May 2, 2017 at 4:39 am PST | by Michael K. Lavers
Mariela Castro: Father is ‘supportive’ of pro-LGBT efforts

Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro and niece of former Cuban President Fidel Castro, takes part in a march to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Havana on May 14, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro says her father supports her efforts to spearhead LGBT-specific issues in the country.

“He understands,” Mariela Castro told Hatzel Vela, a Havana-based reporter for the South Florida television station WPLG. “He is supportive.”

Mariela Castro, who is director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education that is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX, spoke with Vela last week at her organization’s headquarters in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. WPLG broadcast the interview on Monday night.

Same-sex marriage in Cuba will take ‘long time’

Mariela Castro became CENESEX’s director in 2007 after her mother, Vilma Espín, who was the president of the Cuban Federation of Women, passed away.

Transgender people have been able to obtain free sex-reassignment surgery under Cuba’s national health care system since 2008, although independent LGBT activists with whom the Washington Blade has spoken maintain only a few dozen people have been able to undergo the procedure. Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban National Assembly, in 2013 voted against a proposal that banned discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation because it did not include gender identity.

CENESEX since 2007 has commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia — which is May 17 — in Havana and in other cities around the country. Mariela Castro spoke with WPLG less than a week before she is scheduled to speak at a press conference in the Cuban capital that will mark the beginning of this year’s series of events.

Mariela Castro told Vela she remembers the stares and “disapproval from people” that she saw in 2007 when she and a group of trans people walked around Havana to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

“I was scared,” she said.

Then-President Fidel Castro, who is Mariela Castro’s uncle, in the years after the 1959 Cuban revolution that brought him to power sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to Military Units to Aid Production, which were labor camps known by the Spanish acronym UMAP. The Cuban government forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Cuba repealed its sodomy law in 1979. Fidel Castro in 2010 apologized for the work camps during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.

Mariela Castro, who publicly supports marriage rights for same-sex couples, told reporters in March there is a “legislative package” that would extend rights to LGBT Cubans.

She said earlier that month during an appearance at a film festival in the Mexican city of Guadalajara the country does not “like to copy anyone” as she discussed why Cuba has yet to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Mariela Castro during the WPLG interview dismissed criticism from independent activists who say she has not done enough to publicly advocate for the issue.

“It is something that takes a long time,” she told Vela.

Critics of Cuba’s human rights record should ‘inform themselves’

CENESEX’s International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia events will take place less than six months after Fidel Castro’s death. They will also occur against the backdrop of continued criticism over Cuba’s human rights record.

Independent LGBT activists with whom the Blade regularly speaks maintain authorities harass and detain them because they publicly criticize Mariela Castro and her father’s government. Plainclothes officers and security officials on Monday detained a protester with an American flag as he briefly disrupted a May Day celebration in Havana’s Revolution Square.

The U.S. and Cuban in 2004 began the process of normalizing diplomatic relations.

“I want to respond politely,” Mariela Castro told Vela in response to his question about those who question her efforts to spearhead LGBT issues against the backdrop of Cuba’s human rights record. “They should inform themselves.”

“Get rid of your hate, prejudices and stereotypes,” she added, speaking directly to Cuban exiles in Miami who remain opposed to her father’s government and the normalization of relations between the U.S. and the Communist island.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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