[Translation of an article from La Jornada of Mexico City for August 31. See original article here.]
by Carmen Lira Saade
Havana – Although he shows no signs of discomfort, I think Fidel is not going to like what I am about to say to him.
“Comandante, all the allure of the Cuban Revolution, the recognition, the solidarity of a large part of the intellectual community of the world, the great achievements of the people in the face of the blockade, in the end, everything, everything went down the drain because of the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba.”
Fidel does not avoid the topic. Nor does he deny or reject the assertion. He only asks for time, he says, to remember how and when prejudice sprang up in the ranks of the revolution. Five decades ago, and because of homophobia, homosexuals were marginalized in Cuba and many, accused of being “counter-revolutionaries,” were sent to military-agricultural work camps.
“Yes,” he recalls, “they were times of a great injustice, a great injustice!” he repeats emphatically, “no matter who caused it. If we did it, we… I am trying to define my responsibility in all that because, of course, I personally, don’t have that kind of prejudice.”
It is known that there are homosexuals among his best and oldest friends.
“But then how do you reconcile that hatred for the ‘different’?”
He thinks that it came about as a spontaneous reaction in the ranks of the revolution, that it came from tradition. In the old Cuba not only was there discrimination against Black people, there was also discrimination against women and, of course, against homosexuals.
“Yes, yes. But not in the Cuba of the ‘new’ morality, which revolutionaries inside and outside the country were so proud of.”
“So who was responsible, directly or indirectly, for there not being a halt to what was happening in Cuban society? The Party? Because this was at a time when the Communist Party of Cuba did not include in its laws a prohibition against discrimination because of sexual orientation.”
“No,” Fidel says, “If anyone is responsible, it is I. It is true that at that time I could not take up that topic… I was immersed, mainly, in the October crisis, in the war, in political questions.”
“But this turned into a serious and important political problem, Comandante.”
“I understand, I understand. We didn’t know how to appraise it… Systematic sabotage, armed attacks, were happening all the time; we had so many terrible problems, life-and-death problems, you know?, so we didn’t pay enough attention to it.”
“After all that, it became very difficult to defend the Revolution outide the country. The image had deteriorated forever in some quarters, especially in Europe.”
“I understand, I understand,”he repeats, “that was fair…”
“The persecution of homosexuals was met with more or less protest, everywhere. But not in revolutionary Cuba,” I tell him.
“I understand; it’s like when a saint sins, right? It’s not the same as when a sinner sins, no?” Fidel smiles faintly then becomes serious again. “Look, think about what our days were like in those first months of the Revolution: the war with the Yankees, the question of the weapons, and, almost at the same time, the plans to assassinate me…”
Fidel reveals how “tremendously” he was affected by the threats and the attempts against him and how his life was changed by them.
“I couldn’t be anywhere, I didn’t have anywhere to live.” Treason was the order of the day, and he had to stay in hiding.
“Escaping from the CIA, which was buying off so many traitors, sometimes from among one’s own people, it was not easy; but anyway, in the end, if responsibility has to be assigned, I accept my part of it. I am not going to blame others,” the revolutionary leader asserts. He only regrets not having corrected it at the time.
Now, nevertheless, the problem is being faced. With the slogan, “Homosexuality is not the danger; homophobia is,” the third Cuban observance of the World Day against Homophobia was celebrated in many cities of the country. Gerardo Arreola, La Jornada corespondent in Cuba, gives a precise account of the debate and the struggle being carried out on the Island over respect for the rights of sexual minorities.
Arreola reports that Mariela Castro, a 47-year-old sociologist and the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, leads the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (Cenesex), an institution that, she says, has managed to improve the image of Cuba after the marginalization of the ‘60s.
“Here we are, Cuban women and men, continuing the struggle for inclusion, so that this will be a struggle for all, for the well-being of all,” said Mariela Castro as she opened the World Day event, escorted by transsexuals holding a Cuban flag and a gay rainbow flag.
Now the efforts by homosexuals in Cuba include initiatives for changing the legal identities of transsexuals and civil unions between persons of the same sex.
Homosexuality has been decriminalized on the island since the ‘90s, although cases of police harassment have not altogether ceased. And since 2008 there are free sex-change operations.
In 1962, the United States instituted a blockade against Cuba. It was “a ferocious attempt at genocide,”as Gabriel García Márquez called it, the writer who has best chronicled the period.
