LGBT Rights Tour Debuts in Cuba: Rainbow-Washing or Real Engagement?

"If someone is responsible, it is me" Fidel Castro admitted to Mexican newspaper La Jornada in August 2010, when discussing the "injustice" that was years of government persecution suffered by the LGBT community under his Communist regime.

After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the government arrested homosexuals and shipped them off to brutal "re-education" labor camps, where many disappeared. Being gay was illegal for many years, and anti-gay purges were frequent.

Government sanctioned discrimination and hatred was not significantly reduced until the mid-1970s.

Fast forward to 2011, and a Cuban NGO headed up by Fidel's niece (and current President Raul Castro's daughter), Dr. Mariela Castro Espin, will be playing host to North Americans interested in learning about LGBT issues in Cuba.

The tour runs from May 7 to May 15, 2011 and includes visits with Dr. Espin, a renowned sexologist and advocate for LGBT rights, meetings with various LGBT activists, a trip to the ballet, a fashion show, and a visit to an eco-community and urban farm.

The promotional tone of the tour is certainly cheery and positive-- there is not a single reference to the handful of shameful decades of persecution against gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. According to their website:

Cuba regards homophobia, not homosexuality, as the problem. Its efforts to remove legal and social barriers impeding dignity and parity for sexual minorities are exemplary. Cuba is the benchmark for LGBT freedom in Latin America and a global leader in gender and sexual equality.

While homophobia is certainly a problem, so is historical amnesia. There is no indication in their materials that there will be any discussion of the country's embarrassing past. Also, if any country deserves to be the benchmark of LGBT rights in the Americas, it is Argentina, as unlike Cuba they have already extended full marriage rights to their citizens.

Cuba should be applauded for making many positive legal and social changes to benefit the gay and transgendered community, including free sex change surgery,  but the country still has room for improvement. Glossing over the past will not help the country move towards permanent change.

The existence of an LGBT tour highlights some of the broader changes that are occurring in Cuba following Fidel's decision to step down.

Fidel recently admitted that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore" in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. Since power has been transferred to Raul, there have been incremental changes signaling that the country may be moving more towards capitalism, and increased openness.

While at first glance the LGBT tour may seem a bit manufactured, the opportunity to visit a politically unique country on the precipice of major change should not be missed.

Photo Credit: Matt Phipps