On May 11, 2019, in Havana’s Central Park, the LGBTIQ community of Cuba performed its first successful unauthorized political march. More than 200 people advanced from the statue of José Martí (the poet and national hero who fell in the war for independence) through the park and down the Prado toward the end of the avenue at the Castillo San Salvador de la Punta. The march was organized to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, after the Cuban government had canceled the official celebration without explanation. In front of the statue of Juan Clemente Zenea (another poet assassinated by Spain), the police intercepted the marchers. Despite explicit declarations in the preceding days that this was not a demonstration against the government, but instead a call for the expansion of rights within the legal order established by the government, police surrounded the marchers at the corner of Prado and San Lázaro and violently repressed them. Several of those involved in organizing it were pursued in the days after the event.
A march in Cuba is always a serious affair, and this one, known as #LaMarchaVa (#TheMarchContinues) on social media, was well-documented both by eyewitnesses and by the media. The march will probably not prove to be the “Cuban Stonewall,” as some have suggested. Its character was singular. Nonetheless, the event was an important landmark in the fight for LGBTIQ rights and human rights in general in Cuba. The state response reveals how badly prepared the Cuban ruling class is to deal with ongoing and unstoppable transformations underway due to the economic, technological, and demographic changes in the country.
The issue of LGBTIQ rights has played a unique role in the history of the Cuban Revolution. Colonization of Cuba began in 1492, and between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries the Holy Inquisition condemned seventeen homosexual men to die by burning. The republic born in 1902 was racist, sexist, and heteronormative, in tune with the world around it. The revolution of 1959 was fought against racism and in favor of gender equality—at least as understood back then—but cultivated an idea of revolutionary masculinity that reproduced homophobic prejudices. The Cuban Revolution politicized even the smallest acts of daily life, and it didn’t take long before systemic repression of homosexuality, understood as a form of petty-bourgeois moral degeneracy, was implemented.
From 1965 to 1968, the government operated the infamous Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción (Military Units to Aid Production, or UMAP)—forced internment camps for populations including homosexuals, religious people, and political dissidents. Then, in 1971, amid a general deepening of cultural repression, the government launched the “Parametración,” which declared that homosexuals should not be able to use art as a means to influence Cuban youth. Although in 1979 the Supreme Court of Cuba declared this legal framework unconstitutional, and many victims were compensated with back pay for years spent out of work and the restoration of their old jobs, the black legend of the UMAP has been a recurring public relations nightmare for the Cuban government and its partisans. Homosexuality was not removed from the Cuban criminal code until 1998.
As in much of the rest of the world, official attitudes toward homosexuality have changed in recent decades. From 2007 onward, the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (National Center for Sexual Education, or CENESEX), part of the Ministry of Public Health, organized and financed the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia commemoration each May 17. For twelve years the public event grew, until it became a two-week national festival. The Conga against Homophobia and Transphobia was the colorful climax of these activities—the Cuban equivalent of Pride Day. This tradition was reclaimed when the conga was canceled this year by the office of Mariela Castro Espín, the head of CENESEX for most the twenty-first century, without explanation.
Castro Espín is no mere functionary. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychopedagogy, a master’s in sexuality, and a doctorate in sociology. Perhaps more significant, she is the daughter of Raúl Castro Ruz (the brother and successor of Fidel) and the chemical engineer Vilma Espín Guillois, two icons of the revolution, giving her tremendous symbolic capital. Her father and uncle were the only two untouchable men in the country, while her mother was converted by official discourse into the founder of the feminine (though not feminist) movement in Cuba. In the state-centric logic of Cuba, Castro Espín was the only possible spokesperson for queer people. Internationally, the fact that a Castro was putting LGBTIQ issues on the agenda at all excited the left—finally, something to balance out the legacy of the UMAP.
The media focus on the struggle against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity has obscured the original objectives of the CENESEX, founded in 1988. Until 2007, it was an obscure and undervalued institution dedicated to the study, investigation, and production of educational texts concerning sexuality intended for the general population—and a progressive thorn in the side of the Ministry of Education. Under the leadership of Castro Espín, CENESEX became the center of a wider effort to produce political statements and public policy related to LGBTIQ issues in Cuba.
