Also see: Caribbean Anti Violence Project
Havana Boys: Interviews with gay men and a mother
What do most gay Cubans want?
* All: To be free!
* Julio: To say whatever we want, to be ourselves in this society, to mean something in this society.
by Lorenzo Gomez
I’ve been to Cuba twice within the past year. The first trip was a vacation. My second trip was as a photojournalist searching for a subject that could provide a meaningful slice of Cuban life.
Cuba is unlike any place I’ve been—it’s a country that seems to have been frozen in time. Vintage American cars from the 1950s roam Havana’s cobblestone streets. Century old buildings, shamefully neglected, in need of paint and basic maintenance, are literally crumbling to the sidewalks below. Beautiful Spanish architecture from Cuba’s colonial past is seen civic and commercial buildings everywhere. Ancient mansions that eerily cry out from a glorious past have been recycled into embassies and apartments for many families. Havana, and Cuba itself, is caught in limbo between a communist government and commercial capitalism in an attempt to revive an ailing economy. Havana has a huge black-market, everything can be bought from prostitutes to cigars.
I found ten Cubans-nine gay men and the mother of one of the men-who agreed to be interviewed about what it’s like to be gay in Cuba today. All agreed to allow me to use their photographs as well as their real names: Julio, Mario, Darvin, Alexander, Javier, Osmany, Alex, Faubel, and Adonis. Despite the potential danger, the agreed to the interview so that their voices could be heard outside of Cuba. Have any of you seen Strawberry and Chocolate, one of the first Cuban movies to depict a gay man living in Cuba?
* Julio: It was a huge hit here in Cuba! The movie played to packed government theaters for months, with lines around the block. Both straight and gays alike saw the film and loved it.The film’s main character is a passionate gay writer. How has the movie affected your lives?
* Mario: The movie made gays a bit more sympathetic to the public, people saw us as more human.
* Faubel: It was a wonderful film, because it helped the public’s opinion about us, it showed that to be gay is not an illness, we owe much to this film.
Are there many places for gays to socialize?
* Alex: No, there aren’t, we choose the places we need to go, but there are no places where we are allowed to go.
* Osmany: And the police are always attacking us whenever we go.
* Julio: Do you think this meeting is normal? If the police knew we were here we all would be arrested!
* Faubel: I go to a friend’s to dance and talk but I don’t drink or smoke.
What is the AIDS situation like here in Cuba?
* Alex: Most of the people with AIDS are normal people, straight, prostitutes and some gays. There are hospitals for them.
* Faubel: AIDS here in Cuba is normal already. I’ve got six friends with AIDS, people don’t take care of them. I’m not afraid of AIDS because I take care of myself, I use condoms.
Is it difficult to be gay in Cuba?
* Alex: Because of the social system it is hard for us, the police are always abusing us because they think that we are not human and they think that they are helping the society.
* Julio: Everyone looks at us as if we have a sex sign of our faces, and all we want to do is live our lives, to enjoy our life and to be together.
Is there an official government position with regard to gays?
* Julio: We are nobody here, a gay person is nobody. We are not seen as normal.
Have you ever been physically or verbally attacked?
* Faubel: Many times verbally but not for a while. I used to be shy about my sexuality because of society but I behave myself and I don’t lie about myself to others, because I would be lying to myself, and I don’t care what they think.
* Javier: Sometimes, by people and the police. Especially by other men in the streets. But we always fight back, and we do the best to win.
* Julio’s Mother: I feel like the mother of all of the gays, my son is gay and I don’t want anyone to tell me anything to me or my son because he is gay. I don’t want anyone disturbing my son because of him being gay. Gay people don’t disturb anyone anybody, they have wonderful feeling, to peoples’ view they are not normal. There are many criminal thieves, bad people who do bad things here, but you know what people hate? Gays! I know gays very well, they are good people. I always carry a pair of scissors with me in my clothes to protect my son Julio, and all of my sons out there. I will defend them like a lion.
Are any of you in a monogamous relationship?
* Julio: I don’t want a long-term relationship, I prefer to be free until I found the right person. Age does not matter to me, they could be much older. If I could meet a foreign gay to take me out of Cuba I would be happy.
* Adonis: I would like a serious relationship but I have not found it yet.
* Faubel: My relationships are long. There are many gays who see many men, I don’t. And some are also prostitutes.
Are there many gay prostitutes here in Havana?
* Alex: Yes, there are. Many are because nobody has any money here, it’s really hard to live here. We do anything for money.
* Julio: I dress as a woman and go out at night to make money with foreign men. I cannot die because of this society’s bad condition, and not eat! I hope one day to meet someone to take me out of Cuba, even if he is 90 years old.
Is there a religious view on gays in Cuba?
* Darvin: Some believers accept us, mainly Catholics, but not everyone. We do believe in God but not in a particular religion.
When did you know that you were gay?
* Julio: Since I was a child I realize that I liked to play games with dolls and that I liked men.
* Javier: Since I was 15 years old.
* Alexander: When I was 12 years old.
* Adonis: When I was 17.
What is the best way to meet other gays?
* Faubel: On the street, at work, wherever.|
* Julio: Just going out and looking for them.
* Alex: At a private party.
How do you get information about gays outside of Cuba?
* Alex: Through prostitution with foreigners. We also get our information through magazines, newspapers, etc., that people give to us.
Are most of you from Havana?
* Osmany: Most of us are originally from other parts of Cuba. Gays need to emigrate to Havana because there is no culture elsewhere, and people really don’t understand us.
* Julio: It’s better here in Havana for us because there are so many of us.
What types of jobs do you have?
* Alexander: Most of us are professionals, employed by the government. The salary is very bad.
* Julio: If you are found out to be gay you can lose your job. Many people don’t want to work with gays. Once they find out, there are only a few types of jobs that will take you; hospitals, arts, entertainment, very few. Many times you have to quit because it gets bad,
* Faubel: I’m a clerk at a hospital. I earn 126 Cuban pesos a month (six U.S. Dollars) and I had a higher education.
What do most gay Cubans want?
* All: To be free!
* Julio: To say whatever we want, to be ourselves in this society, to mean something in this society.
* Osmany: We need too much luck. We are not satisfied as gay people here in Cuba. We’d love to be considered normal people in this society because they are the ones that see us as the worst. In other countries there are organizations and magazines to help gays, here there is nothing.
* Mario: We need freedom from our oppressors, they are everywhere, in school, on the jobs, in your family, it’s very hard, we can hardly live.
Do you foresee a change in attitudes toward gays in Cuba?
* Javier: We don’t think so, it’s too far off. We would love to be ourselves, and live but it’s not possible in this society here in Cuba. Freedom to be ourselves is just a sweet dream…
This article was written by Lorenzo Gomez and reproduced with permission from ALEX MAGAZINE.
July 30, 2000
Book review: Drag Queens and Macho Men in Cuba: a story about an island trapped with a sinister tradition
by Brian Bouldrey
‘The Color Of Summer Or, the New Garden of Earthly Delights’ By Reinaldo Arenas Translated by Andrew Hurley Viking; 417 pages; $28.95
Reinaldo Arenas was a gay Cuban who landed in the United States during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. He took his own life in 1990 after suffering from AIDS-related illnesses for several years, but Arenas left behind a collection of novels and memoirs. These not only describe a certain populace at a certain time (`the Miami relatives,’ if you will), but also proved his genius: He was able to invent and manipulate narrative forms, finding new ways to tell his story.
Readers are perhaps most familiar with his memoir, `Before Night Falls,‘ an impressionistic and unflinching account of a gay man in the macho Cuban culture, a culture that does not understand the word `homosexual’ the way we use it. Arenas explains in `Night’ that in Cuba a man may indulge in homosexual acts as long as he does not behave in an effeminate manner or play the submissive role.
In many ways, this macho rule (and Arenas’ hatred of it) is the foundation for “The Color of Summer,” the fourth of five books Arenas called the `Pentagonia,’ which chronicle his `secret history of Cuba.’ This installment focuses on Arenas’ true and fictionalized escape from his island home, set against the backdrop of the 50th anniversary of Castro’s rule in Cuba. (Arenas wrote this book a decade before that actual event, and — in the Latin American tradition of circuitous narrative — his novel would be published a year after the events it foretold.)
To tell the story, Arenas divides himself into three personae: Gabriel, the macho man who marries for his mother’s sake; Reinaldo, the writer whose novel `Farewell to the Sea’ is destroyed by Castro’s thugs three times, and must always be rewritten; and Skunk in a Funk, a vicious drag queen. Reinaldo and Gabriel only appear for a few moments in the story. It is Skunk in a Funk, with her mocking, ridiculing voice, who upstages them in her own coup, addressing readers as if they were in drag, too.
For instance, here’s Skunk describing a character named Eachurbod caught in a homosexual act: "(H)e was already unzipping his fly (a fly which whispered a command that neither Eachurbod nor you either, Mary, could have disobeyed.)" When readers, by continuing to read, accept that address — oh Mary! — they are incriminated, susceptible to the same laws and persecutions the character undergoes.
In the same way, readers experience the frustration Reinaldo feels when his manuscript is destroyed by Castro’s government. He begins the work again and again, repeating half a dozen times the line, "This is a story about an island trapped with a sinister tradition . . ." Every time Reinaldo has to start from scratch, so does the reader. Just as Reinaldo’s story doesn’t get very far, neither does the one in `The Color of Summer,’ though plenty goes on. A hundred tales concerning as many characters coalesce into the book, building a harmonic chorus as the anniversary of the tyrant Fifo’s rule (Castro’s fictional stand-in here) is celebrated.
The subtitle, `the New Garden of Earthly Delights,’ suggests that Castro’s Cuba is a canvas like Bosch’s, full of simultaneous action and grotesque pleasures. At first glance, then, `The Color of Summer’ seems to be an unordered jumble of tales, taxonomies, tongue-twisters, parables, thoughts, letters and dream journals. This seeming randomness is reinforced by Arenas’ `Introduction,’ placed in the exact middle of the book, where he informs the reader that the book’s chapters can be read in any order.
But if the book is read as written, the pieces of its canvas come together more effectively. For example, when a character prays to an invented saint, the scene makes much more sense if you’ve read the hagiography of `St. Nelly,’ which comes before it. "The literature of savage ridicule is the only honorable weapon we have left," Muriel Spark once said in an interview. Arenas built a career on savage ridicule, targeting anything that would interfere with his static idea of a picture-perfect world, whether it’s Fifo the dictator or an act of tenderness.
`The Color of Summer’ is satire’s mannerist end — it’s absurd, full of fairy tales, exaggeration and ridiculous people. The book is like a drag queen, most drag queens being imitations, parodies, exaggerations of femininity. There are no real women here; or rather, the few real women who figure into it (including the author’s mother) are spiteful, needy and manipulative; they use sex as a weapon and cannot be trusted. They, too, are drag queens: at heart, very male. "All writing is revenge," Arenas says in his book, "to that rule, there can be no exception."
`The Color of Summer’ is almost pure in its vengeance, a vengeance served by his smart experiment of using burlesque to turn every person — character, reader, self — into a drag queen. The experiment backfires in an incredibly fascinating and worthwhile way: The burlesque is as macho and hard-hearted as the dictators, stool pigeons and lackeys Arenas sets out to castrate.
(Brian Bouldrey’s new novel, “Love, the Magician,” will be published in July by Haworth Press)
October 13, 1997
Book Review: Machos. Maricones, and Gay– Cuba and Homosexuality by Ian Lumsden
Temple University Press
by Jesse Monteagudo
The current situation of Cuban gays is much more oppressive than the Cuban government is willing to acknowledge. Yet it is also much less restricted than it was a decade ago and much better than many émigré gays and lesbians are willing to concede in public.
Studies of homosexuality in Cuba have run the gamut from the paeans of pro-Castro apologists to Nestor Almendros’s thoroughly negative ‘Conduct Improper’. In all cases, the books were colored by their authors’ views on the Cuban Revolution and the still-frigid relationship between the United States and the Pearl of the Antilles. No Cuban can be objective about Fidel Castro and his Revolution; certainly not one who, like myself, spent his formative years in the hothouse of Miami’s Cuban exile community.
Fortunately, Ian Lumsden is a Canadian; this alone frees him from the U.S.’s continuing obsession with Fidel. Lumsden likes the Cuban people–"among the warmest and most generous people in the world" in general and Cuban men–whom he rightly describes as "hot and handsome"–in particular. A frequent visitor to the Island, Lumsden admired the Revolution and its beneficial effects on Cuban society, even as he remains critical of the regime’s autocracy, bureaucracy and conformism. ‘Machos, Maricones, and Gays’ is the second of a three-volume study of homosexuality in Latin America: It was preceded by ‘Homosexuality, Society, and the State in Mexico’ and will be followed by a similar study of homosexuality in Costa Rica. In all cases, because of the author’s limited contacts with lesbian women, the scope is limited to gay males.
