BY Michael Rowe

September 14 2009 8:00 AM ET

MARIELA CASTRO ESPIN X390 (BYRON MOTLEY) | ADVOCATE.COM

But these are not ordinary times, and Mariela Castro Espín is no ordinary president’s daughter. To the Havana police she’s the thorn in their side who shows up at the station on behalf of those arrested and detained on trumped-up loitering or prostitution charges. The transgender community knows her as the woman who turned her offices into a refuge for those who have been expelled from their homes, or worse. Wendy Diaz, a beautiful young trans woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the pop star Shakira -- and who drew admiring glances from the men at the various tables around us when we met for drinks one evening on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional -- told me how Castro Espín once chased a boy for five blocks before collaring him for throwing rocks at “Mariela’s girls” outside the offices of CENESEX.

“I think Mariela’s leadership has been a key factor in the success of the work of CENESEX, and the prestige she carries because of her family name has only helped,” says Margaret Gilpin, a New York–based filmmaker whose award-winning 1996 documentary Butterflies on a Scaffold was the first to explore gay and drag culture in Cuba in the mid '90s. “Her presence, and the fact that [CENESEX] has focused its work on educating the general Cuban population on issues of concern to the LGBT community, to combating homophobia, and to trying to change laws and regulations to conform to current thinking on LGBT issues, has been critical to whatever success has been achieved so far.”

Under Castro Espín’s auspices, 2008 was a pivotal year for LGBT rights in the country. The government passed a resolution allowing transsexuals to undergo sex-reassignment surgeries free of charge. And Cuba stepped onto the stage of international gay rights discourse with its inaugural Day Against Homophobia, sanctioned at the highest levels of the Castro government and attended by thousands of ordinary gay and lesbian Cubans, as well as gay rights activists and government officials. The 2009 Day Against Homophobia numbers surpassed the attendance of the 2008 event, and organizers intend to make it an annual occurrence.

Castro Espín is also carefully but persistently lobbying on behalf of a bill to legalize same-sex civil unions that is proceeding slowly through parliament -- the term “gay marriage” being as problematic for Cubans as it is for many Americans. “Instead of just working with Cuban gays and lesbians so they could fit into the rest of society,” Castro Espín explains, “our strategy [at CENESEX] is to work with the population so that they could accept, and be educated on, sexual diversity. The people who have the problem are not gay people, but the general population.”

While Castro Espín’s star power clearly is of great public-relations value to the Cuban regime, those who have worked with her believe she’s more than just a spokesmodel for the authoritarian political clan whose nucleus is the Castro family.

“The fight for gay rights is very much her own crusade,” says Dr. Elizabeth Dore, professor of Latin American studies at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, who met Castro Espín while working on a Cuban oral history project. “Mariela has become increasingly strong in her own ideas, and even militant about them. I think she’s also a very hard-headed politician, which played a part in her slowly and delicately convincing people, including many white, elderly men [in power], that it was important for Cuba to change its policies towards gays.”

Castro Espín had not yet been born in 1959 when her uncle, Fidel Castro, and an army of guerrilla fighters overthrew the right-wing dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, under whose regime U.S. interests had flourished. By 1962, the year of her birth, Fidel Castro had seized and nationalized U.S. interests and property in retaliation for what his government considered trade provocation, and the United States had imposed the crippling embargo which remains in place today

“When Mariela was born, her father was already a very important person in Cuba … But her mother was, in a way, even more exceptional,” says Ricardo Alarcón, president of the National Assembly of Cuba and the nation’s senior diplomat.

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