Cuba's LGBT Revolution, With A Castro Leading The Charge

Cuban gays and lesbians once hid from police. But today, with help from the president's daughter, Mariela Castro, LGBTs in Cuba are fighting for their rights.

Cuba's LGBT Revolution, With A Castro Leading The Charge
Anti-homophobia protest in Havana
Marta Maria Ramirez

HAVANA — Just over a year ago, María Caridad Jorge made a revelation that would have been unthinkable in the not-too-distant past. "I am lesbian and religious and I also want to be a Communist Party militant," she wrote in her autobiography.

Sitting, arms crossed, in the Mejunje cultural center in the Cuban city of Santa Clara, Caridad Jorge describes herself as a life-long revolutionary. "I come from a revolutionary family," she tells Clarín. "My mother was in the underground movement against Fulgencio Batista. She was with Che Guevara." Batista, the Cuban president from 1940-1944 and again from 1952-1959, was ousted by the Fidel Castro-led revolution.

Caridad Jorge, 51, always wanted to be a member of the Communist Party. But she also knew that it was impossible. "First off because I'm lesbian. And I wasn't going to stop being that for anything in this world, " she says. "Also because I'm religious. And I wasn't going to stop being that either."

And yet in August 2013, Caridad Jorge's dream finally came true: the Party officially welcomed Caridad Jorge into its fold.

The Santa Clara woman's experience is part of a larger shift taking place in Cuban society and within the Communist Party in particular. In 2012, the Party made non-discrimination for sexual orientation part of its official policy. As a result, members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities "are now backed by the policies of the Cuban state and Cuban Communist Party," says Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban leader Raúl Castro and an outspoken gay rights activist.

The policy shift may be recent, but it was years in the making, according to Castro. "When I was a child I used to listen to my mom and dad speak about this matter at home," she recalls. "They were worried that they didn't know how to resolve this."

Castro, a trained sexologist, ended up playing an influential role in the government about-face. In 2000 she took charge of Cenesex, the country's sex education agency. "LGBT people came to me asking for solutions," she recalls. "I began working on which strategy to follow, what proposals to make to the government."

Another witness to changes taking place is 60-year-old Ramón Silverio, a Party member and key figure in the movement for LGBT rights in Cuba. "The things that have been achieved in recent years were unthinkable before," he says. "This is the time for taking firm steps forward, and that is what we are doing. Because the country is going that way. But it's not like the rest of the world has been a bed of roses in this area."

"Socialism Yes! Homophobia No!"

As the world waits to see what kinds of changes will take place in the island nation as a result of its thawing relationship with the United States, the Cuban leadership is opting for discretion and secrecy. Reforms, including those that concern the LGBT community, are being discussed and decided on behind closed doors.

The first four decades after Cuba's 1959 revolution were marked by persecution of homosexuals, forcing some people into work camps. Starting in the late 1990s, however, the state began softening its stance. In 1997 Cuba modified its criminal code, removing public indecency provisions that had empowered police to arrest people for being gay.

A decade later it even began paying, in a handful of cases, for gender reassignment surgeries. And in June 2014, the National Assembly approved a new Labor Code that includes measures against discrimination for sexual orientation.

The tweaking of Cuban norms and laws in recent years favoring non-discrimination, may even reach the constitution, Mariela Castro says.

Mariela Castro at the Hamburg Pride 2010 — Photo: Northside

In May she addressed gay rights supporters in Las Tunas in eastern Cuba, rallying a crowd of hundreds with shouts of "Socialism Yes! Homophobia No! Long Live the Cuban Revolution!" The gathering was part of a series of events that began days before in Havana, where attendees included senior members of the Communist Party and guests from the U.S another sign of changing times. The event also featured 20 gay couples exchanging rings in a "staged" wedding ceremony, in anticipation of an imagined future.

Castro says equal marriage rights would require legislation and constitutional amendments. All Cuban society "must become sensitive to these issues, and be educated and understanding," she told Clarín after the rally in Las Tunas. "I can't wait to present a motion at the Assembly."

Hostile territory

But for many members of Cuba's LGBT communities, marriage isn't an immediate priority. Deinna and Gendris, two transvestites aged 20 and 19, left their homes in Manzanillo and came to Havana to escape homophobia. "My father can't stand me since I dress like a woman," says Deinna.

They live with a group from their town in a small house in Havana's central district, which became a safe haven for transvestites in the 1990s. A Christmas tree with red ribbons remains in the living room next to a tiny television, amidst the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee.

Outside, the streets of Havana are all chaos and bustle, with people peddling food or taxi services, and tourists arriving " to see the country before it changes," as one 60-year-old American woman named Anne explains.

The street remains hostile territory for Deinna and Gendris. "They threw hot water onto us last night when we were coming back from the Central Park," they said. Shanet, one of the flatmates, says someone once threw a bag of trash onto her head from the third floor. She is tall and thin and wears colorful dresses, which she says caused problems at university, where she is a fourth-year medical student.

"They've tried everything to get me to leave leave university," Shanet explains. "I know it's because of my female figure. They discriminate because I don't go as a boy, which is why I came from Manzanillo to Havana, to get a card from Cenesex backing me so I can continue my course."

The first of the flatmates to arrive was Angeline. She says she has managed to keep her work at a research lab despite being dressed as a woman. She is now working on changing her gender on her ID card. In 2013, the state ruled that people could change their ID pictures and name in keeping with their appearance. Angeline also wants a sex-change operation.

By night, Angeline works as a prostitute in Old Havana, and is active in TransCuba, a group formed 14 years ago to defend the rights of transgender. She works on HIV-prevention among prostitutes. "Half all trans people are HIV positive, and I think our activism has put a break on its spread," she says.

Taking center stage

Sissy is one of the people living with HIV, among other problems. She is 50, and was first jailed at the age of 15 for wearing makeup on the street. The "police walked around with a tissue they used to wipe it off your face," she recalls.

She loves Spain's Lola Flores and found her vocation in La Faraona, another of Andalucia's great flamenco figures whom Sissy began to imitate in shows in the 1990s. These were often private, clandestine spectacles that packed up in a hurry as soon as people heard the police coming.

Not anymore. She now dances in Las Vegas, a nightclub in El Vedado, created six years ago with state backing. Performances are interspersed with safe sex tips. All tables seem occupied by tourists — from China, Canada, the U.S. or Brazil.

One of its stars is Estrellita (Little Star), who sings Liza Minelli in English to a delighted audience: She wants to "wake up in a city that never sleeps..." singing New York, New York, in Havana in 2015. Fifty-seven years after the revolution, every night, in the light of day.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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