Gay opponents of the Revolution have blamed Cuba’s negative treatment of its gays on the tyranny of the regime. On the contrary, Lumsden writes, Cuban homophobia predated the Revolution by centuries: "The oppression of homosexuals in contemporary Cuba cannot be fully understood without relating it to the ways in which male sexuality and gender identity were constructed prior to the revolution." Spanish Machismo, which continues to be a major component of the Cuban psyche, colors Cuban attitudes towards homosexuality, just as it does the status of women and relations between the sexes.
However, unlike North American puritanism, Cuban machismo seems less concerned with sexual relations between men than with traditional gender roles. Bugarrones, men who take the active role in male sex, retain their male identity and macho privileges while maricones or locas, men who take the passive role, are despised and ridiculed as traitors to the sex. (A third category, conventionally discrete entendidos, resemble pre-Stonewall, North American gays.) Though Castro and his colleagues are relatively tolerant of homosexuality among their friends and allies, they share in their culture’s prejudices against sex variance in men.
Still, the status of homosexuals in Cuba has steadily improved, as seen in the award-winning film ‘Fresa Y Chocolate’: "It was evident by the mid-1980s that Cuban gays had begun to feel much less intimidated by the state in relation to the way they publicly expressed the sexual dimension of their lives. … More and more, young gays are developing a sense of gay identity and consciousness." The Catholic Church is not as powerful in Cuba as it in is other Latin countries, and many Cuban straights are civilizados (gay-friendly). Even the controversial policy of quarantining Cuban PWAs in sanatoria is viewed more favorably by Cuban gays than it is by outsiders who see it as proof of the regime’s brutality. (They would be more appalled by the fact that many PWAs in the U.S. don’t have health insurance.)
All in all, Lumsden concludes, "the current situation of Cuban gays is much more oppressive than the Cuban government is willing to acknowledge. Yet it is also much less restricted than it was a decade ago and much better than many émigré gays and lesbians are willing to concede in public."
‘Machos, Maricones, and Gays’ is sure to upset both sides of the Cuban Question, which speaks well for the author’s thoroughness and his open-mindedness. Having left the land of my birth long before I became aware of my sexuality, I enjoyed Lumsden’s description of gay life in Havana and the provinces — a lifestyle that I might have shared had things turned out differently. After all, blood is thicker than water or politics, and Cuban machismo is as potent in Little Havana as it is in "Big" Havana. (Lumsden cites me[!] as the authority on this matter.) If this madness ever ends, gay Cubanos from both sides of the Florida Straits will be able to come together once more. Adding to ‘Machos, Maricones and Gays’ value as a resource on gay Cuban life is a comprehensive bibliography, an essay on santeria by Tomas Fernandez Robaina, and the "Manifesto of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Cuba."
January 4, 2001
Whorehouse of the Caribbean
Castro promised to clean up Cuba, but the new poverty has driven many to sell what they can, including their bodies.
by Jonathan Lerner
A female prostitute in Havana is rather descriptively known as a jinetera, or jockey. A male hustler there is not a jinetero, but a pinguero, which translates as something like penis professional or dick worker. Officially, there are jobs for all in socialist Cuba. But the average monthly wage is equivalent to $8. To survive, plenty of people are on the make. So depending on his preference, the tourist to Cuba has no trouble at all finding someone to ride his little race horse or perform professional action on his dick.
Besides kicking out the Yanquis and redressing the island’s extremes of wealth and poverty (the wealth is all gone now, and everybody is poor) Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution set out to purify the people’s behavior. Cuba would no longer be the "whorehouse of the Caribbean." Female prostitutes were offered training as drivers and secretaries; those who demurred got holidays in prison. Homosexual men were spared the retraining programs and sent directly to jail — or to forced labor in the sugar cane fields.
To Reinaldo Arenas, the outrageously queer Cuban novelist whose memoir "Before Night Falls" has just been made into a film directed by Julian Schnabel, this official homophobia had a paradoxical effect. "There was never more fucking going on than in those years, the decade of the sixties," he wrote (as he was dying of AIDS in New York, in 1990), "which was precisely when all the new laws against homosexuals came into being, when the persecution started and concentration camps were opened, when the sexual act became taboo while the ‘new man’ was being proclaimed and masculinity exalted." And according to Arenas, it wasn’t only faggots who sought the solace of male flesh. "Many of the soldiers who marched, rifle in hand and with martial expressions, came to our rooms after the parades to cuddle up naked, and show their real selves, sometimes revealing a tenderness and true enjoyment such as I have not been able to find again anywhere … There was, moreover, no prostitution. It was pleasure for pleasure’s sake."
Cuba’s official repression of homosexuals has ended, although other forms of repression remain; you cannot, for example, purchase Reinaldo Arenas’ books there. Officially, prostitution has been eliminated, but the wrecked economy forces many people to sell their bodies. Effeminate men are no longer denounced and sent away, but there is still no permission for anything vaguely resembling the public gay institutions Americans take for granted.
That does not keep Havana’s gays from gathering openly, at places like the broad sidewalk in front of the Yarra Cinema. On weekend evenings, snappily dressed, hot-to-trot gay boys in the hundreds congregate outside the Yarra. They are joined there by all sorts of others drawn to the fissure of cultural free space that these men, in their brazenness, crack open; other people whom, in the very loosest sense, and in the context of a police state, we might also call rebels and queers. There are bored teenage girls and boys, in from the dreary high-rise Stalinist suburbs, showing off their platform shoes and piercings; willowy model wannabes in teensy ensembles of day-glo Lycra; motorcycle outlaws who only lack the bikes. The sidewalk outside the Yarra is where you go for word of mouth on the evening’s floating party or transitory drag show, or perhaps to make a connection for marijuana or cocaine. You can also go there — or to any of the city’s other gay hangouts — to pick up a pinguero.
It was in one of those gay hangouts–the south end of Havana’s Central Par–where I met a fetching hustler one afternoon when I was there recently for my work as a travel writer. He was perhaps 30, enticingly mature but quite degenerate–golden-skinned, with the lean and hungry look, a thick moustache and several days’ growth of beard on his handsome face, his furry chest clearly visible beneath his soiled tank top–just my type of mildly rough trade, as it happens, though I wasn’t actually looking. I didn’t need my finely-tuned gaydar to know that he was gay, when I came upon him lounging splay-legged on a bench. His instincts obviously told him the same about me. I sat down beside him. He immediately offered me sex for money. But I just wanted to chat about conditions for gays. Really.
In the course of the conversation, a friend of his showed up. This was a small, lithe, sweet-faced 18-year-old from the town of Holguin. He said he was bisexual, had a pregnant wife at home, had come to the city to find work in construction but couldn’t get hired because he didn’t have a local address. Now he was living on the street, trying to turn tricks but having little success because — so he claimed — he didn’t have any nice clothes and thus couldn’t work Vedado, a classier neighborhood. He explained all this in a whiney tone–Jesus, who wouldn’t?–which itself would have turned me right off, had I been in the market for a dick worker. Anyway, youngsters don’t do it for me; he aroused my protective instincts, not my pinga.
We all talked for a while, and I took my leave. But the two of them came after me, to beg money. I gave the older one $5 in exchange for a rather satisfying leer. After the younger one said his train ticket home would cost $12, I gave him $15, extracting a promise that he would return to Holguin the very next day. He practically kissed my feet in gratitude. More fool me: I encountered him the next Friday night in the throng on the sidewalk outside the Yarra Cinema, where he followed me down the street bleating abject apologies.
I don’t know whether the numerous other gay men with whom I locked eyes and exchanged wordless intimations of desire, in my rambles around the city, would have wanted to go with me for my money, or perhaps for a restaurant meal, or for my perfect body alone–because I didn’t actually talk with any of them. Anyway, I would have had no place to take them. The successful sex tourist to Cuba must stay not in a hotel but in a rented room in a private home, because Cubans are not allowed to go upstairs in tourist hotels.
Few Havana residents have any private space of their own, and the alternative is an hourly room in a funky love motel. In the lobby of the five-star joint where I was lodged, I watched the ever-present, grim-faced security team bust a pair of Italian men who were trying to smuggle a couple of jineteras into the elevator. The tourists didn’t get into any lasting trouble. I don’t know what happened to the girls after they were escorted out the front door. Actually the johns’ error might have simply been the failure to offer a bribe. It’s said that anything can be had in Havana, for dollars.
So my experience of pingueros is admittedly small. But I met many people who were prostituting themselves, if not sexually. One day, a charming retired printer approached me as I was photographing a monument, offering to be my guide to the city. He insisted that he just wanted to be my friend. But of course, he also wanted me to pay him; this idea of friendship was a fiction he needed to maintain, to avoid humiliation. Could he make ends meet on his pension? No, he leaves home every morning and spends the day hustling one way or another for extra money.
The taxi dispatcher in front of my hotel turned out to have once worked in the Venceremos Brigade, a program that used to bring American New Leftists on work trips to Cuba. It was through that group that I made my first visit there in 1970 when I was–naively–a supporter both of Fidel and gay liberation. (The young men who were rounded up for forced labor then were described as criminals and degenerates, not as the homosexuals they mostly were, and I believed it.) After he and I discovered this rather dim connection (we were participants in the Brigade in different years), and after I gave him a $2 tip for having called me cabs over the course of several days, he made a big show of greeting me every time I went in and out: "How are you today, Johnny, don’t you need some taxi?" His business card identified him as holding a doctorate in economics. On the cruise ship on which I traveled to Havana, the dining room staff were all Cubans–among them doctors, architects, a physicist. The Cuban government takes 80 percent of their salaries, but it’s still worth it to them–they get to keep the dollar tips.
Arriving one day at an inexplicably locked art exhibition, I met another frustrated viewer who turned out to be a journalist on the staff of the official government daily Granma. He eagerly offered to chat, to "exchange ideas" with this fortuitously encountered North American colleague. Uh oh, I thought, here comes the Party line, but we went for coffee. I asked him why the streets are so full of people all day long; don’t they have jobs? He explained that nearly everybody has one, but they don’t bother to go because the salaries are worthless and they’re doing other things to survive. Including selling their bodies — which he had never done himself.
But had I given him an opening? In the next breath, he told me he earns the equivalent of $10 a month, and that he needed $9.50 to buy his kid a pair of shoes. Could I help him out? My gaydar is as sensitive as a smoke detector; this guy was no smoldering queen. Then what was he asking me for, exactly? A handout? Nobody wants to see himself as a beggar–certainly no working professional does. Money for sex, then? Was that why he’d brought up the question of prostitution? In his circumstances, it might have actually been the more dignified option: At least it would have meant an exchange. I suppose there are some gay travelers who would have savored the powerlessness of a heterosexual like him feeling coerced into sexual service, especially at such a bargain rate. He was a nice guy, and I felt sorry for him. And I didn’t have the heart to ask him to clarify what he was asking of me. I bought his coffee, but I didn’t give him any money, either; I was still feeling foolish and ineffectual over my philanthropy toward the boy from Holguin.
Poor Fidel. He tried to rout the Yanquis; 40 years later, the U.S. dollar is the only currency in Cuba with any value. He beat the tar out of the faggots, and look at them now, in their irrepressible hundreds and thousands, shaking their bon-bons on the public pavements. He made honest women of the hookers, and now every other person you meet is some kind of whore.
About the writer: Jonathan Lerner lives in Atlanta. He is the author of the novel "Caught in a Still Place" and the oral history "Voices from Wounded Knee."
Gays Wed In Cuba: The Second Revolution
by Juan Perez Cabral
A few hours before floats, rainbow flags, and a sea of humanity filled Sao Paulo’s(Brazil) central Avenida Paulista last Sunday for Latin America’s biggest ever Pride Parade, Agence France Presse reported that, in Cuba, two gay male couples also made history by publicly holding the first gay wedding there. Four local boys, Michel and Ingel, and Juanito and Alejandro, ranging in ages from 17 to 22, exchanged symbolic vows before their families and friends at a neighborhood recreation center in one of the poorest sections of San Miguel del PadrÛn, a working-class suburb southeast of Havana.
Dressed in white, with ¡ngel and Juanito as brides, the four declared themselves "very happy" and said they planned to honeymoon together at one of the modest camping sites the government runs for Cubans. "Yes, what we’re doing is daring, but… I’m not afraid," Michel told France Presse. "People have thrashed us, but we don’t care," said ¡ngel. Michel’s mother, Luisa, said that "many people had criticized" Michel. "He’s my son, they’ve decided to live together. What can I do? I’m not going to kill him," she said.
Rolando, a fortyish friend of one of the couples, hit the nail on the head: This "is historic, it’s never before seen" in Cuba, he told the reporter. The wedding created such a stir in the neighborhood that some people climbed on their roofs to get a better view. It was a first in Cuba, where there is no organized gay community and no public Pride celebrations.
