Cuba once made life hard for gays. Now, it’s on a path to allowing same-sex marriage

Gay pride is celebrated during a 2016 parade in Havana. Now, Cuba’s National Assembly  is considering legalizing gay marriage.
Gay pride is celebrated during a 2016 parade in Havana. Now, Cuba’s National Assembly is considering legalizing gay marriage. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

As Cuba enters a new era with a modern constitution, acclaimed Cuban writer and ethnographer Miguel Barnet said Sunday that it is time to break with the past and endorse a constitutional change that will allow same-sex marriage on the island.

“If you need to break with tradition, you break,” Barnet said during a Cuban National Assembly debate on a draft of a new constitution for the island.

“In socialism no type of discrimination between human beings exists,” said the National Assembly deputy and author of “Biography of a Runaway Slave.”

“I am in favor of Article 68 of the new constitution. Love has no sex.”

But that wasn’t the prevailing attitude toward marriage or gay people in the early years of the revolution when Cuba was a homophobic nation and many gays, mostly men, were sent to labor camps for reeducation.

Article 68 of the new draft constitution, which must be submitted to the Cuban people for consultation before a final version is approved by the National Assembly, defines marriage as “the consensual union between two people, regardless of gender.”

The 1976 constitution, which is currently in effect, defines marriage as a “voluntary union between a man and woman” with the goal of building a life in common with equal rights and duties for both spouses.

On Sunday afternoon, the National Assembly approved a draft of the constitution that included the gay-marriage provision. It will be submitted for popular consultation from Aug. 13 to Nov. 15.

“Every Cuban will be able to freely express his opinions and contribute to reach a constitutional text that reflects the today and the future of the country,” said Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. “There is not much left to say, but to do, to solve, correct, strengthen and create.”

It won’t be an easy task, he added, because of the tense economic situation Cuba faces with only 1.1 percent economic growth in the first half of the year, but mainly because of the U.S. embargo against the island.

The Cuban government is proposing to eliminate the word “Communism” from the constitution and cap the starting age of presidents to 60. Same-sex marriages also would be allowed. (Spanish)

Cuban LGBT groups and Mariela Castro, the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education and daughter of Raúl Castro, have advocated for the marriage reform — although there has been push-back from some religious groups on the island.

Five evangelical groups have issued a statement saying that marriage is “exclusively the union of a man and a woman, according to the Bible.” The religious leaders said that gender ideology “has no relationship at all with Communist countries.”

Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban leader Raúl Castro and a deputy in Cuba’s National Assembly, is an advocate of same-sex marriage.. Stephen Lam Getty Images

Castro, a deputy, also proposed deleting constitutional language “in which the reproductive condition of marriage is explicit.” That, she said, is a decision that “only concerns the spouses.I reiterate marriage isn’t only to have children. It begins with other intentions, because they want to live together and then comes reproduction. What I propose is that all families have the same rights.”

Such changes, she suggested, might have to be addressed later in the Family Code.

“Love of neighbor is the essence” of the same-sex-marriage proposal, Castro said. It will put Cuba “among the vanguard countries, in the recognition and guarantee of human rights,” she said.

If the proposal becomes part of the Cuban Constitution, Cuba would join the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and many European countries where gay marriage is legal. In Latin America, same-sex marriage is legal in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and some jurisdictions of Mexico.

“How many people do we know who are homosexuals or bisexuals and are decent people and often live together but we have denied them the right to form a family?” asked Yolanda Ferrer, a deputy from Pinar del Río. “We cannot permit that centuries of backwardness mark our actions. I remember that Vilma Espín [mother of Marinela Castro] always took into account that sexual diversity was a right, not a stigma.”

Given its early record, Cuba wouldn’t have been expected to become a leading advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.The late Fidel Castro said a gay person didn’t have the attributes to be considered a true revolutionary and life in the re-education camps was often hard. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, homosexuality was further stigmatized when those suffering from AIDS were rounded up and quarantined in sanitariums.

Although Cuba banned workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation in 2013, and massive gay pride parades with participants waving rainbow flags have been held, old social attitudes still die hard in Cuba.

However, since the Seventh Communist Party Congress in 2016, Cuba has affirmed “a vision of the Cuban nation [based on] the principles of equality and non-discrimination, including gender, sexual orientation and gender identify,” Castro tweeted recently.

During Saturday’s National Assembly debate, she also called for the use of inclusive language throughout the text of the new constitution.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi