May 2, 2014 | by Michael K. Lavers
Cuba to host international LGBT conference
More than 400 advocates from across the world will travel to Cuba next
week to attend the first international LGBT conference that will take
place in the Communist country.
The sixth International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex
Association for Latin America and the Caribbean (ILGALAC) Regional
Conference will take place in the beach resort of Varadero. A number of
parties and other events are scheduled to take place in nearby Havana,
the Cuban capital, during the gathering.
Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who is the
director of Cuba's National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX,) is
president of the local committee that organized the ILGALAC conference.
Mariela Castro did not return the Washington Blade's request for
comment. CENESEX's website prominently features information about the
ILGALAC conference that includes a preliminary agenda.
"As the host country for the sixth ILGALAC Regional Conference, Cuba is
not exempt from the problems of the region's LGBTI communities," states
the organization. "The humanistic nature of the Cuban Revolution has
focused on the human being in his teleological purposes since its
beginning. Although the Cuban LGBTI movement does not have the
organization of other international movements, the fight against
discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the
country is now evident with more impact and achievements."
Robyn Ochs, a bisexual advocate and writer who is a member of the
MassEquality Board of Directors, will appear on a panel with Indian
writer Vikram Seth and Víctor Hugo Robles, a Chilean LGBT rights
advocate known as "El Che de los Gays" or "Che (Guevara) of the Gays."
Mariela Castro is scheduled to moderate it.
"I've long been interested in transnational conversations," Ochs told
the Blade, noting the conference is the first time she will have
traveled to Cuba. "I hope to learn a great deal."
Wilfred Labiosa, who is another MassEquality board member, will also
travel to Cuba and present at the ILGALAC conference.
"We can learn so much; how to organize and mobilize as a cohesive group
instead of people pulling their way to the way that they want and not as
a group," he said. "The Socialist regime can teach us so much about
organizing and mobilizing."
Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay Cuban blogger who writes under the pen
name Paquito el de Cuba, will attend the conference alongside CENESEX
and another group affiliated with it. He told the Blade in an e-mail he
feels the gathering will allow Cuban advocates to gain a better
understanding of international LGBT rights movements.
"It will increase visibility for the continents' other LGBTI movements
and Cuban efforts and strategies towards respect of freedom of sexual
orientation and gender identity and stopping discrimination motivated by
them," said Rodríguez.
ILGA Co-Secretary General Gloria Careaga Pérez told the Blade earlier
this week from México there is "a great enthusiasm" on the part of the
Latin American and Caribbean advocates who plan to travel to the island.
"I think that ILGALAC 2014 will be a great experience from which there
is a lot to learn," she said. "Latin America today is considered one of
the most promising regions for the LGBTI community. The movement has
matured in a clear way. In the great majority of the countries there has
been a respectful dialogue with the government that has made it possible
for not only legal advances, but the orchestration of public policies
and a greater visibility and respect for the LGBTI condition."
Anti-LGBT discrimination, violence persist amid legal gains
Same-sex couples are currently able to legally marry in Mexico City,
Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, the Dutch Caribbean the French islands of
Saint Martin, Saint Barthélemy, Guadeloupe and Martinique and French
Guiana. Marriage, civil unions and other forms of relationship
recognition for same-sex couples have begun to gain traction in
Colombia, Perú, Chile and a number of other Mexican states in recent months.
Two women in Puerto Rico in March filed a federal lawsuit seeking
recognition of their Massachusetts marriage in the U.S. commonwealth.
Mariela Castro has previously stated she supports marriage rights for
Many Latin American countries include sexual orientation and/or gender
identity and expression in their anti-discrimination and hate crimes
laws, but anti-LGBT violence remains a serious problem.
A report that Global Rights, D.C.-based international human rights
group, published late last year noted trans Brazilians accounted for
slightly more than half of the 300 reported LGBT murder victims in the
country in 2012 — and an estimated 52 percent of them were people of
color. The murder of a cross-dressing teenager near the Jamaican resort
city of Montego Bay last summer further underscored the rampant
anti-LGBT violence and discrimination that exists in the country.
Jamaica and Belize are among the 11 English-speaking countries in
Central America and the Caribbean in which homosexuality remains
criminalized, although their sodomy laws have been challenged in court.
"We're very keen as a Caribbean regional network to participate in the
conference, to be well-represented and to bring Cuba into the regional
network," said Colin Robinson of CAISO, an LGBT advocacy group in
Trinidad and Tobago. "We're eager to partner with relevant partners on
the ground in Cuba."
Kenita Placide of United and Strong, Inc., a St. Lucian LGBT advocacy
group, will attend the ILGALAC conference.