Queers were harshly repressed in Cuba in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when many gay men were sent to military work camps and anti-gay and lesbian witch hunts were common in universities, high schools, many workplaces, and the Communist Party and its affiliates. Homosexuality was considered "a bourgeois perversion" and queers were often seen as enemies of the state. Between the mid-1970’s and the late 1980’s, silenced, marginalized queers were kept in check by targetted, as opposed to wholesale, repression.
In 1988, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Cuba of subsidies and its biggest market, references to homosexuality in the Cuban Penal Code were softened. According to the new laws, homosexuality would only be punishable if "publicly manifested" (three months to one year in jail), and a fine would be imposed if the hapless queer was found guilty of "persistently bothering others with homosexual amorous advances." Cuban queers exhaled, after almost 30 years holding their collective breath.
Cracks in the Closet
However, closet doors only began to be cracked around 1993, with the release of "Strawberry and Chocolate," a film sympathetic to gays. The film, which was a box office hit in Cuba, has been credited with somewhat mellowing traditional Cuban homophobia, which had been reinforced by thirty years of governmental intervention. That year, too, the government ended the 1986 policy of forcibly putting in quarantine all HIV-positive people.
There was even an attempt at queer organizing, the Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians, founded in late 1994 by eighteen people. This pleasant interlude ended in 1997 when members were arrested at their workplaces and the Association was suppressed, according to ILGA (the International Lesbian and Gay Association). The government also cracked down on a vibrant, emerging gay party scene, closing down about a dozen unlicensed "private discos" which had begun as gay house parties at the beginning of the decade.
While Cubans caught in these raids were arrested (as many as 500 in August 1997 according to one unconfirmed report, with some beaten up by cops), foreign visitors, like Spanish filmmaker Pedro AlmodÛvar, were let go. There were also police sweeps of parks and other places were gays and lesbians congregated. Authorities said the crackdown and the police sweeps, both of which continue intermittently today, were needed to combat crime and prostitution, which had mushroomed with the tourist trade. Paradoxically, while much of gay life has retreated again into the homes, a curiosity about gay issues seems to be slowly emerging among the intellectual and academic elites. So far, it appears to be mostly theoretical, rather than political, and thoroughly disconnected from the realities of the average Cuban queer on the streets.
In February 2001, a revival of the gay-friendly street scene triggered an intemperate reaction from Angel Rodriguez, editor-in-chief of the weekly Tribuna de La Habana, which, like the rest of the Cuban media, is government-owned. He denounced in an opinion piece people who gathered at a popular spot near the Malecun, Havana’s coastal avenue, as a bunch of "characters" that exhibited "all kinds of deviant behavior." They were, he wrote, "pimps, prostitutes and other extragavant characters, among which stands out a figure sadly rampant throughout the world, but almost unknown in Cuba: the transvestite." Then he warned that "many anti-socials, delinquents and slackers (…) will come out from that bizarre gathering." And the coup de grace: "These characters may have all the right in the world to their practices and harmful vices, but not the right to maintain a focus of contamination in the very heart of the capital, and to project an image that is totally alien to the spirit of work and struggle, and the way our people have a good time and relax."
On February 18, AFP reported that gays had stopped frequenting the site after the RodrÌguez piece was published. But the double wedding in San Miguel del PadrÛn may be a sign that the cat and mouse game between queers and Cuban authorities for control of public space is entering a new phase. After all, raiding a queer wedding may be a tad too silly, and the neighbors hanging from their roofs may not appreciate the party-pooping.
October 24, 2001
‘Havana Is Waiting’ Plays in New York
by Michael Kuchwara
New York – You can go home again, according to playwright Eduardo Machado, only the trip is bound to be an uneasy journey, a mixture of pleasure and pain. Out of such travels has come Machado’s "Havana is Waiting,” a fine, feverishly poetic play about a gay, middle-age man’s return to Cuba, a country he left as a child. First done last spring in Louisville, Ky., at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, this affecting work, set quite specifically in 1999, deals with identity–geographic, political, sexual and more.
In Louisville, the play had the self-conscious title of "When the Sea Drowns in Sand.” "Havana is Waiting” is more accessible, more immediate, almost a directive to the main character to take action. Federico, now in his late 40s, left Cuba at age 9 and was brought to the United States as part of a children’s airlift in the 1960s. Nearly four decades later, he is back in Havana to reclaim his past and to come to terms with the future. The man travels to his island homeland with a good friend, Fred, a thirtysomething Italian-American. Their relationship is open to question–by both men. Federico fusses and fumes, while Fred remains remarkably supportive in the face of his companion’s considerable insecurity.
This pal brings along a video camera to record Federico’s turbulent reactions. It makes for some of the best moments in the play– funny and remarkably human in their self-absorption. The men’s bantering and bickering is watched, at first with suspicion and later with affection by Ernesto, a would-be sculptor they hire to be their driver. Ernesto is a champion of the Revolution, although he’s not above being a little capitalistic on the side. The three men form a bond not even the political climate can break. The trio find themselves at a rally demanding the return of little Elian Gonzalez, being kept in the United States by relatives in Miami.
Bruce MacVittie captures Federico’s intensity without becoming overbearing, while Ed Vassallo and Felix Solis, two holdovers from the Louisville production, complete the cast. Vassallo gives a deceptively low-key performance as the faithful friend, while Solis, in the play’s most appealing role, exhibits a sly charm as the crafty guide. Director Michael John Garces has staged the play with the rhythmic intensity of a prize fight. He’s helped by the throbbing percussion work of Richard Marquez, who’s perched above the stage but remains an important part of the action. Machado’s language is often heightened, even excessive, particularly in the evening’s more political moments, but it’s also strangely hypnotic. Just like the hold Cuba has over the play’s desperate and displaced main character.
by Steve Wilkinson
La Habana, Cuba, 1995 – The barrio of La Guinera in Havana recently won a United Nations’ prize for the way in which its inhabitants, with the help of the revolutionary government, rebuilt their neighbourhood.
A symbol of the rectification process in the late 1980’s, La Guinera has been transformed from being a shanty town to a model development with new houses, a clinic, school and shopping facilities, but along the way, La Guinera has found another place for itself in the social fabric of the new Cuba. For it is here where Cuba’s most flourishing subculture of transvestism is found. This documentary, premiered on December 6th as part of the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, follows the story of a group of drag queen performers from their clandestine beginnings to achieving acceptance and respectibility in this once neglected area of Cuba’s capital.
Any ideas that homosexuals are persecuted by the state are quickly dispelled as the film opens with a declaration from film-maker Enrique Pineda Barnet that it is important to accept this phenomena. "Tolerance is the wrong word to use," he says, since this carries a demeaning connotation, "We must use the word acceptance." Later, the area’s parliamentary delegate makes the point that the drag queens should be applauded for giving La Guinera something that other barrios do not have. Most touching is the way in which the leader of the microbrigade which went into the barrio to help build the new homes describes her own coming to terms with this subculture.
Fifi, to whom the film is dedicated, begins by explaining how, when they arrived at the barrio they quickly learned about this "club" of transvestites who performed in their own homes. Being a woman of over fifty, she was at first astonished about the goings on but was persuaded to allow them to perform in the workers’ canteen one day after a group of brigadistas had been to one of the shows and liked them. The shows are the classic lipsynch types that we are accostomed to see, but they have a dramatic Cuban feel and one or two of the performers actually sing very well in falsetto. They were such a success that soon they performed regularly in the canteen. The transformation in the attitudes of all concerned is a delight to see, especially from Fifi who even goes so far as to say that she had "become a new woman as a result."
Interviews with the drag queens themselves, one a baker, another a stable hand, and another a former Angolan war veteran and teacher at the Communist Party School, are moving portraits of people who, as they say, "just want to get a corner for themselves in society."
"We still have some way to go," says one of the queens, which is clearly demonstrated by an interview with the local police chief who expresses his concern that the shows will have a bad effect on children. He admits that he closed down the shows in private homes because they charged entrance fees, which was against the law. He did this despite the fact that the queens were donating the proceeds to the local territorial militia!
This incident was the spark that started a movement among the locals and workers on the microbrigade to get the shows put on in the canteen. One of the best shots in the film is where one of the performers is singing in front of huge picture of Fidel, who appears to be smiling down in approval. This brought a particularly loud peal of laughter from the audience who saw it.
This is a marvellous showcase for the new era that is blossoming in Cuba. That these wonderful performers are now able to live and act out their lives is a tremendous achievement of which they are rightly proud. And the change in Cuba is clearly pointed out by one of the gays who remarks that it makes him very sad to think that those who went into exile are there for no reason that makes any sense.
These are not gays who are in opposition to the system, they are as revolutionary as the next person. One, who used to be in the army even goes so far as to say he would enlist again if he had to. That Cuban people are now coming out in ever greater ways and numbers is good for us all. Do not miss this film if you get the chance. And if you are thinking of going to Cuba and intend to give La Guinera visit, take along some make up and false eyelashes, the queens have to make their own from carbon paper. Like much else in Cuba these days, such luxuries are in short supply. Even the trannies need solidarity!
* GAY CUBA, a colourful documentary which highlights the significance of ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ on Cuban society.
by Larry R. Oberg
Based on a memoir by the late self-exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (Old Rosa, Farewell to the Sea, El Central: a Cuban Sugar Mill), it chronicles Arenas’ repression as a homosexual artist by Cuban authorities in the 1960s and 1970s. I would imagine that Mr. Kent (producer) expects to get quite a bit of propaganda mileage out of promoting the film version. Recycling old news is, of course, stock in trade for what the island Cubans call "the Miami mafia." To Kent & Company, Cuba stopped changing 30 years ago and nothing has or, indeed, ever will change again.
Over the past year, I have spent nearly three months in Cuba on two different occasions, much of that time in Havana, but also in a variety of other cities, including Santiago de Cuba. As a gay man, it was personally important to me to find out as much as possible about the status of gays and lesbians in Cuba. What I found contrasts sharply with the portrait of gay life in Cuba drawn by Arenas.
His take may have been accurate for its time (I cannot claim to know), but I suspect it was considerably exaggerated. (I say exaggerated because Arenas’ fantastic claim to have bedded 5000 guys in something like two years is not credible. And, if we are to believe him, every young stud on the island between the ages of 15 and 22 was constantly on the alert to jump his bones. Well, maybe not.)
To prepare for my visit, I read the book, "Machos, maricones, and gays: Cuba and homosexuality," by the Canadian, Ian Lumsden. Lumsden is a luke-warm supporter of the revolution and gives a fairly critical take on Cuban gay history during the early years of the revolution and the current status of gays on the island. It is a useful introduction. I also watched the film ‘Gay Cuba,‘ made around 1995. It consists mainly of a series of interviews with gay guys and lesbians who speak frankly about their lives. (One of the producers of the film, an interviewee himself, now works as a tour guide and gave me useful background information on the film.)
‘Gay Cuba’was shown at the Havana International Festival of Latin American Cinema to public and critical acclaim. However, a few of the Cuban gays who had seen it had reservations and told me that they felt it gives an accurate, but incomplete, picture of gay life on the island.
‘Gay Cuba’ is not the only documentary on Cuban gay life. A perhaps more interesting take is ‘Mariposas en el Andamio,’ (Butterflies on the Scaffold). Mariposa is a Cuban term for drag queen and the film documents the daily life and the performances of Cuban drag queens in a neighborhood called La Guinera. At my request, I was invited there for a special show. La Guinera was very poor before the revolution and remains what we might call working class. Many of these drag shows are sponsored by the local CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) and play to large and wildly enthusiastic audiences. (If you’re wondering, the performers were great!)
What I found in Cuba was a gay community with many parallels to the gay community in North America and a few differences as well. For one thing, there are no laws on the Cuban books that discriminate against gays. (This is to be contrasted with the United States where all too many states retain outdated sodomy laws and where, increasingly, repressive legislation is enacted at the state level.) I have talked with literally hundreds of gays (mostly men) in Cuba and I found none who believe they are being persecuted by their government.
Discrimination by individuals is reported, however, and there is also a lot of resentment from the residual macho attitudes that remain stubbornly embedded in some levels of Cuban society, attitudes that perpetuate highly dichotomized sex roles and prejudice against homosexuals amongst the population at large. But none reported active or systematic repression by the state. One question that I always asked gay guys was "would you feel comfortable holding hands with your boyfriend on the street?" About 80% responded with a qualified yes. Many stated that they do just that. (Two guys or women holding hands is not an uncommon sight in Havana.) But some also said that they would stop holding hands in front of a police officer.
Not unlike societies to the north, Cuba recruits a high percentage of young macho hot dogs to their police force, some with a chip on their shoulder against gays. But, I want to make it clear: No gays that I talked to reported governmental repression, although many older Cuban gays did talk about "the bad old days."
