Mariela Castro Espín on Democracy Now! live at the firehouse in New York City
<pAMY GOODMAN: In a Democracy Now! special, we begin our show today with a rare U.S. interview with the daughter of the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, and First Lady Vilma Espín. Her name is Mariela Castro. She’s best known in Cuba for her ardent support of gay, lesbian and transgender rights and as the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana.
Mariela Castro was recently granted a visa for a rare trip to the United States. Democracy Now! had a chance to sit down with her last week at the Cuban consulate here in New York City. We talked not only about her work combating homophobia, but also her thoughts on the Cuban Five and what’s happening in Cuba 50 years after the start of the U.S. embargo. She called on the United States to release five Cubans jailed for spying on violent anti-Cuban militants in exchange for U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years on charges of subversion. She says, “Free the six.”
We turn now to my interview with Mariela Castro. I began by asking her about what brought her to the United States. Mariela Castro was translated by Elizabeth Coll.
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I presented my work at the Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, which was held last week in San Francisco. I was also invited by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the work that you’re doing in Cuba.
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I am the director of the National Center of Sexual Education. This is an academic center that is part of the Ministry of Public Health. Its mission is to coordinate the national program of sexual education with a multidisciplinary focus which coordinates different sectors.
AMY GOODMAN: Why have you chosen to make sexuality and the politics of sexuality your issue? You, yourself, are heterosexual. You’re married to a man. You have three children.
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] This is work that my mother began with the Federation of Cuban Women. She was the one who created CENESEX. Though professionally I worked with preschool children and adolescents, as I heard about the difficulties of LGBT people, I began to sympathize with their needs and problems. Many LGBT couples chose to come to counseling sessions with me, and as I listened to them, I started to study, to find tools to be able to help them.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve come to the United States at an interesting time. The president, President Obama, has just endorsed same-sex marriage, marriage equality. What are your thoughts about that?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I think it’s very valuable that the president of the United States speaks out publicly in favor of the rights of same-sex couples. Being the most powerful country in the world, what the president says has great influence on the rest of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet we do not have across-the-board law that says that same-sex marriage is accepted. And in Cuba, you don’t, either. What are you doing in Cuba to change the laws?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] In Cuba, CENESEX is leading an educational strategy, with the support of the media, to promote respect for free and responsible sexual orientation and gender identity. We are also doing some advocacy with state institutions and civil society organizations, so that they support this educational strategy. Beyond the educational strategy and our media strategy, we are also promoting legislative initiatives that support the same rights for homosexuals and transgender people, so that, for example, the family code recognizes the rights of these people and also their possibilities as couples, the legalization of their union as a couple.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you pushing for same-sex marriage in Cuba?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I am promoting marriage, but it was not accepted by many groups of people. And so, what we are negotiating is the legalization of consensual unions and that the legalization of these unions would guarantee, more than anything, their property rights, inheritance rights.
AMY GOODMAN: So, do same-sex couples have the same economic rights as heterosexual couples?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] All rights are guaranteed for all people. There is no exclusion for LGBT people. But where there is still not respect for their rights is around the guarantee that if one member of a same-sex couple dies, the survivor be recognized as the person who should receive the inheritance, or even just be allowed to enjoy the goods that they had enjoyed as a couple.
AMY GOODMAN: Presumably, you have your father’s ear, the president of Cuba. How does he feel about making it fully equal between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] He is convinced that it is necessary, that it is part of the project of full justice the Cuban Revolution proposes.
AMY GOODMAN: Is he supportive like you are?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] He has been supportive since before, from when my mother was working on these issues.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about gay men and lesbians in the military?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] In all of Cuban society, there are all kinds of people. In the army, as well, there are homosexuals and lesbians. They don’t manifest it publicly, but they are there.
AMY GOODMAN: If it is known, if they are open, would they be kicked out of the military?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I see that the rules have become more flexible. Of course, before, they were more rigid. I think that in all Cuban society, the policy and laws are becoming more flexible. And the same will happen in the army.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to my conversation with Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro. I asked her about the Cuban Five, the five men convicted in 2001 for spying on violent anti-Castro militants in the United States.
