Two weeks ago at the 10th Annual Gala Prix Arc-en-Ciel in Montreal, Canada, Cuban human rights activist, Mariela Castro received the International Grand Prix Award to honor her work with LGBTQ communities in Cuba.  The ceremony marks the continued rise in the Cuban activist’s global profile as the new face of the gay rights movement in Latin America.  More importantly, this recognition of Castro, the daughter of revolutionary feminist, Vilma Espín, and current Cuban President, Raúl Castro, symbolizes a revolutionary transformation for Cuban society and its relationship with the LGBTQ communities.

Transgender woman and gay man get married in Cuba on Fidel Castro's birthday. Image courtesy of Globovisión, ©2011, some rights reserved.

Transgender woman and gay man get married in Cuba on Fidel Castro’s birthday.
Image courtesy of Globovisión, ©2011, some rights reserved.

Despite the establishment of a new communist regime by Fidel Castro in 1959 with the ouster of previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista, pre-revolutionary norms of machismo and strict gender roles dominated post-revolutionary culture in Cuba.  Subsequently, LGBTQ communities faced heavily entrenched social persecution, which culminated in their imprisonment in forced labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción).  According to a 1967 country report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), over 30,000 internees were “forced to work for free in state farms for more than eight hours a day and [were] given the same treatment as political prisoners.”  In response to   international and domestic pressures, the camps shut down in 1968 and government policy towards the LGBTQ communities relaxed further with the 1979 legalization of sexual relations between same-sex consenting adults 16 and over.  Although the Cuban communist regime gradually became more accepting of homosexuality, these communities still remained marginalized within Cuban society.

However, the gay rights movement skyrocketed to both national and international prominence with the appointment of Mariela Castro as the new director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) in 2007. Consequently, CENESEX, which had been founded as primarily an educational organization about sexual health by Castro’s mother in 1989, rebranded itself into a powerful sexual rights advocacy institution.  Through her leadership and her powerful surname, a groundbreaking CENESEX-sponsored bill that made sex-reassignment surgery free under the Cuban national healthcare system became law in 2010.  Currently, the activist and her organization are now pushing the Cuban government into legalizing civil unions between same-sex partners, a measure that her mother lobbied for in the 1990s.

As a result, the massive national and cultural paradigm shift concerning gay rights in Cuba poses a real political and diplomatic challenge for US foreign policy.  From the rise of the Castro regime and the successive economic sanctions placed on the island nation by the US, tensions over civil liberties and human rights define US-Cuban relations.  However, the openness of the national dialogue concerning LGBTQ rights in Cuba demonstrates a significant cultural revolution within Cuban society and the government that has even begun to overshadow the US’s own national discourse on LGBTQ rights.  Program Director Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America commented, “This is the interesting contradiction of US foreign policy.  While Cuba is no model in democracy, the State Department cites progress in Cuba [on human rights due to the LGBTQ movement].”  The United States now finds itself torn between a historical policy of condemning the Castro regime and a modern international effort to support gay rights.

The meteoric rise of Mariela Castro as a leading voice of the LGBTQ rights movement in both Cuba and the international political sphere further adds to the political paradox the United States currently faces.  As the daughter of the Cuban leader and a deputy in the communist regime, US governmental support for her advances in LGBTQ rights offers a potential avenue for a landmark shift in thawing US-Cuban relations.  While her actions and words possibly represent her public dissent from the policies of the current regime, this appears unlikely.  As Director Thale explains, “Who knows if she truly speaks for the Cuban government.  She might be able to push the envelope, but her family obviously doesn’t publicly disapprove.  It would probably behoove us to support her.”  In fact, in an interview last year, Mariela Castro openly stated that her father supported gay rights.  By building a relationship with the Cuban activist on the international LGBTQ movement, the US could gain a unique window into the inner workings of the Castro regime that would provide an opportunity to mend relations with Cuba.

Unfortunately, a possible partnership between the US and Mariela Castro has already hit its share of snags.  Back in April of this year, the US State Department denied her a visa to travel to Philadelphia for the Equality Forum, an annual summit on LGBTQ issues.  Although the US ultimately reversed its decision and Castro attended the event, the initial decision reveals trepidations within the Obama administration to completely thaw relations with Cuba.  Still, since 2009, the US has significantly eased travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba in order to build a productive dialogue between the citizens and cultures of each nation, even if the governments are unable to do the same.

The United States stands at a major diplomatic crossroads without any clear indication as to which path it will choose to pursue.  However, the continued rise in the international popularity of Mariela Castro and the increasing fervor of the LGBTQ rights movement will eventually pressure the US to make a policy decision that defines the future of US-Cuban relations.

* The interview with Mr. Thale was personally conducted for the Foreign Affairs Review.