Last edited: November 06, 2004

Cuba Libre? Guess Again

Gay City News, January 17, 2003
487 Greenwich St., Suite 6A, New York, NY 10013
Fax 646-473-1986

By Henry E. Scott

In early March, as the rest of us frost-bitten New Yorkers start wondering if this nasty winter will ever end, a fortunate few lesbian and gay activists will be doffing their down parkas and shedding their shearlings for a week under the tropical sun.

Fresh from a successful battle in Albany to secure civil rights for lesbian and gay New Yorkers, members of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) will be frolicking on the beaches of the most repressive and homophobic country in the Western Hemisphere.

“We thought it would be nice to get out of the city, especially now that it’s so cold,” reads a flyer announcing the trip to ESPA’s members. “Somewhere exciting and warm, somewhere unusual and exotic, not too far… We decided to go to Cuba!”

Exotic, to be sure. Exciting and warm, without a doubt. And so unusual is Cuba that it warrants special mention by Human Rights Watch, an organization that opposes the U.S. trade embargo and yet still notes: “…Cuba’s Fidel Castro maintains control through intimidation, repressive laws, and by imprisoning dissidents.”

For those lesbians and gay men more familiar with Heywood Wakefield furniture than international politics, Cuba is undeniably chic. There’s Havana’s beautiful 1950s architecture, which stands less because of an interest in historic preservation than because poverty means no one can build anything new. And there are those sexy 1950s U.S. cars, patched and re-patched so they can continue to share the potholed roads with Soviet-era Ladas.

Travel agents boast that laws confining the HIV-positive to hospitals against their will were rescinded in 1993, making moot the legacy of that annoying Reinaldo Arenas. Activists on the left note that homosexuality is not illegal and cite a 1992 interview in which Castro said official homophobia is a relic of the past. And gay tourists interpret the appearance of underground house parties and those propositions from attractive young men on the street as signs of government tolerance.

But readily available sources, including many with a leftist slant that would not otherwise predispose them to be reflexively anti-Castro, paint a different picture.

For example, the International Lesbian and Gay Association, a worldwide federation of more than 350 LGBT rights organizations in over 70 countries in all continents, reports that Cuban laws banning “publicly manifested” homosexual activity still are arbitrarily applied to punish lesbians and gays even for their form of dress. The penalties range from three months to one year in jail.

In an article in June 2001 in The Gully, a leftist online magazine, Juan Perez Cabral, while celebrating a private gay wedding in Havana, also describes a resurgence in repression that has driven much Cuban gay life indoors. Cabral attributes that in part to an anti-gay tirade by the editor-in-chief of the weekly Tribuna de La Habana, which, like the rest of the Cuban media, is government-owned.

And the proliferation of those men who proposition tourists along Havana’s famed Malecon is described in a report by G. Derrick Hodge, a medical anthropologist at Harvard Medical School, as less a gay revival than a reaction to an influx of tourist dollars by impoverished young men.

Of course, lesbian and gay people aren’t the only ones persecuted in Cuba. The respected Committee to Protect Journalists reported last March that an independent Cuban journalist was brutally assaulted by police while covering a story. Two other journalists who protested the attack were detained. The Digital Freedom Network reported that same month that the Cuban government has banned sales of computers for personal use in an effort to restrict access to information that might help dissident groups. And in June, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a dissident group, reported an increase in suppression of political dissent as evidenced by a growth in the number of Cubans imprisoned for their beliefs.

It’s clear why Cuba welcomes well-connected and affluent lesbians and gay men. Tourist dollars are the hard currency this island nation needs to import food and other supplies now that Soviet subsidies have stopped. And visits by Westerners with official connections give an aura of legitimacy and respect to the Castro regime.

But why would well-heeled ESPA members, who presumably could choose an equally lush and more-democratic Caribbean isle for their winter getaway, visit Cuba? (The trip costs $3,200 a person, by the way, with profits going to ESPA.)

Matt Foreman, ESPA’s executive director, defends the trip in language reminiscent of that offered to explain away those trips to Cape Town beaches during South Africa’s apartheid era, or to excuse those ski trips to Aspen or Vail when the Colorado boycott was on.

“Regarding the Cuba trip, I have dealt with many people, including my own partner, who have gone on trips there and met with local HIV/GL activists, not just the government-spokespeople types,” he said, in response to my query. “That is what will happen on this trip, in addition to some relaxation.”

With a published agenda packed with tours of museums, an artist colony, a print workshop, fine restaurants, and shopping in a cigar store, the trip sounds less about social activism, or relaxation, than a day shopping Madison Avenue.

But Foreman, sounding like Sean Penn in Baghdad, insists that meeting with the locals is important to understanding what’s really going on.

“The local activists want this interaction very much,” he said. “The last thing they say, over and over again, they want or need is more isolation. The more international contacts, the less repression. This is also what I was told the folks who participated in the last [Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network] trip to Cuba learned.”

Perhaps Matt Foreman and Cuba’s other visitors from ESPA will turn up information about gay freedom in that nation that has eluded the diligent investigators of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Maybe they’ll even be inspired to put down their Cohibas and Cuba Libres and risk a night in a squalid Havana prison by making a public stand for lesbian and gay civil liberties on the Malecon.

But what’s more likely is that the group’s winter break on the beaches of this oppressed black and Latin nation will feed the perception that ESPA stands for “Empire State Party Agenda.” That’s an image that ESPA, known for its expensive fundraisers in Fire Island Pines and the Hamptons, and already bruised by its refusal to include the transgendered in its fight for civil liberties, can’t afford to foster.

On the other hand, maybe ESPA will see the myopia in believing its responsibility to promote lesbian and gay civil liberties ends at the borders of the Empire State. A public announcement that it is canceling the Cuba trip, with an explanation why, would go a long way to restoring the pride in the Empire State Pride Agenda.

  • Henry E. Scott, a former journalist, is a media consultant in New York City.

[Home] [World] [Cuba]