It seems to me that it is important to put Cuba’s past record of mistreatment of gays in its proper perspective. For example, thirty-five or so years ago, in Boise, Idaho, hundreds of gay men were persecuted, driven from their homes and families and imprisoned in one of the more infamous anti-gay actions in our history. Florida itself has a dreadful record in terms of gay rights and only about 10 years ago in Adrian, Michigan, the police staked out a public park for months and then arrested over 30 men at their homes, in front of their wives and children and, in a couple of cases, grand-children. (With one exception, all of these guys were married self-identified heterosexuals.)
Cuba’s past record on gay rights may be no better than our own, certainly nothing to be proud of, but in my experience gays in today’s Cuba are better off than they are in any other Latin American society (check the murder rate in Rio) and better off than they are in many states in our Union (think Matthew Shepherd).
Cuban society, like most North American and European societies, is undergoing a profound review and reconceptualization of its attitudes towards gays and lesbians. Most of you probably know about the film ‘Strawberry and Chocolate‘, the first Cuban film to deal openly and directly with homosexuality. (If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it.) What you may not know is that the film was wildly popular in Cuba (indicating, no doubt, a repressed need to talk about this issue). Apparently it played simultaneously at 10 or 12 theatres in Havana for months to lines several blocks long.
Another seminal incident along the road to acceptance for Cuban gays occurred in 1996. Pablo Milanes, a Cuban nova trova singer who has achieved quasi-sainthood amongst the island’s population, wrote a song about gay men entitled Original Sin (available on his CD entitled Origines), a song he dedicated to all Cuban homosexuals. Introduced at his annual holiday concert held in the vast Karl Marx Theater in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana, El Pecado original took the audience and the country by storm and did much to advance the cause of gay acceptance.
For me, one of the most striking things I learned about Cuba during my recent visits was the vitality of the cultural and intellectual life, particularly, of course, in Havana. Gay themes are prevalent in the theatre, in lectures and in concerts. For example, I recently saw a play entitled Muerte en el bosque (A Death in the Woods), about the investigation of the murder of an Havana drag queen produced by El Teatro Sotano in its Vedado theatre. Through the investigation of the crime, Cuban attitudes toward and prejudices against gays are examined at every level of society. (It also included a terrific drag show during the intermission!)
On a lighter note, a group called La Danza Voluminosa produced a marvellously funny and dramatic ballet version of Racine’s ‘Phedre’, with gender-blind casting. (Yes, Phedre was danced by a man.) And a one-man (yes, one man) stage version of ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ played to considerable success this season. It is also worth noting that in last December’s film festival in Havana, easily half of the Latin American films shown had gay themes or subtexts.
It may be of some interest to note that theatre tickets cost Cubans 5 pesos (25 cents). Movies cost 2 pesos. To me, a striking contradiction in Cuban society today is the contrast between the rich cultural and intellectual life that is available and affordable and salaries that makes the purchase of a bar of soap an event that has to be planned for.
In Havana, gay-run and gay-clientele restaurants are not hard to find, try the elegant French cuisine at Le Chansonnier, for example, or La Guarida, located in the apartment in which ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ was filmed. The famous (and rather infamous) Fiat Bar on the Malecon continues to attract hundreds of gay twenty-somethings who, on weekend nights, spill across this emblamatic Havana thoroughfare and line the sidewalk facing the sea.
In sum, I believe that what I have given you in this posting is context. Context that allows the discussion of Cuban libraries and other issues that Kent & Company generate on this and many other lists to be cast in a light that is not shed by Mr. Kent’s narrowly focussed torch. Context is, of course, precisely what Mr. Kent wishes to avoid. By insisting upon a discussion of "intellectual freedom" unfettered by the realities of the world, he can set a very high bar for Cuba and easily find her wanting. (So, pick a country, guys, we can all do that.)
I, for one, do not believe it helpful to hold Cuba to an abstract standard that no other country in the world (certainly including my USA) can claim to have reached. More useful, it seems to me, is to view this small island nation within the rich context of current reality. How well is Cuba doing compared to the rest of Latin America? How well is Cuba doing relative to our own country? How much progress has Cuba made on a variety of fronts, including intellectual freedom and access to information over the past forty years?
A vision of Cuba very different from that of Mr. Kent’s then emerges. Gay culture in Cuba indeed may have been repressed 30 years ago. Where wasn’t it in that pre-Stonewall age? But, this is not the reality of what I found in today’s Cuba. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Out magazine (a slick and trendy guppy publication) would feature Havana as "The New gay hot spot … hot boys, drag-heavy bars, and a whole lot more" in its current February 2001 issue if Cuba were as repressive as Kent’s colleagues state.
By insisting upon a sterile discussion devoid of context Mr. Kent constructs a reality in which any discussion the very real and quantifiable progress Cuba has made since the beginning of its revolution is ruled out of bounds; it also has the advantage of protecting him from discussion of his own highly questionable sponsors and their thinly veiled motives. My suggestion is not to engage Mr. Kent and his agents directly. The most effective way of dealing with provocateurs is to discuss the issues, but ignore the provocations.
March 8, 2001
Gay Cuba Libre! The film ‘Before Night Falls’ exposes the horrific denial of individual rights in Cuba under Castro.
by Dale Carpenter (Dale Carpenter is a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School)
Just when you reflect on how bad things have been for gays in the United States, something reminds you how much worse it could be. Not long ago, a small town in Mexico barred "dogs and homosexuals" from the local beach. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has banned gays from his country’s book fairs and publicly calls us "dogs." In some Islamic countries, homosexual acts are still punishable by death. It puts in perspective Congress’ failure to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Now comes the Oscar-nominated film ‘Before Night Falls’ to expose the horrific denial of individual rights in Cuba since Fidel Castro seized power 42 years ago. A few stalwart admirers of Castro in the U.S. have demonstrated against the film (which is, if anything, too easy on the dictator). One protestor told a newspaper that, while he hadn’t actually seen the movie, he had been informed it contained "lies" about Cuba. The irony is that such unauthorized protest in Cuba itself would have landed him in jail.
Directed by Julian Schnabel, ‘Before Night Falls’ chronicles the life of the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (played superbly by Javier Bardem). Arenas, born into poverty in 1948, initially supported the Cuban revolution with its promises of free education and medical care. His first book even won a prize from Castro’s cultural watchdogs.
But the romance of revolution soon died. One of the regime’s first acts was to prohibit assemblies of more than three people. The news media quickly came under state control. The government recruited a network of spies in neighborhoods across the country to report dissident activity. Those who dared to criticize the government — even if they were generally sympathetic to communism — were imprisoned. Denounced as "counter-revolutionaries," some were forced to admit guilt for their political "crimes" against the state in show trials worthy of Stalin.
The Castro regime has also been ferociously anti-gay. As early as 1965, the Cuban government began sending homosexuals to prison farms and labor camps where they were brutally mistreated. According to early gay-rights activist Frank Kameny, newspaper accounts of these camps triggered the first pickets in front of the White House by gays, who held up signs asking, "Cuba persecutes gays; Is the U.S. much better?" Repression in Cuba was thus used to shame the U.S. government into treating gays more tolerantly.
Nevertheless, in the 1960s and 1970s Castro had his devotees among American gay civil rights activists allied with the New Left. Some even went annually to Cuba as part of the "Venceremos Brigade" (VB) to help harvest the country’s sugar cane crop.
While assistance was welcome, officials openly worried about the inclusion of gay Americans in the VB. A 1972 policy statement described gay Americans as "particularly dangerous at this time because they join a cultural imperialist offensive against the Cuban revolution."
The same policy statement denounced homosexuality within the country as "a social pathology which reflects leftover bourgeois decadence" that "has no place in the formation of the New Man which Cuba is building." In other words, homosexuality was an artifact of capitalism that had to be purged.
Arenas himself felt this turn of the screws. As an associate informed him, the Castro government distrusted artists and writers because they create beauty and totalitarians cannot control beauty. Arenas’ work was soon censored by authorities. He was forced to rely on literary admirers to smuggle his manuscripts out of the country for publication. Arenas and his circle of gay intellectual friends were closely watched by informers and frequently harassed by police.
Before long, Arenas was imprisoned on false charges of molesting a child. After managing to escape, he was captured and returned to prison, where he was tortured and placed in solitary confinement.
Such experiences have not been unusual for gay Cubans under Castro’s rule. In 1970, an anonymous group of gay Cubans managed to sneak out a letter to gay civil rights activists in the United States. In the letter, they revealed how Cuban authorities persecuted gays through methods ranging from "physical attack to attempts to impose psychic and moral disintegration upon gay people." These facts, the letter noted, were "quite in contradiction with the success stories being told abroad" by some of Castro’s left-wing gay apologists.
Of course, life for gays in the U.S. was no picnic in the 1960s and early 1970s. But the deprivations, punishments, and denials of basic liberties in Cuba went far beyond anything experienced here. As the gay Cubans’ letter concluded: "If in a consumption society, run by capitalists and oligarchs, like the one you are living in, homosexuals experience suffering and limitations, in our society, labeled Marxist and revolutionary, it is worse."
Arenas tried desperately to escape his nightmarish country, once attempting unsuccessfully to float to Florida on an inner tube. Others have used makeshift rafts and even balloons for the same purpose. Arenas himself finally fled to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boat-lift along with thousands of other "criminals," including many gay Cubans, released by Castro.
So while we bemoan the remaining barriers to full equality in the U.S., we are fortunate to live in a country where the basic guarantees of free speech, free press, assembly, and due process apply even to us. As bad as it might seem sometimes, nobody is jumping on driftwood in the open seas to get out.
Originally appeared March 8, 2001 in the author’s "OutRight" syndicated column.
by Joe Knowles
Cuba’s brutally homophobic history is infamous. In the 1960s, as Ian Lumsden describes in ‘Machos, Maricones, and Gays’, known homosexuals were rounded up and put to work in military camps. A government resolution mandated that homosexuals working in the arts be fired and reassigned jobs in hard labor. The government’s 1971 Congress on Education and Culture resulted in one of many mass purges of gays from a variety of professions. The forced quarantine of persons with AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s refueled Cuba’s notoriety.
But these nightmares of the past do not reflect the present. The work camps were abolished in 1968, the purges largely ended by 1976. In 1979, homosexuality was decriminalized, something yet to be done in many states north of the Florida Straits. By 1987, absurdly authoritarian codes against gay “public ostentation” were mostly gone. And the sanatoria that had warehoused AIDS patients under quarantine are now open hospices and care centers managed under the national health system. More important, an openly gay population has emerged in the 1990s in Havana and other cosmopolitan cities such as Santa Clara and Santiago. There’s still homophobia, but Cuba is not the place one might expect.
As a result of Cuba’s excellent public health and low crime rate (gay bashing is rare), there is a vibrant and safe street life that facilitates gay contact. At all hours, Habañeros gather along the Malecón, the capital’s seaside boulevard, to meet and talk and sit on the sea wall. Passers-by include cliques of families, gay people, youths, couples, combinations thereof, and a nascent class of prostitutes (male and female) looking for tourists. The Cayito section of the Playas del Este, the popular stretch of beaches outside the city, is another public place frequented by gays and civilizados—a term used to describe queer-friendly straights. Despite this, Havana still has evolved no particularly gay quarter.
Yet in the Vedado district, next door to the Habana Libre hotel (formerly the Havana Hilton, where Castro set up his first headquarters after the revolution), the area around the Yara movie theater may be a beginning, at least for gay men. There on weekends, directions from the friendly crowd can be had to “fiestas,” semi-public discos organized by individuals in and around private residences. On adjacent streets, there are even lines of private taxis shuttling passengers, both foreign and Cuban. One night there’s a fiesta in the Playa district, the next it’s out in La Mantilla, the night after something could be happening in Centro, and so on. Gay space shifts in Havana. In the absence of features of civil society that would ordinarily make queer space more tangible, such as a gay press, there floats a word-of-mouth nexus anchored loosely in the crowds hanging out by the Yara.
But the fiestas cost money to put on, and accordingly charge admission. Some are part of a larger entrepreneurial wave sweeping the nation. Cubans often pay 10 pesos (about 50 cents) at the door. There are also drinks for sale. Add in transportation costs, and a night out can get prohibitively expensive for someone making $20 dollars a month. And yet the price is worth it: these joyful celebrations provide attendees space that is absolutely and unambiguously their own. Ironically, though, gay life in Cuba is rather commercial in a country that has officially forsaken capitalism. This may yet change, if authorities allow autonomous gay civic groups to form.
Some tentative signs suggest that Cuban society and its government are warming up to the idea of gay people in their midst. The Cuban film institute produced Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1993 ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’. The film, about a gay intellectual who befriends a straight, devout Communist, was a major hit all over the island, and it facilitated an unprecedented national discussion on homosexuality. And though Castro’s claim that “I have never been in favor of, nor promoted, nor supported any policy against homosexuals” is a preposterous lie, it does nonetheless suggest a kind of official shame.
by Eva Bjorklund
[This article was published in the ‘Swedish Cuba’ magazine, a quarterly published by the Swedish-Cuban Association.]