Among the LGBTIQ population, the fact that a cisgender heterosexual woman was leading the struggle due to her position and surnames caused tensions. I had heard opinions that varied from full support, describing her as a charismatic leader, to political pragmatism, since the weakness of civil society had prevented activists from achieving what Castro Espín could with her direct connection to power. But since at least 2011, many activists have been publicly criticizing CENESEX. After achieving full and free transition treatment for transgender people in 2010, there has been very little progress on the agenda for sexual diversity in Cuba. Actions that promoted awareness and gave CENESEX advisory roles did not result in legal changes or meaningful public policies. A new Family Code that has been under discussion since 2009, for example, that would give legitimacy to the movement and legal protection to Cuban LGBTIQ families became the unattainable white whale of Cuban activism.
“Map of Cuba According to Mariela Castro” (courtesy of Alen Lauzán). According to Mariela Castro Espín, #LaMarchaVa was organized by Miami and Matanzas: Miami because, according to official rhetoric, the Cuban community there wants to destroy the revolution, and Matanzas because that is the home of Yadiel Cepero, moderator of the Facebook page “Constructing an agenda for sexual diversity in Cuba.”
Another important factor in the violent response to the march this May is Cuba’s constitutional debate, which took place between July 2018 and February 2019. The referendum was intended to be a vote in support of the plans of the Communist Party of Cuba, but two elements immediately made the draft constitution controversial: the absence of the word “communist” and Article 68, wherein marriage was described as the “voluntary union contracted between two persons with the legal ability to do so.” This last point was denounced by some as a form of “pinkwashing,” but ultimately political pragmatism won out and many progressive groups celebrated the article for opening the door to marriage equality.
But the measure faced serious opposition from the growing evangelical community in Cuba. Although evangelicalism has been present in Cuba since the late nineteenth century, the fall of the Berlin Wall has led to its expansion by leaps and bounds. Evangelical groups promote an agenda that is not only spiritual but also openly political. They have made interventions in public spaces against sexual rights and women’s reproductive rights, as well as the human rights of LGBTIQ people.
It appears that the Cuban state considers the evangelical agenda relatively inoffensive. Other groups critical of the government—be they left or right—demand the expansion of the rights of citizens, real accountability, and institutional transparency. In contrast, the more vocal evangelical groups want to take away peoples’ rights, without challenging the authoritarian characteristics or opacity of the state. They only demand those rights that would enable them to isolate their base from society, which would probably result in fewer people questioning government actions. If it is true that this represents a political challenge in the long run, the Communist Party of Cuba seems to prefer short-term concessions over granting civil and political rights to the whole population.
This evangelicalism is closely tied to its peers in the United States. Nevertheless, the Cuban government has extended its tolerance to cover the flow of money, propaganda, and expertise from abroad, which permits these congregations to establish social initiatives that undermine the hegemony of the state in fields related to education, ideology, and even health. The real capacity for mobilization by these churches has been speculated about for years, but because Cuba is a country without much transparency, almost no one anticipated the strong evangelical reaction against Articles 40 (concerning discrimination) and 68, which they saw as “proof” of the government’s agenda being based on “gender ideology.” In a gesture without precedent in Cuba since 1959, twenty-one churches united their vast resources and organizing capacity to influence public discourse. All of this happened in the context of the impotence of LGBTIQ activists, who lacked similar economic resources and were condemned to place their hopes in CENESEX to lobby the government directly on their behalf.
Evangelical leaders stated that their faithful would vote “no” on the Constitution in response to the new text if Article 68 was kept. There is no public information about Cuban religious demography, but those pastors claimed that 10 percent of Cuba is now evangelical, and the government took them at their word. In December 2018, it rewrote the text to meet evangelical demands. The final version of the article used the vague noun “spouses” (cónyuges). They also delayed any measure on marriage equality until a plebiscite in 2021. In commentaries about this, Castro Espín said something clearly aimed at LGBTIQ people disappointed in the result: “Trust that the educational and transforming power of the law will ensure that justice prevails.” After a decade, trust is a lot to ask for.
