Printer Friendly

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, 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, glamorous drag queens and handsome gay machos are among the partyers--as are the roving jineteros, straight hustlers on the prowl for gifts and money from gay foreign tourists. Here they drink, flirt, cruise, and scout for details on a fiesta spontaneously assembled every weekend (the exact whereabouts are kept secret until the last minute to avoid a raid by the police, known to selectively enforce prostitution and public assembly laws). All of this takes place within sight of the 17th-century El Morro fortress, perched high on a rocky promontory, where gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas 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 of the Malecon.

While authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene have extolled the worldly sophistication 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" camps were once vaunted 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 or prostitution charges. The transgender 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 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 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 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 at the U.K.'s University of Southampton 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 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, became an activist for women's and children's rights. "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) were forced into the Military Units to Aid Production camps, along with missionaries, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other "undesirables." While imprisoned 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.

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 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 and not able to do anything--a cold feeling," she says. "I felt like a transsexual 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," 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 fighters.

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 report released this year.

"What I heard from my father," she says, sounding more like a future stateswoman 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 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, where Che Guevara is buried. Agonized, 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."


ADVOCATE.COM Log on for more photos of Castro Espin.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Regent Media
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Rowe, Michael
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Oct 1, 2009
Previous Article:Andy knows best: Andy Cohen is becoming increasingly familiar to Bravo's legion of gay viewers, but who is the man behind the smile, and where does...
Next Article:Beyond benefits: you deserve equal benefits in your job. Given. But what is your company doing to truly create a gay-supportive work atmosphere?

Related Articles
Bush intensifies anti-Cuba campaign, but exiles say White House falls short.
Fidel's finale? When Cuba's dictator was sidelined by illness, Castro's younger brother assumed power. What, if anything, will happen?
Cuba at a crossroads: does Fidel Castro's decision to step down after half a century in power open the door to real change for Cuba?
Sex change operations approved.
Cuba authorizes sex-change operations.
1959 the Cuban revolution: Fidel Castro came to power promising democracy and freedom. Now, after 50 years of repression and hardship, he's finally...
Havana blogger tests tolerance of Cuba's power elite.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters