Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mariela Castro On Changing Attitudes in Cuba

Mariela Castro: 
Socialism with Discrimination is Inconceivable

In May, for the fifth consecutive year, Cuba will hold a Day Against Homophobia to the satisfaction of many people in our country and the distress of others who still hold prejudice against free sexual orientation and gender identity, and who do not understand the need for the full exercise of the human rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders.

A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.
Interview originally posted April 18, 2012.

This time I move away from the colloquial tone of my logbook, to reproduce almost entirely the long dialogue I held last week with Mariela Castro Espín. The director of Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (CENESEX) [National Center for Sex Education] discussed the significance of the Event, what has been done, what is still to be done, and several of the most debatable issues in the work of the Institution.

PAQUITO: What is the importance of this 5th celebration? What are the main novelties?

MARIELA: When we started we didn’t dream we would reach this stage. We are talking about 5 years of stable, consecutive work that has been improved year after year.

We began with a one day celebration on May 17  in 2007, and in 2008 we began the Jornadas [several day celebrations] with the support of some institutions of the state and civil society.

We began outlining a strategy, defined our objectives and a plan of activities where we stressed the academic program and our work at universities.

This year we have reached an agreement with the Ministry of Higher Education to work in all the universities in the country; not particularly related to the Day Against Homophobia, but on things related to sexual education and promotion of sexual health. It was an old dream and this is the first time we have such a concrete meeting with the Minister for Higher Education.

This year we could also agree on another project with the Medical Universities. It includes a strategy for the promotion of sexual health and will contribute to the preparation of all students - Cuban and foreigners - on these subjects. At the moment there are 19 thousand foreign medical students. The preparation includes the professors and it will be offered through elective summer and winter courses with contents associated to the different subjects.

This sexual health promotion is based on a document from the World Association for Sexual Health of which we are members. It establishes eight goals closely linked to the Millenium Development Goals.

We are doing this with the methodology of Educación Popular [Popular Education] a tool that will serve the doctors when they start working in their areas of primary health care in Cuba, or abroad if they work in cooperation programs. It will also assist the foreign students when they reach their countries of origin so that, according to the characteristics of their ethnics and cultures, they can start introducing, step by step, some promotional elements of sexual health.

This includes, of course, not only the subject of the right to sexual orientation and gender identity, but also some issues such as the right to truthful information at all ages and the sexual health services needed by the population, especially by teenagers and women. In other words, these are goals that comprise many elements upheld by international agreements.

At this 5th. Jornada we will be celebrating not only the Día Internacional contra la Homofobia y la Transfobia [International Day Against Homophobia and Transsexual phobia], but also everything we have achieved with the National Program for Sexual Education.


 We are making progress in the reorganization of the research topics coordinated by CENESEX. Many aim at social policy; that is, at providing enough support for particular issues to be included in social policy, be it in a particular institution of the state, or as general policy which would include specific legislation.

For example, I coordinate a branch of research on comprehensive care for transsexual persons in Cuba as a humanitarian social policy. This is the general formulation that is composed of several specific research projects that will supply proposals for the policy to develop for these people through the national health system, the Ministry of Education, the work with the families and the specialized services.

There are other topics such as the establishment of a critical route in the national health system for the care of abused women, the treatment of sexual abuse in children and child abuse in general, for the development and training of human resources, there are many topics…

PAQUITO: You said in public there will be a historical research on the Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción (UMAP) [Military Units to Aid Production]…

MARIELA: Yes. One of the research projects is related to sexual policies, the evolution of sexual policy in Cuba and how the subject of sexuality was considered. This will include the exploration we are now making - and the one we made before, in order to design the research- based on interviews to people who had something to do with UMAP: people who did their military service there when they were young and officials.  


These five years since the holding of the first Day against Homophobia have given us experience. We learned and this time better organized our work teams for the preparation of the events. We have heard proposals for the different activities. It began as a single Day, then it was a week, and now it is going to be practically a full month of events.

The idea of involving a different province each year has been quite significant for strengthening the work of our social networks in those territories. This aims at making the population more sensitive and at involving the territorial authorities in the task, as well as the press that is becoming better prepared to deal with the subject.

Therefore this helps to strengthen the work of the province chosen to prepare the central events for each May 17, and opens possibilities for the alliances that must be established to organize this type of celebration with all the relevant educational influences. This is actually the main objective.

