Cuba, Love Revolution
Maria Caridad Jorge wrote in his autobiography over a year ago the following: “I’m lesbian and religious and I wanted to be an activist also”. He did that to enter the Cuban Communist Party. “This was unthinkable until recently”, she says, arms crossed, in the Menjunje bar, the cultural center of Santa Clara, the city located at the geographical heart of the island.
I’ve always been a revolutionary; I came from a revolutionary family. My mom made clandestine activities against Fulgencio Batista. She was with Che Guevara but she never boasted because you don’t have to look for merits in the things you do. “I’ve always wanted to be a member of the Party, but I knew that I couldn’t. First, I was a lesbian, and I wouldn’t give up for anything in the world. And second, I was religious and I wouldn’t give up being that either”. On 23 August, 2013, she received the Party Identity Card as activist.
She is 51, wears a tattoo that joins Che and Jesus in one face and a kind of copper necklace under her grey tank. You can see a horseshoe, a machete and an ax holding from the necklace. These are Ogun’s “tools’ – her Yoruba’s saint- the iron man of this Afro-Cuban religion- which prevent her from being arrogant and soften the strong energy she carries inside. “The power is only meant for wars”, she explains. “Sometimes intelligence is more powerful”. Maria Caridad is also one of the protagonists of the changes Cuban government and Cuban Communist Party have been performing since 2012, when a process of “economic and social model change” was introduced, always as one-party kind, and along with a gradual economic reform without capitalism.
Amid questions, anxieties and forecasts on what is taking place in the country since the resumption of talks with the United States; with a number of US visitors that grew 36% comparing with the same time last year, after travel permits became flexible; with the Art Biennale filling the Malecon and Old Havana with sculptures and performances at all times; the continuation of the embargo by Washington; the shortage of food that forces Cubans to a permanent search for wineries and businesses; the dual currency system that separates those accessing to convertible currency (CUC), to those only to Cuban pesos, Cuba also leads quieter processes of debates, changes and resistances such as the policies related to gay, lesbian, transsexual and transvestite communities
Ramón Silveiro used to cook pasta with herbs that distributed at dawn when marginal parties in Santa Clara of mid 80’s came to an end. That “menjunje” (liquid substance made of different ingredients) gave the name to the place, El Menjunje Cultural Center that turned into one of the cultural resistance centers to rock and gay community in Santa Clara that became part of the history of the revolution when Che Guevara took possession of that city.
Protagonist and witness of the last years, Silverio believes that “unthinkable” things were achieved during the last years. “It is time to take firm steps forward and we are in it. Because the country is taking that direction. And besides, the world is not doing so wonderfully on this; things have been achieved fighting. Nobody has received anything by free”, he says.
Silverio is 60, he is a member of the Communist Party and a historical reference of the social and political movement that aims to achieve equal rights for lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI). Slim, wearing a gingham shirt, carpenter pants and leather sandals he sounds deeply involved when talking about Cuba’s present. “It’s the only country that could resist the blockade and that remains in our consciousness. The 90’s were very hard. They prepared us to live and coexist with the world”, he explains as he defines himself as a “very hopeful” person. Many more questions have been asking from the outside than from here; we ask the same questions. But those of us who have upheld this Revolution can see very clearly that we are going to live another time, a great historical challenge”.
After the first four decades of revolution that were marked by persecution, with labor camps for homosexuals, Cuban government has changed its policy. Over twenty adequacy gender reassignment surgeries have been financed since 2007 –and since the Ministry of Public Health passed Resolution No 126. Ten years earlier, they had deleted from the Criminal Code the reference to homosexuality related to sex scandal and outrage used by the Police to detain people on sexual preferences grounds.
it was last year, on 17 June, when the National Assembly passed the new Labor Code that includes anti-discriminatory laws based on sexual orientation and disability. Approval of the final text put an end to what has been agreed on by the Committee in charge of writing about gender inclusion and people with HIV. Mariela Castro Espín, legislator and daughter of current president Raul Castro was the one whose negative vote announced the change. “Yes to Socialist! No to Homophobia! Viva the Cuban Revolution!” Castro Espín ended her speech at the main square in Las Tunas in the east of the island, with her fist raised. It is the end of the parade – or conga, as they call it- against gender identity and sexual preference discrimination. A parade with hundreds of people who danced, following the rhythm of drums, behind a big Cuban flag and a multicolor one, symbol of diversity and gay community.
The concrete square has a little green area. It is a hot stage for the closing ceremony of the VII Cuban Day Against Homophobia organized by the National Center For Sexual Education (CENESEX) led by Castro. It was the first time the Central Unit of Cuban Workers participated in this celebration. Some people talk about prevention of HIV in a stand of the fair. In another one rapid HIV tests can be done. A group of kids wearing yellow suits dance. “I have more mothers in law than travelled miles”, they sing.
Some days earlier, during the opening ceremony, in Havana, members of the Central Committee of the Party and an American delegation also gathered together. A sample of the new times. Twenty couples exchanged rings imaging a possible marriage between same sex people. The Archbishop of the Eucharist Catholic Church, Roger La Rade, famous in Canada for promoting unions between same sex people in the religious field, and Pastor Cary Jackson who came from New York were part of the ceremony. “It is necessary to have a Law passed by the Assembly, the unicameral legislative organism, to be able to celebrate civil unions in Cuba. It is necessary to modify the Constitution in order to celebrate same sex marriages. The whole Cuban society needs to become sensitive with these issues; they need to learn, to understand. I’m so anxious to submit the proposal to the Assembly”, Mariela Castro Espín, will tell us later during an interview.
