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Cuban LGBT activists plan parade in defiance of government

Cuba’s equivalent of gay pride parade cancelled after state claims of subversion

Gay rights activists get together before the Annual March against Homophobia and Transphobia in Havana, May 14, 2016th. File photograph: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Cuban gay rights activists are planning to hold an unprecedented independent march against homophobia today despite several of them reporting they had received warnings not to attend and the Communist government saying it was an attempt at subversion.

Whether they manage to hold the event could be a sign of Cubans’ growing ability – or not – to mobilise for certain causes, even in the face of resistance from the one-party state that has for decades tightly controlled public spaces.

The state-run National Center for Sex Education (Cenesex), headed by Mariela Castro, daughter of Communist Party leader Raul Castro, earlier this week abruptly cancelled its 12th annual conga, which is Cuba’s equivalent of gay pride.

Cenesex said in a statement that certain groups were planning to use the event to undermine the government, emboldened by the escalation of aggression by the Trump administration against Cuba and its leftist ally Venezuela.

Mariela Castro (at front right with dark glasses), daughter of Communist Party leader Raul Castro, at a parade to commemorate Labor Day in Havana, Cuba, May 1st, 2019. Photograph: Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA

The United States has for decades financed often covert programmes to promote democracy on the island and undermine the Communist government.

Activists who say the conga is an important and rare space to advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights quickly organised an alternative event and spread the word on social media.

‘Provocation’

Cenesex denounced this as a “provocation” and several activists say they received warnings either anonymously on social media or from state security in person not to attend it.

The expansion of the internet in Cuba over the past year has seen increasing numbers of Cubans mobilise online over certain issues, sometimes apparently managing to influence policy.

The government, for example, postponed the full implementation of a decree clamping down on the arts after an online campaign protesting the law, and stepped back on regulations governing the private sector after entrepreneurs and experts complained.

Worshippers wave paper flags that read in Spanish “I am in favour of the original design. The family as God created it. Wedding between man and woman”, during a service at a Methodist Church in Havana, Cuba, in October 2018. File photograph: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

So far, however, the government has retained tight control over physical public spaces, mostly restricting marches to expressions of support for the government, like the recent Labor Day parade.

The conga in Havana was an exception that became a regular occurrence, and a reminder that the government, which sent gay people to work camps in the early days of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, had made considerable advances in LGBT rights in recent years.

The country guarantees rights such as free sex-change operations and forbids discrimination on the basis of sexuality, in a region where some countries still have anti-sodomy laws.

People wait in line to buy chicken at a government-run grocery store in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 11th, 2019. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

Some LGBT activists feel the cancellation of the conga was a sign those rights are being eroded, possibly because a recent public consultation over a new constitution revealed that there was more opposition to the community than previously thought.

Many Cubans expressed their opposition to a change in the draft constitution that would have explicitly opened the door to gay marriage.

Evangelical churches, which have become increasingly vocal and have growing followings, also ran unprecedented campaigns against the change, which was eventually watered down. – Reuters