Mariela Castro, niece of Fidel Castro and director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, does a wide-ranging interview with Russia Today in which she talks about the future of the country, gay rights in Cuba and what it’s like to be the daughter of the President.

Mariela’s interview is a reminder that nothing is ever what it seems in Cuba. Sean Penn came under fire last year when The Advocate‘s James Kirchick wrote in a piece called “A Friend to Gays and Anti-Gay Dictators Alike”:

“In the early years of the regime, Raúl Castro was notorious for ordering the summary execution of its opponents, including people whose only crime was their homosexuality. This is the man with whom Penn was “in stitches” knocking back glasses of red wine.

While homosexuality has since been decriminalized in Cuba, the communist government bans gay organizations, as it does any organization critical of the regime.”

Contrast that to Mariela’s description of gay and lesbian rights in Cuba today:

“We’ve already accomplished a lot. For example, we’ve achieved a resolution by the public health ministry that guarantees transsexuals specialized attention, including sex change surgeries. The first of these types of operation are about to begin. They were first performed in 1988 but were interrupted due to people’s incomprehension. We’re proposing important changes to the family code that include the right of people of the same sex to legalize their unions. We’re also working on a gender identity decree law that will make it easier for transsexuals to change their sex and identity papers, regardless of the sex change surgery. Because not all of them are automatically eligible for this operation, but nevertheless people do need society to recognize them in accordance with their gender identity, not by biological sex.”

The entire interview is worth watching, if only for the fact that it will smash many of your assumptions about Cuba and gay and lesbian rights. Castro acknowledges that “Just like any other patriarchal societies in the world, Cuban society is homophobic”, but thanks to Castro and other Cuban gay rights activists, there’s been real improvement in recent years.

That Mariela Castro is permitted to be outspoken and to enact some gay and lesbian-related reforms is a sign of a changing Cuba, but you can’t shake the feeling she is permitted to act at the whim of her father and uncle. Our her efforts window dressing for a brutal regime or the signs of an internal thaw in one of the world’s last Cold War societies?

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