Book review: Ian Lumsden’s Machos, maricones and gays: Cuba and homosexuality Reviewed by John Pateman and John Vincent.

Ian Lumsden, Machos, maricones and gays: Cuba and homosexuality. London, Latin America Bureau (ISBN: 1899365125) [originally published by Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1996, ISBN 1-56639-371-7]

Originally published in the US by Temple University Press, Philadelphia, this is an in-depth study of gay men in Cuba from pre-revolution to the present.

The history of the treatment of gay men in Cuba very much reflects Cubas recent history – this falls into four periods: before the revolution in 1959; the early years of the Revolution (1960s and 1970s); the rectification process (1980s); the Special Period (1990s). Before the Revolution in 1959, Cuba was used as Americas playground, and gay, black and working class people suffered persecution under the Batista dictatorship. After the Revolution, the situation of all oppressed groups improved in Cuba, but this level of improvement was uneven. Some groups such as women benefited quickly and obviously: a mass organisation for women, the FMC, was formed, and the number of women in professional positions increased greatly. A Family Code was introduced in 1975, which constitutionally made women equal to men, but, nevertheless, Cubas powerful machismo endured, and it is only very recently that issues such as domestic violence have been discussed in the Cuban press.

The Revolution was also quick to condemn racism, and several senior government positions were taken up by Black revolutionaries. Racism is still a fact of life in Cuba, but Fidel Castro has stated that the Revolution has done all it can to stamp this problem out the rest is down to the people themselves.

However, much less effort was made to tackle homophobia, and during what the Cubans now refer to as the lost years of the Revolution the 1970s and early 1980s there was active repression of gay people and institutionalised homophobia. Ian Lumsden attributes this to Cubas Spanish and African heritage (explored in an essay by Tomas Robaina on Cuban sexual values and African religious beliefs), but points out that the Catholic Church has had little negative impact on this issue.

Ian Lumsden is very critical of the Cuban leadership in general, and Fidel Castro in particular, whom, he says, plays on his macho image as The Commander in Chief. Fidel does not seem guilty of direct homophobia, but of a more indirect variety which refuses to discuss or accept the gay community as part of the revolutionary struggle. As a result, many gay people who identified with the revolution (and who would have been among its greatest assets) became disenchanted and alienated. Many left Cuba and some even joined the anti-Castro movement in Miami.

At the same time, refreshingly, this book does not take as its starting point the need to be critical of Cuba just because of the countrys political position. Ian Lumsden is an associate professor of political science at Atkinson College, York University, Ontario, Canada, and writes in his introduction:

Postrevolutionary Cuba has at various times filled me with hope and admiration, exasperation and frustration, anger and despair. I have admired the social changes that have benefitted countless Cubans, and I have been outraged by the Castro regimes authoritarian treatment of some of its citizens, including friends of mine, who have been jailed, forced into exile, or cowed in their daily lives. I have marveled at the formulation and implementation of programs that the rest of Latin America cries out for. Yet I have also been exasperated by the regimes bureaucratic nature and disgusted by its dogmatic imposition of policies that were foredoomed to failure and that inevitably brought hardships to ordinary Cubans. (p xi)

In the 1980s, Cuba went through a rectification process, aimed at breathing new economic and political life into the country. Old policies and practices were challenged, many of them were scrapped, and the country generally opened up. This created space for the gay community, and others, to raise their concerns and discuss their requirements as citizens of Cuba. This led to changes in the law and sex education. The erosion of traditional machismo accelerated, but a setback occurred as a result of AIDS, which Cuba reacted to by confining PWAs in secure sanatoria. This policy has since been reversed.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tightening of the US blockade, Cuba entered a Special Period during the 1990s. This impacted on all sectors of Cuban society, but had a disproportionate effect on the gay community. Cuba has now got over this crisis, partly through increased tourism, although this has proved a double-edged sword the economy is recovering, but organised crime and other related phenomena have reappeared.

Gay life in Havana today reflects what Lumsden calls an imperfect revolution in an imperfect world. Gay people are able to make a much greater contribution to the revolution and to key sectors of Cuban life. One major breakthrough occurred in the field of cinema with the release and official approval of Strawberries and Chocolate, whose main characters are a homophobic Young Communist and his gay friend. In the music industry new wave Cuban singer-songwriters such as Pablo Milanes were breaking down barriers through songs such as The Original Sin which demands the right of gay people in Cuba to feel that they can see their tree, their park, their sun, like you and Ithat they can surrender their hearts in the most sweet intimacy of love. Cuba, which has a rich cultural life, has used the cultural industries to challenge age-old prejudices, and now there are many well-known gay Cuban poets, actors, directors and singers. The manifesto of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Cuba (28 July 1994) makes a list of simple demands for more space, more meeting places, more freedom and more means of expression:

Every individuals sexual freedom should be respected.

This should have been recognised by the Cuban leadership in 1959, but the drive for collective socialism trampled many individual aspirations in its path. The US blockade of Cuba distorted Cubas development, but this is no excuse for a revolutionary leadership and Communist Party to depart from basic Marxist-Leninist principles.

As Ian Lumsden says, recognising that there are very stereotyped views, both of Cuba and of gay men:

My study has been written as a contribution to this discourse. To a certain extent it represents a response to the lack of information, to misinformation, and to prejudiced opinions, particularly within the gay communities of North America of which I am a part. My work is also intended to enlighten general readers, including those Leftists who ignore the oppression of homosexuals when they denounce violation of human rights in the Third World. (p xxiii)

This is a fascinating book, in part the result of personal interest and travel in Latin America and in part a well-researched study. In places, we felt that it was a bit too well-researched, as references and quotes got in the way of some of the points Lumsden was making, but, overall, this is an important work which deserves wider readership. It presents a balanced view of Cuba and homosexuality. It is critical but generally supportive of the broad social improvements that have taken place in Cuba since 1959. Cuba provides health, education and social services which are the envy of most developing countries and many developed countries. Cuba has achieved much over the last 41 years, but some shadows including the treatment of gay people lie across these achievements. It is to be hoped that the struggle to build socialism in Cuba will continue in the future, with the active and welcome involvement of all sectors of the population.

John Pateman & John Vincent October 2000