Conversation with a Gay Cuban Artist
[A shorter version of this interview appeared in the May–June 2013 issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review.]
Conversation with a Gay Cuban Artist
by David Thorstad
[In 2012, a Cuban friend who is an accomplished artist who is gay was able to visit the United States for the first time for a few months. Because Americans generally get their impressions of Cuba from either government propaganda or leftist sympathizers of the Cuban regime, I wanted to get the views of a nonpartisan independent Cuban with no axe to grind. I asked him to discuss life in Cuba near the end of his visit. For security reasons, he cannot be further identified. The interview was conducted in Spanish. The translation is mine.]
How have things changed for homosexuals in Cuba in the past years—for example, since the time of the UMAPs [Unidades Militares para el Aumento de la Producción—Military Units to Increase Production, camps set up in 1965 where undesirables, including homosexuals, were interned] and the Cuban Cultural Congress of 1971, which declared homosexuality a “social pathology”?
In reality, there has been real change, but in my opinion, the change has been limited more to appearances, created by the government to put to rest rumors among international public opinion. But as for the situation of homosexuals in Cuba, in pretty much the entire country, there hasn’t been much change. For instance, homosexuals don’t have any places where they can demonstrate, where they can be whoever they are. Compared to the past, to the sixties and seventies, when attention was paid to the sexual orientation of people—compared to that, in this regard, things really have changed a bit. That is, the kind of ferocious control of those days no longer exists.
Are there problems with the police? How do the police and homosexuals relate on the street?
This has something to do with culture, with the training of the police. Sometimes the police act in a tolerant way, at other times they don’t. This varies, depending on the situation. You don’t see a consistent policy with regard to the behavior of the police toward homosexuals.
So, if groups of homosexuals are congregating on the Malecón, or in the ice cream parlor Coppelia, do the police pay any attention to them, or do they ignore them?
They do pay attention in the sense that, in these places, where there is a certain presence of homosexuals, the police are controlling the situation, in case some kind of incident, some type of demonstration might happen. For example, there is an appreciable control with regard to what is the new category of what is called in Cuba “pingueros,” who are, simply, homosexual prostitutes. They do this especially on the Malecón, which they call “el bimbún,” where many people gather and practice this new morality, because this has been happening only recently. In the sixties and seventies, these “pingueros” didn’t exist. It started in the nineties.
During one of my trips to Cuba, I noticed female prostitutes working openly in the Havana Libre Hotel. Obviously, the police approved of this—the women could have been working with the police. Do homosexual men do the same thing, or does this happen only among hetero women?
In Cuba, the police have infiltrated all sectors of the population. So, yes, there are people who work undercover with the police. This happens in residential blocks, in the workplace, in the schools, and also in this scene where prostitution goes on. In the sixties and seventies, male prostitution didn’t exist in Cuba—or, insofar as it existed, it was more isolated than it is today. In these groups, I understand that certain people have infiltrated who are working with the police, whether male or female. In addition, most of these young people today appear to come from the provinces. Havana is full of people from the provinces who have come there to ply this kind of activity.
What you’re describing sounds like a thorough penetration by the authorities into all forms of private, or quasi-public, life. What is the reaction of ordinary people to this? Does it seem to them that they can’t speak freely? Do they perceive it as a kind of totalitarian control? How does this affect your ability to daily interact with other people? Are you suspicious of them? In Cuba, people are always suspicious because there could be somebody close to them—in the workplace, for example—who is an informant. Today, people are somewhat more relaxed, they are increasingly losing their fear to speak compared to earlier. In the past, they didn’t know what might happen. Today, in many cases, these same people, who might be working for the state, informing on others for the state, also have problems, and sometimes say so. People don’t express themselves very freely. Take, for example, TV programs. There’s a comedy program on television, and it dared to make a lot of jokes that were quite strong about how things were in the early years of the revolution. In the early days of the revolution, nobody dared to express any kind of discontent with regard to the revolution. Today, in contrast, jokes and jocular comments are allowed. There are programs in which people who aren’t from Cuba, who don’t know how people live in Cuba, and who don’t realize the background of a joke, but who, in many jokes, express discontent, or malaise with daily life, in a humorous way. For example, there’s a saying today in Cuba that Cubans are the only human beings who can make fun of their situation. And this is reflected in some television programs and shows the deterioration of the system, when even those who may work for the government join in such criticism.
Things have changed somewhat. At the moment, a film documentary is planned about the first Cuban transsexual. It’s a sex education program headed by Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raúl Castro, who has her degree in sexology.