Before 1959 there was no manifest difference between the situation of homosexuals in Cuba and the rest of Latin America, or in relation to Latin cultures in Europe, such as Spain and Portugal. As compared with Anglo-Saxon homophobia and oppression, there were some cultural differences, e.g., the more aggressive male cult of Latin American sexism, although relatively irrelevant as regards the effects of oppression.
The Cuban Penal Code enacted in 1938, which in turn originated from Spanish laws, was in force until 1979. The 1938 Law penalised "habitual homosexual acts, homosexual molestation, scandalous, indecent behavior, [and] ostentatious displays of homosexuality in public". Maybe because the liberation struggle traditionally associated male bravery and revolutionary virtues, maybe due to influence from homophobic Soviet laws (a "decadent bourgeois phenomenon"), combined with Cuba’s own Latin, Catholic and African homophobia, homosexual men, whose manners were mostly effeminate according to Cuban tradition, could be branded as anti-social in the mid-1960s.
In 1965 the so-called UMAP camps (Military Units to Help Production) were created. In practice they were military labor camps for young men considered unfit for military service, e.g., homosexuals or objectors. They were intended for men who neither worked nor studied, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists, who refused to do military service, and the like. The camps were closed down after two years after vast internal criticism in Cuba, and the internees released.
Among the Cubans interned, who are today famous and celebrated, you will find the singer, musician and poet Pablo Milanis, and the Baptist pastor and MP Raul Suarez. Most internees were heterosexual but the main subject of criticism was the internment of homosexuals and believers, which also persisted as an image of repression in Cuba.
Since those days, however, a lot has changed, but for many reasons, particularly the anti-Cuban and counterrevolutionary propaganda that dominates Western mass media, the image of repression both against believers and homosexuals still prevails. The 1938 Law, still in force in the 1970s, was not enforced against "habitual homosexual acts", but in some cases, it was applied to "homosexual molestation, scandalous, indecent behavior, and ostentatious displays of homosexuality in public". During the second half of the 1970s, however, the attitude towards homosexuality was questioned in various ways.
In 1977, the Centro Nacional de Educaci¢n Sexual (CNES) was founded on the initiative of the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC), and their seminars and publications encouraged a more enlightened outlook on homosexuality and started to undermine traditional sexual prejudices and taboos. The work done by this center has contributed to changes in attitudes and laws, and the credit for the fact that the AIDS problem has not been handled with a homophobic outlook is largely attributed to this endeavour.
In 1979, homosexual acts were removed from the Penal Code as a criminal offense, and it became formally legal for consenting adults, as occurred in Spain at the same time. However, "ostentatious displays of homosexuality" were still against the law, as were "homosexual acts in public places". And male homosexual acts with minors were more severely penalised than heterosexual acts of the same kind.
Those articles, however, were removed from the Penal Code in 1987, and persons convicted under these laws were released. Nevertheless, the age limit for minors remained higher (16 years) for homosexual acts. Offenses against this law may lead to five years’ imprisonment and homosexual acts with boys younger than 14 may be sentenced with up to 20 years. Persons convicted of sexual offenses are also barred from teaching children or exercising authority over children.
Under the "Public Scandal" section of the chapter on sexual offenses, "homosexual molestation" is still illegal and penalised with three to 12 months’ imprisonment or one to 300 cuotas (a cuota is equivalent to one day’s minimum wage). This fact, however, may not be interpreted in the sense that persistent homosexual verbal cruising is illegal, as is alleged in the Third Pink Book of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), which organisation obviously lacks experience of its own from Cuban street and bar life. The 1993 Third Pink Book also incorrectly contends that "homosexual behavior" is prohibited. Actually, what is left of discriminatory laws is the prohibition of homosexual molestation and the higher age limit for homosexual acts.
Cuba’s Penal Code of 1988 has a Law on "Social Dangerousness", applied to "socially censurable vices", which however do not include homosexuality or homosexual behaviour. This law is used to take drunkards and drug addicts into custody. It may also be applied to previously convicted persons who are unquestionably heading back to criminal circles. There are no serious reports that this law has been used to persecute homosexuals, since it was rewritten in 1988.
The Third Pink Book incorrectly contends that homosexuals can be sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, under Article 359 on "Public Scandal". However, the maximum sentence is expressly 12 months, and the law neither mentions nor is it applied to homosexuals as such. The 1988 police instructions contain a phrase regarding "lewd and immoral behavior" that is "scandalous", on which only a fine can be imposed. This Article, however, makes no distinction between homosexual and heterosexual behavior, although there may be reasons to believe that there is a narrower limit to the public’s notion of scandalous behaviour when it comes to homosexuals.
Likewise, transvestites maybe looked upon as disorderly by individual police officers–and by the general public–and homosexual couples kissing in public places may be harassed in Cuba like in any other place in Latin America or in the US. Persisting homophobia among policemen, courts, and the public (grand juries in courts), may lead to discriminatory treatment in the judicial system.
Before the Centre for Sexual Education (CNES) started its work, sexual education was a practically unknown phenomenon in Cuba, as in the rest of Latin America, where the stand and the attitude of the Catholic Church has continued to curb any attempted change. In this light, Cuba’s sexual education is groundbreaking. The CNES learned from East Germany, whose attitude towards both sexual education and homosexuality was the most enlightened not only in the Soviet bloc but it was also advanced internationally, and most definitely more progressive than that of Western Germany.
As early as 1957, it was stipulated that homosexuals could only be prosecuted for acts with minors. In 1968, homosexual acts became formally legal. In 1989, East Germany equalised the minimum age of consent — 14 years — for homosexual and heterosexual acts. The first books published in Cuba on this subject were translations of East German books, that argued against discrimination of homosexuals and for the full integration of homosexuals into social life, although assuming that heterosexuality was the norm.
Sigfried Schnabl’s ‘The Intimate Life of Males and Females’, translated and edited in Cuba in 1979, clearly states that "homosexuals should be granted equal rights, respect and recognition, and that any kind of social discrimination is reprehensible". This book served as guidance for the work of CNES and at pedagogical colleges. The second edition (1989) states that there is "no cure for homosexuality and that it is no kind of sickness. Therefore, nobody should be criticised for his orientation, nor pressured to change. On the contrary, they should get the support they need to be able to live happily". Schnabl also points out that the removal of penal sanctions against homosexual acts/behaviour remains a formality as long as homosexuals are subject to social prejudice and institutionalised discrimination.
Bruckner’s ‘Are You Beginning to Think about Love?’, translated and edited in Cuba in 1981, was more ambivalent. It was intended for a broad audience and argued that homosexuals have the same ability to function in society as other people, but that they can never be as happy as married people. Monika Krause, a leading expert at CNES, admitted that this was a response to criticism against the first edition of Schnabl’s book, for being too positive towards homosexuality. A second edition of Schnabl’s book, intended to be printed in 250,000 copies, although delayed because of the economic crisis, however, persisted, stressing that sexual violation of minors has no casual relationship to sexual orientation, dismissing the theories of seduction into homosexuality, and emphasising that since nobody is responsible for his or her sexual orientation, homosexuals must be just as respected as heterosexuals.
According to Cuba’s official standing, deeply rooted prejudice and taboos cannot be eradicated overnight. Since, as Monika Krause puts it, "neither parents, nor teachers, nor specialists, psychologists, nor educationalists were equipped" for sexual education, it was necessary to go systematically and carefully about the matter, and inform teachers first so that they could educate young people. CNES must work with caution so as to avoid being provocative and losing credibility. CNES argues that sexual education cannot be separated from the overall task of educating people for life in a socialist society, with all the mutual commitments that this implies.
In an interview made in 1989, Monika Krause said that "a deep, systematic and above all very carefully prepared program to reach our goal, i.e., to make homosexuals accepted as equals by the entire population, not only tolerated, but integrated as equals, as citizens with equal rights and obligations. That means that nobody, neither men nor women, are to be judged according to their sexual orientation. The important thing is their attitude towards work and society, not their sexual preferences."
That may be a legitimate strategy for homosexual liberation. It may be compared with that of Holland, and it agrees with the organic and communitary nature of Cuban political culture. Still, however, heterosexuality is the standard in sexual education, which concentrates on preparing young people for love, marriage, and family.
Given its limitations, Cuba’s sexual education scheme, and society’s attitude towards homosexuals is a model in Latin America, and it is clear to see that homophobia is beginning to loosen, although there is not yet an active government program to fight it. And there is limited space in mass media.
On the other hand, when speaking about homophobia in Cuba, it is important to remember that it is not the kind that makes homosexuals risk being assaulted, battered, and murdered because of their orientation. And the machista culture and homophobic currents are constantly being undermined by female liberation and emancipation and women’s increasing participation in labour and social life.
Gender and sex taboos are also called in question by many young people as a result of the education and culture they have received since 1959. As an obvious expression of a more open and tolerant attitude, since the late 1970s meeting-places for homosexuals are appearing both in the streets and in bars and clubs of Havana and other big cities. In small towns and in the countryside, however, it may still be more difficult to be openly homosexual, which incidentally is also the case in Sweden, in spite of this country’s more advanced legislation.
In Havana, the intersection of the 23rd street and L, which may be compared with Kungsgatan/Sveavdgen in Stockholm, is a popular meeting–and "picking up" place–as well as different parts of the Malecson avenue, or the Prado boulevard bordering the Old City, the Central Park, the Lenin Park and Parque de la Fraternidad, to mention only a few well-known places. Many beaches have also become meeting-places, without excluding heterosexuals. La Playita del 16 is one of the places which I noticed when I visited it last time in 1998. Half-open parties, called "Fiestas de 10 pesos", aiming particularly at homosexuals, although not exclusively, have also become an institution in Havana and other cities.
They are part of the small entrepreneur activity that has also given rise to a large number of private restaurants. The local government’s culture house "El Menjunje" in Santa Clara has become famous all over Cuba for its week-end club activities, particularly for their high-class drag shows. Just to mention a few examples that here is evident and far-reaching progress, although things don’t happen in exactly the same way as in Sweden or the US.
America’s Left and the Double Standard Over Gays in Cuba: the nightmare for gays and lesbians in Cuba
by Agustin Blazquez with the collaboration of Jaums Sutton
Agustin Blazquez is a Washington-based documentary film producer and director, including the films "Covering Cuba," "Cuba: The Pearl of the Antilles" and "Covering Cuba 2: The Next Generation."
March 2, 2001
The Hollywood and liberal elites in places such as New York and Washington have championed the rights of gays and want to ban groups such as the Boy Scouts, but when it comes to monsters such as Fidel Castro, they are silent.
I witnessed this liberal hypocrisy in October 1984, during the only showing of the late Oscar-winning cinematographer Nestor Almendros’ documentary "Improper Conduct" at the Washington Blade’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Washington, D.C.
While the film accurately portrayed Castro’s brutal treatment of gays, outside the theater a group of gay and lesbian members of the Workers World Party bitterly protested the film.
It was a paradox to me, knowing the systematic state repression that gays and lesbians have been receiving in Cuba since 1959. But it is a paradox we have witnessed time and again with liberal activists from Jane Fonda to Barbra Streisand arguing for closer relations with Cuba and railing against states such as Colorado for unfairly treating gay people. I was so shocked by the protest by the Workers party outside the theater, and the outrageous reaction of these seemingly ignorant fanatics of the realities of gays in Cuba, that I felt compelled to write an answer in the Washington Blade newspaper to the diatribe of two women against the film in the issue of Oct. 19, 1984.
I wrote, "I remember these two women distributing propaganda pamphlets at the entrance of the Biograph the evening ‘Improper Conduct’ opened the festival, as well as their hysterical reaction during the film and when it was over. Thanks to people and organizations [Workers World Party] like these, the truth about Cuba has been kept from the American people and the world, thereby directly contributing to the oppression and hell-like existence under which the Cuban people have been condemned to live, under the totalitarian dictatorship of Fidel Castro.
"Obviously the Workers World Party is not advocating human rights for the gay people of Cuba. Their reactionary attitude is as detrimental to Cuban gays as the oppressive government there.
"Yes, gay life after the Cuban revolution (1959) has been a horrible nightmare of repression, persecution, massive raids, incarceration, concentration camps and death. Gay people in Cuba today do not live, just barely survive. This I know because of family and friends still living there. Now, this kind of organization (Workers World Party) is bleeding because after 25 years of success keeping the world ignorant about this kind of communist brutality happening on their island ‘paradise,’ these truths are coming out of the closet.
"This valiant documentary, contrary to the Workers World Party’s assessment, really helps in the struggle to give the forgotten gay people and others in Cuba some rights, or if not, at least an offer of our solidarity, showing that people who love and appreciate human rights, care for them."
