HAVANA — People were irrational when they heard that I planned a trip to Castro’s Cuba. One of our office staffers turned his back and said angrily that “they’d find me in the hills after the police had beat me.”
But spending five days here, from Feb. 1-5, revealed a Cuba where gays and lesbians exist within a people hungering for American tourists and the money they spend. Although there are no gay stereotypes in Cuba, I saw closeted and out gay men, gay parties and cruising areas, and even a drag queen.
The roots of this trip go back to 1980 and the Mariel Boat Lift. Castro lifted his ban on emigration for a short time, and thousands of Cubans fled to the port of Mariel to climb on boats, rafts or anything else that would float to escape to the United States. As a joke, Castro also shipped out many people whom he or his cronies thought undesirable in his Cuba. That included many gay men.
The Carter administration was not sure what to do about all these gay men. They quickly and quietly shipped them to Fort Indiantown Gap. Someone leaked the information to me, and my group of translator, reporter and photographer became the first members of the press to enter the camp. We did so as clergy; I was Father Segal.
Working with the Metropolitan Community Church, we helped to find homes and jobs for many of the refugees. Many of the gay Cubans were integrated into Pennsylvania, and remain here. I have often wondered what life was like for those who remained in Cuba. About a year and a half ago, I requested permission from the Cuban government to do this story, but was turned down. For this trip, I entered Cuba from Mexico.
My research included buying every guide book available to acquaint myself with what my surroundings would be and talking to people who had recently been in Havana. My discoveries ran the gantlet, from those who were involved with U.S. organizations pushing to stop the economic embargo of Cuba, to filmmakers and, finally, a travel agent who thinks of Cuba as the next Thailand, a place for sex vacations.
The plane to Havana was packed. There seemed to be four Americans, including myself, on board. The people on the plane could be categorized as either European businessmen, 1960s hippie Americans or some poor folks. Then there were a few like Anna Maria, an 80-something Brit living in Mexico, who was sitting in the row in front of me.
Our conversation began with her snide remark: “You’re American aren’t you? ... You shouldn’t be on this plane.”
We soon were comparing travel stories when we noticed the American sitting across the aisle from her. When she attempted to speak to him, he tried to suggest that he wasn’t American, then got up and stayed in the lavatory the rest of the flight. On our approach to Havana, Anna Maria shouted to me in good humor: “You’re with the CIA aren’t you?”
The immigration officer smiled broadly as he saw the U.S. passport, and showed his familiarity with the U.S. embargo and the estimated 200,000 Americans who illegally come to Cuba each year. He jokingly attempted to stamp my passport.
The 25-minute taxi ride from José Marti Airport to Havana tells an interesting story. The first thing you notice as you leave the airport is a gas station with bright lights and signs that read “Open 24 hours.” Along the way there are two others. I wonder about the so-called gas shortage. Later, I discovered that gasoline costs about $1.20 per liter. Not much more then we pay.
The other thing you’ll notice are the cars. On that 25-minute ride, I counted nine classic cars riding the road, and many more parked — most dating from the late ’40s to the late ’50s. Chevrolets, Chryslers, Cadillacs and Dodges.
Life in Cuba
After checking into the Hotel Nacional, I met Miguel, who would be my guide. Miguel is a 30-something English professor, as well as a singer and dancer in a mariachi band. This was the second time he acted as a tour guide. Over the next six days, it was apparent that he took his job seriously and, at times, was translator, body guard and negotiator of costs for taxis, restaurants and entry fees.
The Hotel Nacional is in the Vedado section of Havana, a business and residential area that was fashionable before the revolution, and home to many of the tourist hotels. That first evening, we toured the neighborhood looking at the many formerly single-family mansions, each housing several large families, that now stood in major disrepair.
Miguel told me about his life, and the situation for gays in Cuba. In socialist Cuba, most people make about 200 to 300 pesos a week, which averages out to about $15 in U.S. funds. They are given coupon books each month, which guarantee them six pounds of rice, one pound of meat, a bar of soap per family, milk for families with children, and a few other items.
Everything else they are told to buy with their pesos at the government shops. But there is very little of worth at peso stores, so Cubans go to the dollar stores — when and if they can get dollars. For vegetables and pork or the skinniest chickens I’ve ever seen, they go to the farmers’ markets, where those pesos will buy only a few of the essentials for the barest of meals.
At La Rampa and Avenue L, on a sidewalk next to the Coppelia Ice Cream Park where gay men congregate, we met one of Miguel’s friends, Rafael, a dancer and choreographer for one of the two television networks. They hadn’t seen each other in many months, and they took a few minutes to catch up. Miguel introduced me, and Rafael told us that he recently returned from the United States, where he had performed with his dance troupe.