But isn’t her main interest in transsexuality?
There are people who have changed their sex, from what I have heard. I don’t personally know any such cases. They have changed their place of residence, their sex, their identity, from male to female. Thus, transvestism has been allowed. In the sixties, seventies, or eighties, no homosexual would have gone out into the streets dressed as a woman. Today, they can. It’s permitted for transvestites to appear in the streets, they demonstrate, and in some cabarets shows in which transvestites perform are allowed.
Can male homosexuals do the same, independent of the authorities?
This is a bit idiosyncratic. In the case of male homosexuals, it is known that they are homosexuals. But they don’t demonstrate in any social or public way, unless they are transvestites.
But last year I saw a report of a gay demonstration that, I believe, Mariela Castro helped organize, in which dozens, if not hundreds, of homosexuals marched in the streets of Havana. Was this a quasi-official event, and not an independent demonstration organized by an independent homosexual group?
In my opinion, Mariela Castro appears to be a person of considerable humanity who has a great deal of tolerance toward the problem of sexuality. But I am convinced that in all this there is a lot of manipulation on the part of the government. This represents an attempt by the government to improve international public opinion with regard to the situation of homosexuals in Cuba.
As far as that goes, that’s probably a good thing. But, at the same time, independent gay organizations or gay publications do not exist, isn’t that true?
No, no. For example, the CENESEX, the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual [National Center for Sex Education], has its publications and meetings relating to eradication of diseases transmitted by sexual activity, AIDS, drugs—all within the context of health problems, and of course that includes homosexuals, who are considered a risk group for contracting these diseases. They have created a new terminology and coined the phrase “men who have sex with other men”—in a TV program, for example, about a protest by men who have homosexual relations.
I know an American who goes to Cuba frequently, and I asked him why there are no independent gay papers in Cuba. His response was that it’s because there’s a shortage of paper. What is your reaction to that?
That could be one of the reasons, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, when I return to Cuba, I find a gay publication. For example: in this TV program on sexuality that Mariela Castro was involved with and that dealt more directly with homosexuality in Cuba, they showed a movie theater in Havana where they have a program called “Different Cinema” in which movies are shown one day a week dealing with gay themes. But it’s interesting that many homosexuals who in the beginning attended these movie programs stopped going. I know people who discussed this and they said, “No, I don’t go anymore because this is another form of manipulation, and we are being used.”
Moreover, in the first of these programs, Mariela was present. And after the movie was over, a discussion was always held about the movie and the problems of homosexuals in Cuba and they would raise questions. But when the people saw that all this was just talk, many people said, “I won’t go anymore because they are just using us. We go, we talk to each other, we point things out, and nothing happens.” The constant fear that exists in Cuban society results in nobody staying after the show because they are afraid of making themselves visible.
As an artist, have you encountered any difficulties or advantages? How has this affected your life?
Not really. The problems I have had are like those of everyone else, such as economic problems. But as far as being homosexual, I don’t believe I’ve faced any particular problems in my development as an artist.
One of your family members left Cuba with the Mariel boat lift in 1980. How did you feel about that, since you stayed in Cuba?
I don’t feel too good about that on a personal level because this is a person who is close to me, but we can’t be together, we can’t talk as often as we’d like, I can’t be near someone I love, because, unfortunately, for political reasons, we are separated.
This is your first visit to the United States. What are some of your impressions?
I consider my first visit to the United States to have been a little like waking up from a dream, learning about reality, like learning what freedom is all about. Compared to what they say in Cuba about the United States, with all its problems, and the problems I had in coming here, naturally I am aware of problems because it’s a country full of people who have come from all parts of the world to try to subsist, to change their life, to regulate it. So, obviously, there are problems. But, aside from all that, it’s a country where I have experienced freedom, freedom of expression. I have seen people express themselves freely in the street; I have seen people who, if they aren’t happy with some situation, take to the streets with signs saying they disagree with something, that they don’t like something. I have seen people protesting what seem to be insignificant matters. I have not seen people give the impression that they are resigned to their fate. If they don’t like something, they say, “I don’t agree with this, I don’t like this.” This doesn’t happen in Cuba. In Cuba, you have to eat what they give you, you have to go along, you have to drink what they give you to drink.
Of course, you don’t yet know the whole country. There are lots of differences because it’s a huge country, with many contradictions. But on the level of freedom of expression, you are right. Here there is not much fear of stating one’s mind.
In any large country, there has to exist a certain control. I am sure that in this country, everything is controlled—
But in a less open way.