Seventeen years later, in 2001, with the recent release of "Before Night Falls," a brilliant film by artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel, based on the life of the late Cuban exiled gay writer Reinaldo Arenas, there is a second chance to take a peek at the reality of gay survival in Castroland. This film, wonderfully acted by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who is nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Arenas, accurately displays the tortured and traumatic existence of Arenas.
Because of what Reinaldo Arenas the writer had to say about reality in Cuba, he was disregarded in the U.S. by the intellectual and academic community–very much dominated by the pro-Castro left. His books were virtually ignored, and in many instances left-leaning groups disrupted his lectures. The U.S. gay groups, dominated by the pro-Castro left, also rejected Arenas’ work. He was forced to live a life in the U.S. of abject poverty. Three years after his suicide in early December 1990, his autobiography, "Before Night Falls," was published in the U.S.
Now, some of these groups of misinformed American gays and lesbians–used by the pro-Castro left–are desperately putting together an effort to discredit and bury this film about his life, because it goes against what they choose to believe about Castro’s Cuba. Not much has changed in their beliefs even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise–temporary, perhaps?–of communism. These groups still insist that Castro is the one who brought redemption and acceptance to gay life in Cuba. This notion is not only baseless but preposterous.
This year, 26-year-old Owen Huerta Delgado, a gay Cuban, is desperately seeking political asylum in Spain. Owen, like Reinaldo, refused to be silenced about the Castro regime’s abuse of gays. He had been jailed in sordid dungeons in Varadero Beach and in Havana. He was tortured and beaten by Castro’s henchmen. He was apprehended with other gays in massive raids usually conducted after midnight. He tells of indiscriminate daily violence, insults and beatings. For him and other gay people around him, Cuba is a jail where gays are treated as beasts without rights.
His only crime is that he is openly gay and has organized a support group to help other persecuted gays and to distribute condoms and AIDS medicines donated by foreign gay tourists. As a typical reaction of Castro against their outcasts, Owen says that government accuses the gays of propagating the disease and keeps AIDS victims in isolated clinics and without medication so they will die sooner.
After Owen began helping other gays in need, his situation with the Cuban authorities became worse. Finally, he was able to leave Cuba legally. Owen says–as echoed by other Cuban gays–that with the film "Strawberry and Chocolate" Castro’s regime wanted to give the impression to the international community that the government was becoming more tolerant of gays in Cuba, but that in reality the repression continues while teaching hatred and intolerance against gays, beginning in elementary schools.
The nightmare for gays and lesbians in Cuba–despite the well-orchestrated Castro propaganda, which includes tours of gay life in his "paradise"–is hardly over. Unfortunately, many naïve gays and lesbians, as well as members of the U.S. media, fall prey to these deceptive tours and they return praising the open gay life on the island. I marvel at their "observations." It reminds me of the many American tourists and reporters who visited Hitler’s Germany and failed to see the horrible reality of the Nazis.
I often ask those naïve people, do you speak Spanish? Did you ever live in Cuba as a common Cuban citizen? Do you have family and friends living in Cuba? Do you know the real Cuban history – not Castro’s version? And the answer invariably is "no." And then I ask them, what qualifications do you have to have an opinion of the realities in my very own country? However, a glimpse at the realities can be found in "Before Night Falls" and the documentary "Improper Conduct," available on video.
If the gays and lesbians of America want to help their Cuban counterparts and put an end to their misery as well as to help themselves avoid falling into similar predicaments by being easy prey of a deceptive political system, they should learn more about the realities of their brothers and sisters trapped in Cuba. Advancing the truth about them will set them free.
Cuba Solidarity Campaign: Greater Manchester Group. (www.cubasol-manch.org.uk; www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk)
Gay Life in Cuba (government position promoting gay tolerance)
We hope you enjoy watching ‘Before Night Falls’, but felt it important to inform you of the present situation for gays in Cuba. With regard to ‘Before Night Falls’, the writer Reinaldo Arenas did experience oppression because he was overtly gay. However at the same time he opposed the socialist direction the Cuban revolution took. Cuban society was historically intolerant of gays, just as it was racist and discriminatory against women and country people. Not surprisingly the revolutionary society that developed after 1959 inherited these attitudes, and for a period gays were indeed oppressed, as they were in most of the rest of the Americas at this time.
Since 1976, there has been a gradual liberalisation of Cuban social and political life and much has changed especially on the question of gay and lesbian rights.
Are Gays and Lesbians still accused of crimes against morality?
"Homosexuality is not a criminal offence in Cuba. The 1979 penal code decriminalised homosexuality per se. It is therefore perfectly legal for consenting adults to engage in homosexual acts in private. Until the penal code was revised in 1987, it prohibited "public ostentation" of a homosexual "condition" and penalised private homosexual acts inadvertently seen by third parties. Homosexual males who had sex with minors were punished much more severely than males who had sex with under-aged females." … "Although the 1979 provision was deleted from the 1987 code homosexual behaviour that causes a "public scandal" either because it contravenes public decency or because it involves molestation, may still be penalised by prison sentences of three to 12 months "
Are lesbians and gay men still forbidden to join the Communist Party?
"A typical Cuban homosexual’s life is far more likely to be constrained by the state’s political-ideological structure than by the repressive apparatus itself." There is no written law, but residual machismo can still be a factor in preventing gays from being included. This is a social problem and not a legal one.
Are lesbian and gay organisations illegal?
"On July 28, 1994 the first steps were taken to promote gay and lesbian rights in an organised manner. Unfortunately, the establishment of the new Gay and Lesbian association of Cuba was immediately overshadowed by …. the "raft refugee" crisis a week later. Because of the youth and inexperience of its founders, GLAC was more notable for the enthusiasm than the organising skill of its members. This was the reason it foundered. Members of GLAC were not subject to any specific repression."
On a more general level, no organisations that promote or might be seen as a potential cover for promoting a pro-US political line (i.e. liberal democracy, "free" elections, neo-liberal economics, the right to freedom of the press etc.) will be allowed. An association of gays that espoused any of these ideas would be shut down, not because it was gay but because it threatened the social and economic rights of the Cuban people. Officially, attitudes have changed and the state is active in promoting tolerance, but as with most countries there is still a lot of work to be done.
Finally if you would like to hear more / see more on this topic, CSC recommends two films: The documentary ‘Gay Cuba’ which looks at the issue of homosexuality in the revolution. The other being the feature film ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ which did most to open up the debate about homosexuality among the Cuban population (it was incidentally the only feature film that the Cuban state could afford to sponsor in that year). Quotations above from the book Machos, Maricones y Gays by Ian Lumsden (London: Latin America Bureau, 1996)
Cubans and Sex—it’s fun and they’re determined to have lots of it.
Once they’ve satisfied their initial curiosity, Cubans are notoriously unconcerned about each other’s sexual identity. It is of little importance if your neighbour is married or not, gay, lesbian, straight, bi-, trans- or asexual (although the latter is hard to believe, given the Cuban libido). Saved from the most excessive rigours of Spanish religious morality by its heavy African cultural mix, the island’s population is sure of one thing: sex is fun and they’re determined to have lots of it. Foreigners are often shocked by the overt sexuality in Cuban dress, from tight and very explicit jeans to clinging Lycra that exposes every bodily crease and bulge. Never mind the heat, Cuban men and women look, and indeed, are hot.
In the 1960s, homosexuals were sent to work camps euphemistically called Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción (UMAPs, Military Production Aid Units) –as well as being removed from government and teaching posts. During the following two decades, persecution was rife and many gays–including some high-profile ones in the arts world–left the country as a result. Yet, in spite of its past record, Cuba is now probably the most easy-going of all Latin American and Caribbean countries in terms of its acceptance of gay culture and lifestyle.
There are openly gay couples (especially male) on the streets of Havana and Santa Clara, as well as in most other major cities, but those looking for a ‘scene’ as such might come away disappointed as folks just generally hang out on the street–not even in cafés or bars, just the street corner–before going on to parties. Holding hands in public might be frowned upon, but a little kiss on the cheek no longer turns heads. Even transvestites and cross-dressers can now be seen on the streets in full regalia. This is a marked change from the old days, when they were confined to cabarets, including street cabarets in working-class districts. One of the odd and contradictory aspects of macho culture in Cuba is its immense enjoyment of cross-dressing or transvestite shows, though these are subject to periodic police closures.
The international success of Tomás Guttierez Alea’s 1993 film ‘Fresa y Chocolate’ (Strawberry and Chocolate), about the attraction of an openly gay man for a young straight revolutionary, did more for gay liberation in Cuba than anything else. Sonja de Vries’s 1994 documentary ‘Gay Cuba’ recorded the ecstatic reactions of Cubans pouring out of the Yara cinema after watching the film (‘What a friendship! I would love to have a friend like that!’ – ‘Are you gay?’ – ‘What me? No way! Straight! Pure macho!’).
The Yara is now the night-time rendezvous point for gay men before they party into the small hours. On Fridays and Saturdays there is almost always a gay fiesta going on somewhere; just show up at the Yara around 10pm and ask. There’ll be cars ready to take you to the action for $5 or so. You could end up at anything from an old mansion in the middle of a wood, to a pre-Revolutionary open-air fantasy temple, to a 1950s beachside club. The entrance fee is usually $2 or 20 pesos, the music is a mixture of house and salsa, and beer, rum and soft drinks are served for reasonable prices. It’s invariably hot, smoky and sexy, with gorgeous, shiny bodies everywhere (one advantage of Cuba’s economic crisis is that people are in good shape as they’re rarely able to overeat). Most of the party-goers will be gay men, but you’ll find a good sprinkling of lesbian, bi, tranny and straight types, too.
On Friday nights there are regular lesbian-oriented parties for a smaller ‘in’ crowd. These fiestas de diez pesos (ten-peso parties) take place at people’s houses and feature house and salsa music and a very mixed crowd. Cubans don’t make a big deal about who is what at these parties; everyone is welcome. Again, your best bet is to ask at the Yara cinema.
As with many things in Cuba, the gay scene is prone to sudden change for no apparent reason; you should therefore be prepared for any place to be closed at short notice and for other information, such as admission prices, to vary (these are nebulous at the best of times for any venue in Havana, let alone gay ones). Note also that some, but not all, venues have air-conditioning and that even this is prone to break down.
As well as the straightforward homosexual, to denote either a gay or lesbian, you might also hear the terms maricón or cherna (poof), loca (queen) and tortillera (dyke).
8 June 2001.
by Peter Tatchell (http://www.petertatchell.net/international/cuba2.htm)
(Note: Peter Tatchell is Australian by birth and is widely respected as a tireless gay activist across the world.)
Julian Schnabel’s new film, ‘Before Night Falls’, dramatises the persecution of gay Cuban writer, Reinaldo Arenas, and reignites controversy over the homophobia of the Castro regime. Peter Tatchell looks at this dark period of Cuba’s history and reveals that while the anti-gay witch-hunts have ceased, gays still suffer discrimination. "Old propaganda…slanders…lies and half truths about the Cuban revolution and its treatment of gays". These are the accusations being made against the new Julian Schnabel film, ‘Before Night Falls’, by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. It plans to picket cinemas with leaflets denouncing the movie as "Old rubbish in a new bin".
On general release from 15 June 2001, ‘Before Night Falls’ tells the life story of the celebrated Cuban novelist, Reinaldo Arenas, who was persecuted by the Castro regime because his writing and homosexuality defied socialist orthodoxy. Directed by Julian Schnabel (Basquiat), the film stars Javier Bardem (Live Flesh, Jamon Jamon) as Arenas, and co-stars Sean Penn and Johnny Depp. At the 2000 Venice Film Festival it scooped the Grand Jury Prize, and Bardem has won a Best Actor nomination for this year’s Academy Awards.
According to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, ‘Before Night Falls’ "presents a distorted and often fantastical portrayal of Cuban revolutionary reality. Cuba no longer discriminates against homosexuals". But far from being "outrageous lies…and falsifications", this film illuminates, through the life of Arenas, a monstrous moment in Cuban history, when Castro’s homophobia paralleled the persecution of gay Chileans during the Pinochet dictatorship. Although homosexuals are no longer savagely repressed, it is nonsense to suggest that there is no discrimination in Cuba today. The claim that Havana has none of the death squads that murder queers in Bogota is hardly proof of Castro’s liberalism.
As for the past, why shouldn’t the truth be told? Acknowledging previous horrors does not negate the many positive achievements of Cuban socialism, including the highest standards of health, education and housing of any Latin American country, and a literacy rate exceeding that of the United States.
