Cuba V – Moving forward on LGBTI rights 

“I am never afraid to show my true colours because I prefer to be hated for what I am than to be loved for what I am not.”
In Matanzas, beginning in 2013, a group of LBGTI artists built an alliance with the Afro-Cuban population in their barrio, Pueblo Nuevo. Together, they got permissions and funding to restore a historic building and clear a rubbish-filled street so as to create a new street: The Callejón de las Tradiciones. The Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue supported the AfroAtenAs project, and opened a channel to the Embassy of Canada in Cuba, whose development office provided financial support.
 

The commission that is drafting Cuba’s new family law—the “Código de las Familias” that will allow same-sex marriage—is near the end of its work. On Sept. 7, the government announced that the new law will be brought to the National Assembly of People’s Power for approval, and then be put to referendum. 

A day earlier, the commission heard from Rev. Dr. Ofelia Ortega. Now 85, Ofelia has been a leading proponent of change, speaking out while many other religious leaders are either afraid to engage or are opposed to change. 

Ofelia speaks at an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Matanzas seminary in October 2016. 
In 1967, Ofelia Ortega was the first woman to be ordained in Cuba’s Presbyterian-Reformed Church. She served the World Council of Churches as its theological education secretary from 1988 to 1997. She returned to Cuba to serve as rector of the Matanzas seminary, and later created the “Christian Institute for Gender Studies.” The institute provides space for reflection, training and exchange on issues related to gender justice in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Ofelia has also served in Cuba’s parliament (the National Assembly of People’s Power) and as president for Latin America of the WCC.

A decade of debate is likely to produce a law that is broadly inclusive—not just of equal marriage and common-law unions, but of the wide variety of family relationships in Cuba. Drafters speak of “ethical and spiritual values,” and of content that is legal and also educational. In her presentation, Ofelia said that beyond the legal issues, this is “a question of life.”

Some recent examples of the debate may be found in Spanish in Cubadebate (“human dignity as the basis for rights”) and Juventud Rebelde (“confronting myths about sexuality”).


With regard to LGBTI rights, Cuba has advanced from the first decade of the revolution, when many gay men were placed in re-education camps. That experience continues to inspire films and novels, and despite apologies—including the one from Fidel Castro in 2010 in Spanish here; in English here)—feeds anti-Cuba rhetoric from people who have no interest in queer and trans rights.

Cuba has become a leader on LGBTI rights in the Latin American and Caribbean contexts:

  • Sexual activity between people of the same sex has been legal since 1979. 
  • The 1975 constitutional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman was repealed in 2019. 
  • The Cuban Constitution, amended in 2019, prohibits all discrimination on the basis of gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, among others. 
  • Since 2007, Cubans have marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (May 17) with conferences and parades.
  • Since June 2008, qualifying Cubans have been able to have free sex reassignment surgeries.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted his support for this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. The event, celebrated globally on May 17 since 2004, is celebrated in Cuba each year with parades and conferences. Images on the right are from an article in Granma newspaper on the new family law.

Perhaps the strongest advocate for change is Mariela Castro, head of the National Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX). She’s also the daughter of Raúl Castro, the former president and head of the armed forces, and of the late Vilma Espín, founder of the Federation of Cuban Women.

In the first decade of the new millennium, Mariela and her staff at CENESEX led efforts to open up space for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. If the approach was once a bit academic, it cracked open space for open LGBTI events and organizing across Cuba. 

In 2009, two of my Toronto friends, David Fernández and Jerome Scully, made a film about LGBTI people in Cuba that features an interview with Mariela—and conversations with lots of other energetic people in different parts of Cuba. You can watch ¿Oye qué bolá? Cuban Voices on Sexual Diversity.

Left: your bloguista with Mariela Castro. Right: In March 2014, Gary Paterson (then the moderator of The United Church of Canada) and his husband Tim Stevenson (then a Vancouver city councillor) spoke with students, faculty and community members at the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas.

In Cuba, some issues become a complex weighing of certain values—construction materials to repair churches, for example, as opposed to the stated priority for schools and hospitals—in the context of the common good. When Mariela spoke to the assembly of the Council of Latin American Churches (CLAI) when it met in Havana in 2013, she referred to that process by recalling her mother’s leadership in the struggle for women’s rights that is sometimes called “the revolution within the revolution.”

“Based on the experience of Cuba,” she said, “we affirm that change can happen with political will and popular participation.” That means taking consultation seriously and that’s why it is taking more than a decade to achieve equal marriage—even while the other side, made up largely of conservative Christians, engages in hateful rhetoric and seems tied to U.S.-based efforts to align fundamentalist Christian religion with right-wing politics.

