Same-sex marriage in Cuba is a public-relations ploy

Cuba’s new constitution describes marriage as a union of two individuals, instead of between a man and a woman.
Cuba’s new constitution describes marriage as a union of two individuals, instead of between a man and a woman. AP

For several years, the Cuban regime has been undergoing a series of mutations designed to guarantee the continuity of the system and erase the past. I have branded this kind of gatopardismo — changing to make sure nothing changes — as “transvestism of the state.”

It’s a readjustment of the Cold War’s revolutionary rhetoric that uses the notion of diversity as a tool for projecting an image of change, outside of the island, with just a few touch ups. The policy also puts in place new ways of managing political control and the transition that Cuba’s aged political elite is carrying out.

A recently proposed constitutional reform that would open the path to the recognition of same-sex marriage follows the same logic.

The Cuban parliament unanimously approved — in Soviet fashion — a new constitution drafted in secret and that Raúl Castro himself helped prepare. It includes an article defining marriage as “the voluntary union agreed upon by two people with the legal right to do so.”

The approval of same-sex marriage signals one step toward the recognition of individual rights, historically diluted. But in the way that same-sex marriage is portrayed in Cuba, it also becomes an artifact, an instrument designed to avert and then annul a broader democratic discussion, not limited to the specific field of sexuality. It appears it will become another space for controlled diversity, created for public-relations purposes in the post-revolution era.

The transvestism of the state was first tried a decade ago by the National Sex Education Center (CENESEX), directed by Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Raúl Castro. She started to make headlines, marching down Havana streets to the beat of congas, surrounded by homosexuals while affirming that sexual diversity had become part of the Revolution.

After the approval of the constitution’s draft, Castro Espín quickly concluded that, “With this proposal for constitutional regulation, Cuba places itself among the vanguard countries in recognizing and guaranteeing human rights.”

But can a country be considered on the “vanguard” on human rights when there are high numbers of arbitrary political arrests each year? When a country considers dissidents as mercenaries in the service of a foreign power or traitors to the homeland? When a country where the freedoms of expression and association, among others, are practically annulled?

Some LGBTI activists in Cuba say that the change was the result of their advocacy work. But that claim does not hold up if we consider the strong pressures that opposition activists, Cuban exiles and international organizations have exerted on the government to recognize other freedoms and rights — without a single reaction from those holding the reins of power.

Without underestimating the importance of activism, I believe same-sex marriage is anchored in that strategy of transvestism. Aside from testing new methods of political control, the policy promotes an amnesiac transition, washing out the national memory and rewriting history. It is an attempt to rewrite historical events that tie the Revolution to discrimination and homophobia.

For decades, homophobia in Cuba was a government policy that legitimized purges of homosexuals from institutions and the establishment of forced labor camps like the infamous UMAP — Military Units to Aid Production — designed to build the communist “new man.” The erasing of memory and rewriting of history began in August 2010, when Fidel Castro told La Jornada newspaper that he accepted his historical responsibility for the forced labor camps.

A few months later, Mariela Castro claimed Fidel “had not even been paying attention to the UMAP. He lived focused on the survival of the revolution and the changes that were being made in politics, in the laws that favored the rights of the people, while facing complex and tense international relations.” She even promised an investigation of UMAP.

We’re still waiting.

Since then, the CENESEX director has said repeatedly that the camps were an isolated mistake and that they were never forced labor camps.

And let’s not forget that, with the approval of same-sex marriage, Cuba would be taking an important step to becoming a gay-friendly destination, which could bring in big revenues in areas like tourism and sex-change surgeries. Until now, the principal place for those surgeries was Thailand. But that could change because Cuban doctors are already performing them on their own, after several years of training by European specialists arranged by CENESEX.

Grupo Gaviota, a corporation owned by the Cuban military under U.S. sanctions, recently signed an agreement with the European chain Muthu Hotels and Resorts to administer a hotel aimed at the LGBTI community.

Forgotten will be the police raids and the underground gay clubs, the forced labor camps and the government homophobia. Celebrities of the gay world will be able to marry in Cuba without fear of being arrested.

Now, more than ever, we need a policy of remembering. Otherwise, it’s possible that in a not too distant future, we will see the UMAP represented in school books as simple summer camps.

Abel Sierra Madero is an award-winning Cuban author and historian, who is researching the history of the forced labor camps known as UMAP – Military Units to Aid Production.