The artistic element has also become stronger. Since last year la Gala contra la Homofobia   [Gala Night against Homophobia] has had a special organization and style. We can say that these shows include cross-dressing as artistic events.

This is the result of many years of work not only at these Gala Nights, but at nightclubs by the groups that perform cross-dressing acts. They have received training at CENESEX so that cross-dressing can become an artistic act and with their performances they can contribute to the promotion of sexual health and the prevention of diseases. And not only have the actors received training, but also the art directors of the centers, so this widens the range of people who can participate in the activities.

PAQUITO: The participation of the population in public debates will be repeated this year…

MARIELA: Last year we had the experience in Santiago de Cuba. We organized discussion panels in different areas of the Parque Dolores. The population took part in the debates with specialists, officials and trained social network LGBT activists. It was very interesting. We also had for the first time the participation of an officer from the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria who answered questions from the population. We believe this was very positive and we will repeat it in Havana and Cienfuegos, because we think it was useful.

For this year’s event it has been difficult to work with Cienfuegos, because not all the authorities were equally sensitive and committed to the task. We’ve had great support from the Party and the Government there and mainly from the Ministry of Culture, the Provincial Office for Culture and the Ministry of Health.

We chose Cienfuegos because of the significant work and great efforts of the network of activists there. We believed they deserved support in their work. We also chose the municipality of Rodas in the province with the purpose of discussing the problem of HIV/AIDS prevention, because this is one of the municipalities with the highest incidence in the transmission of the epidemic.

Why has this been difficult? Well, as there has been little coverage in national media on what takes place during the event, other provinces do not have a reference of what they can do.

If in Cienfuegos they had known what had been done in Santa Clara and in Santiago de Cuba, they could have had more previous motivation to play a good role as a province this time. And this is what should happen from now on for with rest of the provinces -as a dominoes effect- if the national press helps introducing these subjects and covering these educational and artistic activities.

Still, I think the Cuban Day against Homophobia in Cienfuegos will be a good experience.


 PAQUITO: How can the event contribute to los objetivos de trabajo del Partido Comunista de Cuba [the Objectives for the work of the Cuban Communist Party] concerning the struggle against discrimination based ib sexual orientation, as well as reflecting in the media all the diversity of the Cuban population?

MARIELA: The event contributed to the inclusion of these objectives in the agreements of the Party Conference. The mere fact that they are explicitly formulated within the policy of the Party and, of course of the country, opens the doors for this strategy.  

That is, it has been expressed that the country needs to work against all forms of discrimination, and that homophobia, transphobia and every form of discrimination associated with sexuality issues need to be fought against as corresponds to an emancipating society, as the true essence of socialism.

I can’t think of socialism coexisting with forms of discrimination, and this is one of them. Work on this problem requires a deep cultural change, and this is achieved through education, through the policy that supports the strategy, through the media and the laws. There are several institutions in the social structure that need to be involved in all these processes. One day is not enough, the work of CENESEX and the Ministry of Health is not enough… and the fact that The Party gives a green light and harbors the objective is essential.

Besides, this is a task for the Party, because according to Marxist ideas, the Party is the vanguard, the group that carries the new ideas to take us to a new society. If the Party cannot articulate these new ideas, after it has rid itself of all the prejudices that create inequalities, how could It prepare the conditions for us to be able to really create a fair and equitable society?  Therefore, I think that the fact that they so decided was absolutely relevant and historic.

PAQUITO: What satisfactions, disappointments and frustrations have brought for you and for CENESEX these five years of celebrating the Day against Homophobia?

MARIELA: The decision of many people as well as of institutions and organizations to cooperate in the preparation and development of these events has given me great satisfaction.

I have been pleasantly impressed by the understanding we have found in the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Party and the support we have received from that Department with which we have been in a permanent dialogue, sharing ideas and getting advice on how to channel many of our initiatives.

The silence of the press, of the national media was disappointing. It hurt a lot to see that most of the information was being handled only by the international press –which has played an important role that I appreciate. The national press did not play that role and it is national media we value the most: the capacity of our press to inform the population and disseminate what we were doing. It hurt a lot that it wasn’t happening, but now I’m very pleased, because since last year, the national press began to participate more actively.

Another source of satisfaction has been the great number of artists who have spontaneously participated. They have come in an organized way to request it. Several international organizations have praised our initiatives to celebrate May 17th, and how we do it, our originality, and the fact that the event is for the population at large, not only for LGBT people.

