Saturday, August 4, 2018

2987. A Revolution Within the Revolution: Cuba Opens to Same-Sex Marriages

By Rubén Gallo, The New York Times, August 3, 2018

PARIS — “I want to go there before things change” is a phrase I hear often from friends considering a trip to Cuba. But change has been underway for over a decade, from the day Raúl Castro became president after his brother Fidel fell ill in 2006. Since then, private property and self-employment have been legalized; tourism has boomed, benefiting thousands of Cubans who rent out rooms or serve meals in their apartments; and a lively art scene has sprouted in Havana, where artist-run spaces host exhibitions and lectures.

Reforms have been slow and gradual, but they have added up over the years and have transformed the country: The economic despair of the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its aid plunged the country into the worst recession in its history, has been left behind, and many Cubans, especially those who are self-employed, now enjoy a modest prosperity. Cuba is now a very different country than it was in 2006. To acknowledge these changes, former president Raúl Castro supported the constitutional change. The Cuban legislature approved a draft in July, and it will now be submitted to a national referendum.

A new constitution is much needed; the current version, written under Soviet tutelage, dates from 1976 and sets “building a Communist society” as the nation’s main goal. The new version eliminates this phrase, though it continues to define the country as a “socialist state governed by the rule of law.”

There are other substantial innovations: It legalizes private property and introduces a juridical framework for foreign investment. While Cubans have been allowed to buy and sell their primary residence since 2011, the new text recognizes “private” and “personal” among other forms of property, including “socialist, belonging to the people,” “cooperatives” and “mixed.” It also creates the position of prime minister, who will share power with the president. Other clauses, more attuned to 21st-century problems, affirm Cuba’s respect for international law, repudiate terrorism, condemn nuclear proliferation and ban the use of the internet to destabilize sovereign nations. An article on environmental protection emphasizes the need to fight global warming.

Out of all of the projected constitutional reforms, one has provoked intense debate: the proposal to legalize same-sex marriage. It was introduced by Mariela Castro, a daughter of Raúl Castro who, as director of the National Center for Sex Education, or Cenesex, has become a staunch defender of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals — in Cuba, the preferred term is “trans.” Her proposal was adopted by her fellow lawmakers in the National Assembly — where she also serves as a representative — but has met with opposition from conservative groups, especially evangelical Christians, who have gained influence since religious freedoms were expanded in the 1990s. In recent weeks, five evangelical churches released a joint statement opposing the proposal, prompting protests by L.G.B.T. activists.

It is widely expected that the draft constitution will be approved in the coming months, making Cuba one of the most progressive nations in the Americas in its protection of L.G.B.T. rights. The country has come a long way since the 1970s, when, as in other socialist countries, gay men were routinely harassed, barred from government jobs and even sent for re-education at labor camps. Many gay Cubans were forced into exile in the 1970s, and one of them, the novelist Reinaldo Arenas, wrote “Before Night Falls,” a chilling memoir of the repression he suffered before leaving in the 1980 Mariel boat-lift.

The repression of gay men caused international outrage and eventually stopped. By the 1990s, Cuba began to reflect on its treatment of L.G.B.T. citizens. In 2010, Fidel Castro recognized that an injustice had been done to gays in Cuba and admitted his own responsibility in a widely publicized interview. But it was not until Mariela Castro was appointed director of Cenesex that a radical change in Cuban society began to take place: In part thanks to her initiatives, the government-funded campaigns to fight homophobia and transphobia, started educational programs aimed at the prevention of H.I.V. and AIDS and, in what is surely a first in the history of homosexuality, opened gay cabarets and discothèques and even a beach. Today, Cuba is the only country in the world where the state owns and operates gay bars, some of them livelier than similar, privately owned locales in New York or London.

These days Cuba is one of the most tolerant societies in the world when it comes to sexual difference. During a recent afternoon visit to Coppelia, a popular ice-cream parlor in Havana, I saw a group of trans friends, dressed to the hilt in tight miniskirts and high heels, casually sharing tables with families, heterosexual couples and schoolchildren. The country’s official gay-friendly policy has also made it a popular destination for L.G.B.T. travelers. Over the years I have met dozens of older European gay men who have bought property and settled permanently in the capital, many of whom can be seen on weekend nights sitting in the park on 25th Street in Vedado, socializing with Cubans. This newfound tolerance is one of the surprising results of the current transition, in which elements of the socialist past — like the rejection of religion, especially in attitudes toward sexuality — coexist with a new cosmopolitanism.

Critics of the government argue that the increased protection of sexual minorities must be considered in the larger context of freedom of expression, where Cuba lags behind most of Latin American, and peaceful activists are routinely harassed and even imprisoned for voicing their discontent with the system.

Just a few weeks ago, several artists were arrested after protesting, on the steps of the Havana Capitol, against a recent law requiring artists to secure government permission for all performances and against penalties for works that use pornography or violence or that denigrate “the nation’s symbols.”

It is true that much work remains in terms of civil and cultural rights, but one should not forget how much Cuba has changed since those dark years in the 1970s: Today, artists and writers use the internet and other alternative forums to participate in debates — including weighing the pros and cons of the new constitution and the proposal to legalize same-sex marriage — that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.

The proposed constitution is a welcome and necessary reform, one that will introduce a legal framework to guarantee the permanence of the many achievements that Cuban society has attained in the past decades.

Cuba could capitalize on the progress it has made over the years. It could export its innovative approaches to L.G.B.T. rights and sex education in the same way that, earlier, it disseminated its revolutionary ideology through the use of culture. With a bit of creativity, Cenesex could do the same with its magazine, devoted to gender and sexuality issues. If in the 20th-century Cuba was a model for leftist governments from Chile to Algeria, in the 21st it could be an example for lawmakers seeking to make their countries more livable for their L.G.B.T. citizens.

The next time I hear a friend say, “I want to go to Cuba before things change,” my response will be: “Things have already changed, but that is precisely why you should go: to see the new Cuba. And if you hurry up, you might even get to see the first same-sex marriage on the island.”
Rubén Gallo is a professor at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of “Teoría y Práctica de La Habana,” a memoir of life in Cuba during the current transition.

Mr. Gallo is a Mexican scholar who has written extensively about Cuban culture and society. He lives in Havana, Paris and Princeton, N.J. 

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