The new Cuban revolucion: as the daughter of president Raul Castro, Mariela Castro Espin could have done anything--or nothing--with her life. So why did she decide to become a champion of Cuba's gay and transgender communities?
ON HOT SATURDAY NIGHTS IN HAVANA, thousands of young men and women armed with rum, boom boxes, and guitars transform the Malecon, a four-mile stretch of the city's north-shore seawall seawall: see coast protection. , into a boisterous outdoor bar. Diesel exhaust from 1957 Chevrolet Bel Airs and Russian-made Ladas mixes with cigar smoke and surprisingly sexy cheap cologne. Even in a culture long permeated by machismo machismo
Exaggerated pride in masculinity, perceived as power, often coupled with a minimal sense of responsibility and disregard of consequences. In machismo there is supreme valuation of characteristics culturally associated with the masculine and a denigration of , glamorous drag queens This is a list of drag queens and female impersonators. Only those subjects who are notable enough for Wikipedia articles should be included here.
Some places called el Morro:
A projecting part.
a projecting process or eminence. , where gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas Reinaldo Arenas (July 16, 1943 – December 7, 1990) was a Cuban poet, novelist, and playwright who despite his early sympathy for the 1959 revolution, grew critical of and then rebelled against the Cuban government. was jailed and brutalized for two years in the 1970s as a result of "ideological deviation," a postrevolutionary code for open homosexuality. As the light fades El Morro recedes into the darkness like a bad memory, leaving only the revelry Revelry
Revenge (See VENGEANCE.)
Reward (See PRIZE.)
in honor of Bacchus, god of wine. [Rom. Religion: NCE, 203]
Boar’s Head Tavern
scene of Falstaff’s carousals. [Br. Lit. of the Malecon.
While authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene have extolled the worldly sophistication so·phis·ti·cate
v. so·phis·ti·cat·ed, so·phis·ti·cat·ing, so·phis·ti·cates
1. To cause to become less natural, especially to make less naive and more worldly.
2. of Havana nightlife, homosexuality wasn't decriminalized in Cuba until 1979, following decades of harsh judicial treatment. The very real dangers associated with public displays of same-sex affection increase exponentially the farther one travels from Havana's urban core. Yet Cuban attitudes toward gay people have evolved significantly in the past few years, thanks in part to an unexpected and powerful ally.
Mariela Castro Espin is a slender, pale, and elegant mother of three children. Married to an Italian photographer, she is straight, even though some Havana gossips suggest otherwise. She is also the 47-year-old daughter of President Raul Castro, who last year officially succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, as head of state.
As director of the government-run National Center for Sex Education, or CENESEX, Castro Espin has used her guile and familial clout to push for gay rights in a country where hard-labor "reeducation Reeducation may refer to:
v. vaunt·ed, vaunt·ing, vaunts
To speak boastfully of; brag about.
To speak boastfully; brag. See Synonyms at boast1.
1. as an antidote to homosexuality. "Homophobia in Cuba is part of what makes you a 'man,'" she says through a translator. "Boys are taught to have violent reactions so they can show their masculinity. Boys are destroyed in this country this way."
Castro Espin and I are sitting in the drawing room of a former palazzo that now houses government offices in Havana's diplomatic Vedado neighborhood. With its velvet and damask antique French furniture bordering on threadbare, the room's Norma Desmond grandeur is a reminder of Cuba's aristocratic, prerevolutionary past; marble floors gleam coolly against the patina of the cracked, ornate gold leaf and boiserie wall paneling. As recently as a few years ago, it would have been unheard of for the daughter of the sitting Cuban president to grant a four-hour interview to an American gay magazine-never mind an accession on her part that there be no government representatives present or no preapproved questions.
But these are not ordinary times, and Castro Espin is no ordinary president's daughter. To the Havana police, she's the antagonist who shows up at the station on behalf of those arrested on trumped-up loitering Loitering (IPA pronunciation: ['lɔɪtəˌrɪŋ] is an intransitive verb meaning to stand idly, to stop numerous times, or to delay and procrastinate. or prostitution charges. The transgender transgender or transgendered
Transsexual. populace knows her as the woman who turned her offices into a refuge for those who have been expelled from their homes (Wendy, a youngtrans woman, told me how Castro Espin once chased a boy for blocks before collaring him for throwing rocks at "Mariela's girls"). Her activism doesn't preclude a wry, socialist wit, however. "Please make sure you don't write that I live here," she later says to a photographer while posing gamely at the head of an opulent staircase.