“A period that has persisted to our times,” Fidel tells me. “The blockade is in effect now more than ever, and with the aggravating factor, at this time, of being the law in the United States, by virtue of the approval of the president, the Senate, the House of Representatives…”
“The number of votes and the enforcement may allevate the situation considerably, or not. But there it is…”
“Yes, there it is, the Helms-Burton law, meddling and annexationist… and the Torricelli law, duly approved by the United States Congress. I remember Senator Helms well that day in 1996 when his bill passed. He was overjoyed and he repeated the gist of his intentions for the reporters: ‘Castro has to leave Cuba. I don’t care how Castro leaves the country, in a vertical position or in a horizontal position, that’s up to them… But Castro should leave Cuba.’”
The siege begins
“In 1962, when the United States instituted the blockade, Cuba soon found itself faced with the reality that it had nothing more than six million deterrmined Cubans on a brilliant island that was stripped bare…
“Nobody, no country, could trade with Cuba; we could buy or sell to no one. Too bad for the country or business that would not obey the commercial siege decreed by the United States. My attention was always drawn to that CIA ship that patrolled our territorial waters a few years ago to intercept ships carrying merchandise to the island.
“The greatest problem, nevertheless, was always the medicines and the food, which is the case to this day. Still, no food company is allowed to do business with Cuba, not even in view of the volume the island would buy or of the obligation to pay in advance.”
Condemned to die of hunger, the Cubans had to “invent life again from the beginning,” García Márquez says. They developed a “technology of need” and an ”economy of scarcity,” he reports; a whole “culture of solitude.”
There is no sign of regret, much less of bitterness, as Fidel Castro recognizes how a large part of the world left the island abandoned. On the contrary. “The struggle, the battle that we had to carry on led us to make superior efforts to those we might have made without the blockade,” Fidel says.
He recalls with a kind of pride, for example, the huge mass operation carried out by five million youths, joined together in the CDR [Comités en Defensa de la Revolución]. In only one eight-hour day they carried out a massive vaccination throughout the country, with which they eradicated sicknesses like polio and malaria.
Or when more than a quarter of a million literacy teachers – 100,000 of them children – took on bringing literacy to most of the adult population of the country who did not know how to read or write.
But the “great leap” was, without doubt, in medicine and biotechnology. It is said that Fidel himself sent a team of scientists and doctors who were to take charge of the production of medicines to Finland for training.
“The enemy used bacteriological warfare against us. They brought us the type 2 dengue virus. In pre-revolutionary Cuba not even type 1 was known. So type 2 appears, which is much more dangerous because it produces hemorrhagic dengue, which attacks mostly children.
“It came in through Boyeros. The counter-revolutionaries brought it, the same ones who were with Posada Carriles, the same ones Bush pardoned, the same ones who arranged the sabotage of the plane from Barbados. Those same people were given the task of introducing the virus,” Fidel claims.
“They blamed Cuba because, they said, there were a lot of mosquitos on the island,” I tell him.
“How could there not be if you need pesticides to fight them, and we could not get the pesticides; they were produced only in the United States,” he declares.
A shadow crosses the Comandante’s face. “The children started dying,” he recalls. “We had nothing to attack the disease with. Nobody was willing to sell us the medicines and the equipment with which to eradicate the virus. One hundred fifty people died of the disease. Almost all of them were children…”
“We had to revert to smuggling, although it was very expensive. Even bringing it here was prohibited everywhere. Once, through compassion, they let a little in.”
“Through compassion” the strong man of the revolution said. I confess my confusion…
Not precisely through compassion, but through solidarity, some friends of Cuba came forward. Concerning Mexico, Fidel mentions the Echeverrías, Luis and María Esther, who, although they were no longer in the government, managed to obtain some equipment that allowed for the easing of the epidemic in some ways.
“We will never forget them,” the Comandante says.
“You see?” I say. “It hasn’t all been bad or unfortunate relations with persons of power in Mexico.”
“Of course not,” he says before we end the conversation-interview and step into lunch, which we share with his wife, Dalia Soto del Valle.
From the terrace where he stands to look and analyze the world, life, Fidel offers a toast so that “in the world of the future we will have one single fatherland.”
“What is all this about some being Spanish, others English, others Africans? And that some have more than others?
“The world of the future has to be common, and the rights of all human beings have to be above individual rights… And it will be a rich world, where the rights are the same for all…”
“How will that come about, Comandante?”
“Education. Education and the creation of love and confidence.”