Cuban LGBT rights activist Mariela Castro-Espín’s U.S. visit stirs controversy

Mariela Castro-Espín

Mariela Castro-Espín

SAN FRANCISCO — Mariela Castro-Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and niece to former Cuba President Fidel Castro, has stirred a firestorm of criticism with her controversial visit to the United States to speak at a conference hosted by the Latin American Studies Association.

Castro-Espín is the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), and has built an international reputation as an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights.

Mariela Castro-Espín

In her native Cuba, Castro-Espín lobbied the government to cover sex reassignment surgery under the national health plan, which it has since 2008, and to legalize same-sex marriages, which so far it has not.

U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-FL) known for her dual positions of being a staunch anti-Castro Cuban American and one of Congress’ most outspoken Republicans in support of LGBT equality, is harshly critical of Castro-Espín’s U.S. visit.

“The Castro regime was particularly brutal and harsh in its treatment of members of the Cuban gay community and as part of its revisionist push the dictatorship wants the U.S. to believe its lies because it respects no one’s rights,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Miami Herald.

“The Cuban dictatorship would round up members of the gay and AIDS community and send them to forced labor camps where their most basic human rights came under withering assaults. This is all a public relations ploy meant to soften Cuba’s image abroad and it will not work,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Earlier this week, Castro-Espín told an audience at San Francisco General Hospital about transgender health care in Cuba, that she would vote for Barack Obama if she lived in this country.

But her endorsement of Obama was quickly met with criticism from the Mitt Romney campaign.

“President Obama should disavow the endorsement of the daughter of Cuban dictator Raul Castro,” said Romney campaign adviser Alberto Martinez, in a statement.

“It is galling that an envoy from a Communist regime would come to our country and lecture the American people on who to vote for while the regime refuses to hold free and fair elections and systematically violates the human rights of its people,” said Martinez.

“The decision by the Obama Administration to welcome Mariela Castro to our shores — a decision that has received rightful criticism from both Republicans and Democrats — continues to be an egregious affront to the people of Cuba and those who love freedom everywhere.”

Castro-Espín’s remarks comes as she is in the United States for a multi-day visit devoted largely to meeting with gay and transgender rights activists and an academic conference where she is scheduled to chair a panel on sexual diversity.

She was one of at least 60 Cuban scholars who were granted U.S. visas to attend Thursday’s meeting of the Latin American Studies Association.

“If we don’t change our patriarchal and homophobic culture…we cannot advance as a new society, and that’s what we want, the power of emancipation through socialism,” Castro-Espín said, speaking on LGBT rights in Cuba.

Gay Cuban Americans in Miami are furious that Fidel Castro’s niece is meeting this week and next with LGBT activists in San Francisco and New York City, according to the Miami Herald.

“For Mariela Castro, or anybody else under the Castro dictatorship, to say they are representing the rights of anyone is an insult to the hundreds of thousands who have either been killed, jailed or assassinated by their own hands, or the nearly 100,000 people who’ve jumped into the ocean looking for freedom who haven’t made it here,” said Herb Sosa, executive director of Unity Coalition, Miami-Dade County’s leading Hispanic gay rights group.

Castro-Espín is also scheduled to attend events in New York City before returning to Cuba. She previously visited the United States in 2002 during Republican President George W. Bush’s administration when she was granted a visa to attend events in Los Angeles, Virginia, and Washington.

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