SAN FRANCISCO – The daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro brought her fight for gay rights to a U.S. forum Wednesday, stressing the need to secure social equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
Speaking in Spanish through a translator, Mariela Castro addressed about 50 medical professionals and transgender advocates at San Francisco General Hospital on Wednesday.
She has an international reputation as an outspoken gay rights advocate and lobbied her father's government to cover sex reassignment surgery under the national health plan, which it has since 2008, and to legalize same-sex marriages, which so far it has not.
"If we don't change our patriarchal and homophobic culture...we cannot advance as a new society, and that's what we want, the power of emancipation through socialism," she said . "We will establish relationships on the basis of social justice and social equality...It seems like a Utopia, but we can change it."
Castro, director of Cuba's National Center for Sex Education, or CENESEX, spoke about transgender health care in Cuba. Wednesday's speech was part of her multiday visit devoted largely to meeting with gay and transgender rights activists and an academic conference where she is scheduled to chair a panel on sexual diversity.
She was one of at least 60 Cuban scholars who were granted U.S. visas to attend Thursday's meeting of the Latin American Studies Association.
A number of Cuban-American politicians have criticized the State Department — which provided special agents as Castro's security detail in San Francisco — for issuing Castro an entry visa. They noted that U.S. rules prohibit Communist Party members and other high-ranking Cuban government officials from entry without special dispensation. Aside from kinship, Mariela Castro has no official link to the government, although CENESEX is part of Cuba's public health ministry.
She credited her late mother, Vilma Espin, who served as president of the Federation of Cuban Women and was a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee, with inspiring her to seek equal rights for Cuba's marginalized citizens. Espin died in 2007.
"I promised her we would be able to achieve that, and I can't let go because the process is not complete," she said.
Castro described Cuba's Communist Party as an increasingly good ally in advancing gay rights. The party approved a statement earlier this year advocating the elimination of all remaining forms of discrimination in Cuban society, a position which can be used to push for policies that benefit gay and transgender people, she said.
"What helped is we went to the Communist Party, the leaders, and told them our ideological context of this," she said. "It was very difficult to have this internal division in the Communist Party, but it seems like they are becoming more and more relaxed."
During her 90-minute appearance at San Francisco General, she said she wanted her audience to hear a Cuban's perspective on the half-century of animosities between Havana and Washington because it helps explain why the nation's growth on issues like gay rights has sometimes been stunted.
"The Revolution has grown in Cuba, and it's been more than 50 years now," she said. "The Cuban people have been the victims of state terrorists, of the economic blockade against Cuba, campaigns to...misinform the world's population about the power of a revolution."
She also criticized Cuban exiles who oppose her father's regime and that of her uncle, former president Fidel Castro, and support economic and travel restrictions between the U.S. and her country.
Castro also visited the United States in 2002 during Republican President George W. Bush's administration. She obtained a visa to attend an event in Los Angeles, and also stopped in Virginia and Washington.