I asked him what he thought of gay life in the States. He explained that there were officials with them at all times and they were unable to get out on their own. He stayed behind for medical treatment as the troupe returned to Cuba. Again, he was watched.
Miguel asked whether Rafael knew where there was a party. Because there are no gay bars, organizations or businesses of any kind, there are limited ways in which gays dare to meet. One of those ways is a system of private parties. Rafael said he had heard of one the next evening, but was unsure where, because the address is kept secret until that night so the police don’t find out. He suggested we go to La Rampa and ask around.
The two men said goodbye and hugged, and, out of nowhere, a car pulled up with four men inside, who asked if we wanted to go to a party. Miguel and Rafael politely declined, and urged me to move forward with them. As we walked, I’m told that neither knew the men, and that a government official recently said on TV that they would destroy the private homosexual parties. Plain-clothes police officers have entrapped gay men this way, and taken them — not to a party, but to a beating. I told them about gay-bashing; they nodded in recognition.
Felt like a bar
It was midnight, and we were at La Rampa, or 23rd and L streets, at the corner opposite the Hotel Habana Libre, a former Holiday Inn. A crowd of about 150 men strolled or chatted. We stepped into the crowd; I felt like I was in a gay bar.
We stopped and talked with many people that evening after learning there was no party that night. The gay men standing on La Rampa were dressed fairly well. When I asked about that, I was told relatives and friends from the United States send clothes.
People began to notice me, a stranger, which worried Miguel: He explained that because of the poverty in Cuba, someone might want to take advantage of me. Everybody wants to meet an American. Strange as it seems, considering the U.S. embargo, Americans are popular with the people — more popular than their own government.
As a tourist walking the streets, you’re constantly being hit upon, politely. Most people will ask you if you want to buy cigars; others will ask if you need a taxi or guide. Still others will engage you in conversation. Some will offer themselves or a friend.
Miguel and I agreed to meet Rafael the following evening on La Rampa to seek a party.
Miguel met me promptly at my hotel the next morning for a trip to old Havana.
Miguel explained gay life as we visited the historic sites. He told me that Cuban men have the old sense of masculinity and homosexuality brought from Spain and influenced by the Moors, whom he called Arabs.
Gay people who come out to their parents are more often than not thrown out of the house and, sometimes, beaten. Because there is a housing shortage, extended families often live together in one house or apartment. Being single could cause talk, so many gay men and lesbians marry for appearance’s sake.
From Old Havana we headed to Central Havana to see the El Foridita (one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite hangouts), and on to the former Presidential Palace — now the Museo de la Revolucion. Across the street from the Gran Teatro de la Habana, Miguel pointed out the Parque Central. At night, he said, that park is like La Rampa, but the gays there are farmers and less educated.
In search of a party
After a day of sightseeing, Miguel and I returned to La Rampa at 9:30 p.m. to meet Rafael and to try to find a party. Rafael was nowhere to be found, so Miguel chatted with people, but couldn’t find anyone with the address. Just as Miguel was about to give up, he ran into two friends, José and Luis.
They told us the party was within walking distance, but would begin at midnight. I invited them across the street for coffee at the Cafe LaRampa. Both were embarrassed by their lack of funds, and ashamed that a guest in their country had invited them for coffee. It took more than a half hour of intense talk to get them to agree to go for coffee.
In the restaurant, I suggested they order whatever they wished. Later, when the waiter arrived, they all insisted I order first, and then all three ordered the same thing. Over the next five days, the three would usher me around Havana, introduce me to gay life and bring me home to meet and dine with their families.
José is a mathematics teacher. Divorced with a 7-year-old girl, he lives with his parents, a sister, her husband and their son. He married so no one would discover he’s gay.
Luis, a 22-year-old nursing student, lives with his parents, and his brother and his pregnant wife. Luis was also married, but to a lesbian. He told me that he had not only come out to his parents, but they allowed him to bring friends home for the night. This made me wonder why he married. He said being openly gay would hurt him professionally.
All three men told me horror stories of gay professionals being ousted after discovery, and having to move away from the city and start life over. I explained that I thought there were no laws against gay people in Cuba. After Miguel translated, they all laughed.
No pride parades
Their questions about the gay community in the U.S. made me aware of how censored gay Cubans are. Most have never heard about gay-pride parades, and many are surprised to know there are gay newspapers in every large city.
Walking about 45 minutes, we passed the old botanical gardens. Luis pointed to an opening in the gate. Miguel told me this is where gays come to have sex.
The party was on the roof of a five-story walk-up. The entrance fee was about 50 cents. About 75 people — both men and women — were on the roof. There were no decorations. For music, two speakers were connected to a tape player, which played a combination of pre-recorded Spanish and American pop music.
Safety precautions included a clothes line around the edge of the roof (nobody fell off while I was there) and lookout people outside the front door.