When the United Church’s then-Moderator Gary Paterson and his husband Tim Stevenson spoke with students and faculty at the seminary in Matanzas, one of the people present was Elaine Saralegui. Elaine, a graduate from the seminary who at the time was working with a local church, had formed a LGBTI group called Somos (“We Are”).

“My family is very original:” a poster co-produced by Cuba’s Metropolitan Community Church. Right: Rev. Elaine Saralegui during a visit to the AIDS Memorial in Toronto in 2016.

Elaine told me later that the conversation with Gary and Tim spurred the group to further action. They connected with the global network of the Metropolitan Community Church (known in Cuba by its Spanish acronym, ICM), and have congregations now in Matanzas, Havana and Santa Clara.

As we know from experience elsewhere, new laws and political commitments to end discrimination are not always reflected in practice. In Cuba, as elsewhere, there are sometimes issues with how police treat sexual minorities, and race is sometimes a factor. Increasingly though, abuses are reported and dealt with. In 2015, I spent an afternoon in Cárdenas with a gay Afro-Cuban writer, Alberto Abreu Arcía. He maintains a blog, Afromodernidades, where he shares news of actions he takes against racism and homophobia.

Our conversation ranged widely through current events and literature (the excellent books by Reinaldo Arenas, who left Cuba in the Mariel boats in 1980 and died in New York 10 years later) and film (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Fresa y Chocolate, 1991). “These are specific representations of gay life in Cuba that are well-known outside Cuba” but, in Alberto’s view, “do not represent the variety of life in diverse currents, identities and classes.” 

While appreciative of the work “at the top” by Mariela Castro and CENESEX, more needs to be done to address the roles of police, the justice system, schools and hospitals—whose personnel and actions have a huge impact on LGBTI people, and also to examine (not just in Cuba) the fault lines within and among the various groups lumped together under the alphabetic LGBTI: gender, race, class, incomprehension by many LGB of the T and the I, as well as to work through cultural reactions against English-language concepts represented by “Q.”

Left: With Alberto Abreu Arcía in 2015. Right: Jorge González Nuñez, president of Cuba’s Student Christian Movement.

During the most recent events marking the Day against Homophobia, Mariela joined a panel in the presentation of a new book: Paquito el de Cuba: Una década de ciberactivismo, by Francisco Rodríguez Cruz and published by Editorial Caminos of the Martin Luther King Memorial Centre in Havana. The global LGBTI rights group ILGA shared an interview (with subtitles in English) that it did with him in 2018.

In the online book launch, Mariela noted the atmosphere of “low-intensity warfare” that affects Cuba, and that LGBTI themes at times are used to “attack the revolution.” The book pulls together 90 of Paquito’s blog posts where he tries to counter cyber attacks that spread misinformation about LGBTI rights.

In an interview this month with the WCC news service, the president of Cuba’s Student Christian Movement, Jorge González Nuñez, spoke of struggles for social justice in the digital age: “In Cuba, we speak of a ‘Media War’ to refer to the continuous attacks carried out by the United States government against the island. These are actions that in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ use the digital media to censor and misinform. We are facing factories of fake news and trolls, with very sophisticated laboratory technology. Thus we live under constant siege in the digital space.”

Next: some reflections on imperialism.

Cuba IV: Rethinking development in a revolutionary situation

“Peace + Friendship = Development”

My time in the Dominican Republic and Mexico had convinced me that most proponents of “development” failed to address the unjust structures in the world, including inequalities that have roots in colonial times. Development needed to be understood (as Gustavo Gutiérrez and others argued) in terms of liberation: a radical transformation of global systems of power and domination.

And so, once I had the opportunity to work among churches in Cuba, I was eager to learn about the practice of development in a revolutionary, socialist society.

In the years after the Cuban government’s rapprochement with organized religion in the early 1990s, some churches and especially their ecumenical agencies made major efforts to contribute to the overall well-being of Cuban society. Cuba was in its “special period” of adjustment to the loss of the Soviet Union as a major trade and aid partner. Cuban churches drew from their own creativity and resources from their global partners to assist.

Today, church-based development programs include strong emergency response capacity and training to manage small businesses and to produce and conserve food (including urban farming). Such training includes empowerment of vulnerable groups, notably farmers with disabilities and senior citizens.

Juan Carlos Cabrera, Sibanicú, Camagüey: a hearing-impaired participant in the CIC’s project with farmers who have disabilities.

The Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) has long supported a pastoral ministry among people living with disabilities. In recent years, that ministry began to focus on farmers with disabilities. You can hear from some of the families and learn about their work in a video I helped to make with The United Church of Canada in 2019. 

