The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cuban activists had their annual pro-LGBT parade ready. Then the government called it off.

Gay rights activists get together before the annual Conga Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Havana in 2016. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)
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Activists from Cuba’s LGBT community were supposed to gather in Havana on Saturday for an annual march in the capital city against homophobia and transphobia — a parade meant to promote tolerance and celebrate a group once ostracized in Cuba.

Then the government abruptly canceled the event.

Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) said in a Facebook post this week that the annual Conga Against Homophobia and Transphobia could not go ahead as planned due to “new tensions in the international and regional context,” and said the event would be canceled “in compliance with the policy of the Party, the State and the Revolution.”

On Saturday, Reuters reported that some activists planned to go ahead with a self-organized march despite the government’s imposed restrictions. The Cuban government maintains control over public gatherings, and it was unclear if an alternate march would indeed go on. This year would have marked the 12th annual conga, and reasons behind its cancellation were murky, leaving activists frustrated.

The news agency reported that some activists were warned against attending any unauthorized march, and that CENESEX called plans to reorganize a “provocation."

The island nation was once a dangerous place for the LGBT community. For decades, openly gay people were targeted for arrest, with some sent to work in labor camps. Others were denied work opportunities.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1979, and in 2010, longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro took responsibility for discrimination against the LGBT community. “If someone is responsible, it’s me,” he told Mexican newspaper La Jornada.

But attitudes shifted in recent years. Starting in 2008, the Cuban government approved doctors to carry out sex reassignment surgeries.

And last year, President Miguel Díaz-Canel openly supported same-sex marriage, saying he believed in “marriage between people without any restrictions.”

But the proposed legalization of same-sex marriage was tabled after outcry from evangelical groups on the island. Instead, in December, Cuba’s National Assembly said it would eliminate language that described marriage in the constitution, “as a way of respecting all opinions.”

It was not immediately clear whether evangelical groups had anything to do with Saturday’s canceled march, although other anti-homophobia events scheduled this month appear to be running on schedule.

The statement announcing the conga’s cancellation suggested the problem was rooted in issues outside of Cuba. Tensions have risen between Cuba and the United States since Washington threw its support behind Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, and Havana, a close ally of Venezuela, maintained support for President Nicolás Maduro.

White House officials have accused Cuba of having tens of thousands of troops on the ground in Venezuela to support Maduro.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez called President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton a “pathological liar who misinforms Trump,” and tweeted that there are only Cuban medical staff, not soldiers, in Venezuela.

This week, Cuba began new rations on key goods, including chicken, eggs, and rice, the Associated Press reported. On Cuban state media, Commerce Minister Betsy Díaz Velázquez pointed her finger at Washington, blaming a U.S. trade embargo for the shortages.

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