On 11 May, an unofficial Pride protest in Cuba was disrupted by the Cuban police, with some violence, and several activists were detained at the protest or in the run-up. Nevertheless, around 300 people, many of them young, joined the protest with slogans including “Viva gay marriage”, “A diverse Cuba”, and “Yes, we can.” It was the first time in many years that a civil society protest has gone ahead in Cuba without a permit.
On 8 May, the 12th annual Conga Against Homophobia and Transphobia, run by the Cuban National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), had been cancelled because of supposed “new tensions in the international and regional context” and “in compliance with the policy of the Party, the State and the Revolution.” LGBT+ activists operating outside of CENESEX organised their own protest for 11 May, in defiance of the cancellation. Mariela Castro said that the activists who decided to defy the state were backing a “show conceived from Miami and Matanzas.”
Cuba is clearly rattled by the instability in Venezuela. Closer to home, the growing evangelical Christian churches have campaigned vociferously against gay marriage. Gay marriage was not included in the Cuban constitutional review earlier this year. Pressure from the evangelical Churches has been enough to stop there being a referendum on the issue until at least 2020.
Of course, concern about “new tensions” did not make the state cancel its May Day parade. Cuba’s state policy on LGBT+ rights has shifted massively since the 1960s, when gay men were jailed for being gay. CENESEX is headed by Mariela Castro, Raul Castro’s daughter; discrimination against LGBT+ people is now illegal in Cuba; there is free trans healthcare; and, until this year, there have been these officially sanctioned “congas”.
This year, prominent activists were visited by the “National Revolutionary Police” in the days before the protest and told not to participate or support any public calls for the demonstration. Government sources referred to these activists as “counter-revolutionary.” They claimed Isbel Diaz Torres and other organisers, who used social media to build the protest, were receiving money from the US State Department.
Torres and his partner Jimmy Roque Martinez, both anarchists, were subsequently detained and prevented from attending the march. In a statement following their release they said: “the multiple calls, the networks of people and collective allies, the decentralisation of the call and the convergence in the fight against homophobia, transphobia, and religious fundamentalism, gave good results. Our solidarity comes to those other people who were also prevented from reaching the march, or who suffered police violence during it. #LaRevoluciónEsNuestra [The revolution is ours] #LosDerechosNoSePlebiscitan [Rights are not to be plebiscited]”.
CENESEX attempted against to undermine the protest by moving their planned “Diversity Party” to the same start time. Despite the threats and arrests, on her Facebook page Mariela Castro described the protest as looking to: “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.” When interviewed on a TV programme dedicated to the 12th Cuban Conference against Homophobia and Transphobia, which the conga should have been a part of, she described the organisers of the protest as “enemies of freedom,” and those who participated as a “mass of ignoramuses and snobs who accompany them.”
Like the rest of the Cuban Stalinist bureaucracy Castro is interested in keeping tight control. The crackdown is part of how Cuba operates as a Stalinist police state and uses the threat of US aggression to try to quell independent political activity. CENESEX is primarily an educational institution. It is not an activist group. The 300 participants will not all have been opponents of the Cuban state. But socialists and LGBT+ activists should stand with these socalled “counter-revolutionaries” against the Cuban state.