Posted on Sat, Apr. 23, 2005

A Long Way from Mariel

Invited to leave by the goverment, gays and lesbians -- and a few pretenders -- took the opportunity to start new lives
By DANIEL SHOER-ROTH . [email protected]

The first time the Cuban government detained Elio Poblador, he was 15 and accused of being close to someone involved in a clandestine sex party. The army drafted him two years later. He served a few months until the Castro regime jailed him for pederasty -- as it defined homosexual acts.

For two years, Poblador went from one prison to another, suffering humiliation and physical abuse. Eventually, the regime sent him to a special farm for ''queers,'' where he would be ''re-educated.'' He wasn't allowed to study at a university, so he did whatever jobs he could get in Cuba.

''To be gay was a crime in Cuba, because it was contrary to what Fidel [Castro] wanted to do with the New Man. We were a social burden,'' said Poblador, now 55 and living in Miami. ``Stigmatized like that, I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to go away forever.''

To escape the repressive regime, Poblador and thousands of other gay men and lesbians -- plus some heterosexuals who lied about their orientation in order to be expelled from the country -- left Cuba on the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Some would later perish of AIDS, a malady that had yet to be identified when they first reached a country where they felt free to be themselves. Many others made new lives for themselves, living openly as gay men and women.

''This has been a leap into the open,'' said Miguel Correa, a writer who left Cuba during the boatlift and has just published a book titled The Fury of Human Discourse (PurePlay Press). ``Despite AIDS and other adverse circumstances, we have succeeded here by living openly the way we are.''

The Mariel exodus offered a golden opportunity for these men and women to leave behind official contempt and social alienation.

From the early stages of the massive exodus, the regime described homosexuals as part of the ''scum'' that needed to be discarded so the socialist society could be purified. To flaunt homosexuality -- or to fake it -- before the authorities was a sure way to obtain an exit permit.

Four years after Poblador arrived in Miami, he founded a clothing factory, which he later lost to Hurricane Andrew. He now works in an office for a multinational company and drives a limo.

After arriving in South Florida, some gay men and lesbians faced a double dose of discrimination, as marielitos -- the name given to the 125,000 Cubans who left in that exodus -- and as homosexuals.

''To gays, that was a double stigma, a double discrimination,'' said Emilio Bejel, a professor at the University of California at Davis and author of Gay Cuba Nation (University of Chicago Press, 2001). ``That made it all that much harder for them to adapt.''

For many, the stigma remains. Several gay Mariel refugees declined to speak to The Herald.

One of those who put a face on the gay Mariel refugee was writer Reinaldo Arenas, whose autobiography, Before Night Falls , was made into a successful movie. When he entered the last phase of AIDS in 1990, he committed suicide, leaving a note that blamed Castro for his death.

Cuba's discrimination against homosexuals was useful to some people who weren't gay and who couldn't get an exit permit.

''Many heterosexual bachelors identified themselves as homosexuals because that facilitated their relatively swift departure from Cuba,'' said Uva de Aragón, associate director of Florida International University's Institute for Cuban Research.

Hugo Cancio, a Cuban-American businessman in Miami, remembers his mother telling him that the only way he could leave on the boatlift was by passing himself off as gay. He was 16, and just a few months earlier he had been expelled from school for making jokes about Castro.

''I had no future in Cuba,'' said Cancio, 41, a movie and television producer.

Nervously, he pretended before a military review panel that he was gay. An officer who recognized him -- Cancio was the grandson of a lieutenant colonel who had been an army doctor -- said: ``I didn't know that the family of my distinguished friend, Dr. Morúa, included faggots. Let him go away!''

Being gay in Castro's Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s was very difficult, says Jorge. Now 50 and the owner of a store on Calle Ocho, he asked that his surname not be published.

One breezy evening, Jorge, then 23, was walking to the Coppelia ice cream shop in Havana -- a popular meeting place for gays -- when a policeman asked for his identification papers. Without warning, the policeman rubbed Jorge's face with a white handkerchief, removing some of the young man's makeup. He immediately ''began pummeling me,'' Jorge recalls.

It wasn't the first time Jorge had been humiliated by the Revolutionary National Police. He had been arrested twice, once for wearing sandals on his way to the beach and later for wearing bright orange slacks.

He was sentenced to six months in prison for refusing to work as an alligator catcher or a road builder, jobs usually assigned to people who appeared gay or disagreed with the regime.

Although the roots of prejudice toward gays preceded Fidel Castro, his revolution increased the discrimination.

In Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara's plan to create a ''new socialist man,'' there was no room for homosexuals, a stance buttressed by traditional Cuban machismo .

In 1965, the government created the Military Units for the Support of Production, which were hard-labor camps for ''misguided youths,'' including a large number of gays.

''I believe the revolution institutionalized many of the prejudices against gays that existed for a long time in Cuba but had not been criminalized,'' Bejel said.

Starting in the 1990s, the gay community in Cuba began to experience greater tolerance and social recognition.

Just the same, gay Mariel refugees like Poblador and Correa don't care to turn back the clock, nor do they want to return to Cuba.

''I don't find any obstacles to my fulfillment as an individual,'' says Correa, the writer, who lives in New Jersey. ``I feel I live on another planet, where my sexual conduct does not conflict with the moral values of the people around me. And that's freedom.''

Herald staff writers Wilfredo Cancio-Isla and Steve Rothaus contributed to this report.


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