Fidel Castro was many things: a revolutionary, a communist, a garrulous orator. Amid the fawning encomia released upon his long-overdue death at the age of 90, it should never be forgotten that he was also an oppressor, torturer, and murderer of gay people.
“We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true communist militant,” Castro told an interviewer in 1965. “A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant communist should be.”
In the eyes of Castro and his revolutionary comrade Che Guevara—who frequently referred to gay men as maricones, “faggots”—homosexuality was inherently counterrevolutionary, a bourgeois decadence. To a traditional Latin American machismo that viewed gayness pejoratively, they married an ideological fixation treating it as politically undesirable.
It wasn’t long after Castro came to power that police began rounding up gay men. In 1965, the regime established prison work camps known as Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), into which it deposited homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other “undesirable” elements. Alert to this news, the Mattachine Society—one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the United States—held demonstrations outside the United Nations and the White House successively over two days. Four years before the world-famous Stonewall riots, these were two of the first gay rights protests held in the United States. That same year, Allen Ginsberg was expelled from Cuba for spreading rumors that Raul Castro—Fidel’s brother and successor as president—was gay and claiming that Guevara was “cute.”
Putting gays into concentration camps is not the only practice Castro borrowed from the Nazis. During the Cuban missile crisis, according to recently released German intelligence files, this so-called anti-fascist attempted to hire former SS officers to instruct his army.
Though the Cuban regime closed down the UMAPs in the late 1960s, it continued to repress gay men as ideologically subversive elements. Openly homosexual people were prevented from joining the Communist Party and fired from their jobs. One of the country’s most distinguished writers, Reinaldo Arenas, recounted the prison experience he and countless other gay men endured in his memoir Before Night Falls. “It was a sweltering place without a bathroom,” he wrote. “Gays were not treated like human beings, they were treated like beasts. They were the last ones to come out for meals, so we saw them walk by, and the most insignificant incident was an excuse to beat them mercilessly.”
Gays comprised a significant portion of the 125,000 Cubans (“worms,” in Fidel Castro’s words) permitted to leave the island for the United States as part of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. (The 1984 documentary Improper Conduct, which tells the stories of gay and straight Marielitos, remains one of the starkest indictments of the Castro regime.) When the Human Immunodeficiency Virus hit the island’s gay community in the mid-1980s, the regime’s response was to quarantine all HIV-positive people in sanitariums, referred to as “pretty prisons” by the founder of the World Health Organization’s Global Program for AIDS.
No doubt attuned to the way in which gay rights has become central to the agenda of a global left increasingly sensitive to the claims of identity politics, the Cuban regime in recent years has tried to fashion itself as being in the vanguard of homosexual liberation. In 2010, Fidel Castro belatedly admitted that his revolution’s treatment of gays constituted “a great injustice.” It was, however, a sin of omission rather than commission, transpiring only because he was distracted, too busy fighting off Yankee imperialists to prevent the atrocities being committed in his revolution’s name. Today, Fidel’s niece (Raul’s daughter) Mariela Castro has emerged as an LGBT activist, helming an organization called the Cuban National Center for Sex Education. Coincidentally, she is the focus of a documentary, Mariela’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution, premiering Monday night on HBO.
Mariela has been lauded by many in the West as a force for progressive change, and her decision to push for acceptance of LGBTs may be helping on the margins. But no matter how much life for gay Cubans might have improved from the days of forced labor camps, it’s all occurring within the context of a totalitarian society whose citizens cannot vote, are denied basic freedoms like the right to speak or protest freely, and cannot form organizations independent of the government. Indeed, it tells you everything you need to know about contemporary Cuba that the country’s most visible LGBT activist is the straight daughter of Raul Castro. Mariela is a hard-core communist who skirts around her family’s horrific record of oppressing LGBT people, and her ersatz gay rights crusade reeks of being a vanity project and personality cult.
Some Western progressives nonetheless fall for this pinkwashing charade. Take Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a vocal advocate for LGBT rights in his own country, who released a fulsome statement upon Fidel Castro’s death. While allowing that the deceased tyrant was a “controversial figure,” the dauphin pretty boy enthused, “I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away...We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader.”
The death of Fidel Castro is reason to celebrate. But true freedom for Cuban gays will remain elusive as long as political freedom is denied to all Cubans.