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] As part of the Cuban population, I am committed to fighting for the liberation of the five Cubans, in this case, four Cubans who are imprisoned and one who is out on probation in Miami. And, really, they are serving very severe sentences that do not correspond with the evidence. There is no evidence for such severe sentences. If they had been tried justly, they would have already completed their sentences. And yet, they are still prisoners.
AMY GOODMAN: I dare say most Americans don’t even know who they are, why they’re in jail. Can you explain?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] It has been silenced because it is a kind of political vendetta. You know that Cuba, since the beginning of the revolution, has been the victim of terrorist attempts, organized and perpetrated by terrorist groups based in Miami of Cubans who have even confessed to be killers. They have confessed their crimes, even in books that have been published and in interviews on television. But they have not been brought to justice. However, Cuba has more than 5,000 victims of state terrorism between the dead and the wounded. Thus, as a society, as a sovereign nation, we have the right to defend ourselves, and we do it peacefully.
How? Infiltrating Cuban people who identify with the revolution, infiltrating them into these terrorist groups to alert the Cuban government as to when these terrorist attacks were going to take place, in order to be able to thwart the attempts and defend our population. These terrorist groups enjoy great economic and political power in Florida, and thus, judgments were made that violate the laws of the United States, and they were made in Miami by totally partial judges who oppose the process of the Cuban Revolution.
AMY GOODMAN: Would the Cuban government be open to a prisoner swap, the Cuban Five for Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned by the Cuban government?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] The Cuban government has expressed interest in finding a negotiated solution on humanitarian terms, and of course it is fully disposed to negotiate with the government of the United States. But it has not received any response.
AMY GOODMAN: Cuban-American Congress members in the United States have condemned the Obama administration for giving you a visa into the United States. Díaz-Balart, Congressman Díaz-Balart, said, “It is appalling that the Obama administration is welcoming high-level agents of the Castro dictatorship onto U.S. soil. While the Cuban people are struggling for basic freedoms in the face of increasingly brutal repression…”
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says, “Mariela Castro is part of a ruthless dictatorship that has oppressed the Cuban people for more than half a century. She wants to spew [out] the lies and propaganda of her family’s failed regime and doesn’t want to answer questions from a free and independent media.”
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I am not going to respond to the mediocre yellow press that she tries to impose on me, which for 50 years has spread lies about the Cuban Revolution. I also want to say about these Cuban congresspeople that you mentioned, everyone in the United States and Cuba knows that they promote laws that violate the rights of Americans to travel to Cuba, that violate the rights of the Cuban community and Cuban descendants in the United States, who are 1.8 million people, to travel freely to Cuba to reunite with their families. These people are constantly promoting legislation that worsens the economic blockade. And with the revolutionary government of these more than 50 years, the Cuban people have found freedom and full justice.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been allowed into the United States under the Bush administration.
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I entered in 2002 for another congress in Los Angeles.
AMY GOODMAN: What would a lifting of the U.S. embargo against Cuba mean for your country, Mariela Castro?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] In the first place, it would mean that the government of the United States would begin to respect international law. It would mean the beginning of the end of one of the worst human rights violations: that suffered by the Cuban people because of the blockade. For Cuba, it would mean access to development that has been limited by the blockade. And Americans and Cubans could meet in friendship, without the mediation of these unscrupulous congresspeople who manipulate the policy of the United States towards Cuba in service of their personal power and economic interests, and not in function of the necessities of the Cuban people both within Cuba and beyond.
AMY GOODMAN: Your father, President Castro, has been making a transition in Cuba. Can you talk about the changes that you think are most important for people in the United States to understand?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] One of the most important changes is that the new economic and social strategy has been designed with the full participation of all the Cuban population, who have participated in the debates, both to question the current reality as well as to propose what changes should be made.