Although the Cuba Solidarity Campaign has denounced Arenas as "embittered (and) deeply problematical", he was initially an ardent supporter of the revolution, running away from home at the age of 14 to join the rebels fighting to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. After Castro’s victory in 1959, Arenas benefited from the new government’s mass education programme, eventually gaining a place at the University of Havana and winning official acclaim for his first novel, ‘Singing from the Well’. But his follow-up book, ‘Hallucinations’, was refused publication and had to be smuggled to a publisher in France. This act of defiance resulted in repeated police raids and the confiscation of his manuscripts.
The campaign of harassment culminated in his arrest in 1973 on a false charge of sexual assault. Fearful of his fate, Arenas escaped from prison and made an unsuccessful attempt to float to Florida on an inner tube. Recaptured, he spent the next two years brutalised inside El Morro prison, until he agreed to secure his freedom by renouncing his deviant writings. Arenas eventually got out of Cuba in the 1980 Mariel Harbour exodus, when Castro decided to get rid of "anti-social" dissidents, criminals and homosexuals by allowing these "scum" to emigrate to the US. Settling in New York proved a mixed blessing. While free to write, he was stateless, impoverished and later contracted HIV. With no health insurance, he could not afford proper treatment. Dying and plagued by depression, Arenas committed suicide in 1990, aged 47.
If his life was an indictment of communism’s lack of political, artistic and sexual freedom, then the circumstances of his death were an equally damning reproach concerning the fate of the poor and sick under capitalism. Arenas himself made this point shortly before his death, bemoaning that by going into exile he had exchanged political repression for economic injustice. Peter Marshall’s generally favourable book about the revolution, "Cuba Libre’, recalls that, like Arenas, many gay artists and intellectuals supported Castro’s insurrection. They saw his rebellion against the US-backed dictatorship as paving the way for cultural and sexual freedom, as well as economic emancipation and social justice.
The popular left-wing journal, ‘Lunes de Revolucion’ was run largely by gay writers. It’s radical ideas seemed to enjoy the tacit support of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra. A couple of years after Castro came to power, however, ‘Lunes de Revolucion’ was closed down, as were other free-thinking magazines. Many gay authors and journalists were publicly disgraced, refused publication, and dismissed from their jobs. Some were reassigned to work as janitors and labourers. While Castro challenged many backward ideas as remnants of the old society, he embraced with enthusiasm the homophobia of Latin machismo and Catholic dogma, elevating it into a fundamental tenet of Cuba’s new socialist morality. Idealising rural life, he once claimed approvingly that "in the country, there are no homosexuals".
When Cuba adopted Soviet-style communism it also adopted Soviet-style prejudice and puritanism. Ever since Stalin promoted the ideology of "the socialist family" and recriminalised gay sex in 1934, communist orthodoxy dictated that homosexuality was a "bourgeois decadence" and "capitalist degeneration". This became the Cuban view. "Maricones" (faggots) were routinely denounced as "sexual deviants" and "agents of imperialism". Laughable allegations of homosexuality were used in an attempt to discredit "corrupting" western influences, such pop music, with the communists circulating the rumour that the Beatles were gay.
In the name of the new socialist morality, homosexuality was declared illegal in Cuba and typically punishable by four years imprisonment. Parents were required to prevent their children from engaging in homosexuals activities and to report those who did to the authorities. Not informing on a gay child was a crime against the revolution. Official homophobia led, the mid-1960s, to the mass round up of gay people, without charge or trial. Many were seized in night-time swoops and incarcerated in forced labour camps for "reeducation" and "rehabilitation". A few disappeared and never returned.
At the First National Congress on Education and Culture in 1971, it was decreed that homosexuals were "pathological", "anti-social" and "not be tolerated" in any job where they might "influence youth". Widespread anti-gay purges followed in schools, universities, theatres and the media. Gay professors, dancers, actors and editors ended up sweeping roads and digging graves. The repression did not begin to ease until the mid-1970s and even then it was not because the Cuban leadership recognised their error. They halted mass detentions and reduced sentences largely because they were shamed by the international protest campaigns organised by newly formed gay liberation movements and left-wing intellectuals such as Jean Paul Sartre.
A more significant softening of official attitudes took place in the 1980s. With the advent of AIDS, the Cuban authorities eventually showed greater tolerance towards homosexuals in order to win their confidence and support for safer sex. At around the same time, the secondment to Cuba of East German doctors and psychologists, who viewed homosexuality as a natural minority condition, prompted more enlightened thinking among medical staff and health educators.
While the 1979 penal code formally decriminalised homosexuality, the legal status of lesbian and gay people in Cuba today is still ambiguous. Homosexual behaviour causing a "public scandal" can be punished by up to 12 months jail and this law is sometimes used to arrest effeminate gay men and transvestites. Discreet open-air cruising in public squares and parks is tolerated, although often kept under police surveillance.
Most gay bars are semi-legal private house parties and are subject to periodic police raids. Homosexuals are still deemed unfit to join the ruling Communist Party (being gay is contrary to communist ethics) and this can have an adverse impact of a person’s professional career when senior appointments depend on party membership. Lesbian and gay newspapers and organisations are not permitted. The Cuban Association of Gays and Lesbians, formed in 1994, was suppressed in 1997 and its members arrested. Gay Cuba? Not yet!
Published in a slightly edited form as The Defiant One, The Guardian, Friday Review, 8 June 2001.
CUBA TV Opens Debate on Taboo Subject – Homosexuality
by Dalia Acosta
Havana – The host of a popular local Cuban TV programme, psychologist Manuel Calvino, dared to break the silence and intolerance surrounding the question of homosexuality in this Caribbean island nation. In a fifteen-minute portion of his programme ‘Vale la Pena’ that he dedicated to the issue, Calvino carefully picked apart the prevailing homophobic arguments, and called on Cubans to respect homosexuals. ”We must respect people’s private lives,” Calvino, a professor at the University of Havana’s Faculty of Psychology, urged the millions of viewers who tune into state-run channel six in the evening.
Calvino said homosexuality was a sexual orientation like any other – something many people in a ‘machista’ society like Cuba find difficult to accept. ”The world is going one way and Cuba the other. Here not only the rejection we experience is silenced, but new scientific discoveries on homosexuality are not even discussed,” Maite Perez, a pyschologist who openly admits to being a lesbian, told IPS.
”He must be into something,” if he defends homosexuals like that, ”you can be darn sure he plays on both sides of the tracks” (is a bisexual), was the reaction of Jorge Liriano, a department store clerk, to Calvino’s programme. This is the second time this year that the programme Calvino has hosted for the past 10 years has taken up the question of homosexuality, ignored by the local press for decades. Homosexuality is a taboo subject, like prostitution until early this decade or drug consumption even today. But Calvino’s pathbreaking programmes could mark the start of a public debate on homosexuality and homophobia.
Short stories, several theatre productions, the film ”Strawberry and Chocolate” and the novel ”Masks” by Leonardo Padura have tackled the parallel questions of homosexuality and homophobia in Cuba over the past few years. But addressing the issue in the arts is far different from a recognition by the state-controlled media, which toes the Communist Party policy line, of the widespread intolerance in Cuba. Calvino’s bold move followed last year’s approval of reforms of the Penal Code that did away with the last traces of homophobia. The category ”public scandal” was replaced by ”sexual insult,” which includes harassment with ”sexual demands,” previously defined as ”hassling with homosexual demands.”
Article 359 of the 1979 Penal Code, which provided for fines and detention for those who ”publicly flaunted their homosexual condition or hassled or solicited another with their demands,” had been overturned in 1988. That article also described ”homosexual acts in public, or in private but exposed to being involuntarily seen by other people” as ”crimes against the normal development of sexual relations.” But last August’s police raid and closure of a gay bar/discotheque holding more than 800 visitors at the time was widely interpreted as a possible resurgence of government intolerance towards homosexuality, and a return to the hostile climate of the past.
Although they were short-lived, few have forgotten the Military Units of Support for Production (UMAPs) in which many people, including a number of homosexuals, were held and submitted to forced labour in the 1960s. Priests, like the present Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, figured among the victims of the UMAPs, as did Pablo Milanes, one of Cuba’s most internationally reknowned singer- songwriters.
Homosexuality was seen as incompatible with the education of children, and meant immediate dismissal from teaching jobs or positions in the area of culture. For many long years, homosexual preference was grounds for not being allowed to hold posts of responsibility and for being refused admission to the Communist Party and even certain university departments. Conservative calculations estimate that four to six percent of Cuba’s 11 million inhabitants are homosexuals. According to the National Centre of Sexual Education, under the Ministry of Public Health, homosexuality is ”just another sexual behaviour, and a healthy expression of love.” But attempts by the centre’s specialists to promote tolerance and comprehension have come up hard against tradition.
”Homosexuality has not been excluded from the mantle of silence, a mix of prejudice and ignorance that has covered all aspects of sexuality,” a prominent local obstetrician, Celestino Alvarez Lajonchere, wrote in a report on homosexuality. Nevertheless, Cuba’s homosexual community is alive and kicking, with known meeting places, ”cruising” routes and underground clubs. In a survey carried out in 1993 by the weekly ‘Juventud Rebelde’, the publication of the Union of Young Communists, most of the gays and lesbians interviewed said they felt that the worst had already passed, but that they feared a return to the past.
The survey, based on interviews with 75 homosexuals, forms part of a broader study still in progress, which includes a poll of more than 300 Havana residents.
A majority–72.9 percent–of the gays and lesbians interviewed said homosexuality was the key characteristic defining their lives, and 63.5 percent said homosexuality was an option as valid as heterosexuality. But 40 percent said they feared rejection, 32.9 percent said they had problems with their families, 20 percent were ”in the closet” with respect to their families, and 27 percent said they tried to pass as heterosexuals. In the second ‘Juventud Rebelde’ survey of the population at large, only six percent of those consulted said they considered homosexuality ”normal.” The poll was carried out in Havana, the least conservative part of Cuba. Seventy-eight percent said society marginalised gays and lesbians, while 10 percent said they would be capable of physical aggression against homosexuals. Although 55 percent claimed they would treat homosexuals in a ”normal manner,” 52 percent referred to gays and 76 percent to lesbians in derogatory terms.
Living the Gay "La Vida Loca" (Crazy Life) under a repressive regime.
Cuba’s history of brutal treatment of its Gay citizens, particularly Gay men, is a permanent scar on the face of the Castro regime. Gay people were despised in Cuba and Castro brought a reign of terror upon them. They were harassed, publicly ridiculed, forced from jobs, jailed, beaten and, in 1965, they were labeled "counter revolutionary" rounded up and sent to forced labor camps. In 1980 hundreds of Cuban Gays were again labeled "counter-revolutionary," only this time they were thrown out of the country. After what they’d been through, getting thrown out of Cuba wasn’t the worse thing that could happen.
So, it should come as no surprise to hear they don’t have Gay bars in Havana and they don’t have an extensive Gay subculture as we know it. But Cuba does have Gay men and Lesbians and they do have a life. But what’s it like living the Gay "La Vida Loca" under such a repressive regime? What’s it like being Black and Gay in Cuba? What’s it like being Black in Cuba? Is it the color-blind communist utopia they would have us believe?
Gisela Arandia Covarrubia is an author and researcher on issues of race and society. She has lectured extensively in the United States on a variety of topics that include the future of race relations in Cuba and Black women in Cuba. In her book "Gay Cuba Then and Now’ she looks at Cuba since the revolution and the motivations behind the country’s harsh treatment of Gays. Amaury Fernandez Lopez is a 28 year-old openly Gay Cuban. Amaury is of that generation born after the revolution and were too young to experience the worst of the Gay purges. They have a different outlook than older Gays. Amaury looks at what’s it’s like being young and Gay today’s Havana.
"There is a great deal of racism in the Gay community. There is a lot of prejudice against Blacks. Since I’ve come into the Gay life I have experienced a look of prejudice." Speaking is Ana Himsley Serrano, a Black Cuban Lesbian. Ana is in a relationship with a White Cuban Lesbian. It’s a relationship that some frown upon because of its interracial nature and we look at how race affects love and sex in Gay Cuba. The most visible, and therefore the most harassed, of all Cuban Gays were effeminate men and drag queens. "At one time you could get arrested and jailed for wearing make-up," says Andres Gil, leader of a drag troupe called Groupo Anonimo. Well, times have changed as we see in Queens of Cuba. The guys are not only in make-up but heels, wigs and sequined gowns, as they performed in front of an enthusiastic audience.
Times have also changed, somewhat, in regards to U.S. policy towards Cuba. While the embargo is still in full force there has been a slight thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The Clinton Administration has been making small steps over the past two years to ease up on some of the restrictions but the influential anti-Castro lobby in Miami has sought to thwart every move.
The most famous American currently living in Cuba is Assata Shakur. In 1977 Shakur was convicted as an accomplice in the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. She was serving a life sentence when, in 1979, she escaped from a New Jersey prison. She showed up in Cuba in the early ’80’s seeking political asylum and that’s where she’s been ever since.
