CUBA LIBRE: Tours Link LGBT Cultures
By Joseph Castel
Photo by Byron Motley
If you were a Cubano in the 1970s and the police arrested you for cruising the Havana gay hangouts, more than likely you would have been sent to a “re-educational (labor) camp” for a few months to be “straightened” out. If you were a repeat offender during that era, chances are you would have been one of the 3,000 gays forced into exile during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. Fortunately, according to LGBT activist, Roger Ortiz, those days of vigilante persecution are long gone.
The San Fernando Valley resident has visited Cuba several times over the last decade and has witnessed firsthand Cuba’s continued advancement in LGBT human rights. “In Havana today, there is a very healthy LGBT community that’s not only ‘loud and proud,’ but very proactive,” said Ortiz. The political and cultural shift inspired Ortiz to share these unique experiences with other American activists by starting his own tour company Link2Cultures.
Ortiz is currently making plans for his last two trips of 2014. His group is limited to 15 people and the stays are usually for six days. Travelers have full day schedules that consist of constant interactions with the local population.
Ortiz sees his boutique business as an enlightening opportunity to bring the two LGBT cultures closer together. “The purpose of the visit is to focus on cultural exchange,” said Ortiz. Over the years, Ortiz has developed relationships with LGBT business owners, organizers, leaders, and professionals. “With ‘gay’ tours to Cuba, my company provides the opportunity for members of the U.S. LGBT community to discuss ideas and network with members of the budding movement in Cuba.”
It took Ortiz two years to gain permission from the U.S. Government to organize and chaperone tours to Cuba. The U.S. government wanted to ensure that any legitimate tour did indeed create meaningful interactions and cultural exchanges between U.S. citizens and Cubans.
“We are the only people in the world that are restricted from visiting the island, so I want the public to know that it is legal to travel there, as long as you are doing it with permission from the U.S. government. The island is one of the safest in the Caribbean. And the treatment of LGBT Cubans has changed dramatically since the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.”
Just a few years ago, former President, Fidel Castro, admitted that there had been grievous injustices against the LGBT community during his time in power. In a 2010 interview, Castro took responsibility for not having curtailed the discrimination which included harassment, imprisonment and exile. He stressed that the Communist government has come a long way from its “re-educational” butch it up camp days.
Many openly LGBT people now work within the government and activists there have invaluable straight allies such as Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro. Mariela has assured equality for LGBT Cubans, which is evident by her government’s funding of the Centro Nacional de Educacion Sexual and the sponsorship of La Conga Contra La Homofobia (“March against homophobia).
Clients that attended the recent trip noticed that Cuba does not celebrate “Gay Pride” with flamboyant fanfare the way the rest of the world does. La Conga Contra La Homofobia is more of a human rights demonstration that is inclusive for all its members of the community. “They pride themselves in the fact that it’s not about sexualizing the event as in other countries.”
The Cuban LGBT professionals whom Ortiz has met on these trips know they have a long road ahead, but they are very proud of their accomplishments thus far. There are even efforts underway to legalize same-sex unions.
“My travel group is not exposed to an overpriced, commercialized gay shopping area,” said Ortiz. Rather, his clients are shown a very organic, inclusive and proud community. In Havana, the ‘Malecon’ district (the WeHo of Cuba) has hundreds of people socializing with friends, neighbors and lovers.
“You will see public displays of affection with same sex couples enjoying each other’s company without fear of retribution,” said Ortiz. The Malecon is known as the biggest ‘living room sofa’ in Cuba. “It’s an amazing experience to interact with people and see the gay reality on the island.” Ortiz stressed that the police still patrol the area, but they are now protecting the community instead of rounding it up.
The next available tours are Nov. 24 – 30 and Dec. 8 – 14. Cost is $3,250.00 (Double) $3,750.00 (single room).