosexuales en campos de trabajos forzados.

And demand to be seen — in all their complexity, political and otherwise — they did.

“We want to show the world that the Cuban gay community is not just CENESEX,” activist Yasmany Sánchez Pérez told Channel 10 reporter Hatzel Vela, who is based in Havana and covered the march.

CENESEX is the National Center for Sex Education — founded and headed by Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela, who has until now monopolized the attention and conversation on the subject of gay rights in Cuba.

Mariela Castro travels to the United States and around the world speaking at conferences on the issue, giving the perception that Cuba’s government is accepting and inclusive, when reality tells a different story. No matter their sexual identity, Cuban citizens are oppressed by a one-party political system that denies them basic rights to expression and governs every aspect of an individual’s life.

No doubt, however, that the support by the first daughter has given the gay community some needed protection over the years. But Mariela Castro has always made it clear she supports Cuba’s regime 100 percent — and part of that is the repressive apparatus.

And so, following the script dictated by the government, her CENESEX canceled the official gay march against homophobia held since 2007, claiming that it was being stoked by “foreign forces” in Miami against the government to become a show of political discontent.

Castro asked gays to boycott the independent march, and in its aftermath, she called it “a show organized from Miami and Matanzas,” sounding a lot like her uncle.

She only says that to delegitimize the Cuban people’s real grievances .

With few exceptions, the hard line in Miami is as homophobic as the hard line in Cuba


Cuban police detain a gay rights activist taking part in an unauthorized independent march in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 11, 2019. The march was organized largely using Cuba’s new mobile internet, with gay-rights activists and groups of friends calling for a march over Facebook and WhatsApp after the government-run gay rights organization, CENEX, canceled a Saturday march. Ramon Espinosa AP

I didn’t see militant anti-Castro activists here lending social media support to Saturday’s bold march, which had a grassroots vibe. They were either silent or pushing right-wing issues in the United States and Trump policy toward Cuba as usual.

Many Cuba watchers agree that the CENESEX march was canceled because the regime was afraid it would get out of hand, given the massive protests in Venezuela — and the economic collapse underway in Cuba. People are already unhappy and restless over new food shortages and long lines at supermarkets, all reminiscent of the special period in 1990s after Cuba lost Soviet subsidies.

Some gay activists interviewed by media said the unprecedented act of defiance wasn’t political, but a call for more awareness of gay rights.

Last year, Cuba’s evangelical churches protested vehemently against a measure in favor of gay marriage that the Communist Party was planning to include in the controversial Constitution reform approved in February.

The government relented before the religious objection.

But on Saturday, they had to contend with a protest deftly organized by gay rights activists on social media and WhatsApp, supported by regime faithfuls like singer Silvio Rodríguez, and covered by most of the international media based in Cuba.

“From today on, the government will not be able to ignore the force of civil society, and in particular, of the #LGBTI community,” writer Maykel González Vivero wrote on his Facebook page along with a display of photos. “Today, for the first time, we were a community.”

As this is Cuba, the protest ended in a handful of violent arrests when the crowd reached the end of Prado and tried to cross to Malecón, the famous seawall boulevard.

In a show of force, almost as many police descended as there were protesters.

“¡Libertaaaaad!” cried a man as he was carted away.

His picture is all over the Internet now — a symbol of repression, gay, defiant and proud.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”