By Juan O. Tamayo, firstname.lastname@example.org
A small group of “independent” Cuban gays and lesbians strolled down a Havana boulevard Tuesday to celebrate Gay Pride Day — and mark their distance from pro-government LGBT groups controlled by Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela.
Waving rainbow colored flags, dozens of LGBT activists and supporters joined what was described as Cuba’s first gay street demonstration not sponsored by the government in recent memory. The event drew a strong police presence but went off without incident.
Leannes Imbert, whose Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Observatory organized the event, had said that she was inviting everyone, even Mariela Castro, to the stroll — not a protest or a march because those might have required police permits.
But the event was clearly designed to highlight differences with the “official” LGBT groups backed by the first daughter, who has argued that Gay Pride parades are “protests” not needed in Cuba because the country’s laws protect gay rights.
The stroll also highlighted the growing activism of varied independent groups — gays, blacks and farmers, among others — seeking a stronger voice in the nation’s affairs as the communist government tries to overhaul a stumbling economy.
“People are a bit more daring each day. We’re hearing critical expressions that were unthinkable before,” blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote in a Tweet as she joined the 90-minute demonstration.
In turn, the independent groups are receiving growing attention abroad. Imbert attended former President Jimmy Carter’s meeting with civil society leaders in Havana in March, and the U.S. State Department is planning to spend $300,000 this year to help the LGBT community in Cuba.
Imbert told reporters after the event that Mariela Castro and her National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) in Havana had organized several events Tuesday to divert attention from the stroll. Security officials also had warned gay rights activists in recent days to stay away from the Observatory’s event.
Several El Nuevo Herald calls to Imbert’s cell phone Tuesday appeared to have been blocked.
In an interview published earlier on the website Cuba Encuentro, she declared that her group organized the stroll primarily to cast a spotlight on the LGBT community in Cuba, “which has been in the shadow for so long.”
She acknowledged some improvements in gay rights in recent years but argued that not all the credit should go to Mariela Castro, who has been the face and the voice of the pro-government LGBT community on the island for more than a decade.
“This is the time when we have to come out into the light and show everyone the LGBT community in Cuba, which is not only CENESEX,’’ Imbert was quoted as saying.
The Observatory will “demand” respect for the rights of gay Cubans, she added, “which up to now have been denied. There are many violations still — although the form has changed somewhat if we compare it to past years.”
Herb Sosa, head of the Unity Coalition, a Hispanic gay rights group based in South Florida, remained skeptical of the Observatory, arguing that if the Cuban government allowed the stroll it must be part of a government propaganda effort.
“Almost every day I get reports of LGBT community people being beaten, arrested, dragged off to jail because there’s no freedom of expression at all in Cuba,” Sosa told El Nuevo Herald.
Imbert told Cuba Encuentro that police have broken up efforts to mark Gay Pride Day in past years and pointed out the stroll was held on Paseo del Prado — a pedestrian boulevard in central Havana where police cannot accuse participants of disrupting traffic.
New York author Armando Lopez recalled in a column in May, shortly after Mariela Castro had led a CENESEX-organized conga line down Havana streets for her version of a Gay Pride march, that Fidel Castro had harshly attacked gays in a 1963 speech.
“Homophobia became state policy” that year, Lopez wrote, quoting Castro as saying that gays “use public spaces to organize their feminoid shows … Socialist society cannot permit such degenerate actions.”
Castro added, “I always noticed that the countryside never gave rise to that subproduct.” Two years later, he sent thousands of gays, priests and others he did not want to draft into the military to the notorious hard labor camps known as UMAP.
Cuban gays, Lopez added, “are victims of an absurd revolution. Just like you and me, my dear reader.”