AMY GOODMAN: There is a lot of discussion of a post-Castro Cuba. What do you think that would look like?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] The same—with the same strategy of socialist development, which is always looking for more efficient mechanisms to support social justice and national sovereignty, and also with new public figures, because there are many people participating in Cuba in all the decisions. So that would mean new faces for the media. But for Cubans, those faces would not be new.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you consider the presidency of Cuba?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] No. That job doesn’t interest me.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I like my job.
AMY GOODMAN: There are other socialist governments in Latin America—Bolivia, Venezuela—where there are elections. Would Cuba go in that direction?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I think Cuba has publicly expressed what the mechanisms of popular election will be, and what is being proposed is to perfect them, not repeat what others do.
AMY GOODMAN: What would it look like?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] Well, how we do it now is through mechanisms of popular election. It is the people who nominate their leaders. Term limits have been established, and the president, my father, is included in these term limits. This has been the result of a collective discussion, to give opportunities to others, so that they assume their responsibilities. And the mechanisms of control are being perfected so that the people have access to the control of the mechanisms of power.
AMY GOODMAN: How is the health of your uncle, Fidel Castro?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I just want to add, in Cuba, we don’t have electoral campaigns, and the Communist Party doesn’t field candidates. And the leaders don’t receive an additional salary. And the legislators don’t receive an additional salary, because they are still doing their jobs. So positions of power in Cuba do not generate economic interests in people.
Fidel looks like he’s doing really well. He is an octogenarian, so he doesn’t have the same vitality that characterized him his whole life—that where there was a problem, Fidel was there with the people looking for solutions; that where there was a threat or danger, Fidel was right there in front of his people. Fidel is now giving us the privilege of his writing, of the writing of history. There are things that only he knows. And he is giving us a marvelous historical legacy that gives the Cuban people a spiritual strength that is priceless.
AMY GOODMAN: How did he manage to survive? I believe it’s more than 600 assassination attempts by the United States, at least hundreds. The CIA documents many of them.
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I think it was three things. First, his charisma and his sense of justice convinced even his executioners. Above all, he was the leader of the Cuban people, he is the maximum leader of the Cuban people, and the people have always protected him. But he is also a third world leader. And in the countries that he visited where they organized the attempts, mostly organized by the CIA, these same populations protected him.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of President Obama?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] President Obama represents an imperialist government and policy. So if you were to say to me, “Do you prefer him? Would you like him as a president?” I would say I would prefer a president who responds to the interests of the American people, who protects the poor from the arbitrary actions of the rich, and that respects international law. I have a very personal impression that Obama is a person who tries to be just. But while occupying the position of the presidency of the United States, it is very difficult to be just. However, I am a person who always likes to think positively, and I would like to believe that Obama in a second term will be a better human being and a better president.
AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned issues of poverty and equality. What is your assessment of the Occupy movement in the United States?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] It’s very interesting to me how the American population has found new languages and forms of struggle, a new language of struggle to fight for their social demands. And they do it peacefully and with deep reasoning. I don’t think they are against the government. They are against the policies that violate their rights. And I feel admiration for the courage of these people.
AMY GOODMAN: What would you like to see most change about the United States?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] I want the Cuban Five to go back to Cuba and for Alan Gross to go home. I want an end to the financial, commercial and economic blockade that violates the human rights of the Cuban people, and the normalization of relations between both countries.
AMY GOODMAN: And what would you like to see most change about Cuba?
MARIELA CASTRO: [translated] In Cuba, I want to see the socialist system strengthened with mechanisms that are always more participatory and democratic, and that the sovereignty of Cuba always be respected.
AMY GOODMAN: Mariela Castro, daughter of the Cuban president, Raúl Castro. She is the most prominent champion of gay, lesbian and transgender rights in Cuba. She called on the United States to release the five Cubans imprisoned here in the U.S. They were spying on anti-Cuban militants in the U.S. In exchange, she says, Cuba should release Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen jailed in Cuba.