Under Castro Espin's auspices, 2008 marked a pivotal year for the country's LGBT LGBT Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender rights movement. The government passed a resolution allowing transgender individuals to undergo sex-reassignment surgeries free of charge. And Cuba stepped onto the stage of international gay rights discourse with its inaugural Day Against Homophobia, sanctioned at the highest levels of the Castro government and attended by thousands of ordinary gay and lesbian Cubans as well as activists and government officials.
Castro Espin also is persistently lobbying on behalf of a bill to legalize le·gal·ize
tr.v. le·gal·ized, le·gal·iz·ing, le·gal·iz·es
To make legal or lawful; authorize or sanction by law.
le same-sex civil unions that is proceeding slowly through parliament--the term "gay marriage" being as problematic for Cubans as it is for many Americans. "Instead of just working with Cuban gays and lesbians so they could fit into the rest of society," Castro Espin explains, "our strategy [at CENESEX] is to work with the population so that they can accept and be educated on sexual diversity. The people who have the problem are not gay people but the general population."
While her star power is clearly of great public relations public relations, activities and policies used to create public interest in a person, idea, product, institution, or business establishment. By its nature, public relations is devoted to serving particular interests by presenting them to the public in the most value to the Cuban regime, those who have worked with Castro Espin believe she's more than just a superficial spokesmodel for the Castro family. "It's very much her own crusade," says Elizabeth Dore, a professor of Latin American studies Latin American Studies (sometimes abbreviated LAS) is an academic discipline which studies the history and experience of peoples and cultures in the Americas. Definition at the U.K.'s University of Southampton In the most recent RAE assessment (2001), it has the only engineering faculty in the country to receive the highest rating (5*) across all disciplines. According to The Times Higher Education Supplement who met Castro Espin while working on a Cuban oral history project. "Mariela has become increasingly strong in her own ideas and even militant about them. I think she's also a very hard-headed politician, which played a part in her slowly and delicately convincing people, including many white, elderly men [in power], that it was important for Cuba to change its policies toward gays."
CASTRO ESPIN HAD NOT YET BEEN BORN in 1959 when her uncle Fidel Castro and an army of guerrillas overthrew the right-wing dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, under whose regime U.S. interests had flourished. By 1962, the year of her birth, Fidel Castro had seized and nationalized U.S. concerns and property in retaliation for what he considered trade provocation. The U.S. in turn imposed a crippling embargo that remains in place today.
"When Mariela was born her father was already a very important person in Cuba ... but her mother was, in a way, even more exceptional," says Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly of Cuba and the nation's senior diplomat. In an era when well-to-do Cuban women's social roles centered on matrimony MATRIMONY. See Marriage. and motherhood, Vilma Espin was an underground guerrilla fighter against the Batista regime. After the revolution, Espin, who had completed postgraduate work in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at Cambridge; coeducational; chartered 1861, opened 1865 in Boston, moved 1916. It has long been recognized as an outstanding technological institute and its Sloan School of Management has notable programs in business, , became an activist for women's and children's rights The opportunity for children to participate in political and legal decisions that affect them; in a broad sense, the rights of children to live free from hunger, abuse, neglect, and other inhumane conditions. . "In a way, they're not so different," Alarcon says of mother and daughter. "Especially in terms of educating society on sexual matters. In Mariela, I see her mother 40 years ago when she was trying to teach people that a man was equal to his wife and needed to respect her. Mariela has an advantage. She was educated in a society that wasn't the one her mother grew up in but one that her mother shaped and changed."
Alarcon isn't surprised by Castro Espin's commitment to gay rights. "I was a good friend of Vilma," he says. "And I can tell you that she would never hide her conviction that, for her, socialism meant complete emancipation for everyone. [For her], gay rights were one of the eventual goals of the revolution."