Exactly. In a more hidden way. A few days ago, I went into an art gallery, and I was alone looking at a work of art. Suddenly, I was amused to see that at four different places there were cameras. In Cuba, if a cop notices you, and doesn’t like the way you look, he’ll ask to see your identification papers.
This is exactly what is happening in New York City with blacks. It’s a real problem right now that people are fighting against.
During the time I’ve been here, on two occasions I haven’t seen that. In neither occasion was a black involved. One was a Latina, the other a white man.
The New York Times has had many articles recently about this problem in New York. Thousands of young blacks have had big problems with the police, who stop them in the street for being black. The police search them and, if they find a little bit of marijuana, they arrest them. Many young black kids are getting a record because of this. It seems the authorities are trying to reduce this problem, but it exists. It’s called “racial profiling.”
What is your opinion of the American LGBT movement? In the demonstration in Havana last summer, there were rainbow flags (a symbol taken from the United States), and I believe the acronym “LGBT” is also used in Cuba now, including by Mariela Castro. Nobody speaks here anymore of a gay movement, which has been replaced by “LGBT.”
In Cuba, there’s a lot of talk nowadays about the question of sex change, of gender change, of assisting people who wish to change their sex, as if these persons were the first who needed help. There’s also talk about marriage being inclusive, but it’s not put forward as marriage per se, but rather in terms of consensual unions. I know some people who went to one of those movie house events where Mariela Castro explained that the subject should be treated in this country, at this time, as a matter of consensual unions, because when one thinks about it, it appears as something very logical. At this time, it seems opportune, for example, to create places where people can go and demonstrate, where they won’t be rejected, where they won’t be exposed to negative social attitudes from heterosexuals. That’s what these people reported. I myself went to only one such event and never went back. It didn’t interest me because I shared their view that this was just one more strategy by the government to use us.
A few months ago, I’m told that in the United States it was widely reported that a Cuban couple had gotten married, where one was a transsexual and the other a gay man. But in Cuba, this was known only in the locality in which it took place. So, naturally, many Cubans, including myself, look upon this as mostly an effort by the government to improve its image abroad. I do think that from a legal point of view, a change of sex should be recognized.
I agree. What is your opinion of the Castro regime?
In my opinion, it is the worst regime. Politically, economically, socially, the Castro regime has destroyed Cuba as a country. There is no social or political foundation there. Everybody lives as if they were hoping every day for a change or to take the only path people can take, to go to the United States or some other country. Furthermore, there’s the social and moral deterioration that exists in Cuba. Cuban society has lost dignity, it has lost moral values. This is the worst thing, as I see it. Because economic problems can be resolved by in infusion of capital, something that is talked about a lot. People say that the day Castro is no more, within seventy-two hours there will be an infusion of capital in the country and the economy will improve. But the social and moral problem will take several generations to overcome.
Would you say that most Cubans share these ideas, or just a small number?
The majority of Cubans, definitely.
A few weeks ago, Cuban baseball player Yunel Escobar, who plays for the Toronto Blue Jays, was given a suspension of three days from playing because he had written an antigay slur on his eyeblack tape. It said—in incorrect Spanish, which may say something about his level of knowledge of his own language—“Tu ere maricon,” meaning “You are a faggot.” The correct Spanish should have been “Tú eres maricón.” This shows that he does not know Spanish very well, he doesn’t know how to write Spanish, and he writes the way he speaks (dropping the “s” sound in “eres”). It also shows that even though he’s only twenty-nine years old, and he left Cuba when he was only twenty-four, his level of consciousness is very low. His explanation was that “It didn’t have significance to the way that’s being interpreted right now. That’s not the significance that I put into it. That’s a word used often within teams. It’s a word without meaning, the way we use it.” Perhaps he did this to psych out opponents who knew Spanish (I don’t know how many other Spanish-speaking players there would have been for him to psych out). He got into quite a bit of trouble in the United States and Canada for this because it was considered insensitive and antigay. So he lost three days’ wages, $83,000—his only punishment. I couldn’t find any Cuban sources online at the time that covered this story. If Escobar were still in Cuba, what would the reaction have been to his act?
Nothing would have happened to him. Absolutely nothing. This expression is very common in Cuba. Probably, people would have regarded it as a joke. The level of education in Cuba is very different. The laws in Cuba are very different from the way the law functions in the United States. So, that expression would be looked upon differently there.
Would the Cuban newspapers have reported the incident?
I couldn’t find anything in Granma or any other Cuban source during an Internet search.
