Mariela Castro, a Cuban lawmaker and daughter of Communist Party chief Raul Castro, says she will push for same-sex marriage to be included in a constitutional reform process expected to begin in July.
Castro, who made the announcement at a press conference kicking off a week of events leading up to Havana’s annual march against homophobia and transphobia, also spoke of the need for tougher sanctions for anti-LGBTQ violence, according to Latin American news outlet Telesur.
Cuba's constitutional reform is expected to encompass a wide range of modernizing changes to the country's 1976 constitution, which was designed for a Soviet-style command economy. The communist government has been slowly introducing market reforms and trying to encourage more interaction with the global economy.
In the years following the 1959 revolution, which was led by the Castro family, gays and lesbians were fiercely persecuted, according to Michelle Chase, a professor of Latin American history at Pace University and author of “Revolution Within the Revolution,” a book outlining the role of gender politics in Cuba in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
"The Cuban government began a series of initiatives to repress the gay and lesbian community," Chase said, adding that the government "closed down a lot of urban nightlife and bars, barred gays and lesbians from certain professions, such as education, briefly detained gay men in street roundups, and — most notoriously — imprisoned some gay men in forced labor camps.”
While Cuba has ended most of its anti-gay policies and now forbids workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, Chase noted LGBTQ people in the country still face social stigma. When compared to the rest of the Caribbean, however, Chase said Cuba is relatively progressive in terms of LGBTQ acceptance.
"Compared to a country like Jamaica, where hostility or even physical violence toward gay men is common, it’s rare to find open expressions of hostility toward gays and lesbians in Havana," she said.
Samira Hernandez, an openly gay woman whose family fled Cuba nearly four decades ago, applauded Mariela Castro for advocating for same-sex marriage.
“Had I grown up in Cuba as a gay women, I know my life would have been a lot harder due to Cuba’s long history of violence against my community,” Hernandez, who now lives in Houston, told NBC News. “Cubans are ready for change … every Cuban has the right to marry whomever they love, irrespective of gender."
Mariela Castro has been a longtime advocate for LGBTQ rights in Cuba and serves as director of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), a Havana-based LGBTQ advocacy and educational organization. She leads the annual march against homophobia and transphobia in Havana, and her status as a staunch supporter for LGBTQ rights was even the subject of the 2016 HBO documentary “Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution.”
Not everyone, however, is applauding Castro’s efforts to legalize same-sex marriage on the island.
“As important as gay marriage would be for LGBTQ people on the island, human rights comes first,” said Heriberto Sosa, president of Miami-based Unity Coalition/Coalicion Unida, a Latino LGBTQ advocacy organization. “If she really wants to help Cuba, she should fight for freedom of speech, freedom to vote and the welfare of all Cubans.”
Cuba named a new president last month, Miguel Díaz-Canel, and many on the island -- including Mariela Castro -- are hopeful he will be more supportive of LGBTQ rights than previous leaders.
"Mariela Castro's recent statement suggests that she sees this as a time of transition that gives her an opening to press the CENESEX's agenda,” Chase said. “She is hoping to secure Diaz-Canel's backing."