Cuba Libre? Guess Again
Gay City News,
January 17, 2003
487 Greenwich St., Suite 6A, New York, NY 10013
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
“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
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against their will were rescinded in 1993, making moot the legacy of that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
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
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
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
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