A Quick Primer on Fidel Castro’s LGBTQ Rights Record in Cuba
While recently deceased 90-year-old Cuban President Fidel Castro helped expand healthcare and education in his country, his dictatorship also harassed, imprisoned, and prevent LGBTQ people from gaining additional rights under him and Cuba’s one-party government. Here’s a quick overview of his LGBTQ legacy.
Throwing gay people into work camps
In 1965, Castro’s regime began imprisoning gay men, political dissidents and other “undesirables” deemed unfit for military service into prison work camps known as Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs) where, according to a 1967 report by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, they were “forced to work for free in state farms from 10 to 12 hours a day, from sunrise to sunset, seven days per week, poor alimentation with rice and spoiled food, unhealthy water, unclean plates, congested barracks, no electricity, latrines, no showers, inmates are given the same treatment as political prisoners,” which meant suffering routine abuse at the hands of guards.
These camps were the subject of the little-seen 1984 documentary Improper Conduct (which you can watch in its entirety) and also mentioned in Before Night Falls, the 1992 autobiography of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas which was later adapted into a 2000 film of the same name starring Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp playing a trans-smuggler. Castro eventually took responsibility for the UMAP camps stating that he didn’t pay attention to them at the time because he was focused on fighting foreign enemies like the U.S. (which tried to topple him more than seven times over).
Quarantining HIV-positive people
In the ‘80s until 1993, the Cuban government quarantined HIV-positive people (mostly gay and bisexual men) into sanitariums. An 1988 LA Times article explained that while the sanitariums were like small suburbs, people were placed into these camps for the rest of their lives and only allowed to leave under supervision. Improved HIV treatments later compelled the camps to reduce their detainment times to three months, many American AIDS experts during the late ‘80s criticized the Cuban model of “incarceration based on supposed future behavior” as “irrational” and “totalitarian”.
Using the law to prevent expansion of LGBT rights
Cuba eventually decriminalized gay sex in 1979, and although Cuban law currently prohibits “discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, statelessness, or access to education or health care,” the international LGBTQ rights site Alturi.com says, “Nonetheless, societal discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity persists” — a more recent example includes the exclusion of the lesbian tennis player from the national team. In fact, Cuba still gets a “not free” rating by FreedomHouse.org stating the the re-warming of relations between the U.S. and Cuba “did not lead to a comparable change in the Cuban government’s respect for civil liberties and fundamental political rights.”
Throughout Castro’s rule into the current day, Cuba’s one-party system created laws restricting free press, public protests, and political organizing — all vital tools in securing LGBTQ rights here in America. Last year alone, Cuba had 8,616 politically motivated short-term detentions for the crimes of “public disorder,” “disrespect for authority,” and “pre-criminal dangerousness”, all charges that commonly get used against political dissidents.
His niece could change Cuba’s climate on LGBTQ issues
Mariela Castro — Castro’s niece and the country’s de facto First Lady — currently serves as director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education and has helped passed a law to help trans Cubans get gender reaffirmation surgery free of cost. She has also worked as a unifying force for Cuban LGBTQ rights generally, but her group is literally the only Cuban LGBT rights organization recognized by the government even though others exist.