Despite her family's prominence, Castro Espin and her three siblings had an ordinary upbringing. They lived modestly, attended public schools with their peers, and spent a great deal of time with their parents. "My father was a macho," she says. "A military man, but he was in love. And that would make him very tender. I think both of my parents imbued me with a rather critical spirit. At home things were constantly being discussed and questioned."
As she grew older Castro Espin became aware of how the corrosive machismo of postrevolutionary Cuba had fueled antigay brutality. In the mid 1960s gay men (or those merely seen as effeminate ef·fem·i·nate
1. Having qualities or characteristics more often associated with women than men. See Synonyms at female.
2. Characterized by weakness and excessive refinement. ) were forced into the Military Units to Aid Production Military Units to Aid Production or UMAP’s (Unidades Militares para la Ayuda de Producción) were established by the Cuban government in 1965 as a way to eliminate alleged "bourgeois" and "counter-revolutionary" values in the Cuban population. camps, along with missionaries, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other "undesirables." While imprisoned im·pris·on
tr.v. im·pris·oned, im·pris·on·ing, im·pris·ons
To put in or as if in prison; confine.
[Middle English emprisonen, from Old French emprisoner : en- they were "reformed" through head-shaving and forced labor in an attempt to root out homosexual desire, considered to be a manifestation of capitalist degeneracy Degeneracy (quantum mechanics)
A term referring to the fact that two or more stationary states of the same quantum-mechanical system may have the same energy even though their wave functions are not the same. .
Raul Castro was head of the Cuban army at the time, and the camps were under military jurisdiction. In 1968, according to sources, all official references to the camps were expunged from the record. In his 2008 autobiography Fidel Castro denied that the camps were intended to punish and reform homosexuals (more than a decade earlier, he had declared homosexuality a natural variant of human behavior).
Castro Espin is pensive pen·sive
1. Deeply, often wistfully or dreamily thoughtful.
2. Suggestive or expressive of melancholy thoughtfulness. when I ask her about her family's role in the oppression of Cuba's gays. "It was a difficult process," she says. "As a child I saw Fidel as my uncle--if an uncle who would wear interesting clothing--and one whom people adored, me especially.
"And then, as I grew up, I started studying Marxist philosophy in university and started looking with a more critical eye.... I became more flexible in my viewpoints toward people I admire, to understand that they weren't gods. They were people with virtues and faults who made mistakes. And slowly I began to realize that Fidel is a brilliant man, but he's a man who belongs to his time. And he's also the product of a patriarchal society."
She pauses, then continues, her voice profoundly respectful. "I've seen the evolution in my father and in Fidel. And I'm sure that if I had the opportunity to speak to [Fidel], I might be able to change his mind even more. But I don't have that opportunity."
IN 2000, after a variety of education-related jobs and the ongoing pursuit of her postgraduate studies, Mariela became director of CENESEX, the organization founded in part by her mother, who died in 2007. In the CENESEX archives she found a paper on homophobia that her mother, the only female member of the Cuban politburo, had written in the 1980s. "It was her against all the men," Castro Espin says, sighing.
At CENESEX, Castro Espin was first approached in 2004 by a group of transgender women who were being harassed by the police. A kinship was born, as was her sense of duty to them. During a tiny, fledgling gay pride event she helped organize a few years later, Castro Espin recalls walking several trans women through the streets of Havana en route to a theater for a presentation of the 1999 film Boys Don't Cry. A small crowd gathered, and the scene quickly turned ugly. People were becoming very aggressive and saying, Look, it's a bunch of faggots! Look, it's disgusting!' It made me feel like I was being humiliated hu·mil·i·ate
tr.v. hu·mil·i·at·ed, hu·mil·i·at·ing, hu·mil·i·ates
To lower the pride, dignity, or self-respect of. See Synonyms at degrade. and not able to do anything--a cold feeling," she says. "I felt like a transsexual trans·sex·u·al
A person who strongly identifies with the opposite gender and who chooses to live as a member of the opposite gender or to become one by surgery.
1. Of or relating to such a person.
2. walking down the street.... It hardened my resolve to change things, and I realized I needed to do much, much more."
The following year she proposed to government officials a nationwide Day Against Homophobia: "I made it very clear that I wasn't going over there to ask anyone's permission. I was going over there to advise." To her surprise, officials counterproposed with a weeklong series of antihomophobia cultural activities, including plays, discussion panels, and film screenings.
