Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cuba's first daughter has gone beyond Castro name

Posted on Tuesday, 05.22.12

Cuba's first daughter has gone beyond Castro name
Associated Press

HAVANA -- She has her uncle's penchant for speaking her mind. From her
father, she inherited a disciplined tenacity.

But Mariela Castro, a married mother of three and member of Cuba's most
powerful family, has paved her own way in making gay rights her life's
cause. And now the 49-year-old daughter of President Raul Castro is
about to make a controversial visit to the United States for a
conference on Latin America.

"She has put herself at the forefront of the struggle for rights for the
LGBT community," said Gloria A. Careaga Perez, a professor of psychology
from the National Autonomous University of Mexico who will be on Mariela
Castro's panel at the San Francisco gathering of the Latin American
Studies Association on Thursday. "What she does is praiseworthy because
she is a pioneer, an academic and political authority who stands up for
human rights."

Requests to interview Castro were not granted ahead of her trip, and
four friends and admirers declined to speak on the record, a symptom of
Cubans' deep misgivings about openly discussing members of the Castro

But while others are shy of giving their name, Castro has not been,
particularly when it comes to her signature issue. She has lobbied for
years for her father's government to legalize same-sex marriage,
something he has not done. Earlier this month, Castro said the president
privately shares her views on gay rights, and declined to push him to go

While she has no doubt benefited from her surname, Castro says it has
always been important to her to have a separate identity.

"I never wanted any part of that, 'the daughter of ...'" she said
several years ago at a book launch in Havana. "I despise people who get
on that kind of carriage, and I love myself very much for not doing so.
I never did, and I never will."

But no matter how much Castro desires to set her own course, controversy
will follow her on her trip to San Francisco precisely because of her
father and uncle, both reviled by many Cuban-Americans and enemies of
Washington for more than half a century.

When word came last week that the State Department had issued an entry
visa to Castro - as well as at least 60 other Cuban scholars -
Cuban-American politicians were quick to pounce. Florida Sen. Marco
Rubio accused her of bringing a campaign of anti-Americanism to U.S.
shores, while New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez said he was "indignant"
over her presence.

They and others noted that U.S. rules prohibited Communist Party members
and other high-ranking Cuban government officials from entry without
special dispensation. While Mariela Castro is not officially part of the
government, her personal ties to Cuban leaders are clearly evident.

The State Department has refused to comment on individual visa cases.
Castro is due to chair a panel on the politics of sexual diversity in
San Francisco and to meet with the local LGBT community. On May 29, she
is to participate in a talk at the New York Public Library.

As head of Cuba's National Center for Sex Education, or Cenesex, since
2000, Castro has acquired a much higher profile than her siblings and
cousins, becoming a leading advocate for gay rights in Cuba, Latin
America and beyond.

Attractive, intelligent and quick to smile, Castro has a flair for
dressing elegantly in bright colors. She is commonly seen heading up
annual gay pride marches in the capital, flanked by six-foot-tall
transvestites. Outspoken and self-confident, she meets regularly with
visiting dignitaries, including a delegation of U.S. women last year,
and travels the world giving talks about gay rights.

In conversation she looks questioners directly in the eye, is quick to
speak and punctuates her words with animated gestures. She is reported
to have two children with her husband, a Sicilian-born photographer, and
a third child from a previous marriage, though even those basic details
are not easily confirmed in Cuba.

And while Castro does not regularly give interviews, she is far from

She is the only member of her famous family to really embrace Twitter;
Fidel and Raul's accounts are dry and impersonal, apparently managed by
underlings. She's also not afraid to mix it up with critics, as she did
last year in a very public Twitter spat with dissident blogger Yoani

Grumbling about "despicable parasites" criticizing her just hours after
her debut on the social media platform, Castro tweeted: "Were you
ordered by your employers to respond to me in unison and with the same
predetermined script? Be creative."

It was a rare moment of direct confrontation between a Castro and one of
the dissidents, who are officially disparaged as counterrevolutionary
sellouts doing the bidding of Washington, and it showed her willingness
to depart from the prepared script, even if in defense of the government.

She was born July 27, 1962, to the power couple of the Cuban Revolution:
Raul Castro and Vilma Espin, also a prominent guerrilla who later was
president of the Federation of Cuban Women, a member of the Communist
Party's Central Committee and Fidel's first lady stand-in for years when
he had no official partner. Espin died in 2007.

Mariela, who bears a close resemblance to Espin, cites her mother's
influence and has called her work a continuation of Espin's labor to
advance women's rights in Cuba and Latin America.

"She was very sweet and tender. She passed along her values in educating
us," Castro once said. By contrast, Castro sometimes quarreled with her
father, though she has said she was always proud of his accomplishments.

It was at college in the late 1970s that Castro had her eyes opened to
the gay rights movement, as a student leader who successfully fought off
attempts to have gays expelled for their sexual orientation.

That tendency to go against the grain stuck, and four decades later
Castro is still speaking her mind.

"It would be very easy for me to repeat what the whole world wants to
hear, not contradicting anybody, being sweeter and more accepted. But my
work obliges me to present realities that not everyone wants to face,"
Castro said at the book launch. "I'm not going to stop doing and saying
what I believe in. The day I can no longer do that, I might as well
spend my time planting lettuce instead."

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