Cuba reiterates anti-AIDS proposal at summit
Jose G. Perez
jgperez at netzero.net
Mon Sep 2 07:24:36 MDT 2002
You ask, "how about gay issues in Cuba? ... I honestly wonder about how
effective any AIDS policy can be in a homophobic political environment." And
you ask (in essence) whether Marxism and gay liberation are compatible.
I believe you would make a great contribution by hopping on a plane and
going to find out *for yourself* if there really is a "homophobic political
environment" in Cuba, and then let us know what you found. I believe you
will find a society where, yes, anti-gay prejudices still exist among some
people (as do sexist and racist prejudices) but where these are not
supported, reenforced or codified into law by the government.
Proof? I hope you will come back with much more than I can hope to
provide. But a down payment, so to speak, since this book is little known:
"I don't see homosexuality as a phenomenon of degeneration, but rather
in another way. My approach to this has been different: a more rational
aproach, viewing this as natural tendencies and facts about human beings
that simply have to be respected. That is the philosophy with which I view
"I am totally against any form of repression, looking down on,
underestimation, or discrimination of homosexuals."
(Fidel Castro, in an April 18-20 interview with Tomás Borge published as
a book "Un grano de Maíz" by the Office of Publications of the Council of
State, Havana, 1992, p. 238 of the Spanish edition. The book was also
published widely by editorial houses in Latin America.)
You say you know little about this, and to this I would add that I
suspect most of what you've heard is false. The propagandists of imperialism
have combined McCarthyite anticommunism and the most vulgar chauvinism and
stereotypes about latino machismo to frame up the Cuban Revolution as being
To hear these propagandists, you'd think the place where you can be put
in prison for having sexual relations with someone of your own sex is Cuba,
not the United States, where you can be brutally tortured and lynched for
being gay is Cuba, and not the United States.
Invariably, when you try to dig through all the BS, what you eventually
get to, to the extent these stories have any real grounding at all, are two
sets of events; one the labor youth army that was organized as part of the
draft in Cuba three decades ago. The other was Cuba's policy for a few
years --I'm honestly not sure exactly how many-- to quarantine many AIDS
patients around the mid-1980's.
These are both subjects I've looked into and thought about extensively,
coming to the conclusion that they have been grossly misrepresented and
manipulated. What I present below is largely from memory, not meant to be
some sort of definitive treatise, but I present it nevertheless because so
much propaganda and facile distortions have been put into circulation around
First, on the youth labor army.
To understand that, you have to realize there was, in the late 1960's, a
period of "extremism" (for lack of a better word) in the Cuban Revolution
(as there was among many young radicals the world over, as us older list
members can attest). In Cuba, one of the forms that this "extremism" or
perhaps excessive optimism took was that of an all-out campaign for an
extraordinarily large sugar harvest, the ten-million-ton campaign.
What was involved is what some might call extreme "voluntarism,"
believing that with pure effort and conviction, the country could leap over
(at least some of its) underdevelopment. All efforts on the island were bent
towards that goal; people perceived or depicted as being less than 200%
committed to it were viewed as suspect, if not worse.
And, as often happens when comrades go off course, this gave rise to
other unintended political phenomena, but they weren't exactly ultraleft,
but rather conservative and bureaucratic.
One of the expressions of this reality, one of the unintended
consequences, was the youth labor army, into which all manner of young men
were drafted. Cuba, like many other countries, has a draft, and --as I
what went on-- many young men viewed as unreliable or shiftless or of
dubious moral character or any number of other things were diverted to this
structure to help carry out the campaign for the ten million ton sugar
harvest, as opposed to traditional military units.
Originally this youth labor army was presented and presumably conceived
simply as part of the overall effort for the 10 million tons. But according
to many different stories, it became seen as sort of a dumping ground for
people considered misfits, undesirables, untrustworthy and so on, a way to
Whether this was an official policy, and if so, at what level, I've
never been able to determine. I can say that I've never seen anything by
Fidel that even hinted at adopting or supporting such a policy, including
speeches of that period, which I've read most of myself, and which, at any
rate, would long ago have been dragged out of obscurity by the revolution's
enemies if they had included those sorts of ideas. Ditto for some party
resolution or official government statement or Granma editorial. But the
reports and accounts, including first-hand ones leaves me no doubt that
whatever the initial official theory about this youth labor army structure,
there were real problems in how it was perceived and implemented.
I believe that whether or not an order from "the top" was present, what
really drove it in a problemmatic direction were the prejudices which were
even more prevalent in Cuban society then. Those prejudices were being given
free reign by a combination of a mistaken, voluntaristic overall policy, and
attempts to bureaucratically apply that "voluntarism," including by many
comrades who for a long time had looked towards the USSR as a model, or who
recently had begun doing so. Indeed, it would have taken a big campaign of
political discussions and explanations by the leadership to have prevented
the "natural" reaction of some of the older comrades *against* from
affecting how this work was carried out.
