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From Havana to Quito: A refugee’s fight for LGBT rights in Cuba

For members of Cuba’s LGBT community, two choices exist: remain in country and face possible persecution, or brave the lengthy, uncertain road to asylum.

QUITO, Ecuador — On her 15th birthday, a girl in Cuba gets a big party. A boy might get cash for a prostitute.

For Alberto Garcia Martinez’s 15th birthday, way back in 1974, his parents gave him money to go shopping in Havana’s city center. He was subsequently picked up in a police sweep targeting gays. For an effeminate teen who did not yet realize he was gay, the experience was both terrifying and confusing.

At his court appearance, his mother, a high-ranking Cuban bureaucrat, sat next to him, weeping out of shame.

We spoke in the office of Asylum Access Ecuador, a legal aid group helping the thousands of Cuban refugees in Ecuador’s capital, where Garcia says he fled after being persecuted in Cuba for his advocacy on behalf of gay rights. His story offers a window into the ongoing struggles of the LGBT community that challenges Cuba’s official narrative of progress on the issue. It also highlights the reluctance of Ecuador’s own government to recognize the limits of political dissent in Cuba.

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In pre-revolutionary Cuba, many gay men became involved in a prostitution industry that catered to military personnel and tourists from the US, although homosexuality at the time was criminalized. In the decades following the Revolution, gays and lesbians faced official persecution in Cuba, including the threat of forced labor and prison.

Critics argue that, while the revolution may have inherited the biases of the prevailing Roman Catholic cultural order, persecution of the LGBT community was really institutionalized under Castro, who associated homosexuality with bourgeois decadence and the American sex tourist-oriented prostitution industry of the Batista years.

Reinaldo Arenas, whose memoir “Before Night Falls” was made into a film starring Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp, wrote that the 1960s were “when all the new laws against homosexuals came into being, when the persecution started and concentration camps were opened, when the sexual act became taboo while the ‘new man’ was being proclaimed and masculinity exalted.” Castro’s was a macho revolution that idealized the values of rural living, and he reportedly claimed that in the countryside there were no homosexuals. The paranoid crackdown against the LGBT community was further heightened by an obsession with national security in the years of CIA meddling that led to the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Things have improved since, and Fidel Castro eventually took responsibility for the persecution of gays during the 1960s and 1970s, calling it a “great injustice.”

Today his niece, Mariela Castro, is an internationally recognized advocate for LGBT rights (in May she was honored with a gay equality award in Philadelphia, but not everyone was happy with the decision: Wendy Iriepa, a transgender woman and famous Cuban LGBT activist who used to work with Castro, took issue with her portrayal of progress in Cuba: “Everything is fake, it’s false,” she told the Miami Herald. “The gays still feel repression. Mariela sells to the world the same image the Cuban government does.”)

In Garcia’s case, the court sent him to a “rehabilitation center.” It was a searing experience — he worked to project an air of strength to avoid being raped by older men as some of the other boys were — but also one that inspired a concern for gay rights.

After he was released, Garcia finished high school, married a woman (to please his mother), and had two daughters. He joined the art and theater community, fell in love with a man, and divorced his wife. He found a job as an artistic director at a popular nightclub, and he had dreams of studying in Colombia, where his boyfriend was from, and becoming a film director. For his first subject, he began a documentary focused on the plight of gays in Cuba.

Although he didn’t have a press pass, he started interviewing people and filming police roundups and crackdowns on gay clubs. When it was completed, his boyfriend returned to Colombia, where they planned to screen it.

In February 2011, as he awaited a response from the Colombian embassy, Garcia threw a party. He lived with his parents in a neighborhood that was home to many Americans. He had often tried to engage his American neighbors, but they usually declined, saying they didn’t want to get him in trouble with Cuban authorities.

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As he tells it, on their way out that night, he and his friends passed the residence of the American mission and noticed there was an event going on with lots of cars parked outside.

Garcia recognized one as a typical unmarked Cuban police car. It annoyed him. One of his daughters had married an American and was living happily in Miami. She told him she had more pairs of shoes than she could count. He had an idyllic vision of freedom in the US, and thought Cuba was 30 years behind it.

But he thought the stakeout was just some local cop harassing the Americans, and he snapped a photo, telling himself he would go file a complaint at the police station. But instead the cops in the car stopped his group and detained him and a Columbian friend, taking them to the Interior Ministry for an all-night interrogation.

His friend was held for 10 days and then deported. Garcia’s mother was able to secure his release after just two days through a friend in the government. But the police subsequently searched his family’s home and found his documentary material. His family kicked him out. His employment contract at the nightclub was canceled, and he couldn’t rent a flat because he kept getting disqualified by background checks.

He soon found himself out on the street. At the time, he says, he still didn’t know what he was being investigated for — did the authorities suspect he was an American informant? Or was it his documentary material? Then he found out that the investigation concerned “subversive propaganda.”

Officials told him he would be unable to leave the country. Garcia was constantly subjected to interrogations. Eventually he got involved with Damas en Blanco, a group of women dissidents who initially formed to stand up for their imprisoned sons and husbands, and he started his own group advocating for gay-rights.

Garcia was demonstrating on International Human Rights Day, he says, when police hit him and knocked out his teeth. He was facing an 11 year sentence for “resisting arrest,” but his mother’s contact got it reduced to a 200 peso fine. He continued his political activities but soon began receiving calls saying he would disappear.

One day, he was contacted by a prominent Cuban working a professor of diction in Ecuador. She told him she could arrange to get him out of Cuba. Garcia’s daughter wired her $3,000. But once in Ecuador he ended up a virtual hostage, living in her house while her husband continued to extort money from his daughter, threatening to have him deported. Eventually Roberto confronted her at a party and a gay Ecuadorian there who heard his story helped him to escape to Quito, where he filed for asylum.

He was rejected — on the basis of an executive decree imposing a deadline to file for asylum within 15 days of entering the country (AAE has since filed a case in the constitutional court on his behalf, challenging the decree).

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Ecuador is now home to the highest number of refugees in Latin America. But President Rafael Correa subsequently clamped down dramatically on the number of refugees being recognized and began revoking refugee status from some of those who had already received it.

Daniela Salazar, a refugee law professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, says that the changes in Ecuador’s refugee policies are a function of Correa’s foreign relations.

In recent years, tens of thousands of Cubans have entered Ecuador, giving rise to a market for arranged marriages to secure a longterm visa. Many Cubans are presumably looking to earn a better living. But a great many others initially applied for political asylum, said Salazar, a number that dropped off considerably as Cubans grew discouraged by their dismal acceptance rate.

“People have come here and made the case that because they could be jailed for their political opinions they deserve refugee status. There are very, very few Cubans who have been accepted as refugees. But some of them have very strong cases… You could make a case for every Cuban almost, that they don’t enjoy human rights there.”

“With Cubans what happens is, again it’s the political message. Correa doesn’t want to say that there are problems in Cuba at all. This government won’t recognize that people are being politically persecuted in Cuba,” she said.

Now Garcia has been told by American authorities that he has been accepted for resettlement in the US and is undergoing his last security check. But the process often takes several months. In the meantime, he has had trouble finding a place to live because of housing discrimination against gays, people of color, and Cubans.

Faced with a daunting reality in Ecuador, he struggles to maintain his optimism, and is eager to join his daughter in Miami to begin a new life. “I’m 54,” he tells me, “but in Miami I’ll be 20.”

Anna-Katarina Gravgaard contributed reporting.

William Wheeler’s reporting in Ecuador was supported by a grant from the French-American Immigration Journalism Fellowship program.