HAVANA – At least four people were arrested on Saturday after clashes between police and participants of a gay pride rally in Havana, the first unauthorized march to be held in Cuba for decades.
Members of independent civil society groups convened the pride march by word of mouth and through social media without permission from the authorities, after the government had canceled the traditional “conga” dance against homophobia sponsored by the official National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX). Authorities cited the economic crisis gripping the country as the reason for the cancellation.
The rally’s suspension announced this week by CENESEX, which is led by legislator and sexologist Mariela Castro – daughter of former president Raul Castro – caused much consternation among the group, which criticized Cuban authorities for holding other massive activities and more expensive events such as the recent Labor Day parade.
In a second statement, the CENESEX said that the conga would have been used for destabilizing purposes by “counter-revolutionary forces,” without specifying how.
“We do not understand why (today) something that has been an achievement has been canceled, which has been part of us during all of this time (...) We demand to march, that the guarantees be respected,” Yasmany Sanchez told EFE before the start of the march.
There were doubts as to whether the activists would heed the call to march or be able to make it to the Central Park in Old Havana – the rally’s starting point – or if security forces would block streets or ban activists from accessing the area.
Despite a strong police presence, the participants began to arrive at the designated time draped in large rainbow flags and equipped with two arguments: that to parade and march doesn’t cost anything, and that they were not protesting against anything but in favor of their rights.
“To hold hands, there is no need for economy,” activist Mirna told reporters, while Elier Crespo, of the Afro-Cuban Alliance, said that “since this costs nothing, we are here.”
He also added that “canceling the march is a setback, because the people were already involved and they accept us even more (now).”
“Why do we do this? So that what has been achieved is not lost. So that they continue to see us as normal, we are their neighbors, their friends, their family...” added the emotional Crespo.
Some 300 people began to march peacefully through the promenade Paseo del Prado without any police intervention amid euphoric participants who said that what was happening was historic.
The activists marching chanted slogans like “Yes we can,” “For Cuba and for our rights the greatest,” “Diverse Cuba,” “No to fear” and even the catchy chorus of the Jennifer Lopez song “El anillo pa cuando? (Where’s my ring?) in a reference to the postponed approval of same-sex marriage rights on the island.
But the joy only lasted until the march reached the end of the promenade, where police officers blocked demonstrators from continuing towards the Malecon.
Clashes then broke out, with authorities urging the crowd to disperse from the unauthorized march. Several activists responded that they did not need permission to exercise their right to walk through the capital city.
Ignoring police warnings, the protesters continued towards the Malecon, purportedly to attend a party initially scheduled as part of the official agenda of the LGTBI rights events for the day organized by the CENESEX.
A bus-load of police and plainclothes officers arrived at the scene to break up the crowd amid angry protests.
While some protesters began leaving, several remained to stage a sit-in and kiss their partners in the middle of the Paseo del Prado in a show of defiance.
The conga that the CENESEX canceled would have been the first to be held since the approval in April of the new Cuban Constitution, which initially was expected to include an amendment that would pave the way for gay marriage on the island, but which was not ultimately included in the text.
The issue had caused huge controversy and provoked a major campaign against it by the Evangelical and Catholic churches.
The LGTBI movement has been gaining traction over the last decade in Cuba, where, in the early years following the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, homosexuals were persecuted and sent to labor camps called Military Units to Aid Production, in what is considered to be one of the darkest chapters in the island’s modern history.