The Crossfire over Cuba’s March for LGTBQ Rights

Unauthorized march for LGBTI rights in Havana on March 11, 2019. Photo: Ernesto Mastrascusa / EFE

By Progreso Semanal

HAVANA TIMES – This past Saturday (May 11), activists, members of the LGTBQ community and people who support the struggle for minority rights staged a demonstration, without a permit from Cuban authorities and conceived online through social networking platforms from Havana’s Central Park, after the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) suspended the Conga for Diversity, which is held every year during the Conference Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Days prior to the activity activists and people who favored the unprecedented activity reported attempts to suppress them by the authorities. The CENESEX then decided to change the Diversity Party scheduled for that day making it coincide, at 4 p.m., with the schedule proposed for this alternative march to the institution. However, a crowd of about 300, with a large presence of young people, began chanting slogans like “Viva gay marriage” “A diverse Cuba” and “Yes we can” as they walked past Havana’s famed Paseo del Prado, all the while waving Cuban and multicolored flags.

“We want equality, and that our rights be respected as people that we are. And we are living in a society that still has too much taboo, but we want to break that taboo. I’m standing for a Yes for diversity,” said Yandi Roche Gonzalez, 27.

It was the first spontaneous citizenship protest on the island, without authorization from official institutions, in decades.

The canceled conga parade

CENESEX became aware days before an official statement from the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) — an official entity that many were surprised still ruled over the center — of the conga cancellation announcement .

“Complying with MINSAP guidelines, the Cuban Conga against homophobia and transphobia will not be held this year due to circumstances that hinder its successful development, both in Havana and Camagüey, which does not mean it will not return next year. Recent international and regional tensions are affecting our country directly and indirectly and have tangible and intangible impact on the normal development of our daily life and on the implementation of the policies of the Cuban State,” said the CENESEX statement.

Reasons offered by the statement provoked the dissatisfaction of many activists and sympathizers of the cause, since the circumstances were not clarified, and the “tensions” did not differ from those that existed on May 1, when the government organized the multitudinous and traditional parade for May Day.

Social networks — that since 2018 have served as an organizing force on numerous issues for a growing number of Cubans: from help for the victims of the tornado that affected several municipalities and hundreds of families in Havana, to the clean-up of rivers and beaches, and even a march in favor of animal rights — have become a hotbed of opinions. Mariela Castro, CENESEX director, was harshly criticized and even grossly insulted in her personal profiles.

Cuba has also experienced the “damn circumstances” of the siege lived under since the triumph of the Revolution in 1959. For decades, the United States has financed frequent covert programs that claim to seek to promote democracy on the island and undermine the government. On the other hand, the Cuban government has maintained strict control over public spaces and has allowed few marches, other than those organized officially.

For citizens, this type of initiative is often caught in that crossfire, a type of no-man’s land full of complexities and contradictions.

The march

According to Mariela Castro’s Facebook profile, the march was a “show conceived from Miami and Matanzas” and the images “create doubt on the legitimate desire for greater rights and show an orchestrated operation which seeks to question the outstanding and essential work of the National Center for Sexual Education of Cuba CENESEX.”

The images shown by most of the foreign and alternative media were those that denounced the horrific end of the walk last Saturday, when there were violent clashes between policemen in uniform and some opponents of the government who also participated and were arrested.

“With eyes wide open I subscribe to every word written by Vicente on Facebook,” wrote Cuban poet and troubadour Silvio Rodríguez in the comments section of his blog.

He was referring to the post in which the artist, Vicente Feliú, stated that “the absurd, shameful, and dangerously evocative repression of the gay march this afternoon is definitely indefensible.” He offered his support to President Díaz-Canel in “eradicating those mentalities that want to setback everything we are trying to improve.”

The actor Luis Alberto García also chimed in with support to those who marched through the famed Havana boulevard despite the prohibitions. “They march for an ideal,” he wrote.

During Monday’s (May 13) Mesa Redonda TV program dedicated to the XII Cuban Conference against Homophobia and Transphobia, Mariela Castro described those who participated in the Saturday demonstration as “enemies of freedom” and a “mass of ignoramuses and snobs who accompany them.”

Meanwhile, Manuel Vazquez Seijido, vice president of CENESEX, cited reasons for the cancellation of the Conga for Diversity as “a complex decision but consciously taken.” He added that “we were not going to create a space for these groups to use it in this way…”

He added that “it was a decision that was not understood; it was the hook used by these groups — the misunderstanding. They called for a protest, not a conga, in the Parque Central, a march for which no permit was requested, a legal requirement that exists not only in Cuba, but throughout the world, at least in societies that claim to be civilized and organized. And in spite of this, the group who showed up numbered no more than 150 people.”

Many who did attend the Saturday event estimated the crowd to be between 250 and 300 people, and felt that their presence that day was the right thing to do. They insisted they were not being manipulated by any external force. This feeling has also been expressed by dozens of others in their own profiles and in comments in regard to the official statements. Others called the challenge to authority uncivilized.

The well-known activist and journalist Francisco Rodríguez Cruz wrote that “as the EFE News agency reported, among those in attendance was a group who sought to provoke an incident by not following police orders in order to achieve before the cameras a planned spectacle.”

Meanwhile, the intellectual and playwright Norge Espinosa thanked many “for the lesson and the step forward taken” by participants of the independent march, because “it expands what other activists have done in mornings and afternoons past when the danger seemed even greater. That memory stimulates today’s, those faces of now are a certainty that I hope can be that of many other hopes. The real battle begins now.”

The crossfire is full of complexities and contradictions.