I ask her if being Raul Castro's daughter wasn't ultimately the key that turned the lock. "Yes and no," she says, aware that everything she does is measured on some level against who she is. "If I'd simply gone as my father's daughter, no one would have respected me."
Given the dynastic nature of Cuba's political structure, speculation about Castro Espin's political future abounds, even if she denies such ambitions. "A lot of people ask me if I think Mariela could be the next president of Cuba The President of Cuba is the Head of State of Cuba. ," Elizabeth Dore says. "And also, if Mariela thinks she could be the next president of Cuba. When I first met her she said she didn't like politics and she didn't want her work to be thought of as political. She wanted it to be thought of as social. I think she's evolved somewhat from that [position.] She's a very, very good politician."
While Castro Espin concedes that her country's proximity to the United States has affected Cuba and will continue to do so, she avoids talking about U.S.-Cuba relations until near the end of the conversation, when I ask her whether she thinks President Obama will usher in a new era of diplomacy.
"I still have a lot of faith and hopes invested in Obama," she says. "Though he has shown no real democratic outreach to Cuba, I'm still very proud of the miracle brought about by the American people in [electing] a young, intelligent black man."
She pauses, then says, "The first thing I would like to ask him, as a gesture of good faith, is that he return the five fighters against terrorism who are unjustly imprisoned in U.S. jails." The reference is to the "Cuban Five," a group of intelligence officers who infiltrated U.S.-based Cuban exile groups and in 2001 were convicted in federal court of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. But in Cuba they are hailed as folk heroes and antiterrorist an·ti·ter·ror·ist
Intended to prevent or counteract terrorism; counterterror: antiterrorist measures.
I remind Castro Espin that early in his presidency, Obama offered to lift the trade embargo if Cuba would free the 54 prisoners of conscience detained for their political views, according to an Amnesty International Amnesty International (AI,) human-rights organization founded in 1961 by Englishman Peter Benenson; it campaigns internationally against the detention of prisoners of conscience, for the fair trial of political prisoners, to abolish the death penalty and torture of report released this year.
"What I heard from my father," she says, sounding more like a future stateswoman states·wom·an
1. A woman who is a leader in national or international affairs: "In foreign policy, [she] than a gay rights activist, "is that he would release all the prisoners of conscience if Obama releases the Five."
EVEN AS CASTRO ESPIN becomes better known internationally every year, she remains a source of both controversy and bemusement be·muse
tr.v. be·mused, be·mus·ing, be·mus·es
1. To cause to be bewildered; confuse. See Synonyms at daze.
2. To cause to be engrossed in thought. at home. Rumors abound--is she a lesbian? No, she says, nor is she bothered by the question: "Being considered a lesbian would not be an insult to me. Being considered corrupt would be."
She appears to derive the most satisfaction from the small, incremental indicators of her work. Castro Espin tells me about a letter she recently received from a woman whose home she visited after giving a speech in Santa Clara, the capital of Cuba's Villa Clara province Villa Clara is one of the provinces of Cuba. It's located in the central region of the island bordering with the Atlantic at north, Matanzas Province by west, Sancti Spiritus by east, and Cienfuegos on the South. , where Che Guevara is buried. Agonized ag·o·nize
v. ag·o·nized, ag·o·niz·ing, ag·o·niz·es
1. To suffer extreme pain or great anguish.
2. To make a great effort; struggle.
v.tr. , the woman talked about her son, who was beaten and then abandoned by a father who didn't want a maricon for a child.
"He showed me all of his dresses," she says of the boy during the visit. "I told them that these prejudices were the father's problem and they needed to be explained to him. It looked like I did something right, because the next year when I came back, the father was living with the family again and he went to his son's drag shows."
I ask Castro Espin whether she thought the boy's father capitulated because a nice lady from Havana said he was wrong or because Gen. Raul Castro's daughter told him he was wrong. She laughs, a light, silvery sound, as though after all the lofty talk of politics and legacy, it had come down to this: Two mothers solving a family problem with education and a little common sense.
"Both," she says. "I think it made a difference. I'm glad it's something that can be useful."
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BYRON MOTLEY
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