Cuba is debating whether to allow gay marriage. Is it deflecting from other reforms?

Abel Gutiérrez Llanez, 32, left, and his partner, Daniel Verdecia Nápoles, 18, pose at Mi Cayito beach, a meeting place for the gay community in Havana, Cuba.
Abel Gutiérrez Llanez, 32, left, and his partner, Daniel Verdecia Nápoles, 18, pose at Mi Cayito beach, a meeting place for the gay community in Havana, Cuba. el Nuevo Herald

A proposed reform of the Cuban constitution would shape the island’s future for years, but Cubans appear to be more interested in debating gay marriage than a multiparty system.

No other clause in the proposal has stirred so much criticism, from Catholic and Evangelical church leaders to common workers who take part in debates organized by the government, many expressing concern for the definition of marriage simply as “the union of two people.”

“This change is the one that concerns many because ... the constitution ... could later lead to complementary laws that, for example, legalize marriage between two people of the same sex and allow them to adopt boys or girls, depriving them of a mother or father from birth,” Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez of Santiago de Cuba wrote in a column published on the website of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops.

García Ibáñez argued that the idea of same-sex marriage is “foreign” to Cuban culture and the product of “cultural imperialism” and “ideological colonialism.”

El Nuevo Herald attempts to contact García Ibáñez for comment were unsuccessful.

The Catholic Church is not alone in rejecting the proposal, which has the backing of Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of former ruler Raúl Castro and head of the National Sex Education Center (CENESEX).

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Yuli Delgado, 27, far left, and Betsy Conde, 23, a Cuban couple, walk along the beach of Mi Cayito in Havana, a meeting place for the gay community. Alejandro Ernesto el Nuevo Herald

In an open letter issued in June, the Cuban Evangelical Association, the Eastern and Western Baptist Conventions, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical Assembly of God criticized an “ideology of gender” with no links to Cuban culture or “the historic leaders of the Revolution.”

“We want to make authorities aware of the danger that gay marriage can pose for the nation,” said Dariel Llanes Quintana, president of the Western Baptist Convention.

The official news media, which follow the guidelines of the Communist Party, have reported on the attacks against the proposed change in the definition of marriage. The final constitutional document is to be submitted to a referendum next year.

“Right now we have many dysfunctional families in our country. Families of a man and a woman. Just imagine the family formed by two men who adopt a boy. That really worries me,” a postal worker was quoted as saying by Cuban news outlet Tele Pinar.

In a video posted by the group Cuba por mi familia on Facebook a boy appears with painted lips. His father then claims to channel “a profound concern within the population” in regard to gay marriage. The video argues that the proposal to legalize gay marriage was the result of demands by the United Nations and other international organizations in exchange for their assistance to Cuba.

Castro Espín, meanwhile, supplied Cuban parliament members with a report titled “Destroying myths about same-sex couples” in an effort to stem opposition from some to the proposed Constitutional change — which she has portrayed as a victory for human rights.

The focus on Cuba’s LGBTI community has become so intense that even the U.S. government took notice. The U.S.-funded Radio Martí now broadcasts a weekly program titled “Arcoíris” (“Rainbow”), which is dedicated exclusively to those issues.

“I speak with gay people every week and they say the government has always tried to isolate the gay community, but many of them say that they are, first of all, Cuban citizens and the country lacks all kinds of rights, beyond same-sex marriage,” said Joe Cardona, the program’s director and independent Miami filmmaker.

“It’s wrong to deny that it’s a step forward,” he said, but it’s also “a kind of a trap.

“The government doesn’t have a lot to lose and a lot to win,” Cardona added. “Gay tourism is a factor, but [the proposal] is mostly a distraction from law 349 (that legalizes the censorship of independent artists) or the perpetuation of the Communist Party in power.”

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Oscar Alejandro Pérez Enríquez, 20, left, and his partner, David Martínez García, 30, pose at their home in a popular neighborhood of Havana, Cuba. Alejandro Ernesto el Nuevo Herald

Members of Cuba’s LGBTI community have followed the debate with great interest.

“For me, gay marriage should not be at the center of the debate,” said Oscar Alejandro Pérez Enríquez, a Havana university student. “There are other reforms in the new constitution that are more interesting, like the issue of elections or private property.”

Several homosexuals and transsexuals in Cuba interviewed by telephone by el Nuevo Herald agreed that conditions for the LGBTI community on the island have improved, although discrimination continues.

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The transgender woman Isabel Crono, whose legal name is Ahmed Esonda, 43, poses at Mi Cayito beach, a meeting place in Havana, Cuba, for the gay community. Alejandro Ernesto el Nuevo Herald

“The discrimination is not going to disappear, but society is a little bit more tolerant. We are living in different times,” said Isabel Crono, 43, a transgender woman whose legal name is Ahmed Esonda. “But there will always be homophobic people.”

The spread of private enterprise in recent years has helped to bring parties for gays, transvestites and other LGBTI community members out of the underground.

“There are millions of places now, private businesses that have a party once a week” for the LGBTI community, said Esonda.

Some gay Cubans believe the change will be approved in the end because it has the endorsement of the Communist Party and National Assembly — which managed the drafting of the proposed constitution and then approved the draft, respectively.

But others doubt it.

“I hope they accept it. They should accept it because other countries have done it,” said Havana resident Julia Marta Viñet, 34. “But right here in my neighborhood many people are criticizing it and speaking against it.” She added that she and her partner do not plan to marry but that the right to do so would be “a step forward.”

Some Cuban opposition activists, who rejected the draft constitution because it leaves the leading role of the Communist Party unchanged, believe the commotion sparked by the gay marriage proposal was part of the government’s plan all along.

“It’s a smoke screen, for people to debate what the government wants and not the more important issues: decent wage, an end to corruption, personal and political freedoms,” said José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Cuban Patriotic Union, based in Santiago de Cuba.

Ferrer said his group supports gay marriage but “does not believe the government’s intentions are good. After persecuting homosexuals for decades, the regime now wants to show the world a new face and sell itself as a protector of the rights of minorities.”

A Cuban Catholic priest who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals criticized the column by the Santiago archbishop and said the opposition to gay marriage was not shared by other priests.

“How is it possible for a bishop to speak about gay marriage,” he asked, “and not say one word about the lack of freedoms and rights, the suffering of people whose salaries are not enough for a decent living, and the stagnation of the country?”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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