For the last sixty or so years, Cuba has been portrayed worldwide as an autocratic regime that regularly restricts the movement, speech, and overall rights of its citizens. So why is it in Cuba, an anti-democratic country with an awful human rights records, LGBTQ+ rights have been steadily growing for the last forty years? To some degree, LGBTQ+ rights in Cuba appear to be even more protected than in some western democracies. However, the plight of LGBTQ+ Cubans has largely been used by the Cuban government as a front to try and convince other nations that Cuba is not anti-democratic, when in fact it is. Its attempts to join international institutions and normalize relations with other countries have all been supported by the Cuban government with a point towards LGBTQ+ protections in the country. Even though the rights are enjoyed by many in the LGBTQ+ community in Cuba, most are nominal at best. For the past few years, rights once enjoyed have been rolled back by the government when the worth of having them are no longer deemed necessary. This has occurred alongside further tightening of an already strict authoritarian regime. Once its use of the LGBTQ+ community for further acceptance on the world stage was finished, the Cuban government began blatantly consolidating its power and stripping rights in the LGBTQ+ community, marking an end to a once promising democratization within the country.
Rights for those in the LGBTQ+ community began to increase starting in 1979 when consensual sexual relations between those of the same gender became legalized. For the next three to four decades, homophobia and transphobia was still rampant throughout the island. Marginal gains were made however, those in the LGBTQ+ community were allowed to serve in the military, they appeared more in public through the arts and acceptance was on the uptick. One of the biggest wins came in 2008 when gender reassignment surgery was made legal by the state and was actually made free for all those who wished to undergo the surgery. In 2010, Fidel Castro even admitted guilt for his role in Cuba’s anti-homophobic past when he stated, if someone is responsible, it’s me.”
For a country that is surrounded by other in the region that still do not recognized the rights of same-sex unions, let alone have any LGBTQ+ legal protections, Cuba does seem to be a champion. As of late, however, that once viewed championship has begun eroding. Not only is this a bad sign for LGBTQ+ activists, it is also endemic of a larger erosion of rights in the face of a state that used the community to portray a face of democratization to come.
In 2008, the National Center of Sex Education (CENESEX), headed by Mariela Castro, began sponsoring Cuba’s version of a pride parade. These were largely successful and seen as loosening of power by the Cuban government. In effect, it allowed LGBTQ+ people throughout the island to assemble in a common space for a common purpose. For 11 years, these parades, called congas in Cuba, went on peacefully and without much commotion. In 2019, however, CENESEX abruptly cancelled the parade citing that certain groups sought to undermine the government. Castro went on to state that these people were emboldened by rhetoric in the United States with Trump and other Republicans. Without any evidence, this claim was seen as empty. Infuriated, Cubans began to organize their own unofficial parades and were promptly arrested. Those close to the issue believe that the evangelical church was responsible for the cancellation. Within the past few years, the church’s influence has grown throughout the island.
When President Miguel Díaz-Canal came into the presidency in 2018, he sought to make changes to the constitution to cement his rule. In an attempt to appear as a leader who listened to his people, his government had an amendment that called for the legal recognition of same-sex marriages. This first draft was sent out throughout the island and the government “listened” to what the people had to say. However, when the evangelical church protested the proposed amendment about same-sex marriage, the draft was changed. In its final version, the constitutional draft withdrew the section entirely. This would just be yet another example of the erosion of rights those in the LGBTQ+ community face in Cuba.
The degradation of rights faced by those in the LGBTQ+ community is not just a microcosm within Cuba, the rights of every Cuban has continually been controlled by an ever-strict authoritarian government and are only becoming more restricted in recent years. In the same constitutional draft that rolled back same-sex marriage, the right of the Communist Party to rule by itself was cemented into law. It also does not recognize any form of separation of power that other countries often use to ensure democratic rule. While the state does give out small degrees of liberty such as private property rights and the use of 3G nationwide, it is merely an attempt of a government trying to retain the power and popularity it once enjoyed under the Castro regimes.
When the constitutional draft went to a vote, around 87% of the population voted “Yes” while the other 13% voted “No.” In Cuba, this 13% was nearly unprecedented. It is a sign that the government is slowly losing its grasp on the people it once enjoyed. In the leadup to the constitutional vote, voters reported that when they texted others to vote no, the texts would not be received by the other party. When checked, it was shown that the texts went through and were charged, but they did not get received by the other party. This goes to show that the Cuban government is growing more and more worried with its perception with the people and it will attempt to assume control wherever it deems necessary.
The laws put in place by the Cuban government surrounding LGBTQ+ rights may seem to many as an example to strive towards, but the intentions must be noted as well. Throughout much the late 20th century, LGBTQ+ people were persecuted relentlessly, and many were forced to seek asylum. Sadly, this is still true to this day. Much like how the government spied on citizen’s text messages, the government has been keeping tabs on LGBTQ+ activists and journalists. When attempting to travel or leave the country, many have been questioned by authorities and even arrested. Even though there are laws to protect those in the community, the very same government is still persecuting any LGBTQ+ person who dares speak in opposition to the government. All of this is only endemic of a government that has simply been using the LGBTQ+ community to gain further global acceptance. Once they served their purpose, the Cuban government consolidated their power even further by restricting rights once protected and tightening their grip on the country. With recent backslides such as the cancelation of pride parades and the pushback of same-sex marriage, LGBTQ+ activists alongside those who wish for a democratic Cuba still have much to be concerned about. With an autocratic country becoming even more autocratic, opposition to government policies will become even harder in the future.