In 2013, I traveled to Cuba as a part of a study abroad program on the history of Cuban socialism in the context of economic reforms that allowed for limited free enterprise. The financial changes were certainly discernible on the streets of Havana; an enormous private art market sat in the shadow of La Cabaña, the old Spanish citadel at which Che Guevara oversaw the trials of Batista war criminals in 1959. But there was also another profound change occurring in Havana when we arrived in mid-June, at the height of Pride Month.
Havana was frequented by parades and public displays of LGBTQ+ pride during our time there. Rainbow flags flew next to Cuban and July 26th flags and marchers chanted “Respect! Include! Accept!” as they made their way through Old Havana. Those marches were the aftershocks of the massive International Day Against Homophobia March in May of that year. These open displays of pride were spearheaded by Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Raul Castro and Vilma Espín, and head of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education. The reactions of onlookers to the march reflected the conflicted past on which Castro is building. Fidel Castro openly acknowledged in his autobiography My Life that Cuba had mistreated LGBTQ+ populations during its revolution and socialist construction, something he called “a great injustice.” As in many other sectors, though, Cuba’s struggle for LGBTQ+ rights proceeds dialectically. Same-sex marriage is illegal, yet sex reassignment surgeries are covered under Cuba’s outstanding national healthcare service, a transgender woman sits on the National Assembly of People’s Power, and Cuba has strong codes against discrimination based on sexual orientation (though gender identity is not mentioned in the code, something for which Mariela Castro continues to fight).
In this environment of great change on the streets and in the halls of Cuban government, our group had the privilege to meet with Mariela Castro at a newly built CENESEX clinic providing sexual health services to the surrounding neighborhood. She spoke briefly on what CENESEX was doing, particularly its sponsorship of those marches we had seen a few days before. Castro acknowledged at the end of her talk that we as Americans faced challenges she did not, particularly the corporate influence on the American pride movement. She suggested in our circumstances “tangible support to your communities,”* referencing the educational seminars, informal discussion/support groups, and material support offered by CENESEX. Several communist organizations including the American Party of Labor have pursued such an approach in Serve the People campaigns since 2013, and the concept of material support continues to garner multi-tendency support.
The floor was then opened for questions. Several in the group asked about the history of Cuban machismo and that “great injustice” mentioned earlier. Castro did not hide from the realities of the Cuban past, calling it “terrible and unscientific.” She did seek to contextualize the history, though, underlining that “revolutions are popular events – they cannot transcend the minds of revolutionaries.” The Cuban Communist Party in the past failed to incorporate LGTBQ+ narratives into its decision making, and in doing so limited its ability practically and intellectually to agitate against homophobia and transphobia. “That has changed,” she concluded, highlighting that the PCC now plays a central role in CENESEX’s work.
Given what she had just highlighted, I asked her how she counteracted anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry within the Communist Party, how she had, in her words, changed the minds of revolutionaries. Her answer was significant then, in a year that saw several incidents of sexism, rape-apologism, homophobia, and transphobia in various left groups, and remains relevant today as these issues and debates continue.
“It’s an ongoing challenge,” she said with a laugh, before highlighting the similar barriers her mother, Cuban revolutionary icon Vilma Espín, faced in the early 1970s during the push for a domestic labor equality law that eventually passed. The answer then as now for Castro was not in supplementing Marxism but appealing to it. “Challenge those people in your parties to consider why they are socialists. What is the goal of socialism?” Answering these questions made bigotry against LGBTQ+ an untenable position for Marxists according to Castro, as the goal of socialism, “is to establish a society in which all people can prosper, no matter who they are. Socialism and prejudice are contradictory.”
Castro thus attacked homophobia and transphobia in Cuba in two ways. First, her organization reached out at the local level to support the LGBTQ+ community with practical, legal, social, and medical support. Second, she and like-minded Communists agitated in the Cuban Communist Party by challenging the coherence of a Marxist society and thought system coexistent with base prejudices. In building a movement for LGBTQ+ liberation and equality, Castro asserted that the most important concerns for Communists lay first in the community they are serving and second amongst themselves. The focus in each case is not on conversion or confrontation with reactionaries, but on building a revolutionary cadre that serves the people, is ideologically disciplined, and is capable of winning converts and confrontations.
Developing and educating a cadre is a daunting yet increasingly important task in the era of resurgent fascism, but the challenges do not exceed those of 1959, 1949, or 1917. Following Castro’s lead through establishing campaigns for community support and having difficult debates within the confines of a democratic centralist organization provides a useful foundation from which to move forward for those working in what Che Guevara called “the heart of the beast.” Castro herself was optimistic as our session came to an end, bidding us goodbye with a not entirely sarcastic “si se puede” before heading to another CENESEX clinic for another speaking engagement.
*Note: The quotes used in this article are my translations