A U.N. Resolution at a Crossroads: Traditional Values and LGBT Advocacy in Cuba

I had expected to see and contribute to post-debate analyses here at THN of what the presidential candidates said and meant vis-a-vis Cuba on Monday. But Cuba didn't even get a single mention in third and final presidential debate, which was focused on foreign policy and also just happened to take place in Florida. All in all, I think that was good news. Obviously Governor Romney didn't think it would earn him any extra votes to critique the president's Cuba policies, and President Obama likewise seemed comfortable letting his policies stand (rather than walk them back). The Washington Office on Latin America's Geoff Thale offers his thoughts here on "The Dog that Didn't Bark."

In the meantime, I invite readers to check out this thoughtful post below submitted to us by guest blogger Dan Egol. Dan is a Middlebury College senior and political science major who studied abroad in Havana last fall. He writes in the hope of fostering greater engagement and communication between American and Cuban communities. While THN readers are quite familiar with the U.N. resolution on the U.S. embargo presented by Cuba each October when the General Assembly meets , I'd wager we don't give as much thought to other resolutions on which the United States and Cuba might agree or disagree. And Dan has highlighted an issue that should offer the two countries an opportunity to get on the same side.


A U.N. Resolution at a Crossroads: Traditional Values and LGBT Advocacy in Cuba

As significant economic and political reforms continue introducing new modes of business ownership and career paths to Cuba, forums for wider cultural debates are surfacing. This shift has presented Cuban society with an opportunity to become more open and inclusive to previously marginalized community members as it adapts to these changes. However, Cuba’s support for passing the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution A/HRC/21/L2, which seeks to approach human rights defense through the lens of traditional values, raises important questions about its commitment to protecting the rights of marginalized minority groups. A traditional values framework for human rights can have questionable implications for historically disenfranchised minorities, especially for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Cubans because tradition may be used as a justification for discrimination. Although the Cuban delegation voted in support of this problematic resolution just a few weeks ago, this decision should not overshadow the commendable strides Cuba has made by allowing an authentic LGBT right’s movement to emerge in recent years.

Grassroots advocates, such as El Proyecto Arco Iris, or the Rainbow Project,[i] have arisen to push the movement for LGBT rights forward in recent months. In late July of this year, the Rainbow Project held its equivalent of a Cuban gay pride with a “kissing” campaign to make Cuba’s LGBT community visible to the wider public. Las Isabelas[ii], a lesbian support network, has also come to the fore as an all women’s group seeking to educate the public on issues of sexual health and gender equality. With counterparts Oremi (La Habana) and Fenix (Cienfuegos), Las Isabelas helped put together the first National Lesbian Workshop in 2009, which continues today. Although small in numbers (there are currently 32 women involved with Las Isabelas), the group receives administrative support and guidance from Mariela Castro and her team at CENESEX (The National Center for Sexual Education). Both groups collaborate for educational campaigns to raise awareness about sexual rights and discrimination.

Anti-engagement American hardliners may still grumble over Mariela Castro’s State Department issued visa to attend the 2012 Latin American Studies Association Conference; however, Mariela Castro’s body of work on sex education and advocacy on behalf of women and sexual minorities, not her familial ties to the Castro regime, distinguish her as a noteworthy voice in the discussion of gay rights in Cuba. As director of CENESEX, Castro has spent years pushing for open debate and human rights promotion for Cuba’s LGBT community. Her work, inspired by her mother who was part of La Organización Para las Mujeres Cubanas (Organization of Cuban Women), has helped make visible the plight of transgendered Cubans, who can now receive sex-change operations and have such procedures covered under the Cuban healthcare system. She is also in part responsible for launching a nation-wide, month-long campaign against homophobia known as “La Jornada en Cuba Contra la Homofobia,” which hosts annual public lectures, marches, and educational forums.     

Drawing inspiration from the protests at Stonewall in New York City during the 1960s, where gay rights activists responded to the inequality they faced through public education campaigns and demonstrations, these Cuban activist groups are also refusing to remain silent: “Nosotros tampoco lo haremos hoy en Cuba.”[iii][iv] That organized LGBT activists, the Cuban Observatory for LGBT Rights, were quoted responding to the United Nations vote on a critical, yet pluralistically balanced blog[v]– something unimaginable twenty years ago – illustrates this changing dynamic. 

Human rights concerns in Cuba remain at the fore of American political preoccupations and have become a make-or-break precondition to lifting the embargo.It will therefore be important to monitor these developments with respect to both Cuba's policies on gay rights and the emergence of a LGBT advocacy community. Norway’s U.N. delegation pointed out that “traditional values could also undermine the human rights of some groups, such as in the case of slavery and servitude, violence against women, female genital mutilation, and violence against vulnerable groups.”[vi]  But groups like Proyecto Arco Iris and Las Isabelas, among others, are now forging a path toward greater social inclusion, positioning themselves to become important jumping-off points for future advocacy work on human rights and LGBT issues. Most recently, LGBT activism has revolved around the newest iteration of the Cuban National Census and whether or not same-sex couples with shared residences will be counted as legitimate couples in the eyes of the state. 

In light of UN Resolution A/HRC/21/L2, which the US delegation warned, “could have negative effects on the rights of women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, and other minority groups,”[vii]the work of these groups should be seen as grounds for further dialogue and engagement. Cuba has made considerable strides in terms of education, health, and social equality in recent decades, yet the campaign for LGBT justice is a reminder that there is still a lot of work to be done.


(The Rainbow Project – their website can be found here in Spanish)

[ii]Aquique, Dariela. “Por Los Derechos Sexuales, Defendiendo el Amor,” Havana Times Online Blog, August 6, 2012. http://www.havanatimes.org/sp/?p=68844

[iii]Torres, Isbel D. “Kissing in Cuba: A Political Approach.” HavanaTimes Online blog, July 2, 2012.  http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=73441

[iv]“nor will we remain silent in Cuba today.” (Translation Mine)


[vii]United States Delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Action on Resolution on Promoting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms through a Better Understanding of Traditional Values of Humankind: Best Practices.September 27, 2012.http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12592&LangID=E