National Library of New Zealand
Harvested by the National Library of New Zealand on: Apr 8 2017 at 21:05:21 GMT
Search boxes and external links may not function. Having trouble viewing this page? Click here
Close Minimize Help
Wayback Machine
GayNZ Logo & Link
Sunday 09 April 2017

Obituary: Fidel Castro: 1926-2016

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 4th December 2016

Obituary: Fidel Castro: 1926-2016

Fidel Castro, whose cremated remains will be buried today, was a figure lionised by the far left, but LGBT communities have good reason to feel ambivalent about his death.

Fidel Castro was the child of wealthy Cuban landowners but adopted socialist politics while at the University of Havana in the forties. After involvement with armed guerilla groups in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, he undertook a failed coup against Cuba's Battista regime in 1953. After his release from prison, he formed the 26th July Brigade in Mexico in 1954 and was finally successful in overthrowing the Battista regime in 1959, much to the displeasure of the neighbouring United States. The United States then launched an abortive Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, which led Castro to adopt closer links to the Soviet Union, prompting the Cuban missile crisis in September-October 1962, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

After that, Castro's record was mixed. On the positive side, Cuba established national education and healthcare access, while cracking down on internal dissent and adopting strict media censorship. The Cuban regime also assisted revolutionary movements throughout Central America, such as Nicaragua's Sandinistas, and the short-lived Allende administration in Chile, overthrown by Pinochet's neofascist military coup in 1973. It also assisted the Palestinian cause and the war against Portugese colonialism in Angola. In later years, Castro's Cuba also became renowned for the excellence of its state-run healthcare system. After the collapse of communism elsewhere in the world after the end of the USSR in 1991, Cuba became more involved in green internationalism and anti-globalisation struggles. In recent years, Fidel Castro became increasingly infirm and relinquished the Cuban presidency to his brother Raul. Castro's Cuba also has parity of representation within its legislature and full reproductive freedom for women.

On the darker side, there were estimated to be between four thousand and fifteen thousand executions during the first thirty years of the Castro regime. Torture, unsanitary living conditions, arbitrary arrest and lack of due process, and psychiatric abuse, involving electroconvulsive therapy without the use of pain relief or proper medication. Independent trade unions are not recognised, nor is the right to strike. During the first thirty years of the Castro regime, an estimated one million Cubans left the island for the United States, often fleeing in makeshift and unseaworthy vessels and providing a constituency for Reagan era anti-communist agitation in Florida and other neighbouring states. As recently as 2003, there was a crackdown against independent media within Cuba and journalists were imprisoned.

Before the Cuban revolution, there were some LGBT bars in Havana, although homosexuality was illegal and heavily stigmatised. Homosexuality was linked to gay sex work, gambling and organised crime, which led the Castro regime to adopt internal repression after 1959. In the case of gay men, this included arbitrary arrest and detention, career obstruction and imprisonment in labour camps, leading those Cuban LGBT individuals outside the country to abandon their Cuban citizenship. National security paranoia and Soviet alliances led to a chilly atmosphere for Cuban gay men, with any gay bars or cruising areas targeted during the repressive initial decades of the Castro regime. Castro used the term maricone ("faggot") to denigrate gay men, denounced them as 'counter-revolutionary' agents of imperialism and idealised rural social conservatism during this time. In 1965, Military Units to Aid Production arose- forced labour activity in the countryside, which also targeted gay men amongst others. In April 1971, the Cuban Educational and Cultural Congress presided over a new era of repression, employment discrimination and disruption of educational access against LGBT Cubans.

However, gradual liberalisation set in during the 1980s, as Cuba became aware of LGBT inclusion within the Nicaraguan Sandinista administration and overseas LGBT support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Gradually, Castro relented, arguing that homosexuality was a natural variation and homophobia was a form of prejudice to be condemned and Cuban cinema began to reflect such liberalised social attitudes. However, in 1997, there was a new spate of repression directed against pubs and cruising areas, despite increasing Latin American openness to LGBT legislative reform and the growth of LGBT film festivals in some Cuban cities. This was repeated in 2001. It also abstained against a Brazilian-sponsored UN resolution to recognise LGBT organisations as legitimate elements within global civil society.

Insofar as LGBT rights are concerned, modern Cuba's recognition is limited. It only consists of decriminalisation (1979), age of consent equality (1979) and the passage of antidiscrimination laws insofar as employment only is concerned, although LGBT individuals can serve in the Cuban military and it is legal to change sex. It is still legal to undertake goods and services and accomodation discrimination against Cuban LGBT individuals, relationship and marriage equality are not legally recognised, nor is same-sex parenting. Lesbians do not have access to reproductive technology, nor gay men to altruistic surrogacy.

Castro's death leaves behind a questionable legacy. Although it should be noted that social attitudes have changed positively in Cuba over the last two decades, he still presided over initial repression and Cuba today still lags behind Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and more inclusive and open Latin American societies.


Lourdes Arguelles and B.Ruby Rich: "Homosexuality, Homophobia and Revolution: Toward an Understanding of the Cuban Lesbian and Gay Male Experience" Signs: Lesbian Issue: Summer 1984: 9:4

Justin Halatyn: "From Persecution to Acceptance? The History of Gay Rights in Cuba" Cutting Edge News: 24.10.2012:

Ian Lumsden: Machos, Maricones and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality: Philadelphia: Temple University Press: 1996.

Craig Young - 4th December 2016

   Bookmark and Share