By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES – From forbidden to travel to a “VIP” in Havana Airport, a controversial and uneasy activist, even among other activists, an applicant for political asylum in Spain; a doctor of medicine turned B&B apartment worker.
This has been the path of 31-year-old Cienfuegos native, Nelson Gandulla, founder in 2014 of the Foundation for LGBTI Rights in Cuba. Gandulla had lost faith in the work of the government institution CENESEX in this field. He has been on Cuban State Security’s radar ever since. In 2016, he was threatened with jail for his activism, as well as being stripped of his medical license.
They even tried to involve him in a drug trafficking crime. This harassment extended to his partner, an independent journalist in Cienfuegos, and his family. All of this led him to leave for Spain in 2018, where he hopes to receive asylum.
Nelson Gandulla: In February 2017, I had to travel to Colombia to finish off preparing a report about LGBTI rights in Cuba, for the OAS, and I wasn’t allowed to make the trip. I was told: “you’re regulated (grounded).” Afterwards, I felt like I didn’t have the support of LGBTI organizations in Cuba. A lot of them didn’t want to work with the foundation, especially with myself. They all told me they kept a low profile.
I applied for the refugee program at the US Embassy. They approved my application after the first interview, but when it was time for my second one, the September 2017 hurricane struck and the Embassy closed down. When it reopened, the whole sonic attack business started and they reduced their personnel by 60%. I was left hanging, like so many others.
There are still people in Cuba who haven’t been able to leave, even people who have passed away, such as the Lady in White, Ada Maria Lopez Canino. She had her interview at the same time as me but she passed away without ever being able to leave Cuba.
Some German friends who were up to speed with my situation, told me “you have to get out of Cuba.” By chance, my partner was there at the time and told me he wasn’t coming back. He had gone for a Diario de Cuba course, in February 2018. I went to the German Embassy and got the visa I needed to be able to enter Europe.
At (Havana) Airport, I didn’t have to wait in line to pass Immigration Control. I young man came by, dressed in civilian clothes, and said: “Nelson, this way please”. There was a line, but he let me pass by everyone as if I were the king and stood me in front of the window. Then, he asked: “Are you thinking of leaving for good?” I told him I was, and the guy on the other side of the glass, gave me the stamp I needed.
Once in Germany, I traveled to Spain where my partner was waiting for me and we applied for political asylum a year and four months ago. I handed in all the evidence I had of my arrests, summons, seizure of work equipment and fines. Normally, this process takes a year or so. But now there is a stampede of Venezuelans applying for asylum in Spain because of the crisis in their country. There is a delay of thousands of files.
HT: You say that your partner stayed in Spain after a course he was invited to take part in by Diario de Cuba. Have you ever thought about the fact that when a journalist or activist stays behind during a course or event abroad, it gives the impression that people only get involved in the opposition struggle or independent journalism so they can look to leave Cuba, and it jeopardizes other colleagues’ chances of being invited?
Nelson Gandulla: I have thought about it. If you travel and you get by Security, they go to your home, to your mother’s house, and say that you have to go to court on the charge of conspiring against State Security and illicit financial activity… I would think about it too and I’m not in this situation. I came without jeopardizing any organization. I have left Cuba twelve times. If you were doing this just to leave, you’d leave the first time you’re allowed out of the country.
Many people might think badly of us and our work. But we have proved, over time, that our attitude towards the dictatorship and human rights in Cuba, is still the same. We continue our activism here.
HT: What can you do about the LGBTI community’s rights in Cuba, from Spain?
Nelson Gandulla: I am still the general director of the Foundation, which has a director in Cuba. I look for material to be sent for its activities. I am the connecting link with other organizations abroad to denounce what is happening. with Colegas (the Spanish LGBTI Confederation), with the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCHD), which didn’t have any ties with the LGBTI community, except for in 2016 when I was here.
Now, we have managed to get the Observatory to carry out a specific study about the Cuban LGBTI community’s rights. I have made contact with Amnesty International and European Union bodies. I have been invited to events in Brussels, but I can’t leave Spain. We have made the situation of the Cuban community’s rights visible, at the Mesa de Unidad Cubana too, which is another group here. We have taken part in protests and gay pride celebrations here in Madrid.
When somebody is only interested in staying, they forget all about Cuba. I have friends who have been part of the opposition struggle, and when they leave Cuba, they want to dedicate themselves to other things so they can return to the country and see their families. I have even had people come up to me and tell me to leave all this opposition business, that I’m already here. But I didn’t use the opposition struggle as a trampoline to leave Cuba. We are here because we were practically forced to leave.
HT: What would happen if you were denied asylum after all of this?
Nelson Gandulla: We would remain in a legal limbo. We would have to wait until we’ve been here for three years, to apply for residency. As a doctor, as soon as my degree is validated, I can get a residency permit to practice. My partner can only apply for residency after the three years, but he wouldn’t have a work license which the red card we have now gives. We would be working illegally, until the three years the Law dictates are up.
HT: What do you do here?
Nelson Gandulla: I have been working with COLEGAS and Air B&B apartments, doing check-ins for tourists and cleaning. I hope to change and work in an old people’s home (at the time this interview with Nelson Gandulla was published, he was already working at a private old people’s home), while I wait for my doctor’s degree to be validated. I managed to present all my papers, seven months ago. It took over a year for me to get all of my documents from Cuba. This paperwork cost me almost 3000 CUC in Cuba; here, it only costs 160 euros. I had to get my grade sheet and study plan too. If a document cost 500 CUC, they would charge me 700. They said that there was a law that states that when you leave Cuba, prices double.
Plus, you know you always have to give a little extra something. My three years’ work experience didn’t figure on it and I needed it, and fast. I needed a process that can take four months, in just one or two. You can do that with a bribe, you know that’s how things work in Cuba. I still need a document that says I worked well in Cuba and that my license hasn’t been revoked. Getting this document legalized in MINREX, after it receives the Minister of Health’s signature, costs some 300 CUC. Legalizing it at the Spanish Consulate afterwards, costs 9 CUC.
HT: What are your chances of working as a doctor here in Spain?
Nelson Gandulla: 100% I hope. I have done some investigating and Cuban doctors are held in great esteem here.