Bay Area author Evelyn C. White visited Shakur in Havana and talked with her about her life now. The article is aptly titled ‘Prisoner in Paradise’: To talk about Racism in Cuba seems strange. It’s not something one would think existed. After all, wasn’t that part of what the revolution was about? But racism does exist in Cuba. It has always existed but Americans tended to ignore it. Now, more people are beginning to talk about it, in Cuba. It’s in the music. There’s a new sound coming out of the Black barrios of Havana called "Timba." It’s a melding of African American ’70’s funk, a bit of Rap, and Afro-Cuban beats.
"Its hard edged, aggressive anxiety is comparable to James Brown singing ‘Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud,’" writes music critic Chuy Varela. "It’s a music often censored by Fidel Castro’s autocratic regime. It’s a new ghetto-speak stirring up discontent with street-level views and menacing grooves." Clearly, racism is an issue that Cuba will not be able to put off indefinitely. The Black majority will be not be silenced forever.
Film ‘Gay Cuba’ examines modern gay life–for better and worse.
"Many of us live our lives in the closet. Yet…prejudices can change for the better."
by Gary Morris
Americans’ view of Cuba is based more on the right wing’s mythmaking (a process they’ve become expert at) than on qualities inherent in Cuban society. In some areas — literacy levels, for example — Cuba has a better track record than we do. The situation for Cuban gays is also awash in misinformation, which Sonia de Vries’ level-headed documentary goes far in countering. Her film ‘Gay Cuba’ combines interviews with gay and lesbian men, government officials, and average citizens, with musical performances and gay pride parades. Along the way, we get a quick, painless lesson in Cuban history.
From 1898 to 1902, the island (now 11 million people) was occupied by the United States. From 1902 until 1959, the U.S. supported dictators to protect our corporate interests–a process that turned the island into a model of Third World corruption and exploitation. Even after the revolution, Cuba offered to compensate American companies that were nationalized, but, typically, the U.S. refused and thus began the destructive blockade that continues today beyond all reason, logic, and morality.
What effect did the revolution have on the acceptance of gay people in a country drenched in machismo? Unfortunately, the government adopted the familiar Stalinist line that homosexuality is "a byproduct of decadent capitalism." The Public Ostentation Law was enacted in the 1930s specifically to encourage harassment of gay people who refused to stay in the closet, and in spite of the revolutionary process of reexamining old attitudes, the government refused to repeal that law until 1988. Police, used to casual harassment and arrests of gays, were ordered to desist. Director de Vries interviews people who recall this time, but as one activist says, "Cuba right now is not a human rights issue."
Cuba was rightly condemned also during the 1980s for quarantining people with HIV, a practice that also collapsed under careful scrutiny. In 1993, the incarceration law was lifted, and HIV patients enjoy free medicines, housing, and full wages if they’re able to work–policies that again show the superiority of this little island nation over its bully to the north.
The National Center for Sex Education leads workshops throughout the country to try to eradicate homophobic attitudes. One of the women who works for the center blames the Catholic Church for much of the anti-gay attitude that continues to exist: "The Catholic religion simply rejects pleasure; life; sexuality in general." Many Cuban gays have in turn rejected the Church, finding spiritual solace in their own growing sense of community, or in the more sensual and open-minded Santeria religion.
The extraordinary success of the literacy campaign initiated after the revolution is evident in the articulateness of the people. Even many of the soldiers interviewed recognize the foolishness of homophobic attitudes: "Homosexuality has nothing to do with a person’s intellectual capacity," one of them says.
Cuba has room for improvement, as some gays still hide their real identities. A union leader says with simple eloquence, "Many of us live our lives in the closet. This works against our human development." On the other hand, we have a young Cuban lesbian who insists on holding hands with and kissing her girlfriend in public, "right in front of the police," daring them to intervene. ‘Gay Cuba’ shows that a society that encourages its people to think and examine their prejudices can change for the better, and this is exactly what’s happening there.
‘Repression’ Saved Lives
by Joseph Mutti
Havana – The first reported AIDS case appeared in Cuba in 1985. The person had returned from a tour of military duty in Mozambique. The following year, while the American Red Cross was still denying the veracity of reports of infection via blood, the Cuban Health Ministry ordered the destruction of every unit of blood on the island, a move that saved all but two of Cuba’s hemophiliacs from infection through tainted blood. As some U.S. gay organizations denied that HIV was transmitted through semen, Cuba was constructing a sanatorium in each province. Cuba’s controversial war against HIV/AIDS was in full swing.
The basic principle of the Cuban public health-care system, widely recognized as the Third World’s best, is to prioritize the health of the population as a whole instead of focusing exclusively on individual care. This is important for understanding HIV/AIDS policies, including the sanatorium system, that earned Cuba an unfair reputation for employing repression to counter the virus.
From the outset, health authorities quarantined anyone testing positive for HIV in one of 13 sanatoria. The facilities provided a healthy diet, housing, medical treatment and psychological care, and patients were allowed to visit relatives on weekends. The government undertook extensive efforts to learn more about transmission of the virus and to discover a cure. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that officials felt enough was known to end the quarantine and focus on public information, education and prevention
Oppressive or not, the sanatorium system saved lives. Cuba now has one of the world’s lowest rates of infection, with only one of every 1,500 persons testing HIV-positive (the U.S. rate is 1 of every 550). The statistics are especially remarkable given Cuba’s sexually active youth and easygoing attitudes about sex.
Contrary to erroneous beliefs abroad, Cubans who test HIV-positive today are asked, but not required, to stay for three to six months in a sanatorium. During this time, the individuals learn how to maintain their health and protect other people’s health. They also receive psychological and medical exams and monitoring. People with a job or family situation that conflicts with the sanatorium stay may opt instead to attend their local hospital as outpatients for eight weeks.
After this initial period, people with HIV/AIDS choose one of three programs:
* They continue living in the sanatorium, receiving food, an air-conditioned house or apartment, and all social, medical and psychological services. Everything is free except cigarettes. They commute to work from the sanatorium campus. If they can’t work, the sanatorium provides 50 percent of the salary they were earning, and their employer provides the other 50 percent. The employer is required to retain the post indefinitely and may reassign it only with the employee’s approval. Those who had no job receive occupational therapy and a stipend that amounts to about half the average national salary. Because of the living conditions, a full two-thirds of Cubans with HIV/AIDS choose to live in their provincial sanatorium.
* They live with the general population as outpatients, regularly returning to a sanatorium for checkups,medication, food and other aid. If they can’t find a job, they get the same 50 percent salary from both the sanatorium and the employer. If they can’t work, they get a pension.
* They live in the general population and receive medical attention through the country’s main AIDS-care hospital, the Pedro Kouri Institute for Tropical Medicine (IPK) in Havana. For psychological and epidemiological services, they go to their provincial Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology. If they can’t work or can’t find a job, they receive the same benefits via their provincial sanatorium.
Cuban workers temporarily disabled by any illness receive a leave of up to a year at 60 percent of their salary if hospitalized or 70 percent if recovering at home. An employee with HIV/AIDS has the same rights but for an indefinite period while receiving their full salary under the 50/50 arrangement.
To the Source
Once a person has tested HIV-positive, attempts are made to trace everyone who had sexual contact with the person. Given Cubans’ general openness about their sexuality, and Cuba’s cradle-to-grave health care system, it’s usually possible to ascertain how and when a person was infected. The tracing has come under criticism abroad for ignoring individual privacy rights, but the priority is, again, public health.
The Amigos Project collects donated medicine for people with HIV in Cuba. The group seeks any antibiotics, not just anti-retrovirals. To contribute, contact Vincent Meis, 415-552-8814, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The biggest problem in Cuba’s AIDS war is availability of medicines. Most Cubans who take medication to combat the virus receive it from friends or relatives abroad or through a clearinghouse system at IPK in which all donated medicines are stockpiled and distributed to those most in need once a six-month supply can be guaranteed.
Since 1986, Cuba has had 2,142 reported HIV cases, 577 of which have died of AIDS. Males comprise 75 percent of the cases, and 75 percent of the males report being either gay or bisexual. Of total cases, homosexual contact accounts for 56 percent and heterosexual contact, 43 percent. Just 12 cases (including the two hemophiliacs) have come from tainted blood. Two health professionals have been infected at work, and six childen have been infected from their mothers.
Visiting Cuba recently, the physician who isolated the HIV virus in 1983, the French Pasteur Institute’s Luc Montagnier, praised Cuba’s testing of all pregnant women and its use of Caesarian sections for HIV-positive mothers, which reduces the perinatalrisk to 1 percent. Montagnier also congratulated Cuba for the population’s excellent health, and warned that an increase in young heterosexual HIV transmission should be carefully monitored.
Cuba has made a concerted effort to address the problem with youths, who comprise more than 50 percent of new cases. As one Cuban AIDS volunteer puts it, “We’re not part of the problem, we’re part of the solution.”
March 20, 2002
Stopping the Cuban Vacation Crisis
by Steve Lopez
As a former butler, a TV news producer and an aspiring filmmaker, Mytchell Mora kept bumping into Hollywood folk who told of their romps through Cuba. All these stories left the young man with a fever for the forbidden island, and nothing could stop him from going. Mora’s first visit was in 1999, and it was like being blown a kiss by a lovely senorita. Balmy breezes, white-sand beaches, strong cigars. Cuba, sad and beautiful, romanced him and called him back again later that year. He shot a video about how simple it is to travel there, but it didn’t exactly land him in the Hollywood Hills. He unloaded about 1,000 copies on his Web site, including a bunch he gave away.
Now Mora is 31, living in a studio apartment a block off Hollywood Boulevard with a girlfriend and a Great Dane, and the United States government is after him as if he were an enemy of the state. He’s not the only snake in our midst. Other targets of the crackdown include a teacher who biked across Cuba, two Iowa grandmas who were on a diving trip and a man who visited Cuba to scatter his missionary father’s ashes next to a church he had built. Rest easy, America. Washington’s got our backs covered. Mora was informed in 2000 and again last year by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that he had violated the Trading with the Enemy Act. He was ordered to document every step he took and every cent he spent while in Cuba, or else.
"They told me it was an extremely serious matter, with a maximum fine of $250,000 and possible jail time of six months," Mora says, although fines have averaged closer to $7,500 for other violators. In the first warning sent to Mora, OFAC said its gumshoes had spotted the Cuba video on his Web site. Your tax dollars at work. Mora and others complained to congressional representatives about all this goose-stepping by an obscure federal agency with too much time on its hands. Tomorrow in Washington, D.C., a bipartisan group of these lawmakers will call for an end to a 40-year policy that makes less sense each day Fidel Castro draws breath.
"I just think every American has a Constitutional right to travel unless there’s a compelling security reason not to," says U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). "I’m no fan of Castro, and I think he’s a thug and a tyrant. But every American deserves an opportunity to see what a mess he’s made of that island." An estimated 60,000 Americans traveled to Cuba last year in violation of the travel ban, while more than 100,000 others managed to get permission. Flake and several colleagues hope to lift the travel ban, advance democracy on the island, permit agricultural sales to Cuba and promote cooperation on drug interdiction.
But there’s a problem.
"The American people and more and more members of Congress want to see changes, but at the White House, the president’s gaze is on the votes of right-wing Cuban exiles living in Florida," says Wayne Smith, a former U.S. diplomat in Cuba who is now with the Center for International Policy in Washington.
"The president’s brother is up for reelection in Florida, and the president, of course, wants to win Florida more decisively in 2004. So he wants to do nothing that would offend these right-wing voters. He’s got these Neanderthals running our Latin policy, and they are moving in the direction of tightening the controls and cracking down rather than loosening up." U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill made the critical mistake of speaking honestly on this subject last week, and was immediately slapped down by the White House. O’Neill was at a hearing in which Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said in so many words that investigative resources would be better spent hunting Al Qaeda terrorists than little old ladies from Iowa. "If I had the discretion for applying the resources, I would agree with you completely," O’Neill told Dorgan. But before the day was out, the White House had removed O’Neill’s tonsils, releasing a statement in his name that supported the travel ban.
Smith predicts Congress will have the votes to lift the ban this year, setting up a veto by Bush and a subsequent brawl that could go either way. Mora, meanwhile, continues to defy OFAC requests for information on his trips to Cuba, and if he’s fined, he’ll fight. The embargo has done nothing but bring hunger and suffering to Cuba, he says. And with Cuba proving to be a friend in the war on terrorism, there’s an opening for improved relations. If you can travel to North Korea and Vietnam, why not Cuba? Mora asks. You can also vacation in China, where censorship, torture and executions for mere property crimes did not stand in the way of most-favored-nation status. "Our government has bent over backward to look the other way in China," says Mora. He’s thinking of returning to Cuba, by the way. He’d like to make a documentary, this time, on an embargo that might have made sense once, long, long ago.
(Steve Lopez can be reached at email@example.com)