Deinna and Gendris do not dream about getting married as they travel through Havana, at the back seat of a Ford Tucson Line, from 1952, purple, popularly called “almendron”. They are 20 and 19, from Manzanillos and arrived at Havana escaping from the homophobia of their town. “My dad can’t stand it. Since I started dressing as a woman, when he sees me coming, it’s as if he sees the devil”, says the girl with endless eyelashes. They live with a group of people from their same town in a small house, in Centro Habana Neighborhood, which became a safe place for transvestites in the 90’s. There is still a Christmas tree decorated with red ribbons next to a tiny “National Star” TV in the living room. A picture of The Last Supper and plates with flowers on them hang from the walls. A sweet smell of coffee prepared as they have it in the countryside, floods the four by four space.
Outside the house, Havana is a chaotic city, demolished; with water-provision problems in the most populated areas; with endless games of dominoes in streets with fewer tourists; with vendors illegally offering mangos or peanuts; with pedicabs trying to supply the lack of public transportation and hundreds of tourists coming to “see the country before the change”, as Anne, an American tourist, over 60, said undoubtedly, though she is not so sure of what she was saying at the same time.
The street by night is a hostile territory for Deinna and Gendris. “Last night they threw us hot water on our way back from Parque Central”, they tell. They threw a garbage bag from a third floor to Shanet. She is tall and very thin; she wears a long colorful dress, tattooed eyebrow and has finished the fourth year at Medical School. “But they kicked me out; they made all possible things to make me leave College. I know it’s because of my female appearance, they discriminate me since I don’t look like a boy. That’s why I left Manzanillo and came to Havana, looking for a letter from CENESEX and their support to go on studying”, tells Shanet.
Angeline was the first manzanillera (from the Cuban city of Manzanillos) to arrive to Havana. She can go the clinical laboratory where she works dressed as the woman she feels she is. She also got that her letterhead reads “Angeline” and not the name they gave her when she was born. She is a pioneer in gender issues. Over five years ago, she was accepted by the University to study and become a laboratory technician. Her current struggle is to have her name changed in her Identity Card. As from 2013, people are allowed to change their photos and names in their identity cards so as they can adjust to their physical aspect. Angeline is looking for something else: the sex reassignment surgery.
Meanwhile, she prostitutes herself at night in Old Havana where it is easier to find tourists. “We don’t have many choices. Money is not enough. Many girls do it. I don’t hide it. Some time ago, tourists could pay 50 CUC (Cuban Convertible Currency), like 50 euros, but now they know about our bad situation and they only pay 5 euros. But we are hungry, so we accept”, she tells. Angeline is also part of TransCuba, a group that emerged fourteen years ago to fight for trans community rights. As part of this, she works doing HIV prevention among her peers.
“Our main goal is to work on self-esteem,” says Malu Cano, who leads the group that brings together 3,002 transgender people across the island. “You are forced to leave your house, they do not provide us with education so you survive on transactional sex. Besides preventing violent relationships in the streets, we have to work on health prevention at home. Half of transgender people live with HIV. And I think our activism has slowed further expansion”, she explains.
Sissy learned to live with HIV among other things. She is 50 and she was taken to jail for the first time when she was 15 because she was wearing make-up in the street. “The police had a paper in their pockets and rubbed it over your face,” she recalls. She spent six months in the Combinado del Este, on the floor known as La Patera where homosexuals were imprisoned. “The thing is that once you are there, you don’t care anymore. We became women. We made make-up with whatever we had. We painted our eyelashes with mechanical fat we got from electric doors. We made eye shadow from stick deodorants and cigarette ashes. We got a lovely, gray-bluish eye shadow. Scarlet mouths. And we used carpentry pencils as eyeliner. But let me tell you one sentence I want you to remember: when a gay is born, difficulties die” she sentences and laughs, at her home in Regla neighborhood, across Havana Bay.
Sissi still adores Lola Flores. Her admiration for the Faraona saved her. She started imitating her in a transformist show when Cuba was immersed in a deep crisis by mid 90’s, after the demise of the Soviet Union. She used to perform shows in private houses and more often than not, they ended in a stampede with the arrival of the police. The nights in Las Vegas, in the elegant neighborhood of El Vedado are nothing but clandestine now. The cabaret opened six years ago, as a cultural resistance place managed by the Cuban State. Its main show “Bravissimo” has as core performance the already mythical transformit artists of the Cuban night. A spot of HIV prevention is shown between shows. Tables are filled with tourists. A group of Chinese wobbles as if they were bamboos, there are also Canadian, American, some Spanish and Brazilian tourists too.
Estrellita, when she is on stage in Las Vegas, is a kind of Veronica Castro from the Caribbean; off stage, he is one of the most renowned actors of Cuban artistic scene. Tonight she is dressed up in pale green and silver lamé. She sings in English and the audience cheers. “In Miami they inflate the past but this has already changed”, says Manuel, sit at a table near the stage. Estrellita transforms herself from Veronica Castro to Liza Minelli. She sings that she wants to wake up in a city that never sleeps. “New York, New York”, she sings in Havana, Cuba, in 2015, fifty seven year after the Revolution”.