Mariela Castro has long been the face of Cuba’s LGBT movement, which is a little unusual given she’s a heterosexual cisgender woman and daughter of president Raul Castro.
A member of the Cuban Parliament and director of the government-sanctioned Cuban National Center for Sex Education, she’s marched at the front of Havana’s Pride parade and has spoken out in support of marriage equality, though she’s claimed it’s not the main goal of the movement. A 2016 HBO documentary, Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution, painted her as something of a Mother Teresa for the LGBT community.
But critics say the situation for gay and trans people is still dire there: on Sunday, a group of LGBT Cubans requested asylum in the Netherlands, claiming they faced persecution in their homeland.
One of them, activist Victor Manuel Dueñas, told the Washington Blade he was being targeted by the government for his work advocating same-sex marriage and calling attention to police mistreatment of LGBT people.
On Facebook, Dueñas posted a video indicating he was one of more than a half-dozen LGBT Cubans, including trans women, who booked a flight from Havana to Moscow, but claimed asylum while in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
The group will reportedly stay in the airport until they are interviewed and processed by Dutch authorities.
Independent journalists and activists who criticize Mariela Castro or her father’s government say they are stymied, harassed, and even detained. Dueñas, who founded an LGBT center in the Cuban town of Santo Domingo, says a Cuban intelligence agent came to his home earlier this month and said he knew he was “going to Holland with the faggots.”
He claims he could face eight years in prison if he is sent back to Cuba.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, Fidel Castro’s regime was marked by stark human rights abuses: Batista supporters were executed, political opponents were imprisoned ,and the press was muzzled. Effeminate boys were made to undergo conversion therapy and thousands of gay men were sent to forced labor camps, known as Military Units to Aid Production.
“We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true Communist militant,” Castro said in 1965. “A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant communist must be.”
By the 1990s, Castro had publicly denounced anti-LGBT policies but raids on gay clubs and harassment of homosexuals and trans people continued. People living with HIV/AIDS were quarantined in state-run sanitariums until 1993.