In Cárdenas (near Varadero in Matanzas province), the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) has run a “meals-on-wheels” style program for people in need because of age or illness. Support goes beyond delivery of a daily meal, and includes (according to need) provision of clothing, laundry service, house-keeping, medication, and attention to health and hygiene. 

Much of the food used in that program (and in schools and hospitals around Cárdenas) is produced at CCRD’s 32-hectare farm, El Retiro. It is also a place for training of farmers in the area. You can read more about the farm and about agriculture in Cuba in an article by Gary Kenny (a friend and former staff colleague at the United Church).

CCRD’s farm: “development means that… everyone has a voice”

In conversations with CCRD staff in March 2018, the word “development” kept coming up. I asked them what the concept meant to them. At first, they did what I sometimes do: add an adjective (“community development” or “participatory development”) or an object (“development of capacities”). Eventually, they said: “that everyone has a voice.” And: “Participation means the extent to which people can participate in community, as persons; to express themselves, with their collective and individual interests.” 

In practical terms, that means holding fast to a vision of the common good that embraces all—even as the Cuban government opens the economy to small business initiatives. Tourists already know independent restaurants (paladares) and bed-and-breakfast places (casas particulares). But now there are beauticians, repair shops, and designers of fashion and everything else. In Cuba, they are called cuentapropistas: people who work on their “own account.”

At the same time, the government also encourages people to take up farming. But the new farmers need training in everything from bookkeeping to organic farming practice. This work is carried out in a decentralized way by the CIC together with CCRD and various NGOs and state agencies. Challenges include lack of machinery; ecological awareness; impacts of climate change (drought, hurricanes); market distortions (some hotels buy directly from farmers, bypassing public systems intended to ensure food security for all); and the risk of introduction of GM seeds. 

The Cuban Council of Churches’ areas of work.

As market systems evolve and while holding fast to that vision of the common good, CIC and CCRD are taking up concepts of “social and solidarity economies” and structures of cooperatives (as opposed to individual or competitive initiatives). These are not top-down programs, but initiatives hatched in networks across the country. The idea is to get people with different interests matched up with people who have capacity and experience within the same area, working with municipalities, churches and other non-governmental organizations. The networks come together without money for projects, but proposals can emerge from their work—which is what happened with the effort to support farmers with disabilities.

In Cuba and beyond, debates continue about development. We may have “sustainable development goals,” but does the practice change? Are we transforming systems and practicing liberation?

From their experience, Cuban church leaders and theologians contribute to the global ecumenical conversation that unfolds in the World Council of Churches and the ACT Alliance of 135 faith-based development and relief agencies.

In December 2010, Reinerio Arce (a former CIC president who was then serving as rector of the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas) called for what he called “prophetic diakonia.” (Diakonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to service—every kind of service: helping people, serving at tables, and offering leadership in faith communities.)

“In our country the churches are playing a more active role serving the people in need at this moment when our economy is shifting increasingly; we need to build capacity for this task,” he said an interview with the WCC news service.

“God sends us out in mission to bring the good news to the poor and oppressed, in word and in deed. Faithful to this call, we try to serve human needs, focusing on the marginalized, the ‘least of these,’ not only by comforting them but also by addressing the root causes of their pain, sorrow and shortages. This ministry of prophetic diakonia seeks to confront the powers of this world that lead to violence, exclusion, death and destruction, and it calls for the transformation of unjust structures and practices into God’s kingdom of justice, with fullness of life for all and for creation.” 

In Matanzas on Oct. 4, 2016, we watched on TV (left) as Hurricane Matthew crossed southwest Haiti before moving on to eastern Cuba. Three days later, I joined CIC staff as they continued their emergency response (right), including provision of shelter in churches.

Cuba III: Churches emphasize the value of dialogue and mutual listening

When protests broke out on Sunday, July 11, President Miguel Díaz-Canel went to the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, southwest of Havana, to talk with protesters about their grievances—something the presidents of Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Guatemala and Haiti never did despite months of protests in their countries.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel hears from the people of San Antonio de los Baños on July 11 (Photo: Estudios Revolución). Right: Bishop Griselda Delgado of Cuba’s Episcopalian (Anglican) Church (Photo: Jim Hodgson)

In the wake of the protests, Cuba’s churches called for dialogue. The Catholic bishops warned against “a rigidity and hardening of positions” and encouraged “mutual listening.” The bishop of the Episcopalian (Anglican) Church, María Griselda Delgado, said: “There will always be divergences, diverse opinions, different thoughts; there is the richness and integrity of being a People. It is necessary to raise the value of dialogue to seek understanding.” (Several of the church statements are posted in English on a Facebook site related to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) On Aug. 6, the Cuban Council of Churches and leaders of its member churches met with President Díaz-Canel, along with the Student Christian Movement and other ecumenical groups.