This would be a little like the kind of story one finds in the yellow press, the gossip sheets, that exist in the capitalist countries, but that don’t exist in Cuba. The story would not be covered in Cuba. The level of political sensitivity to such a phrase is much higher in the United States than it is in Cuba.
Would you attribute that to the fact that a homosexual movement has existed in the United States for decades, which has resulted in raising the general level of consciousness about such matters?
Yes. In spite of all the efforts of Mariela Castro to try to increase respect for and the social status of homosexuals, their situation is hardly comparable to their status in the United States.
She has a big job ahead of her. I wonder if you could describe how a Cuban homosexual might typically amuse himself in the evening. Would he or she go to a private party? Would you meet other homosexuals in the street or at a disco or bar?
As I mentioned, there are a few cabarets and discos that have a day dedicated to homosexuals. For example, there’s a famous cabaret in the province of Las Villas called El Mejunje, which is a culinary term for a big pot where many ingredients are cooked together. It has one day a week—a gay day—dedicated to transvestite shows. Gay men and lesbians attend, and it has even gone onto the Internet. And in central Havana, there’s a cabaret called the Cabaret Las Vegas that also has transvestite shows, advertised with large posters outside the cabaret.
Why transvestite shows?
Because they are the only ones who perform this type of thing.
Of course, we have such shows here too, but perhaps less commonly than in the past. There are many other ways for homosexuals to entertain themselves. It strikes me as a bit retro.
But remember, there are many more opportunities in the United States for people to express themselves freely than in Cuba. In Cuba, many gay people admire transvestites because they are brave people, who play a valuable role because they can make fun of the political situation. They go out into the street and act freely as who they are. If they feel like going out dressed like women, they express themselves as women even though they aren’t.
Do gays cruise the parks or the streets?
Here, less and less—a result of the Internet.
But in Cuba, nobody has access to the Internet. In Cuba, people cruise in the streets, among friends, in movie houses, in theaters . . . Those who do have access, usually it’s at work, and so on.
Do you have any Cuban jokes you could share? I remember one funny one from a visit to Cuba years ago: When white babies die and go to heaven, what are they called? Angelitos [little angels]. And when black babies die and go to heaven, what are they called? Murciélagos [bats]. And when you referred to Fidel Castro in conversation, you didn’t utter his name (presumably in case someone was listening) and instead stroked your chin as if referring to El barbudo (the bearded one).
There are a lot of jokes in Cuba, as in any country. Here, for example, I saw a very amusing caricature of Obama in the street and you hear jokes in the street and other places. In Cuba, there are jokes that are not told in public, not in neighborhood streets, not in the movies, but in private among friends. Actually, the movies do sometimes have jokes. For instance, there’s a film made in Cuba titled Alicia en el pueblo de la maravilla [Alice in wondertown]. I heard it was shown only once, the night of the premiere. There’s a scene in the movie where two people get into an old elevator (sometimes old elevators don’t work very well) and one of them yells, “Going down! Going down!” and as soon as he says it, a photo of Fidel appears on the screen.
There are a lot of jokes about Castro and the system in Cuba. Here’s another one. In a speech, Fidel Castro tells the crowd that Cuba is experiencing a shortage of salt, and he asks, “Where do you want me to get salt from?” The crowd replies: “From nowhere, Fidel. ¡Sal de Cuba! ¡Sal de Cuba!” [This is a play on words meaning both “Salt from Cuba!” and “Leave Cuba!”—DT] It’s a joke, but it’s true that there has been a real shortage of salt. The ration book entitles people to one small container of salt every three months.
That’s very funny.
Yes, but I’m going to tell you something. The best Cuban jokes are not in Cuba, but here in the United States. I heard a lot of jokes in Miami because people can express themselves more freely here than in Cuba. There’s a parody of a Cuban show that’s called Mesa redonda [Roundtable] but in Miami is called Mesa retonota [loosely, Stupid table]. They say that people are coming from Cuba to the United States because in Cuba you can’t find toilet paper. Here, you can see Fidel on toilet paper. Just imagine: I’m going to try to bring back a piece to Cuba.
Would you like to add anything?
My stay in the United States has been like a dream. I have always thought a lot about the United States, I wanted to get to know it. I’ve seen only a small part, of course, and if I have an opportunity to come back again, I hope to be able to travel and really get to know the rest of it. For now, I have only an impression; I can’t say I know it. Not even a huge city like New York. But I would really like to get to know better the culture, the lifestyles. For me, this has been a wonderful experience.