Both she and Robinson have applauded Cuba on its LGBT rights record that
includes the passage of a proposal late last year that seeks to amend
the country's labor law to ban anti-gay employment discrimination.
The Communist Party of Cuba in 2012 approved a resolution against
Mariela Castro's supporters note she successfully lobbied the Cuban
government to begin offering free sex-reassignment surgery under the
country's national health care system in 2008. They also credit Cuba's
condom distribution campaign and sexual education curriculum with
producing one of the world's lowest HIV rates.
"We have been following the success of Cuba and how they are open to
work with and recognize LGBT persons," Placide told the Blade on Friday.
"CENESEX, although not involved in a lot of the Caribbean work directly,
is looked to as a leader in activism on gay rights, thanks to the
guidance of Mariela Castro."
"Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of the current Cuban president, has been
able to influence that," added José Ramón, a Venezuelan LGBT rights
advocate who has lived in Spain since violent clashes between supporters
of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition broke out in February.
"It is also positive because a good part of the movements that will take
part in the conference are sympathetic to the Cuban government."
Robles described the ILGALAC conference as a "unique, significant and
"At the same time, Cuba and its diverse organizations and public
institutions have become open and shown solidarity with ILGALAC
activists in an example of valiant social, political, community and
institutional integration," he told the Blade.
Critics of Cuban government criticize conference organizers
ILGALAC has come under criticism from those who feel the conference
should not take place in Cuba because of the country's human rights record.
"Hosting a conference on LGBT rights is just another farcical attempt by
the Cuban regime to pretend they care about anyone's rights," U.S. Rep.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told the Blade in a statement. "The sad
reality is that the Cuban people are harassed, beaten and bullied for
having a point of view that differs from the regime's. This desperate
move to seem tolerant does not even come close to obscuring the
repressive reality on the island."
The Florida Republican who was born in Cuba last May blasted Equality
Forum, a Philadelphia-based LGBT advocacy group, over its decision to
honor Mariela Castro.
Ignacio Estrada Cepera, who founded the Cuban League Against AIDS in
2005, was also critical of ILGALAC's decision to hold its conference in
His wife, Wendy Iriepa Díaz, a trans woman who used to work for CENESEX,
told the Blade last summer while in D.C. they feel Mariela Castro
"totally manipulates the (Cuban) LGBT community."
Estrada repeatedly noted during the trip the Cuban government forcibly
quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.
Leannes Imbert Acosta of the Cuban LGBT Platform claimed authorities in
2012 detained her as she tried to bring materials to CENESEX on a
planned exhibit on forced labor camps to which the government sent more
than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service during
the 1960s. Former Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2010 apologized for
sending gay men to the camps known as Military Units to Aid Production
or by their Spanish acronym UMAPs.
Estrada, Iriepa and other Cuban LGBT rights advocates who work
independently from Mariela Castro and CENESEX say they continue to face
harassment from the authorities.
"This event is the worst response to what is happening on the island and
a mockery to the true Cuban LGBT community," Estrada told the Blade from
Two staffers from Caribe Afirmativo, a Colombian LGBT advocacy group,
who are already in Havana are meeting with members of the Free Rainbow
Alliance of Cuba who are not affiliated with CENESEX. The group on
Friday issued a press release that criticized Mariela Castro and ILGALAC
for not inviting them to the conference.
"The Cuban authorities, through the National Center of Sexual Education
(CENESEX,) through its director's political use of family ties and
personal aura, try to control, manipulate and win international
legitimacy as promoters and guaranters of rights for the LGBTI community."
Hernando Muñoz of Colombia Diversa, another Colombian LGBT advocacy
group, told the Blade during a telephone interview from Bogotá, the
country's capital, before traveling to Cuba for the ILGALAC conference
that he is aware of criticisms over the island's human rights record. He
and Mariela Castro attended a 2010 conference in Madrid during which he
said she tried to say Cuba was "perfect" and "everything was going great
"I don't think so," he said.
Other conference attendees criticized the U.S. over its policy towards
Cuba that includes a decades' long economic and travel embargo.
"Cuba is more than what some group of (Miami) Cubans say it is," said
Labiosa. "It is a country full of rich culture, friendly people and a
government that wants to bring change under these horrible conditions
perpetuated by this relic U.S. embargo."
"It is a 55-year-old dinosaur that should never have been implemented,
was never effective and should long ago have been lifted," added Ochs.
"It is arbitrary: Why Cuba and why not countries such as Iran, Nigeria,
Russia, Uganda or all of the other countries with abysmal human rights
records, specifically toward LGBT people."
Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since
May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS
epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the
consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the
many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael
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