Over the past few years, the government of Cuba has earned praise for an unlikely development: a campaign to improve the status of the island's gays. Standing at the forefront of this effort has been an even unlikelier figure: Mariela Castro Espin, the daughter of Raul Castro, who officially assumed the Cuban presidency last year after his brother Fidel fell ill. The latest entry in this narrative was a largely laudatory profile of Espin in The Advocate, which described her as a "champion" of the island's "gay and transgender community." Espin is director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, an organization which, according to its website, promotes "the development of a culture of sexuality that is full, pleasurable, and responsible, as well as to promote the full exercise of sexual rights."
Like most Latin American countries, Cuba has long been marked by regressive policies concerning homosexuality, due largely to a machismo culture that promotes a heroic masculinity portraying gays as weak and ill-suited to positions of leadership, whether in home or government. As Espin herself says, "Homophobia in Cuba is part of what makes you a 'man.'" But while Espin should be praised for her attempt to change Cuban attitudes about homosexuality, her advocacy in this realm ought not disabuse anyone of the fact that she is part and parcel of the architecture of repression that has governed the island for five painful decades.
Whatever pleasant sounding pieties she mouths about the dignity of gay people, Espin is a communist, an appellation that ought carry no less opprobrium today than it did before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Castro's Cuba it's still 1956, the year Soviet tanks crushed a peaceful democratic uprising in Hungary, one of the Cold War's darkest moments. Cuba remains the most repressive country in the Western hemisphere; Freedom House, the international human rights monitoring organization, lists it as the only "unfree" nation in the region (on a scale of one to seven -- seven being the worst -- Cuba earns a seven for political rights and six for civil liberties). The time warp is evident in a more literal sense: the few cars you'll see on the streets are decades old, except, of course, the late-model Mercedes that chauffeur around the island's elite.
It may seem strange that, in this day and age, one still has to mount a case against communism, but as long as a prominent member of the family that has ruled Cuba without interruption for 50 years is the subject of a flattering profile in a major publication, the work remains sadly necessary.
As a political system, communism has killed some 100 million people, according to The Black Book of Communism, a number that increases each day the North Korean slave state continues unabated. Castro's Cuba is responsible for a relatively minor portion of those victims, but that's only because "el jefe" has had just a small island's worth of people to oppress, imprison, and murder. And Castro's treatment of gays is particularly notorious: Not long after taking power, his regime herded thousands of gay men into concentration camps for "reeducation," where they were subjected to sexual humiliation and forced labor and were murdered en masse. In 1980, gay Cubans were among the 125,000 people -- "scum," in the words of the Cuban government -- whom Castro allowed to leave for U.S. shores in the famous Mariel Boatlift. To underscore what he thought of gay people, Castro made sure that an ample number of violent convicts and patients from mental asylums joined the departing masses.
As she related to The Advocate and elsewhere, Espin remains a fervent proponent of the "revolution" which has wreaked so much misery and poverty on Cuba, and she thus carries all of the malicious baggage that such an avowal entails. She says that her uncle is a "brilliant man." Considered the "first lady" of Cuba, she recently told a Russian government-controlled television station that "Cuba will stay socialist after Castro's death." She told The Advocate that, despite her "faith and hopes" in President Barack Obama, "he has shown no real democratic outreach to Cuba." On top of this, she patronized the American people by saying how "proud" she was of the "miracle brought about by" their electing "a young, intelligent black man." If only she cared for democracy and racial tolerance in her own nation, where there has never been an election, and where people of African descent face systematic and rampant discrimination by the government.
Moreover, Espin's activism is largely hype, and mostly the product of people who have a vested interested in putting a pleasant face on a despicable regime. For true believers, Cuba is the last bastion of an utterly discredited political and economic system. But with gay equality now a component of the "progressive" agenda, it has become painfully necessary to portray the Cuban regime as gay-friendly.
Yet it's difficult to point to any tangible benefits that Espin's activism has accrued, other than a decision last year by the Cuban government to dispense free sex-reassignment surgeries. This is a policy of dubious merit that affects an infinitesimally small number of people, and is better understood as a propaganda tool rather than a genuine sign of concern for the plight of gays. This is the sort of thing that's fodder for those who think that our health care system should emulate that of an island prison.
But no matter how genuine or fervent her promotion of gay rights may be, Espin's activism will ultimately go nowhere as long as Cuba remains communist. And that's because homophobia has been intrinsic to communism, which, like all totalitarian ideologies, seeks to perfect mankind, often through violent means. Doctrinaire communists view homosexuality as a bourgeois affliction standing in the way of our "progress" towards a utopian society in which there is no private property, war, or discord and all responsibilities are equally shared. Same-sex attraction is held as an expression of the "false consciousness" that distracts us from the class struggle.
Like Sean Penn, who has also emerged of late as a self-styled advocate for gay rights, Mariela Castro Espin has a serious blind spot. It is the failure, so pervasive and persistent throughout human history, to understand that no political system -- regardless of how wonderful in theory or the marvelous claims it makes for itself -- can be considered humane as long as it inherently denies fundamental rights like freedom of conscience and speech, the ability to practice religion, vote for one's leaders, and earn a living commensurate with one's talents and abilities.
"Being considered a lesbian would not be an insult to me," Espin told The Advocate. "Being considered corrupt would be." Her first concern is of but prurient interest. As for her second, by proudly embracing a moral stain as a badge of honor, it's far too late. Gay rights are human rights, and if one is not an advocate for human rights, as Mariela Castro is most certainly not, one cannot be an advocate for gay rights, no matter how well disposed toward gay and lesbian people one may be.
Let's posit, for the sake of argument, that Cuban gays truly earned equal rights. No doubt the Cuban regime's apologists would point to its supposedly "progressive" attitude, contrasting it favorably to the Christian yahoos who run the United States. But even if Cuba legalized gay marriage tomorrow -- a highly dubious prospect -- it would still be a dictatorship. No matter the degree to which the status of homosexuals in Cuba improves under the communist regime, Cuban gays -- like Cuban straights -- would still be thrown into prison for daring to tell an anti-Castro joke. They still would not be able to organize peaceful demonstrations against government policies, never mind vote in a free election. More fundamentally, they still would not be able to leave the island of their own volition.
What sort of freedom is this?