BY Michael Rowe
September 14 2009 8:00 AM ET
I remind her that early in his presidency Obama offered to lift the embargo if Cuba released the 54 prisoners of conscience that Amnesty International’s 2009 International Report cites as being held solely for their political views.
“What I heard from my father,” the president’s daughter volleys back, sounding suddenly more like a future stateswoman than a gay rights activist, “is that he would release all the prisoners of conscience if Obama releases the five."
The reference is to the “Cuban Five,” a group of intelligence officers who infiltrated U.S.-based Cuban exile groups and in 2001 were convicted in federal court of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. In Cuba they are hailed as folk heroes and antiterrorist fighters.
Even as Mariela Castro Espín becomes better known internationally every year, she remains a figure of -- if not controversy -- bemusement at home. Rumors abound -- is she a lesbian? No, she says, nor is she bothered by controversy. “Being considered a lesbian would not be an insult to me,” she scoffs. “Being considered corrupt would be. Thinking that the only reason one would be sensitive to LGBT issues would be that one is a lesbian is as absurd as believing only a woman would care about being a feminist, or that you’d have to be Indian or black to care about racism.”
She relates the story of the first and only time that she says she ever invoked her father’s name in order to provoke an immediate advantage. It was 1980. She was in her first year in college at the University of Havana and already a prominent member of the Young Communist League.
“Right when I started university,” she says, “two things happened which were very important. Just before the Mariel boatlift,” -- one of the seismic events in Cuban history over the course of which some 10,000 Cubans would leave the island for the United States between April and October of 1980 with Fidel Castro’s scathing blessings -- “there was an ‘intensifying process’ organized by the Young Communist League called a ‘deepening of revolutionary consciousness.’” The process, she explains, was intended to purify the league of all but the most ardent and committed young revolutionaries. Though homosexuality had become legal the previous year, it was still grounds for expulsion from the Young Communist League. The prevailing view at the time was that homosexuality was counterrevolutionary, and a significant part of the “deepening” process was identifying and removing gays and lesbians. “I didn’t agree with any part of it,” she adds with some distaste.
So, she says, she lied. “I told the commission that my parents had said it was a mistake to eject gay people, and that the objective of this process was not being achieved by doing so. It’s the only time I ever used my parents’ names for influence.” Also, she informed the officials, her parents had told her that among the heads of the revolution, there were leaders who were gay, and they had been as “revolutionary” as the next good communist.
Given who her parents were, the lie carried some weight. The leaders who were present were astounded, but who among them cared to challenge Fidel’s niece, much less General Raúl Castro’s daughter, on a point of party ideology?
“Needless to say, I was terrified,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t know what my parents’ response would be. I got home really late, because those meetings always lasted forever. My parents were having dinner. I was very serious, and I said, ‘Look, this is what I’ve done, and I will take full responsibility.’ I was convinced that they were going to be very angry. But my father said, ‘You did the right thing. It is very unfair, and it has to end.’ And then he started to laugh. He said, ‘Who were you thinking of when you said there were leaders of the revolution who were gay?’ I told him, ‘No one in particular, I just made it up. But there must have been some.’”
She appears to derive the most satisfaction from the small, incremental indicators of her successes, repeating her mantra that education is the enemy of homophobia. She tells me about a letter she received from a woman she’d met in Santa Clara, a medium-sized city in Cuba’s central provinces where Che Guevara is buried. The woman had come up to her after a speaking engagement during which she’d lectured on the dangers of homophobia. After the speech, she says, she went to visit the woman and her transgender son, who had suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his father.
“He suffered very much because his dad was a truck driver,” she says softly. “He was beaten every day because he was effeminate.” The father had abandoned the boy and his mother, telling them he didn’t want a maricón -- a faggot -- for a son. “He showed me all of his dresses,” she says. The boy had been to a psychiatrist who told him he’d have to work hard in order to be “cured” of his homosexuality. “I told his mother and he that these prejudices were the father’s problem, and they needed to be explained to him. It looked like something I did was right, because the next year when I came back, the father was living with the family again and he went to his son’s drag shows.”
I ask her about her name again, and if she thought the boy’s father capitulated because a nice lady from Havana told him he was wrong, or because General Raúl Castro’s daughter told him he was wrong. She laughs, a light, silvery sound full of genuine humor and some delight, as though, after all the lofty talk of politics, history, and legacy, it had come down to this: two mothers -- she and the woman -- fixing a family problem with education and common sense.
“Both,” she says, smiling. “I think it made a difference. I’m glad it’s something that can be useful.”