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Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution

An HBO Documentary Films release
Premiers Monday, November 28th 9 PM Eastern
Director & Producer: Jon Alpert
Cinematographer: Jon Alpert and Rosalino Ramos
Editor: David Meneses
Music: Greg Landau
Running Time: 39 minutes

Jon Alpert’s documentary follows Mariela Castro’s efforts to bring social and legislative reform for Cuba’s queer citizens. In an podcast interview with Outtakes Voices Charlotte Robinson,  Alpert mentions his fascination with Cuba and numerous trips to the island. During the course of the documentary’s 40 minutes we are introduced to a number of LGBT people as well as Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro and niece of the recently deceased Fidel. Mariela has been a congresswoman in Cuba’s National Assembly and since 2000 has served as director of CENESEX, the National Center for Sex Education. It is through her position at CENESEX that she directs her work to normalize LGBT rights.

Before sitting down to watch my initial viewing I realized my perceptions of Cuba are either colored by US politics or vague romantic notions of a time long past associated with Hemingway. Truth be told it’s mostly the former. Despite my biases I discovered similarities between American and Cuban queer people and attitudes both good and bad among straight people in both countries bear resemblances. Religion just doesn’t seem to factor overtly into Cuban heterosexual bigotry.

The first pair of individuals we meet in different segments as Mariela travels across the country is Juani and Luis. The appear to be of similar older age and that’s where similarities end. Juani is connected with his family and is the first person in Cuba to undergo F2M sex reassignment surgery. Juani explains he’d felt like a male from an early age and smiles broadly while showing a photo of Mariela standing at his hospital bedside post surgery. In his next breath he pulls down his pants to show the scar on his leg where a surgeon took a muscle to make a fully functioning penis then grabs Pancho while his brother Santi looks on. Minutes later Santi’s daughter arrives with her elderly grandmother who seems blissfully content to have two sons. As if on cue, Santi, with hand across his heart. asks forgiveness for mistreating Juani when they were young and all is well as moments later Juani impishly flirts with a younger woman on his way to his job that he’s held for forty years.

Luis Perez stands in contrast to Juani. He lives alone and listening to Verdi recordings seems to be his solitary joy. At age 12 he knew he was gay and he became a handsome and relatively happy young man too naive too suspect he was being rounded up for incarceration in a government UMAP camp (Military Units to Aid Protection). UMAP camps were the idea of Mariela’s uncle and father and they were the destination of homosexuals, political dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others deemed unfit for military service. Harvesting sugar cane under the grueling sun was the most prevalent job. Luis shows a photo of his younger self with vibrant eyes before incarceration then holds up his ID card from after his release. His eyes are vacant. The mark on the card indicating his UMAP status effectively ended his employment and education opportunities.  He remains proud despite the hardships caused by lack of opportunities and draws solace from a church sponsored support group which seems to be his only social outlet. Mariela acknowledges Luis that people don’t know about the camps and his request for an apology. Was this lip service or did Mariela ever follow through publicly in some way? Did she try and meet opposition from the government?

Gay men like Luis Perez aren’t the only ones who were sequestered from their families and society. Not a single queer HIV positive person is interviewed to recount their experiences of forced quarantined in the fourteen specially designated sanitariums or “pretty prisons” as they were also called. One wonders what Eduardo Martinez, self proclaimed as Cuba’s Christian Dior, thinks of Castro’s work. Martinez became an activist while interned at the original sanitarium and created a community of artists. He’d be a good subject to include considering that he remade the sanitarium during his confinement into a haven of queer artistic expression which was in stark contrast to the way gays were treated in everyday Cuban society of the 1980s. Did Alpert think to contact him or did Martinez decline or was Alpert given an itinerary with approved people?

At one point Mariela extols the importance of dialog with people to learn why they’re non-supportive in order to change their minds. It stood out to me because I’ve read numerous conservatives rail about not wanting to be forced by our government to accept marriage equality. For all the good that Mariela may accomplish — and I think she has done some — with bringing rights to the LGBT community and acceptance into greater society one has to wonder why LGBT activists aren’t officially involved in the campaign. The conclusion I draw is that all rights work will always be done under control of the government. She laments that changing minds is hard even when your last name is Castro.

Other questions came up for me. A transgender woman in her mid 20s, happily partnered with a man, relates having acid thrown in her face and losing sight in one eye. How do the police address violent acts like this? Can LGBT people even feel assured police will investigate matters? The documentary leads me to think that much of the LGBT population adores Mariela for her actions but how do they reconcile her deeds with the past actions of her father Raul and Fidel and the Communist Party’s treatment of them? Reading between the lines of something Yanet, one half of a lesbian couple living in a rural part of the country, relates about a harassing coworker who belongs to the Party, leads me to think the Party hasn’t fallen in line with Mariela’s mission. Can Mariela persuade either her father or the Party to formally acknowledge and apologize for the harm and violence that was done in the UMAP camps? While LGBT rights seem to have improved since the turn of the century, how much longer will full equality take without the official sanction of the President or the Communist Party? How will LGBT equality be affected by Fidel’s death?

While viewing the documentary several times I couldn’t stop from thinking about the rise of hate related incidents that have occurred since the Presidential election and wonder how much damage may be done to the rights we’ve gained in recent years thanks to the rhetoric and ideology being espoused.

I hope you’ll watch the documentary if you have HBO access and draw your own conclusions about the woman, her motivations, and the state of our queer kindred in Cuba.

Mariela Castro’s March

Other HBO playdates: Nov. 30 (3:05 a.m.) and Dec. 2 (1:00 p.m.), 4 (6:45 a.m.), 6 (5:00 p.m.), 9 (11:30 a.m.), 14 (11:30 p.m.) and 17 (5:10 p.m.)
HBO2 playdates: Dec. 1 (9:30 p.m.), 20 (3:45 a.m.), 24 (11:05 a.m.) and 26 (1:00 a.m.)
The documentary will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.

Full credits: director, Jon Alpert; producers, Saul Landau and Jon Alpert; associate producer, Rosalino Ramos; Cuban producer and additional camera, Roberto Chile; editor, David Meneses; consulting producer, Matthew O’Neill. For HBO: senior producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer Sheila Nevins

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