Gay and Proud in Havana: Celebration of Diversity Brings Out Best and Worst of Cuba
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HAVANA -- We are on a main city block early Saturday morning. People gathering are high-spirited, almost giddy.
As people begin to form a line, I exhale deeply, imagining it is just one of the everyday lines that are the Cuban reality. This line, however, is different. It begins to shift, snake, jump and dance. This is a conga line. There are hundreds of us, perhaps even a thousand, and we are dancing down one of the central streets of Havana. And we are not just some random group of people -- we are a group of lesbians, gay men, transvestites, transsexuals and bisexuals, along with heterosexual friends, and sometimes even families, all gathering for the International Day Against Homophobia.
For over a week, activities have been taking place throughout Havana -- as well as in a few provinces in the country -- to educate about sexual diversity, and to celebrate it.
While the events that have been taking place have the feeling of Gay Pride, they are also Cuba’s version, meaning it is organized for the people, not by the people. But this is Cuba -- a place where all passions cannot, and are not, controlled from above.
I felt the contradictions that are Cuba surface in a palpable way on the Saturday of the conga line. I saw some of the things I love most about this contradictory island, and some of the things I like least.
The main event Saturday began first thing in the morning, something not typical of a weekend celebration in Cuba, or, better said, a country where things typically begin early, but people attend late. But on this day, despite the early hour, by 10 a.m. thousands were flowing in and out of the Pabellon Cuba, one of Havana’s main exhibition centers. It was an important and strategic decision to locate the main event in the Pabellon. For this reason, let me contextualize it for you.
Its history goes back to the first years of the revolution. It was built with the intention of being a central pavilion for art, music and politics. Since the early 1960s, book fairs, art and artisan exhibits, concerts and musical performances, almost always free, have taken place here. It is an open-air pavilion, where all can see and hear what is taking place.
The Pabellon is located centrally on “la Rampa,” also known as 23rd Street. La Rampa is the sort of midtown Manhattan meets city hall meets the Village region of Havana. Many of the most important government buildings are here, with the exception of the Organization of Popular Power and the Communist Party headquarters (both of which sit in the Plaza of the Revolution). Press agencies, health ministries, and the political apparatus are located in buildings up and down la Rampa.
Two blocks away, on Calle N, is the Hotel Nacional, which hosts some of Cuba’s most important international dignitaries, from Presidents Cristina Kirshner of Argentina and Hu Jintao of China, to Queen Elizabeth, Kate Moss and Jack Nicholson. A little farther up la Rampa on L Street is the Habana Libre, previously the U.S. Havana Hilton, transformed after the triumph of the revolution into the headquarters for the leadership of the revolution, who aptly renamed it the Free Havana Hotel. It was there that Che Guevara’s parents came to see him after the guerillas took power. Airline and tourist offices line both sides of the street, along with tourist shops and an artisan fair, mixed together with food to be purchased for national currency or convertible pesos, and tons of movie theaters.