Cuban activists welcome normalized relations between U.S. and Cuba

Cuban LGBT rights advocates on Wednesday welcomed President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. will seek to normalize relations with their country.

Yosvanys Fonseca Aguilar of the Network of Young People for Health and Sexual Rights,, a group that is part of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), which Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, directs, told the Washington Blade he feels normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba will have “positive benefits for the Cuban LGBT community.” These include the opportunity to build support for marriage rights for same-sex couples on the Communist island and other LGBT-specific issues.

“Work on these issues has already taken place in Cuba,” Fonseca told the Blade. “But the normalization of relations in Cuba will bring many changes in benefits for all Cubans.”

Fonseca spoke with the Blade shortly before the White House formally announced the U.S. will “immediately begin discussions” with the Cuban government to reestablish diplomatic relations that ended in January 1961. These include the opening of a U.S. Embassy in Havana and allowing “high-ranking” American officials to visit Cuba.

Obama has instructed the State Department to review Cuba’s designation of a state-sponsor of terrorism. The White House also said it will further relax travel restrictions to the Communist island and allow additional remittances from the U.S.

“Although this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions,” said Obama. “It has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale on restrictions on its people. Today Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party that came to power half a century ago. Nor the American or Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Obama’s announcement came hours after the release of Alan Gross, a subcontractor with the U.S. Agency for International Development from Potomac, Md., who was held in a Cuban prison for five years after authorities arrested him for connecting a local Jewish community to the Internet. The U.S. in turn allowed three Cuban men who were in a Florida jail to return to the island.

Pope Francis helped orchestrate the deal that prompted Wednesday’s announcement.

Tico Almeida, a Cuban American Democrat who is executive director of Freedom to Work, a group that supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, traveled to Cuba last month to visit his family. He is planning to return to the island in the coming months.

“I applaud President Barack Obama for his bold and historic leadership, and I believe we need more people-to-people diplomacy between LGBT Americans and LGBT Cubans,” Almeida told the Blade on Wednesday. “As a gay Cuban American, I am personally committed to promoting open, honest, and independent dialogue between our LGBT movements in a way that promotes freedom and fairness for the LGBT people of both the United States and Cuba.”

Robyn Ochs, a bisexual advocate and writer who is a member of the MassEquality Board of Directors, participated in a conference in Cuba in May that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from Latin America and the Caribbean.

She, like Almeida and Fonseca, welcomes the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba and the prospect that more LGBT Americans will have the opportunity to travel to the island.

“I’m delighted to learn of this step forward,” Ochs told the Blade. “Both Cuba and the United States are extremely complex, multi-layered countries. We have a great deal to learn from each other, and our conversations are still in their infancy.

Ignacio Estrada Cepero, founder of the Cuban League Against AIDS who lives in Miami with Wendy Iriepa Díaz, his transgender wife who worked for CENESEX until she had a falling out with Mariela Castro, was more measured in his response.

“It is not a moment to think about a group or a political sector, but rather thinking of the well-being of both nations,” Estrada told the Blade. “It is perhaps not a solution, but I am confident in God that this will be a beginning to construct and launch a different Cuba, which will be impossible without the help of the American people.”

U.S. embargo ‘damages’ Cuba
Obama on Wednesday said he hopes to engage Congress “in an honest and serious debate about” lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Raúl Castro during a televised address that coincided with Obama’s speech said the embargo “damages” Cuba.
“It must end,” said the Cuban president.

Cuban activists with whom the Blade spoke in October during the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association’s biennial global conference in Mexico City said embargo has adversely affected the island’s LGBT residents.

Isel Calzadilla Acosta, coordinator of the Network of Lesbian and Bisexual Women in the city of Santiago de Cuba, said the decades-old law prevents her from traveling to the U.S. She and Argelia Fellové Hernández of the Network of Lesbian and Bisexual Women in Havana both told the Blade the embargo has caused a shortage of medicine and medical supplies.

“It affects our children, our neighbors, our parents,” said Fellové during the ILGA World Conference in Mexico City. “The blockade affects us a lot.”

Obama raises human rights with Cuban president
Cuban activists and supporters of Mariela Castro frequently point out the country’s LGBT rights record has significantly improved over the last decade.

Lawmakers late last year approved a proposal to add sexual orientation to the country’s labor law.
Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban Parliament, has publicly backed marriage rights for same-sex couples on the island. Her supporters note the country’s national health care system under her leadership offers free sex reassignment surgery to trans Cubans.

Mariela Castro was president of the local committee that organized the May conference that took place in Havana and the beach resort of Varadero. She joined more than a dozen Cuban activists at ILGA World Conference in Mexico City.

These efforts stand in stark contrast to the country’s LGBT rights record in the years after the Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959.

The Cuban government in the 1960s sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps — known as Military Units to Aid Production or the Spanish acronym UMAP. People living with HIV/AIDS were forcibly quarantined in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Cuban LGBT rights advocates critical of Mariela Castro and her father’s government insist authorities continue to harass them under public assembly laws.

Obama said he raised Cuba’s human rights record with Raúl Castro when they spoke on Tuesday.

“I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans,” said Obama on Wednesday. “The U.S. believes no Cuban should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard. And we will continue to support civil society there.”
Cuban-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) on Wednesday suggested the Obama administration’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba may violate U.S. law.

“The liberalization of policies aimed at easing trade and remittances to Cuba is another propaganda coup for the Castro brothers, who will now fill their coffers with more money at the expense of the Cuban people,” she said.
“This misguided action by President Obama will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental freedoms and disregard democratic principles.”

Obama on Wednesday acknowledged those who oppose efforts to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba. He nevertheless stressed current American policy towards the Communist country has not worked.

“We are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their social, political and economic activities,” said Obama. “In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help.”

“To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship,” he added.

by Michael K. Lavers
Source – The Washington Blade