The thing is that prejudices and homophobia are present in the whole society, not only in heterosexual people. Within the LGBT population there is also homophobia and there are many prejudices that need attention; there is a tendency to discriminate against one another, to practically establish a caste system; and this is the essence of what we need to change.  

There has been praise for the way we have integrated different forms of discrimination; that is to say that in these events we try to focus on homophobia as a form of discrimination that we believe should not exist in a socialist society, that it is related to other forms of discrimination and that they should all be treated together.

We cannot believe that by eliminating homophobia we would be eliminating the problem of discrimination in Cuban society. We need to eradicate the trend, the archaic model of an exploitative society that makes up parameters to establish differences and inequalities. We cannot keep on reproducing these.

This is why the educational work we do is aimed at transforming our consciousness, our culture. I hope that at some point our conga against homophobia that is danced along our main avenues becomes a tradition. We’ll have to make it more artistic, find better ideas to make it richer as a cultural option, so that perhaps it becomes a historical tradition and one day, when there is no longer homophobia in Cuba, somebody would say, “remember when in Cuba this was done because there was discrimination and this conga was danced to call people’s attention to the need to eradicate homophobia!”…


 All of us participants have been very close trying to make every moment and every activity in the event relevant, avoiding discontent and generating curiosity and the wish to know what this is all about. We have seen that the people who have felt curious and have approached the activities have asked many questions, and by doing this they have learned, and by learning they have changed.

And the anecdotes I’ve been told…! In each activity people come and tell me things. And I -who love to listen to those stories-, feel great satisfaction by realizing we are doing well.

Among those who come there are people who have suffered as victims of homophobia and whose lives have changed with these activities, whose families have changed, and who say that even the police have changed, the population has changed…

There are also people who have been homophobic and come to tell me how important these events have been; that if they had known the harm they were causing, they would not have done it. They are grateful for all the elements we give them so they can also change as human beings and not discriminate others. I wish I could record all those beautiful things people tell me at the activities. This gives me energy and satisfaction in those days of tension and exhaustion.

PAQUITO: Cuban men and women who live abroad also participate in these Events…

MARIELA: Many people have come from Miami. Cubans who live in the United States or reside in other countries. Also foreigners have come and have told me beautiful things, because they are also amazed! They heard about an activity, and arrived without knowing exactly what it was about, and then they were very surprised and have said very interesting and beautiful things.

PAQUITO: There are those who say that all the gays, lesbians and transexuals that left the country are full of scorn…

MARIELA: On the contrary. Many come to thank us for this. They come because they want to see it. They have told me, “I want to see it with my own eyes; that’s why I came, and I’m so surprised, so amazed, it’s wonderful.” I remember a lesbian who lives in Canada and her partner lives here and does not want to leave; she is doing economically very well in Canada and she told me, “If there is a chance that we can legalize our relationship here, I’ll return; I’ll come back.”

And so on, and on; so many interesting and beautiful things they have told me from which I have learned a lot. People also write a great deal: letters, e-mails, with lovely expressions…

PAQUITO: What other institutions and persons would you convene to contribute to the event and with what purpose?

MARIELA: The Ministries of Health and Culture are strongly committed. I would like the press to be more committed on a permanent basis, and not exclusively during the activities for the Day, because this is an educational strategy that has its most visible moment in May, but it is a permanent strategy through which we deal not only with homophobia, but also with other many issues related to sexual health and sexual wellbeing.

I think the absence of the Ministry of Education is remarkable; and its presence is fundamental. They can suggest what type of activities we could carry out. The only progress we have made in this field is related to some activities in the pedagogical universities. We have given priority to the medical and pedagogical universities to organize talks in each and every province where we have been, but I don’t think this is enough. I believe all the teacher training institutions should be involved and the subject must be debated within the Ministry of Education itself.

The Ministry of Higher Education is involved through activities of university extension. I think the Federación Estudiantil Universitaria (FEU)  [University Student Federation] should be more involved. The Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (UJC) [Communist Youth] as well, because it is one of the organizations with more responsibilities in the Programa Nacional de Educación Sexual [National Program for Sexual Education], but we have not achieved a good articulation for the UJC to be the transmitter of these ideological and revolutionary messages.

