Globe, Human Rights, Latin America, Politiks

María López: Homosexuality and literature in Cuba

In the last few years, the regime of Fidel Castro has introduced substantial changes with respect to sexual liberty, intending to eliminate the strain of institutional homophobia in the country, although discrimination is still  present in certain areas.

Benjamin Serra

María E. López is an academic at London Metropolitan University on Hispanic Cultural Studies.

She has always been interested in Cuba and politics in general. This, together with her interest in literature and cinema, alongside that of ‘invisible’ groups and the marginalised, such as homosexuals, made her focus her research on them for her thesis.

She holds a distinct perspective on the discourse of the Cuban national revolutionary identity, homosexuality and the role of authors such as Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and Leonardo Padura Fuentes in the representation of these aspects.

“The governmental changes in Cuba during the last decade on the subject of homosexuaity are something really positive and the effort had to be recognised, but still there is much to do, lots in Cuba as well as outside of it”, she considers.

Changes include the creation of the National Centre for Sexual Education (Cenesex) in 1989 and the support of Mariela, the daughter of Raúl Castro, for the cause, or the first wedding between persons of the same sex.

About these changes, the revolution and how the present situation has been reached, Maria E. López is interviewed by The Prisma, in a meeting organised by the Institute for the Study of the Americas in London.

Fidel Castro

Is the historical rejection of homosexuals in Cuba down to the government or society?

As much as a government wants to impose, if the society doesn’t support the rejection, it doesn’t exist. Politicians recognise the mood of the society and create laws with its complicity, either with a simple silence or by looking the other way.

This isn’t to say that Cuban society is to blame. People worry about things day to day and not about rights that don’t affect them. In this case, the government is more culpable, controlled by conservative figures within that environment.

How do you explain a communist society taking this very conservative position?

In addition to the inherited macho tradition, it comes down to that the revolutionaries conceived society in terms of the ‘new man’, an idea of Che Guevara’s. They wanted virile men, men who would work for the revolution and build a country that could face up to the North Americans. They didn’t want homosexuals for this.

It comes from an antiquated and arbitrary concept, but the homosexual and effeminate male doesn’t fit the romantic ideal of the revolution and of an organised country. He is seen as a man who isn’t a brave fighter and someone who won’t contribute to the country.

Can we blame Cuba for its conduct towards homosexuals?

Those opposed always blame the regime for the creation of the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs), forced labour camps that lasted for about 2 to 3 years, according to different sources, where homosexuals were transported. But it’s also for the fact that many had to abandon their country and for the rejection that they suffered.

What changes have happened over the last few years?

They have created Cenesex, a centre which officially brings together homosexuals, although there are many people who don’t want anything to do with this. Also, people of the same sex can get married. And in 2010, Fidel recognised that he was the one responsible for the situation of homosexuals in Cuba. It’s very important they receive apologies.

Are the changes towards homosexuality in Cuba just for show?

I don’t think that it’s just for appearances. Nobody is going to return to the time when many went to the UMAPs or take away any of the suffering, but lots of efforts are being made. And although it has to be said as well that it’s not as idyllic as it seems, Mariela Castro, Fidel’s niece, is very involved, despite the fact that she is criticised and branded a hypocrite. In the end, Cuba has done much more than other countries and this achievement is not recognised, although lots remains to be done in Cuba and abroad.

Why did it take the decision to change their stance?

One of the reasons is historical. In the Mariel boatlift exodus, 125,000 people left the country, many of them homosexuals and intellectuals. Reinaldo Arenas brought these critical voices together, and for his part, made the documentary ‘Improper Conduct’, where it showed the terrible things that had happened to them. This is what made the situation known abroad.

So was it because of outside pressure?

It was clear that the right always criticised Fidel but on this occasion it was about international pressure from the various groups on the left. Many intellectuals who had shown their support publicly for the revolution withdrew it.

This seems like it was negative propaganda?

Mariela Castro

Propaganda is very important and what is said about the regime has to be positive. The Soviet Union had fallen and there needed to be an investment of offering up an image of normality. So they commissioned the director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea to make a film that showed the before and after: Strawberry and Chocolate. It is very important to maintain a good image and homosexuality is a recurring theme that guarantees sympathy and antipathy, but always awakens passions. That said, it’s true that there was some persuasion from the regime. So, as I said, not everything was just for appearances.

In the last few years, it seems that homosexuality has become a fashionable subject. Has Cuba wanted to follow this trend?

It’s absolutely a fashion. There is a kind of ‘gayeuphoria’, with a very important market and with the rest of the world accepting it, Cuba hasn’t wanted to get left behind. Although you could say that homosexuality is tolerated rather than integrated. That is, any criticism centres on the idea that the homosexual only thinks about pleasing himself and doesn’t work on behalf of the revolution, which is absurd.

But, how can homosexuals be fashionable and at the same time ‘invisible’?

It’s very contradictory. You can’t ignore them and occasionally put them in prison, or say that homosexuals don’t exist in Cuba but at the same time create laws to regulate them. Anyway, according to them, gay people wouldn’t do much damage if homosexuality was legalised, and it would give a clear image of the country. Anything becomes natural when it’s talked about naturally.

In terms of making it visible, has literature acted as a way of revealing homosexuality?

Always. In my thesis I talk about Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and Padura Fuentes. They write literature to move people. It is a dirty realism that it intends to show. Literature is used as a vehicle to report.

Pedro Juan Gutiérrez

What happens in terms of censorship?

There is a kind of self-censorship and complacency, but that is normal. Nobody is aiming to go to prison for saying certain things. If they don’t have to talk about certain things, they don’t do. It’s understandable.

Can you compare the situation in Cuba with the rest of Latin America?

You could say that it’s a taboo subject. But it is a large continent and in many places, there’s the influence of Catholicism. In Cuba you don’t have this 100% Catholic morality. There are very conservative countries, such as Guatemala or Panamá and others that are not so conservative. In Brazil, the outlook is better and Argentina is more advanced in terms of sexuality. In the case of Cuba, there’s criticism, but they have progressed enough, much more than other countries and, even so, they are still being accused.

(Translated by Daniela Fetta)

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