Dr. Ian Lekus
Over the past thirty years, popularly elected governments have supplanted authoritarian regimes across large swaths of the globe. We have seen the collapse of communism across the former Soviet bloc, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and the retreat of military dictatorships across much of South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Beyond question, however, the end of authoritarianism hardly ensures that democratic governance and independent civil society will take root.
As societies transition to democracy, it is inevitable that they wrestle with who truly counts in matters of political, social, and cultural inclusion. For LGBT people, it is increasingly clear that the strength of democracy in a given country can be assessed in part by how the government promotes or hinders the rights of its sexual and gender minorities.
This is evident from both the advances and setbacks in LGBT human rights around the world in recent years. It is no accident that the prominence of openly lesbian and gay people in the anti-apartheid struggle led South Africa to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation when drafting its constitution of 1996 — the first country in the world to do so. Brazil’s post-junta constitutional guarantee of health care as a fundamental human right led the country in the 1990s to become a global pioneer in providing free and universal HIV medications. More recently, Argentina’s path-breaking 2012 law on gender recognition has become the template for transgender rights advocates in many other countries.
In the post-communist world, LGBT citizens have not fared as well. In Russia, the 2013 law banning so-called “propaganda” for LGBT rights has fomented widespread harassment, discrimination, and violence against LGBT Russians, and as Vladimir Putin’s government has worked to organize an anti-Western bloc, it has encouraged other former Soviet republics to adopt similar legislation. In Central and Eastern Europe, right-wing political parties have found electoral success, stoking nationalist fervor and accompanying the escalation of violent hate crimes against LGBT people, migrants and refugees, Muslims, and Roma in Poland, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. In Sub-Saharan Africa, long-serving strongmen cynically deploy homophobia to curry popular favor and pass anti-LGBT legislation that broadly inhibits the growth of an independent civil society (although growing popular support for LGBT inclusion and the positive legal, judicial, and legislative developments across the Continent receive far too little attention).
For human rights advocates today, it especially compelling to investigate LGBT rights in countries on the brink of democratic transition, and perhaps nowhere in the world is more compelling for such a close look than Cuba. Just months after the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations, and as growing numbers of everyday Cubans gain access to the Internet and thus to the broader world, the island stands on the edge of dramatic change. In recent years, entrepreneurial LGBT Cubans have taken advantage of the loosening of state economic control to open restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and transportation services, creating new free spaces that are the building blocks of an independent civil society. Though dissent remains tightly circumscribed and no truly independent media exists, LGBT advocates have found some space to criticize the authorities, as when this past spring, the police mischaracterized the brutal murder of a transgender woman in Pinar del Rio as a “crime of passion.” While the U.S. embargo remains in place, Cuban LGBT activists have longstanding ties to their counterparts in Latin America and the European Union, informing their strategies and theories of human rights and political advocacy within the communist state.
Recent progress in promoting LGBT human rights reflect a marked shift from the early history of sexuality & gender in revolutionary Cuba. For the first several decades of communist rule, LGBT Cubans suffered state persecution, from the “social cleansing” that sought to destroy the island’s pre-revolutionary sexual economy to the imprisonment of gay men (along with political dissidents and other undesirables) in forced labor camps. Thousands of gay Cubans, faced with the threat of imprisonment, were expelled during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. During the early years of the HIV epidemic, human rights took a further back seat to official public health policy, as Cuba undertook a dramatic and unparalleled program of quarantining its HIV+ citizens.
Starting in late 1980s and through the “Special Period,” the Cuban government began to allow open discussion of LGBT issues, rescinded mandatory incarceration of HIV+ Cubans, and removed homosexuality from the official list of medical pathologies. However, antigay police sweeps remained common and popular homophobia diminished little. More recently, the question of LGBT human rights has come to the fore, as Raúl Castro has publicly declared his support, and as his daughter, Mariela Castro, Director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, has positioned herself as a highly visible advocate for Cuba’s LGBT community. In 2013, Cuba’s National Assembly approved legislation banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation – notwithstanding the unprecedented “no” vote from Mariela, who declared the legislation did not go far enough to protect transgender or HIV+ Cubans.
It remains to be seen which historical precedents will inform Cuba’s overall democratic transition and the inclusion (or lack thereof) of LGBT Cubans in that expansion of democratic citizenship. Will Cuba’s path resemble the roads taken in South America, where the democratic transition from military rule proved particularly robust and where national leaders promoted LGBT human rights at home and abroad? Will Raúl Castro and his eventual successors seek to imitate China and Vietnam, where dramatic market reforms occur within unreconstructed communist political structures, and where LGBT people have carved out increasing space in the private sphere, but LGBT human rights – as rights, as markers of an independent civil society – remain off the table? Or will Cuba’s future resemble that of post-communist Central and Eastern Europe, where the incomplete transition to democracy fueled the rise of violent homophobia and xenophobia?
Over the months to come, I will be keeping a close eye on LGBT human rights in Cuba, talking with Cuban LGBT activists and other key stakeholders in this issue. Additionally, I will be blogging about LGBT human rights, democratic transitions, and civil society for the Center for Transatlantic Relations, looking at the good, the bad, and the queer news from all around the world.