The restroom consisted of two square cubicles made of shower curtains. The puddle grew larger over the next five hours, and stayed at the back of the roof. Refreshment options included buying cans of beer, tropical cola or homemade rum. Some people brought their own homemade wine or rum.
As the music blared, people danced while many more stood along the sides talking. Later that evening, my friends arranged for me to talk with several lesbians at the party. Marguerite, a 30-something brunette with long hair, would be called a lipstick lesbian if she were in the United States.
She was surprised when I asked the difference between how gay men and lesbians lived in Cuba. Miguel said her reply was “equally very bad.” She said men in Cuba have certain expectations of women: If they knew she were lesbian, she might be hurt.
Her friend said men consider it such a bad thing for a woman to be lesbian that they never consider it a possibility. They told me that when the government talks about the homosexual parties, they always refer to men.
I joked with them about a U.S. magazine calling 1996 the Year of the Lesbian, and tried to explain about the television show “Ellen” and movies such as “Bound.” They were fascinated, and asked whether I had seen “Strawberry and Chocolate.”
The ice cream parlor
I spent the next few days getting up late with a hangover from the homemade rum we drank at various private parties. I also toured, visited my new friends’ families, and had dinner in their homes.
Because the park at La Rampa was the main gay meeting place, I wanted to see whether it was any different than similar places in the States. It’s like New York City’s Christopher Street, Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Boulevard, or Philly’s Spruce Street. The exception: It’s probably the only meeting place there is.
In the center of the park was the Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor, an institution in Cuba known for the best ice cream in the country. The shop stayed open into the early evening, and lines were long (at times, there was a three- to four-hour wait for the many families who came out for a monthly treat). The secret was not in the taste: This ice cream can be bought with pesos. Of course, in this tourist apartheid, a hard-hearted tourist with dollars could go to the front of the line.
Every afternoon, a few gays and hustlers gathered there. The police made it a point to patrol the area, and stopped to ask Cubans for papers. In fact, every day I watched police doing just that.
At 10 p.m., the regular police departed, and gays began to congregate. At this time, someone who was having a party would begin to let the word out.
One evening, my new friends took me to visit their families. We hired a private taxi (a 1949 Chrysler), and headed up Avenue Salvador Allende toward their neighborhood in the suburbs.
On the way, I mentioned that it is a custom in my country to bring a present when visiting someone’s home. We debated this, and I finally insisted that I’d like to bring their mothers something. They decided that chocolate was the answer. We stopped at two dollar stores, but they had nothing. The third had large Nestle’s bars. I bought three for about $1.20 each.
José’s mother was a delight. Short and plump, this former teacher enjoyed showing her house. The house has been in the family since before the revolution, when it served as a private school, and she was the headmistress.
In the living room were beautiful plaster ceilings, two marble columns and a few pieces of furniture. She talked to me about trying to keep the house in good shape without the proper supplies. The rest of the house showed how the lack of money and supplies prevent repairs from being made. The house has three bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and the luxury of a courtyard.
She offered a cup of Cuban coffee. We sat in the living room, and when she brought out the four tiny cups of coffee, she apologized first for not being able to have more to share, then complained that she can’t even offer a guest real Cuban coffee because the government now mixes something in it.
Miguel’s mother’s apartment was a three-story walk-up with tiny rooms and very few material goods. A tiny balcony was home to chickens for eggs. She was thrilled with getting the chocolate bar, something she hadn’t seen in many weeks. After starting to put it in the refrigerator, she remembered it was broken. Because it would cost $200 to fix, she and her family have learned to live without it.
Cuba: then, now
She asked me many questions about the United States, then told us about what Cuba was like before the revolution: how beautiful Havana was, how everyone had food and fine clothes.
I asked why, if conditions were so good, did people support the revolution? She told us she was in the streets with The Beard (that’s what many Cubans call Castro), but he didn’t tell them he was a communist. All they wanted to do, she said, was end political corruption, crime and U.S. influence.
She lamented that she’d love to have it all back. Before we left, she said she had to give me a gift so I would remember her. She searched the house and finally gave me one of her demitasse cups. This woman who has nothing, gave me a gift that I’ll treasure for life.
Luis’ parents were preparing a typical Cuban meal for me when we arrived at their home. They live in one of those Eastern Bloc-type apartment complexes. We walked up the five flights of stairs, and they gave me a tour of the apartment. They unscrewed the light bulb after we left one room, and used it in the fixture of the next room we entered.
As we sat down to dinner, I saw that all the plates had ample black beans and rice, but my plate had a large amount of a meat casserole, while the others had about teaspoonful.
After dinner, we watched a Brazilian soap opera on TV. Then a government minister came on. They switched the channel, but he was everywhere. He spoke about a new government program to crack down and save the tourists from prostitutes. At this, a heated debate began. The consensus: There are so many other more important problems in Cuba, why bother with this little nuisance?
