Politics, Sex, and Revolution: An Interview with Mariela Castro

Recognized internationally for her work in human rights, Mariela Castro promotes a different brand of socialism than that of her parents, who were key leaders during the Cuban Revolution. To Castro, all forms of discrimination—whether based on race, class, sexual orientation, or gender identity—must be tackled together in an inclusive and participatory movement for social change.

Today, thanks to Mariela’s vision and leadership, Cuba has one of the most progressive comprehensive sexuality education programs in the world, transgender individuals receive sex reassignment surgery free-of-charge, and each May, the streets of Havana are packed with gay pride celebrations and marches for equality. At the global level, Castro fights for the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls as a member of the High Level Task Force for ICPD.

Our staff recently had the opportunity to sit down with Castro to talk politics, sex, and revolution.

How did you become passionate about social justice?

The Cuban Revolution demonstrated that we are able to emancipate ourselves from the unbalanced power relationships that have existed throughout history. All the leaders of Cuba’s fight for independence delivered this message. I saw the spirit of the revolution in school and on television as a child. Now, I cannot abide injustice.

There are many Cubans like me who feel that any type of injustice provokes us to look for ways to confront it. This is what we have learned from life and history. This is what motivates us. The challenge is immediacy. We do not want 20 more years until justice becomes a reality. We do not want to leave an unjust inheritance to our children and grandchildren.

When did you get involved in Cuba’s LGBT rights movement?

We started celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia in Cuba back in 2007. I took the idea from a French activist of Caribbean origin, Louis-Georges Tin, who marked May 17th as the International Day Against Homophobia in 2005 because that was the date the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1990. The declassification was an historic act of justice by the medical science community.

Now, the entire month of May is dedicated to ending homophobia. We’ve established spaces for dialogue at universities, parks, schools, and other public institutions. We use films and media campaigns. Cuban society is very open to dialogue, especially about justice and rights. When you take the discourse of social justice to the people, they listen and participate in the debate. That is very valuable to us.

Many countries are still fighting to provide comprehensive sexuality education for adolescents in schools, but sex education exists in Cuban schools. How did this come to be?

In the 1970s, the Federation of Cuban Women, which has worked with IPPF, created an interdisciplinary group to produce a National Program on Sexual Education. This program became State policy in Cuba in 1975 during the first Communist Party Congress. At first, the Ministry of Education put up a lot of resistance. It accepted talking about some reproductive health issues, like teen pregnancy prevention, but not others. This changed a bit in the 1980s when university research underscored students’ sexual and reproductive health needs, and in the 1990s, a gender-based approach was introduced.

We finally got the Ministry of Education to accept the comprehensive sexuality education project we created for schools, and now there is an alliance formed between the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Culture, with the Federation of Cuban Women as the civil society leader of this initiative.

We are currently working with more clarity and transparency. We recognize there are many things that still need to change in the school program, like addressing issues of homophobia, violence, and abuse. A stronger emphasis is also needed on training teachers. Otherwise, teachers reproduce their own prejudices on the issues, and society does not advance.

Do you think it’s possible to replicate Cuba’s success on a global scale or even in the region?

Each country chooses its own path to social transformation. An important thing we can do is to establish regional alliances among institutions and organizations in order to push decision makers in every one of our countries. If there is not political will for the Cairo Programme of Action, nothing will get done.

The fight for social transformation against injustices and discrimination cannot be done partially or superficially. We must join the different elements that need to be changed. We cannot act in isolation.

As the daughter of Vilma and Raúl Castro, and Fidel’s niece, how has your family influenced your desire to advance a progressive agenda?

I learned everything I know directly from my family. The biggest credit should go to my mother. In the 1960s, she was able to discuss these matters with Fidel, my father, and other colleagues, and convinced a lot of people about women’s rights and other issues. She worked hard and carefully.

I used to be able to talk about things with my father without having to go through bureaucracy, but now that he is President, he doesn’t give me that chance. We’re negotiating at least one day a month for me to go to his office, but he hasn’t given me a date yet. So, I take advantage whenever he starts in on something and throw my two cents in. (Laughs.)

Sometimes my father tells me, “You don’t need to convince me any further. You need to convince the others. I support you and give you my opinion because I am convinced, not because I am your father.” That is the kind of relationship we have, and it has been useful for my education and values.

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