Like many Canadians, I made my first visit to Cuba as a tourist. That was in 1992, at the height of the “special period” when Cubans faced hardship as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and sought new ways to engage with the rest of the world. 

From 2000 to 2019, I had the privilege of visiting the country almost every year. For two decades on behalf of The United Church of Canada, I worked alongside Cuban churches and their ecumenical organizations (the Cuban Council of Churches, the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas, the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue in Matanzas, and the Martin Luther King Memorial Centre in Havana).

Canadians visited Cuba; Cubans came to Canada. The relationships were lively: rooted in love and mutual respect, and not immune from political and religious controversies. We learned together and taught one another in formal and informal settings—academic exchanges (faculty and students), congregational twinning, and participation together in international settings (World Social Forum, Hemispheric Social Alliance, World Council of Churches, ACT Alliance, and others). And we worked with U.S. churches to help maintain and strengthen their ties with Cuban churches in the face of official U.S. hostility to Cuba. My occasional conversations with Cuban government staff and politicians were friendly and informative.

All of those efforts are about building bridges, sharing stories, promoting dialogue. We could even find common ground with the government of Canada’s “constructive engagement” policy approach to Cuba and, for many years, collaborate in official development assistance projects.

And so, I welcome the voices of those Cuban churches that work in favour of dialogue and realistic approaches to solving problems.

Theology in Revolution

For the Cuban churches, the years following the Cuban Revolution were challenging. The new government was suspicious of churches that had aligned themselves historically with the elites or that operated as “missions” that were dependent on U.S. support.  The government restricted religious activity. Many ministers and priests left the country, though there was more enthusiasm for the revolution among lay people. Atheism became official state policy and religious believers were discriminated against in employment and education.

View of Matanzas from the Evangelical Seminary of Theology (SET); Sergio Arce in 2007. (Photos: Jim Hodgson)

Some among those who stayed—or, as in the case of Presbyterian theologian Sergio Arce Martínez, returned—developed a “theology in revolution” in the 1960s. Arce was concerned not with a God “up there,” but rather with God “down here” as experienced in human history, especially in the revolution against poverty, exclusion and imperialism. Christians from other parts of the world attended the 1966 Tricontinental Congress in Havana, and then the Cultural Congress held in Havana in January 1968. That event was attended by several Catholic priests whose declaration was read aloud by Fidel Castro at the closing.

Elsewhere, other processes were underway: the Roman Catholic Church’s II Vatican Council (1962-65) and the meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín in 1968; the growth of Christian base communities; Priests for the Third World in Argentina in 1966; the World Conference on Church and Society, held in Geneva in 1966, that identified the close relationship between peace and justice; and emergence of the National Organization for Social Integration (ONIS) in Peru in 1968, the Golcanda group in Colombia, also in 1968, and Christians for Socialism in Salvador Allende’s Chile in 1971. All of these currents—including the Cuban Revolution itself—influenced each other and played a role in the articulation of liberation theology by Gustavo Gutiérrez and others in the early 70s. The confluence of those processes, plus the Catholic Church’s articulation of the “preferential option for the poor” in the late 70s, and patient work by Christians in Cuba to overcome the revolutionary government’s early distrust of organized religion, resulted in the Communist Party’s decision in 1991 to drop its requirement that party members be atheists. More Cuban Christians began to attend worship and join churches.

Use and abuse of organized religion

The U.S. government has made no secret of its intent to use religious groups to subvert the Cuban Revolution. Most blatant in this regard was the May 2004 Report to President G.W. Bush by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, chaired by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. The commission promised to use religious organizations in “building a free Cuba.” It also proposed to “differentiate the leadership of the Cuban Council of Churches” from its members (p.64). 

Read now, almost two decades later, the report is as ludicrous as other Orwellian lies from the Bush era, like the ones about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or that Afghans would welcome foreign invaders. 

Even so, you can see the effects of the approach in the attacks today on the Cuban Council of Churches in responses to its social media posts. 

With graver consequences, networks of conservative Christians oppose gender equity, same-sex marriage and Trans rights as if they were attacks on the “traditional family.” Any criticism of the fundamentalist view draws charges from the U.S. government that Cuba is attacking religious freedom. (I’ll look at LGBTI rights in a future post.)

In facing the alignment of fundamentalist Christian religion with right-wing politics, Cuba is not alone. Across Latin America and beyond, many of these groups seek to use state power to impose their narrow moral agenda. I have written about this phenomenon previously (in the context of Colombia) here.

Next week: Unwrapping development, Cuban-style; LGBTI rights and inclusion; and something along the lines of “how to confront imperialism without losing your soul.”

Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, met Sept. 9 with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, and with scientists who developed Cuba’s Covid vaccines.