The combination of these factors catalyzed the crisis of the Conga against Homophobia, which CENESEX announced was canceled on Facebook on May 6. In less than twenty-four hours the idea that it was both legitimate and even necessary to march had spread across the platform. The change wasn’t innocent: once liberated from state control, those involved opted to underline the event as an act of reclamation rather than merely a celebration.
The call for an alternative march was horizontal and decentralized, and thus hard to control. Thanks to the use of Facebook, Twitter, and group chats, the idea was discussed, coordinated, and promoted in a matter of hours, challenging not only the authorities but also traditional Cuban government tools for the containment of political actions seen as threats. CENESEX could not discredit the most visible faces of the network because they were activists trained in their own classrooms. Police tactics also failed to work. #LaMarchaVa was not born from a hierarchical organization or personal leadership. It was an anarchistic dream.
State Security responded how they always do. They harassed several activists in the days leading up to the event. On May 11 itself, they intimidated the mother and eight-year-old sister of activist Jancel Moreno and tried to prevent him from leaving his home; at the same time, Isbel Díaz Torres and Jimmy Roque were detained without legal justification for twenty-four hours at a police station. The cyber-harassment suffered by Yadiel Cepero in Matanzas prompted him to announce that he was leaving Facebook, which he did between May 11 and 22. At the end of #LaMarchaVa there were beatings and the detentions of organizers Iliana Hernández, Boris González, Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, Oscar Casanella, and Yasmanny Sánchez. In the following week, the kidnapping of Isbel and Jimmy was followed up by that of Roberto Ramos Mori (May 16) and Yasmany Sánchez (May 17, for the second time). According to all their testimonies, the government was desperately seeking a leader to blame for the march. The discrepancy between state and activist understandings of politics permitted #LaMarchaVa to happen, but it also laid bare the state’s incapacity to establish respectful dialogues with progressive social actors in civil society.
The march also marked a rupture in the treatment of left and right opposition. Until #LaMarchaVa, the methods of confrontation with political dissidents in Cuba was guided by ideological considerations: those who supported multiparty systems or U.S. intervention and received money from the National Endowment for Democracy were “mercenaries of the empire.” The police could verbally or physically abuse them in the street with impunity. In contrast, those of us who militate on the left, who criticize while invoking Lenin, Marx, or even Fidel Castro, were “just” harassed in school or work settings.
It was a matter of public relations: the revolution had a right to defend itself from “enemy agents,” but how could it explain the need to defend itself from cooperativists, anti-capitalist activists, or queer poets? It is clear that on May 11 that consideration carried less weight than the threat seen in #LaMarchaVa, so they used violence in front of cameras against a protest “for a more diverse Cuba,” leading even Silvio Rodríguez, the iconic singer of the revolution, to express his disapproval.
#LaMarchaVa represents a crisis of the state’s monopoly on information: it happened because an important part of the Cuban population has access to information resources that are outside of government control. Information circulated by electronic means and word of mouth; that was enough to attract 200 people.
Two days later, on national television, Castro Espín and Manuel Vázquez Seijido, another CENESEX official, attempted to blame those who protested for “not respecting the law.” The refusal of Mesa Redonda, a television discussion program, to show images of what happened in order to “not give them publicity” came off as ridiculous. Press agencies, Miami news stations, and amateur filmmakers already had a forty-eight-hour lead on this story. The same autonomous networks that had been part of the calls to participate in the march circulated images of the event. They showed the state repressing a march for the same rights it claims to defend. The rhetorical devices deployed by Castro Espín and others about LGBTIQ activists manipulated by U.S. agents and obedience being a supreme civic virtue might have worked if not for the counter-narrative on social media.
By breaking with the standard methods and norms of participatory politics in Cuba, activists and the government find themselves in unknown territory. Violence is the only answer the state seems to have. If activists and LGBTIQ citizens continue refusing the logic of decision-making through vertical political structures and the language of violence, perhaps Cuban society will improve. Meanwhile, people are being hurt by a state that is supposed to protect them.
Yasmín S. Portales-Machado is a Marxist, feminist, pastafarian, and queer activist. She is currently in her second year as a PhD student at Northwestern University, where her research examines the ways in which Cuban science fiction depicts politics, sexualities, and families.