Cuba’s been going through a bit of a political puberty as of late. Last February, after 49-years in power, long-time leader Fidel Castro stepped aside and handed the presidency to his brother, Raul. Though still all in the family, many see Raul’s ascension as a positive move for the island, a sign that the communist government could evolve.
A little over a month later, Mariela Castro, the president’s daughter and leader of the government-backed Center for Sexual Diversity (CENESEX), took a progressive step when she called on the government to rewrite the 70s-era Family Code and pave the way for civil unions.
The “revolutionary redefinition” of family, says CENESEX spokesperson Alberto Roque Guerra, goes straight to epicenter of Cuba’s gay problem: “Family is the core of society. Homophobia and transphobia are first seen within the family. The fight against homophobia awareness is focused on the family as the main goal.” However true that may be, Guerra’s declaration purposefully ignores decades of state-sanctioned homophobia. What’s more, CENESEX’s push for equality eschews the true goal: assimilation.
The government’s modest progress – as well as its dubious explanations – has as much with political survival and public relations as it does with cultural evolution. Sifting through the various truths, one finds a debate shaded by political ideology, Cold War-inspired misconception and not a small amount of spin.
[Fidel, Raul and Che Guevara’s legacies loom large in 21st century Cuba.]
Fidel Castro, in a 1965 interview, decried the gay threat, telling American journalist Lee Lockwood, “Young people should not be in the hands of homosexuals.” Though the gays could pledge revolutionary allegiance, they were not entirely trust worthy:
Nothing prevents a homosexual from professing revolutionary ideology and, consequently, exhibiting a correct political position… And yet we would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true Communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept of what a militant Communist must be.
Thus, in their revolutionary zest, Castro’s regime erected reeducation camps, where dissidents, religious leaders and gays were to be cleansed of their “anti-social behavior” and trained to serve the revolution. In 2006, while discussing the controversial camps, Castro acknowledged their existence, but refused to align them with the “supposed persecution of homosexuals.” The “Military Units to Support Production,” he said, “were not internment units, nor were their punishment units. On the contrary, it was about morale, to give them a chance to work and help the country in those difficult circumstances.” Though the camps have since been abolished, the Revolution’s quest for integration remains the same, albeit with some timely adjustments.
To say the Revolution single-handedly created homophobia on the island would be unfair. There were other force at play, of course, including Catholicism and, perhaps more importantly, machismo. An idolization of masculinity, machismo celebrates the strong, virile man. This man flexed his social muscle, while more effeminate men were made to lurk in the shadows – or face the consequences. Like the island’s fifties-era cars, machismo still rules Cuba’s roads, says Leonardo Chacon, a Cuban AIDS activist who moved to Miami last year: “Being gay is a signal of weakness. In our tradition, someone who is gay, we call ‘no man.’” And that “no man” has never been as politically valuable as communism’s so-called “New Man.”