The problems that I believe developed were not mainly or even especially
aimed againt gays, and it wasn't simply this specific form of organizing
draftees for the 10-million-ton campaign. It was really aimed against what
we might call "the spirit of the 60s," the long-haired rebels, the Black
kids with afros and dashikis, the young Cubans of my generation who stayed
in Cuba but nevertheless listened to the Beatles and Bob Dylan same radio
station I did in Miami, WQAM. (Because, of course, although depicted as this
totalitarian hellhole where every last word you hear is controlled by Big
Brother, Cubans all over the island, but especially on its northen coast
closest to the U.S., could not help but pick up --then and today-- Miami AM
stations even on the cheapest radio sets.)
Among those affected by this wave of conservatism was the Cuban new song
movement, the Cuban Bob Dylans and Phil Ochs's, people like Silvio Rodríguez
and and Pablo Milanés and Sara González and Noel Nicola. The official record
label -- the EGREM-- wouldn't record them, even though these young folk
singers were immensely popular among the younger generation whenever they
got to sing.
The "traditional" cultural/literary apparatus tended to be dominated by
people who came out of the old PSP, the pro-moscow communist party which in
Cuba was called the People's Socialist Party. And, like their Moscow role
models, they tended to be conservative, stodgy, "grey men in grey suits," as
someone once described their role models in Moscow. The army and its officer
cadre was still very green and, despite the tremendous gratitude Cubans
comrades to this day feel for the aid afforded them in those desperate and
heroic times by the Soviet Union, today they will quite freely admit that
with it came a pressure or expectation that the Cubans would adapt if not
adopt to the "soviet," in reality bureaucratic, way of doing things and
looking at things.
Fortunately, the revolution was always pluralistic in its cultural
expressions, and although this "new song movement" (Movimiento de la Nueva
Trova) was looked down on by the official recording/music establishment (the
EGREM), it was given a home and a chance to record by Casa de las Americas
and the Cuban Film Institute, the ICAIC, both headed by close associates of
Fidel fvrom the anti-Batista struggle (and in the case of the ICAIC, by one
of his oldest friends from university days, a well known homosexual Alfredo
Guevara -- no relation to Che, BTW, except in what Che considered the most
important sense, i.e., comrades in the revolutionary struggle).
I mention particularly the artistic movements of the 60's because in
some of their work at the time, especially by Silvio Rodríguez, you'll find
extraordinary expression of rebellion against this attempt to put a
bureaucratic, conservative, Stalinist straight-jacket on the Cuban
In particular a couple of his songs come to mind --Playa Girón, which is
the name by which the Bay of Pigs battle [the 1961 US-sponsored mercenary
invasion] is known in Cuba, although the song was about a fishing trawler
named for the battle-- and especially "Resumen de Noticias" -- "News
Update," which ends like this:
I'd like to express my thanks to all those
who collaborated with this melody.
We should emphasize the important task
of those in charge of persecution, whatever their origins.
If anyone listening thinks this is their portrait
Let it be known, it was done on purpose.
Any complaints, let them not be on letterhead.
Good night, friends and enemies.
And it is no accident that in the work of this politicized movement,
denunciations of racism within Cuban society played a prominent role, just
as it was no accident that blacks who took pride in their African roots and
heritage tended to be dumped into the youth labor army in disproportionate
So all this stuff you read about labor camps, and so on, that's what it
is referring to, a couple of years towards the end of the 1960s, and a
somewhat murky de-facto policy or effort which transformed what was supposed
to be just a variant of the normal military service all Cuban males are
subject to into something bearing a sort of disreputable or punitive
association, but a far cry from the "concentration camps" and similar we
hear about in imperialist propaganda. No one was tortured; no one was
disappeared. They were subject to military discipline as draftees, lived in
barracks and greatly resented, at least from the accounts of a few friends,
the limitations that strict regime placed on social and other activities.
It wasn't that bad, but it wasn't any good, mostly, because at least as
I understand things, those in charge failed to try to convince many of
these young comrades of the *importance* of the task (cutting cane). Instead
of *motivating* and *leading* them, from the stories I've heard, there was a
tendency to do things bureaucratically, to force them and drive them. Not
such a good approach in a country that just a few years before had
overthrown imperialist rule, and especially not in a world like that of the
late 60's, where young people the world over were rebelling, and quite
righteously so, I might add.
At any rate, THAT ended long, long ago. It was all over and done with
thirty some years ago, and counting. And the most widespread or far-reaching
repercussions of this, I believe, would have been on the afro-Cuban
population, or, better yet, Cuba's character as an afro-Caribbean nation.
