Since I’ve recently received questions on Lesbian/Gay travel in Cuba, I’m going to briefly discuss (and periodically update) the issue on this page. Before the revolution, Cuba was known as an “anything goes” country where Americans could party, drink (during Prohibition), gamble, buy drugs, engage in prostitution, and other activities that greatly benefited financially many American businesses operating there, as well as the Mafia. After the Revolution in 1959, these activities were drastically curtailed or eliminated, in an attempt to “purify” society following many decades of abuse and exploitation.
Cuba had been a sectarian country, but the Catholic Church still exerted a lot of influence. After the revolution, many counter-revolutionary activities and finances were routed through the church, leading to a crackdown by Fidel. The country’s government eventually became communist and officially atheistic. Along with this “purification” process, a state-sponsored homophobia quickly developed. Even contemporary casual observers of Cuba today sometimes refer to how “anti-gay” they believe government must still be.
Not any more. Today, Cuba is amazingly tolerant of individuals and groups who fall outside the mainstream. However, the government won’t tolerate those who advocate overthrowing the government. (Funny how most governments around the world seem to be a little sensitive on this issue!) I’ve been to Cuba with groups that included Fundamentalist Christians, who brought donations (including bibles) to their counterparts in Cuba. No problem. In my opinion, groups that bring goods and money to Cuba and provide services are welcome. They just can’t advocate overthrowing the government, which seems reasonable to me, even if I personally might feel that the country would benefit from a change of guard.
Somewhere over the past couple of decades, especially right after the sugar daddy Soviet Union stopped bankrolling the country, Cuba was forced to embrace tourism just to bring in enough hard currency to survive. During this time, somebody must have mentioned to Fidel that gay travel was a significant portion of the tourist industry, so today it is quite accepted. The Gay Cuba website (www.gaycuba.ca) describes Cuba as “The friendliest country in Latin America for gay travelers.”
According to Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Julia Sweig, “Under the leadership of Raul’s daughter, Mariela Castro, head of the National center for Sex Education (CENESEX), Cuba has undertaken a wholesale public education campaign against homophobia, heralding the importance of recognizing the decidedly liberal, even “neoliberal” concept of “diversity.”
In May of 2012, Mariella Castro visited San Francisco and took part in a panel discussion hosted by the Latin American Studies Association. After that, she flew on to New York for another engagement. During her time in the U.S., she criticized the hardline Cuban exiles, whom she referred to as the “Miami Mafia.” In return, the exiles criticized her and the Obama administration for granting her a visa. The visit generated many articles and much publicity, and now the LGBT community is much more aware of Cuba as a potential future tourist destination. Whether this was part of a master economic plan, or simply an unintended bi-product of Mariella’s visit, the publicity increased the demand of Americans wanting to visit Cuba. This will continue to force the price of Cuba travel upward.
So the bottom line is that Cuba is literally the new “Castro District,” and LGBT travelers are very welcome. Just be aware of the situation, and don’t wear your “Death to Fidel” T-shirt on the dance floor.