Yasmin S. Portales Machado
HAVANA TIMES — This past Tuesday at the Cafe Wichy, writer Daniel Chavarria stated, “Cuba has never persecuted homosexuals” – an affirmation that contradicts abundant testimony as well as statements by Fidel Castro himself and his niece, Mariela Castro Espin (the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, CENESEX).
Cafe Wichy, coordinated by the “Latin American and African Masculinities Network” (RIAM), is part of the activities organized at the Pavilion Cuba exhibition center for the 22nd Cuban International Book Fair, currently underway.
The café is seeking to attract younger audiences in Havana to the central area of Vedado, while its name is in honor of Luis “Wichy” Rogelio Nogueras, a Cuban poet and storyteller.
The locale evokes the atmosphere of traditional literary cafés – with wooden tables, a bar and unlimited time for chatting. It’s been given a contemporary twist through a side screen on which violence-free music videos are shown (4Gb copies of these materials are also made available to anyone interested).
As tradition dictates, Wichy Café also has a literary circle. Every day, someone from the city’s literary world takes to the stage to share with the public.
On Tuesday (February 12), the guest speaker was Daniel Chavarria, a Cuban-Uruguayan author of popular novels. Chavarria won the National Award for Literature in Cuba two years ago. In addition, the 22nd International Book Fair Cuba is dedicated to him and to essayist Pedro Pablo Rodriguez.
The beginning of his talk was traditional: Julio Casar Pages, the circle’s host, made a brief presentation, followed by Chavarria evoking the traditions of Uruguay’s Rio de la Plata region and its famous “mate” infusion. He went on to share anecdotes and comments about his way of life and his resources for writing.
In the second part of the exchange, the writer answered a couple of questions from the audience.
The first one was about the resources he needed to make his characters believable. He admitted that he had little to do with the Afro-Cuban “Abakuas,” prostitutes or sugarcane workers that are in his stories, given his life as a university professor of classical languages. To come up with these characters, he explained that he makes friends with everyone from criminals to doctors, as applicable.
The second question was about sexuality. It related to the suggestion in his presentation that from the 70’s to now, his characters’ sexuality — whether heterosexual or homosexual — had become more normal, more realistic.
His response to that left the entire audience in shock. He stated “homosexuals have never been persecuted in Cuba.”
There were several reasons for the astonishment: First, he wasn’t responding to the question. Second, his statement contradicted abundant evidence that the notorious “Military Units to Aid Production” (UMAP) functioned as prison camps for religious believers, gays, hippies, non-conformists and other “anti-social elements” in the sixties.
Chavarria argued that governmental homophobia was a political necessity: “At the beginning of the revolution they had to consider the enormous political cost of conceding a role for homosexuals.” He explained that the massive participation of Cuban campesinos and their strong homophobic traditions prevented the recognition of homosexuals; therefore, that part of society was “set apart” – but “never prosecuted.” This he repeated before the astonished audience, though — I’m ashamed to write — no one refuted it.
In 2010, Fidel Castro said to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, “I’m the one responsible for the persecution of homosexuals that took place in Cuba.” As the leader of the country, he believed he was responsible for the discriminatory standards applied. “We didn’t know how to assess the situation… We had so many and such terrible problems — problems of life or death, you know? — that we didn’t pay enough attention.”
Just recently, Salim Lamrani published an interview with CENESEX director Mariela Castro Espin, who argues that her uncle “didn’t know” about the conditions of violence to which the UMAP prisoners were subjected. This thesis is in line with the first hand testimonies of Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal in his book En Cuba (In Cuba), published in 1971.
UMAP operated between 1965 and 1968, interning around 25,000 young people. The Cuban government has changed its arguments to justify this, but it has never denied that “persecution” occurred.
These camps closed due to protests by the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), international organizations and distinguished foreign intellectuals. It’s even said that Fidel Castro himself made a surprise raid on one of these.
Notwithstanding, Chavarria prefers to deny all this.
So, was this “persecution” one of the “enemy’s lies” and Fidel one of their accomplices?