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Cuban leader Fidel Castro dies
By Andrew Davis and Matt Simonette
2016-11-24

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Longtime Cuban ruler Fidel Castro has died at age 90.

The country declared nine days of national mourning to mark his death.

President Barack Obama—who, two years ago, brokered a deal to restore diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba for the first time since they were cut 55 years ago—offered his condolences. He urged Cubans to remember that they had "a friend and partner in the United States of America."

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump called Castro a "brutal dictator," and said he hoped Cubans could move toward a more free future.

Castro took power in Cuba on New Year's Day 1959, promising to share his nation's wealth with its poorest citizens. However, he became one of the world's most controversial leaders, in part due to such developments as the Cuban Missile Crisis and even his abolishment of Christmas as an official holiday for three decades. ( Castro was also seen as a thorn in the side of almost a dozen U.S. presidents. ) He transferred his power to younger brother Raul in 2006, and formally resigned in 2008.

When it came to LGBT rights, Fidel was not known for his liberalism, and he sent thousands of gay men to labor camps. ( He apologized for the camps in 2010. )

In a Sept. 2015 talk he gave in Chicago, Cuban activist and physician Alberto Roque Guerra described how the island nation's historical homophobia only got worse in the days immediately following Castro's rise, since homosexuality was regarded as a hedonistic symptom of capitalism. Guerra said that the communist party, machismo, poor sex education and the medical profession all contributed to homophobia throughout the 1960s. Gay Cubans were not allowed to take part in the arts nor in educational capacities at the time.

"Officials were trying to erase our past," Guerra said.

A Dec. 10, 1987, issue of the Chicago paper Outlines reported that "up to 50 percent or more of the Cuban prisoners who had been rioting at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and the Federal Alien Detention Center in Louisiana" were gay; they were apparently jailed for up to eight years solely because of their sexual orientation.

In 1980, "Castro opened the doors for the Mariel flotillas, which started when 5,000 Cubans, including a large number of gays, occupied the Peruvian Embassy grounds and demanded freedom." About 125,000 individuals journeyed to the United States—many of them gay people who Cuban authorities forced out of prisons and detainment facilities. However, once the gay refugees arrived in the United States, they were separated and imprisoned yet again.

Cuba decriminalized same-sex activities in 1979—but his government quarantined HIV/AIDS-positive people until 1993. Raul's daughter, Mariela Castro, is a prominent LGBT-rights activist; the documentary Mariela Castro's March: Cuba's LGBT Revolution debuted on HBO Nov. 28.

According to writer-activist Achy Obejas, "Fidel Castro's death, honestly, is anti-climactic. The succession of his brother Raul is assured and solid and has been for years. And it makes zero difference to LQBTQ prospects in Cuba: Fidel allowed the UMAP camps that imprisoned gay men and lesbians in the 1960s and only took a tepid responsibility for them a few years ago in a Mexican newspaper. That apology was never heard by the thousands of queer lives he ruined in Cuba and the policies of paranoia he set in place. An entire queer generation still suffers PTSD from that time."

Obejas added that, though Cuba "is progressive on many issues, it remains markedly anti-queer: There are zero rights for same sex couples on the island. Never mind no right to marry, there are no rights to co-habitation, no rights to adopt, no rights protecting employment, no rights protecting even peaceful assembly. Yes, you can get free gender reassignment surgery if you're Cuban, but that's because the state views that as a medical right, not a civil right, and the difference is critical. For gays to move forward in Cuba, a lot more is going to have to happen than just Fidel dying."

Cuba-born performer Gloria Estefan wrote on Instagram, "Although the death of a human being is rarely cause for celebration, it is the symbolic death of the destructive ideologies that he espoused that, I believe, is filling the Cuban exile community with renewed hope and a relief that has been long in coming."


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