Revolutionary Cuba Imprisons Gays Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In bursts of nationalistic zeal, Fidel Castro’s regime in 1963 began rounding up gay men, as well as priests, intellectuals, and others considered counterrevolutionary, and forced them to undertake hard labor in the infamous concentration camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP). The camps were fully operational by the end of 1965.

Summary of Event

Communism in Cuba initially triggered the systematic persecution of gay men. Like most nationalistic uprisings, the early Cuban Revolution was homophobic, associating gay men regardless of class or race with the bourgeoisie and believing them traitors helping the hated Americans to exploit their long-oppressed country. It is true that the revolution bettered conditions for women and Afro-Cubans and that it provided universal education and health care unmatched in Latin America. Yet those gains came at a price. Much of the former establishment had left for exile in Miami, so the new government targeted anyone still left with any connection, however imagined or tenuous, to the decadent nightlife of former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar’s Havana, whose regime was overthrown by Fidel Castro in 1959. [kw]Revolutionary Cuba Imprisons Gays (Nov., 1965) [kw]Cuba Imprisons Gays, Revolutionary (Nov., 1965) [kw]Imprisons Gays, Revolutionary Cuba (Nov., 1965) [kw]Gays, Revolutionary Cuba Imprisons (Nov., 1965) Cuba, repression of gays Homosexuality;Cuban government and [c]Government and politics;Nov., 1965: Revolutionary Cuba Imprisons Gays[0590] [c]Military;Nov., 1965: Revolutionary Cuba Imprisons Gays[0590] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov., 1965: Revolutionary Cuba Imprisons Gays[0590] [c]Civil rights;Nov., 1965: Revolutionary Cuba Imprisons Gays[0590] [c]Organizations and institutions;Nov., 1965: Revolutionary Cuba Imprisons Gays[0590] Castro, Fidel Guevara, Che Arenas, Reinaldo

The revolutionary dictator Castro, by the middle 1960’s, created his own set of indigenous gulags, or forced-labor camps, euphemistically known as Military Units to Aid Production Military Units to Aid Production (Cuban labor camps) (UMAP). Ironically reconfirming Cuba’s economy as a sugar monoculture, this politically correct (to the Communists) slavery was designed to cure and contain perceived domestic threats to national security and ideological loyalty. It was also designed to keep the stalled revolution going.

Both inspired and threatened by the uncompromising idealism of his chief aide Che Guevara, Castro proclaimed that the success of the revolution demanded the making of a “new man,” a self-sacrificing father who would endure anything, including self-abnegation, for the common good as defined by the omnipresent state. The pesky threats who needed to be made into “new men” included Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholic priests, vagrants, transvestites, and homosexuals, “social scum” who were believed to have stemmed from either superfluous traditions or capitalistic selfishness. The regime saved its worst contempt for intellectuals, with many teachers at the University of Havana losing their jobs and homes. To Castro, real men did not speak their own minds; real men had the socialist discipline to not always be themselves and to defer to their communal responsibilities of work and family. Thus, Castro’s “family values” "Family values"[family values];Cuba campaign was overtly anticlerical and anti-intellectual as well as homophobic. He oppressed the born again, the bookworms, and the drag queens.

Castro cast a broad net for his prey. Beginning in 1963 and in full operation by mid-1965, his secret police raided the homes and churches of those individuals he had written off as counterrevolutionary. Focusing on cities, his minions arrested thousands of men, who were detained at their local police station under the pretext of verifying their identity. From the police stations, the detainees were transferred to warehouses, stadiums, and makeshift shelters to be tortured until they confessed to counterrevolutionary activities that, among other things, included sodomy. The ones who broke down and confessed were forced to sign a written document that listed their alleged “crimes.” These prisoners were then temporarily released to their families, only to be summoned a few months later to a more permanent stay at dreaded concentration camps set up in remote areas of the province of Camaguey.

Internment began in earnest in November of 1965. While not as gruesome or extensive as Hitler’s Auschwitz and other concentration camps or Stalin’s archipelago, the UMAP of Camaguey served the same purpose: to humiliate, starve, injure, and murder specified groups on a relatively large scale and away from the eyes of the foreign press. In a twisted ideological insistence, many of the urban residents who were jailed were forced to work on neighboring collectivized sugar plantations. Since no one, including the guards in charge, had any agricultural expertise, these cruel experiments contributed to the infamous failed harvests that never met their stated quotas.

This uniquely Cuban maltreatment was never actually designed on a practical level to turn gays, professors, and Christians into socialists. Conversion or recycling so-called human garbage was merely the rhetorical justification put forth by Castro to his party faithful. Ironically, seventy years earlier, and long before Auschwitz, the Spanish had established the very first concentration camps in colonial Cuba to combat insurgents. The concept returned to revolutionary Cuba with a vengeance and has yet to leave completely, although the official name “UMAP” was dropped from the camps in July, 1968. The high-water mark of official homophobia came three years after the renaming and eventual revamping of the camps. An infamous 1971 cultural declaration connected “homosexual deviations” with “the question of social pathology.”

Significance

Persecution of gays has never really stopped in Castro’s Cuba, although overt denunciations of homosexuals as counterrevolutionary died down in part to please world opinion, especially leftists abroad. Even during the 1960’s within Cuba, however, there was strong resistance to the UMAP. The state-sponsored Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba (UNEAC) criticized the UMAP in 1967, a brave move that set the stage for marginally better conditions at the camps that would no longer be called UMAP.

Reinaldo Arenas, a famous author and later exile who had been imprisoned by the regime—in a forced labor camp in 1970 and again from 1973 to 1976—writes in his autobiography, Before Night Falls (1993), Before Night Falls (Arenas) of more private and effective resistance by gay men to the official oppression. He graphically describes the promiscuity and the sexual liberation sweeping the country in the 1960’s that Castro’s policies failed to squelch. In fact, Arenas speculates that widespread persecution pushed many men, to whatever extent they were gay, to rebel against the bleak conformity required to be a socialist “new man.” To the libertine Arenas, they had sex with each other with an enthusiasm like never before or since.

Public opinion abroad, however, and not sexual behavior domestically, changed at minimum the legal status of gays in Cuba. In the late 1980’s, Castro repealed laws against open homosexuality, even if at the same time he also incarcerated those who were HIV-positive. The 1990’s witnessed official funding and approval of films, such as Strawberry and Chocolate, Strawberry and Chocolate (film) which are critical of earlier Communist homophobia. Yet camps and jails remain filled with gays and others who continue to dissent in the name of expressive freedoms.

The creation of the UMAP in Cuba shows that homophobia was not restricted to political conservatives in the twentieth century, even though American policymakers linked communism with homosexuality in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Regardless of ideology, authoritarian governments around the world attacked creative people, the outspoken, and intellectuals, who stereotypically included many gay men and, similarly, many religious people who dared to be different. These governments tried to create new utopias but instead created dystopias. Cuba, repression of gays Homosexuality;Cuban government and

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls. New York: Viking Press, 1993.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bejel, Emilio. Gay Cuban Nation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blazquez, Agustin, and Jaums Sutton. “UMAP: Castro’s Genocide Plan.” 1999. http://www .nocastro.com/archives/umapgenoc.htm.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geyer, Georgie Ann. Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lumsden, Ian. Machos, Maricones, and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matthews, Herbert L. Revolution in Cuba: An Essay in Understanding. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Valls, Jorge. Twenty Years and Forty Days: Life in a Cuban Prison. New York: Americas Watch, 1986.

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June 19, 2002: Gays and Lesbians March for Equal Rights in Mexico City

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