Any such damage however was limited, and had been decisively reversed a few
As things turned out, racist prejudices and attitudes shortly thereafter
took a very decisive pummelling in Cuba because of international political
developments and Cuba's role in them, namely, Cuba's aid to Black liberation
movements in southern Africa, including the sending of tens of thousands,
and I believe all told probably hundreds of thousands of troops to fight off
threats to Angolan independence from CIA-sponsored bands and especially the
U.S.-supported Apartheid regime which still existed in South Africa.
Black Cubans, or to be more precise, Black Cuban workers who
*volunteered*, played a decisive role in those campaigns over a period of a
decade or more, because it was largely from the army reserves that the
batallions Cuba sent to Africa were drawn. And having talked to countless
veterans of those campaigns in Cuba, I believe what was said was true, the
rank aned file soldiers were volunteers, and those who volunteered most
eagerly were Black. And this was a blow not just against race prejudice and
imperialist chauvinism, it was a rejection by the Cuban
revolutionaries --including, I'm sure, the comrades who may not have
understood it well a few years before-- of this conservative, bureaucratic
idea that what I called above "the spirit of the 60's" was some sort of
That is very clear when you think about the monument to John Lennon that
was dedicated in Cuba on the 20th annversary of his death two years ago, and
*what it signifies politically.* And *just* to make sure no one missed it,
Ricardo Alarcón, the comrade who is the elected head of Cuba's National
Assembly and one of Cuba's top leaders, gave a speech at the dedication of
the Lennon statue spelling it out.
* * *
Here, in front of the excellent work of art of José Villa, we return to
listen to what someone said twenty years ago today: "About this man you can
believe anything except that he is dead."
Nostalgia does not bring us together. We are not inaugurating a monument to
the past, nor a site to commemorate something that has disappeared.
This place will always be a testimonial to struggle, a summoning to
humanism. It will also be a permanent homage to a generation that wanted to
transform the world, and to the rebellious, innovative spirit of the artist
who helped forge that generation and at the same time is one of its most
The Sixties were much more than a period in a century that is ending. Before
anything else, they were an attitude toward life that profoundly affected
the culture, the society and politics, and crossed all borders. Its renewing
impulse rose up, victorious, overwhelming the decade, but it had been born
before that time and has not stopped even up to today.
To these years we turn our sights with the tenderness of first love, with
the loyalty that all combatants feel for their earliest and most distant
With obstinate antagonism, some still denigrate that time -- those who know
that to kill history, they must first tear out its most luminous and hopeful
This is how it is, and has always been: in favor of or against "the
* * *
Cuba's campaign in Africa, its reaffirmation of "the sixties" has a lot
to do with AIDS, and another policy that has served as a source for slanders
against Cuba, which was Cuba's initial policy of placing AIDS patients under
Among the first cases to be detected in Cuba were those of veterans of
the southern african campaigns. I'm not sure what the current state of
epidemiological studies is, but as of the mid-90s, when I did some reading
on this, it was believed the epidemic actually originated in sub-Saharan
Africa and was already spreading widely there by the time the first cases
were detected in the states in the early 1980s and epidemiological studies
of these cases showed it was, indeed, a communicable disease spread
especially by sexual contact.
Given the new disease, its apparent magnitude as a public health threat,
the lack of any effective treatments, the mortality rate, etc., I, unlike, I
think, just about everyone else who has ever written about this in the
United States, believe the response of the Cuban health authorities wasn't
unreasonable under the circumstances.
To us children of post-WWII medical miracles in an advanced capitalist
countries, the idea of a quarantine sounds as barbarian and primitive as the
use of leeches. But quarantines --both official and extraofficial-- were
effective public health measures until the development of antibiotics,
vaccines, and the rise of the standard of living in countries like the
United States made them largely unnecessary.
Even a few years ago, in the early 90's, when my now-12-year-old
daughter had some childhood disease (chicken pox or measels or ... I
forget), we were told in no uncertain terms that we were to keep her AWAY
from preschool for X number of days and until all her lesions were scabbed
over or gone. She was placed, although the word wasn't used, under
quarantine, i.e., subjected to special restrictions on her normal activities
and freedom of movement for *public* health reasons.
I *think* the particular disease she had has now been largely tamed by a
new vaccine, because my 8 year old son Lucas did not go through that. But,
roughly speaking, until the middle of the 20th century, quarantines and
similar measures were very common.
In the case of AIDS in Cuba, as scientific knowlege about the disease
grew, and the effectiveness of measures such as the use of condoms against
its spread was discovered and borne out, Cuban health authorities relaxed
and then abandoned these initial measures.