Who can be better than the young people to transmit the new ideological and revolutionary messages? This is why when the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas (FMC)  [Cuban Women's Federation] conceived the Programa Nacional de Educación Sexual it was thought the UJC should be involved to disseminate the messages. However there is a great resistance we have not been able to quench.

PAQUITO: What could the trade union movement do, for example?

MARIELA: We have had links with the trade union movement, but they have not taken part in the Days against Homophobia. We have not approached them either, because we don’t know how they could be involved. It would be good to have a trade union representative in our Organizing Committee so from the perspective of their own reality they could suggest what they could do.

I think it would be very important to promote as one of the rights of workers, the right of people not to be discriminated because of their sexual orientation and gender identity; trade unions could also contribute on subjects such as the prevention of gender violence and the promotion of sexual health issues among workers.

That is, the trade unión movement can also do activism among workers, because, for example, a significant number of people have come to the juridical information service of CENESEX with frequent concerns and complaints about the violation of their work rights just because they are homosexual or transgender. The role of the union is to act so that these rights are not violated.

We have been having more impact on and a better response from the judicial sector. So much so that there is already la red de Juristas por los Derechos Sexuales  [a Network of Jurists for Sexual Rights]. This is the result of a systematic effort. For a long time we wanted it; we toyed with the idea; we spurred them –in a professional way- to get a response; that is to make them decide to work more with us. And we keep moving forward.

PAQUITO: What is the importance of this network of jurists now that the economic and social policy in the country is being adjusted?

It is fundamental, because the process of sensitization on these issues is extended to judicial personnel. We have streghtened the participation of professors from CENESEX at the courses organized by the Unión Nacional de Juristas de Cuba (UNJC) [Cuban National Union of Jurists], the School of Law; the People’s Supreme Court always invites us to their seminars…

Now this network of jurists will attract lawyers, paralegals, and other professionals whom we need to prepare so that the administration of justice can be really fair, because it is not always so. When the person who administers justice has prejudices and carries them to its job, real justice is not always served. I think this network is going to help a lot in the process of extending the sensitization of jurists.


 PAQUITO: During these five years CENESEX has moved from being only a center of studies in a state institution to being the leader, coordinator, and promoter of a program of citizen activism for the rights of LGBT persons. For some, this goes beyond its social charter. How do you feel about this evolution and how would you conceive a Cuban LGBT movement in the future?

MARIELA: Community work and training health promoters are within the social purpose of CENESEX. Starting with the initiative of a group of lesbian women in Santiago de Cuba, Las Isabelas, there was a spontaneous interest in a number of people who wanted to receive the attention of CENESEX. This originated the emergence in different places in the country of other groups who have requested to be articulated and sponsored by CENESEX.  

In this way, when CENESEX receives funding from a civil society organization abroad, we dedicate it to the work with these networks that have been structured. And this has been really very good because we have used the financing to strengthen the network of activists and sexual health promoters. These groups have become important channels for educational work with impact on society.  

I don’t know how it will be in the future… We said, let’s begin and those who come forward will be trained as activists. It’s not just giving them the information, but training them so they have the power of knowledge and an interactive methodology to work in the community. This is very important because it is needed to extend the influence.

I believe that so far these social networks are happy working with CENESEX. I don’t know if in the future they would want to become independent. I also think that for a social network it is comfortable to have the support of a state institution, and of one that follows the rules of respect. We have built this space and this network structure with the participation of all the people involved. The style is very democratic; people feel good; they want to keep strengthening it and new groups emerge with new ideas, always following these objectives and the ethical principles taken from popular education.

Step by step, we have articulated what we have named a Cuban LGBTI and H movement, because we have integrated intersexual and heterosexual persons, a whole diverse population working for the same objectives.

PAQUITO: There are people who criticize the fact that you, a heterosexual woman, leads this movement…

MARIELA: The thing is that to participate in the movement of afro descendants and against racism you don’t need to be afrodescendant or black; to support the feminist movement and the movement of women rights, you don’t need to be a woman, there are men who take active part in these processes; to support disabled persons, you don’t need to be disabled; to support men in the struggle against hegemonic masculinities you don’t have to be a man, you can be a woman who wants to fight against those hegemonic masculinities; to support the rights of peasants, you don’t have to be a peasant. You see, Marx supported the rights of workers and peasants, but he was an intellectual, and there were so many other people like him…

Original post with photos and Spanish text

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