After dinner, we headed back to town for another party. There were many people milling around outside. Luis knew the person at the door, so we were cleared for entry.
The party was in what would be called a loft apartment: two big rooms and a balcony. The same music played; drinks were available All the furniture was cleared.
The room was packed. Hundreds of people were crammed into this apartment. My friends gathered around and told me to watch my pockets. Walking toward a wall to steady ourselves, we were groped several times. There was no back exit, only the front door, and if the police had come, it would have been a panic.
We decided to get out. Before we left, we saw a drag queen. Her name in English is Little Star, and she has a reputation for putting on good shows with her own voice. Of course, the shows are underground and arranged like the private parties. In Cuba, no drag queens live in drag.
On our way back to the hotel, we chatted about the party and the groping, which brought up sex. I asked about AIDS and safer-sex education. They told me the government has an AIDS-education program, but they rarely can get condoms at the peso pharmacies, and when they have them, they’re so bad that they often break; to be useful, men have to use two or three, so most men don’t use them.
I asked what they would tell American gays if they had the chance. They talked among themselves, and Miguel spoke for the group: “Appreciate your freedom, but never stop fighting for your rights.”
CUBAN DIARY: IT'S NOT THE EMBARGO, IT'S CASTRO
Since 1962, the United States has imposed an export embargo for Cuban goods. This has severely damaged the Cuban economy.
The embargo contributes little to the problems Cuba now faces. I’ve seen those same problems in Eastern Europe before the fall of communism, and believe the problem is the system, not the embargo. Nevertheless, I’d support lifting the U.S. embargo.
Work to change the Cuban dictatorship is being led by the European Economic Union, which has threatened to pull out of all joint-venture partnerships.
The people of Cuba don’t blame the United States for the embargo. They blame Castro.
Throughout my trip, I met scores of people. No one uttered anything pleasant about Castro. He is referred to as The Beard. While he and his dictatorship are universally disliked, there is little probability of any coup. How secure Castro feels is obvious: Walk past television and radio stations, and you won’t see security.
You hear a similar story told by almost everyone you meet: A friend or relative decided to leave Cuba, either legally when Castro opened the gates for a short time several years ago, or illegally. They were denounced by their family and friends, called anti-family, counter-revolutionary and, many times, beaten.
Several years later, they came back for a visit and they met the ones who hurled abuse on them as they were leaving. They looked them over and said, “You yelled at me when I left. Now look at me: I have food, clothing, dollars in my pocket, and you are hungry with nothing.”
The most popular radio station, aside from the music, is Radio Marti from the U.S. government. You hear it wherever you go. The people know it’s propaganda, but say they get propaganda from their government as well, only the United States’ is closer to the truth
If we, as a community, wish to assist our brothers and sisters in Cuba, we must urge Radio Marti to broadcast information of use to the gay community of Cuba. t
CUBAN DIARY: TRAVEL TIPS
If you go: The U.S. government forbids its citizens to travel to Cuba unless it is for educational or journalistic purposes. No tourism.
Getting there: If you have a U.S. visa, you can use the charter air services from Miami or Nassau. The flight lasts less then an hour. Flights also originate from Mexico and Canada.
Where to stay: The Cuban government will make you buy a hotel package with your tourist visa, but you can choose which one. Prices top out at about $125 a night for one of the best in Havana, which means air conditioning, television with CNN, and a lumpy bed. Top-end hotels include The Nacional (former home to mobster Meyer Lansky), The Melia Cohiba, Capri or the Habana Libre. Low-end hotels can be had for as little as $15 to $20 a night.
Health: Do not drink the water. Drink only bottled water (Aqua mineral), and only if you see it opened. Bring all medicines that you require; the pharmacies are dangerously low on supplies.
Dinning: Food is a problem for Cubans, not tourists. Try some of the new private restaurants in people’s homes.
Money: All foreigners must use U.S. currency. This, at times, is comical as you watch a Russian spending U.S. dollars in their former colony. But, to Cubans, this has been a nightmare, because they are paid in Cuban pesos, which have no worth off the island. For Cubans, the exchange rate is about 21 pesos to the dollar.
Transportation: Use tourist taxis. They are metered and will promptly return for you if asked, even many hours later. You can negotiate with a private taxi (which will usually be one of the classic cars), but there have been cases recently where tourists have been literally taken for a ride. Never use the camel! Camels are large buses pulled by a truck cab. They are overcrowded, and many people leave the camel without their wallets, watches and other valuables.
Getting out and home: Re-confirm your flight, and get to the airport at least two hours before your flight — even if your flight is at 7 a.m. If you do not, your seat will be sold, and re-arranging another seat might be a problem.