But it is wrong to judge the decisions made initially on the basis of
what we know now, in order to project onto Cuba some sort of "homophobic
political environment" as the supposed "real reason" for public health
measures adopted almost two decades ago at the very outset of an
extraordinarily, almost uniquely dangerous epidemic.
Indeed, in the 1980's, some of the most conscious gay
activists, as well as US health officials, criticized American elected
officials for NOT adopting firmer measures on public health grounds, and
especially for not closing the socalled bath houses in New York and San
Francisco as an emergency measure to protect the public health.
I think the book and movie "And the band played on" are entirely right
in depicting this as *pandering* to significant layers of the gay community
who were in denial or did not yet understand AIDS, as well as to the
businessmen involved, in other words, as a failure of those city's elected
leaders to bite the bullet and LEAD. Exactly, of course, the kind of failure
in face of this kind of crisis one expects from bourgeois politicians.
The idea that what Cuba by adapting traditional public health measures
and concepts to the new situation was evidencing a homophobic response to
some "queer" disease is to impose a vision based on the way the epidemic
developed in the U.S. on a very different reality. AIDS presented itself in
Cuba initially to a significant degree as an epidemic among internationalist
combatants returning from Africa, many of whom were involved in heterosexual
relationships. It was not, or not just, the "gay plague" newspapers and TV
stations were talking about in the U.S.
Now, I don't have a doctorate and 20 years' experience in public health;
I can't say that, given the exact state of scientific knowlege at the time,
the Cuban measures were good ones.
But given BOTH what was known about the disease at the time, and what
was NOT known, the response to quarantine, to segregate, AIDS patients was,
in my view, a *rational* decision on public health grounds.
Moreover, the fact that a layer of those affected were internationalist
combatants tends to undercut the idea that antigay prejudice played a
decisive role in this.
Which isn't to say that anti-gay homophobic prejudices don't sometimes
find expression in Cuba, and don't sometimes influence decisions, as happens
also with prejudice against women and Blacks, and it may have played a role
in influencing the thinking of some involved in that decision.
But a similar thing could be said about the discussion in NY and SF
about closing the bath houses, and I think the evidence in this latter case
is quite clear there were tremendous amounts of homophobic pressure to adopt
the measure. Nevertheless, I think it should have been adopted the first
time it was raised.
But I do not believe the case has been made that in Cuba it played an
overriding or even siginificant role in those decisions in the mid-1980's,
because the (very small, one or two hundred cases) AIDS population in Cuba
wasn't just what many Cubans in Miami still call "degenerates" but ALSO
those who people IN CUBA viewed then (and now) as the best expression of
what it is to be Cuban, the internationalist fighters who kicked
apartheid's ass all the way into the dustbin of history.
And I believe Cuban health statistics reflect the fact that Cuba's
approach of treating AIDS, not as a "moral" issue, or even as a sectorial
"pressure group" issue, but rather as a public health matter, with the
systematic promotion and availability of condoms, has proved to have a
higher degree of effectiveness than the approaches tried in many other
countries, inclcuding the very richest one.
It should be added that Cuba has invested tremendous amounts of
resources into researching the disease and, especially, developing a
vacccine. So far these scientific efforts, and those being carried out
elsewhere, have made some strides in ameliorating the symptoms of the
disease and prolonging the life of those affected by it, but obviously, the
kind of decisive success many hoped for 15 years ago hasn't yet
To sum up, the stories you hear ab out persecution of gays in Cuba,
including from some otherwise progressive people, to the extent they have
any truth to them at all (and tons of thosed stories don't) are usually
based on distortions and manipulations of those two experiences.
The first was an example, as I undestand it, of excessive "commandism"
under the pressure to make the ten million ton harvest. It became combined
with conservative reactions to the explosive radicalization and youth
rebellion of the 1960s and covered over with a veneer of psuedo leftist
rhetoric or rationalization that depicted the youth radicalization as
representing some sort of imperialist cultural and political contamination.
This did not affect only gays, and I believe those affected were mostly
young men *in general* attracted or influenced by the world-wide phenomenon
of "the sixties."
The second was a rational public health measure taken in the face of a
new and terrible epidemic that had broken out. Given what was known at the
time, it was a rational response, even if you or I think we would have
adopted different approaches to containing the spread of the disease, which
in fact Cuba did do a couple of years later.
Finally, unlike the presidents on any other country I can think of,
Fidel Castro is on the record, in a book printed in Cuba by the government
itself as a) viewing homosexuality as a natural thing that must be respected
and b) opposing any and all discriminating and prejudice against
----- Original Message -----
From: <WelRedneck at aol.com>
To: <marxism at lists.panix.com>
Sent: Sunday, September 01, 2002 5:28 PM
Subject: Re: Cuba reiterates anti-AIDS proposal at summit
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