Letter from Havana: Gays, Catholics, and Transvestites in the New Cuba

Che Guevara would have been puzzled by the joy of this past Christmas in Cuba, the first time this traditionally Catholic island has officially celebrated the holiday since the revolution. But Christmas isn’t the only thing that might confuse Che as 1999 begins, marking the 40th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

Imagine him walking into, say, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) No. 12, a Communist Party meeting hall in central Havana. Back in the old days — meaning anytime while Cuba’s economy was still being subsidized by the Soviet Union — he might have found party loyalists gathered beneath its stucco arches discussing what it would take for an aspiring individual to become a truly selfless communist or what Che called “The New Man.”

There was certainly a new man down at CDR No. 12 one sweaty Friday night last year. Calling herself “Dianna,” she wore a retrograde, psychedelic multicolored dress with gold glitter while waving a plastic fan by her face to keep her blue mascara from running. Her dark hair was tied up in a bun with a gaudy plastic ornament, at the center of which was a rose. Dianna, one of 12 contestants waiting to perform in a transvestite lip-syncing competition — now held at CDR No. 12 twice a year — fretted back stage behind a curtain made of plastic sheets painted black.

Facing the stage, wooden benches were filled with people of all ages and genders. Behind the curtain and backstage area, families with children perched atop what remained of the CDR’s crumbling rear wall and nearby falling buildings. Everyone waved whenever a BBC camerawoman panned them. Organizers of the event tested the sound system, briefly playing a song by Pat Benatar in Spanish. The festive mood was intensified by warm rum sold in plastic cups.

“This doesn’t have any political significance,” explained “El Rey” (The King), the master of ceremonies. A big, bearded man wearing a long-sleeve, ultramarine shirt, he declined to further identify himself. “This is a natural development that has finally come,” he went on. “Everything has its moment.”

But it wasn’t long ago — certainly within the last five years — that Cuban Communist Party officials harassed, arrested and even imprisoned transvestites and homosexuals, whom they considered “social deviants” who do society no good. Not any more. With nearly all Cubans fuming about their declining standard of living, the party needs to release lots of steam. Today nonconformists from cross-dressers to Catholics are embraced by party officials — the first ruling Communists anywhere to celebrate Christmas. Catholics and gays are even allowed to evangelize, as long as they do not allow themselves to become platforms for dissent.

What constitutes dissent in a country still under the strict control of the Communist Party is far from clear. But it is obvious that Cuba is changing dramatically. On any given day, La Epoca, the largest dollar store in Havana, is packed with people perusing everything from American brand-name hair coloring to disposable diapers. Everyone on the island either has dollars or wants them. Not unlike the wild market forces that were unleashed in Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union, supply and demand in Cuba are already rushing to meet.

They don’t always do so respectably. Stimulated by rising demand, mainly from foreigners, prostitution has become commonplace. Cuba is now second only to Southeast Asia as a sex tourism destination. To advertise their services, some professionals wear huge platform heels, even on the beach. More than a few there and elsewhere look like teenagers. In Old Havana, near the Malecon, Havana’s seaside boulevard, I saw one girl, maybe 14, sporting bright green Spandex; she stood wantonly near two uniformed Cuban police.

The island is reaching a new equilibrium as it metamorphoses into a service economy while the productive capacity of the state steadily wanes. Take the island’s brain drain. Though the government makes available no relevant statistics, many of the country’s top professionals have left in recent years, while others have stayed but found other livelihoods. I met a Cuban nuclear physicist and his wife, a doctor, in Bogotá. In Cuba, I rented rooms from families led by a former mechanical engineer and a chemistry professor.

Many students, too, are leaving school as the steady exodus from traditional employment continues. People who can leave the island usually go. Anyone who wants to fly must first collect enough bribe money to negotiate an exit visa. Far more Cubans have paddled out on makeshift wooden rafts. Nearly every Cuban one meets has a relative in Florida, New Jersey or elsewhere in the United States. Most Cubans at least know of someone, too, who died at sea.

Among those who make it, many send back remittances to family members left behind. In 1997, a United Nations study estimated that they totaled around $800 million a year. Most of the dollars that reach the island eventually wind up in state stores like La Epoca. So far the government has maintained its monopoly on foreign consumer goods, and their sales to Cubans earn more for the state now than even foreign sales of the island’s main commodity, sugar.

Lots of state goods, materials and other resources, however, are also flowing away from Cuba. Shadowy street hustlers sell boxes of quality Cohiba cigars (or sometimes only harsh imitations) for far less than they would cost in government stores. Diesel fuel, which costs 35 cents a liter in a legal transaction with a government supplier, can be bought on the black market for as little as five cents a liter.

Across the island, Cubans are pilfering government stockpiles like never before. “They know what’s going on,” said one source who has dealt with party officials. “How could anyone not see it?”

But Fidel Castro’s regime is one that, in the past, did not tolerate corruption. Back in the 1980s, Castro even privately lambasted the Nicaraguan Sandinistas for taking with their own hands from what became widely know as their ” piñata.” Today in Cuba, though Castro still discourages Communist Party members from conspicuous consumption, an unknown number of officials have their own hands inside Cuba’s piñata, which is anything on the island owned by the state. Every day Cubans steal more such candy, while all such theft is only the system’s loss. As long as most of the dollars, however, still eventually find their way to stores like La Epoca, party officials don’t seem to care.

It would be foolish to flag this trend as a sign of Castro’s imminent fall. Now 72, he looks more and more like a stubborn old commander in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel who outlasts everyone. Castro’s old enemy, voluble Miami expatriate Jorge Mas Canosa, died last year.

Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how the new equilibrium could be self-sustaining over time. The rank corruption that allows it to take place is steadily eroding the social gains of the revolution along with the legitimacy of the state. Despite whatever other criticism one might have of the revolution, Cuba under Castro did succeed like few other developing countries in promoting health services, raising literacy rates and educating its population. Castro also, for better or worse, nationalized private property and produced a society without anyone who was either extremely rich or poor.

Today, however, the quality of all basic services provided by the state, except for those catering to tourists, is declining. At the same time, the underground spread of market forces is only watering criminal syndicates of all kinds that are just beginning to sprout. Meanwhile, the Communist Party has been slow to respond to new challenges like taxation as well as free-market regulation and law enforcement control. New kinds of transactions now occur daily, like the sale of cocaine. Once unheard of on the street in Cuba, it is now available on the Malecon like nearly everything else.

Beneath the veneer of a communist system, the basest kind of capitalist decadence is spreading like mold. Everyone in Cuba, of course, can see it, and the Communist Party youth, especially, has even begun denouncing the fungus out loud. Young Communists often invoke Che, whose memory and example are still widely admired, while promoting a particularly Communist kind of moral revival. They decry the rising rate of prostitution, which they blame on individuals making poor moral choices. Apparently few of these youthful idealists have been to Havana’s Museum of the Revolution, which blames the prostitution that flourished before Castro’s takeover on capitalist decadence and the harsh choices it forced upon young Cuban women.

Che’s New Man was not expected to go for prostitution. But he wasn’t expected to look like Dianna, either. Though she won the last two lip-syncing contests back to back, some of her detractors claim that she had an unfair advantage. At both competitions, Dianna’s supporters, many of whom she knows from the hospital where she is being treated for AIDS, dominated the audience. The detractors say that their raucous applause may have unduly influenced the judges. Nonsense, says Dianna, CDR No. 12’s reigning queen.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.