Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel has shown support for same-sex marriage, saying that discrimination of any kind should be eliminated.
The 57-year-old leader said on Sunday he backed marriage “between people without any restrictions” but that it would be up to Cubans to decide whether or not to approve same-sex marriage as part of far-reaching constitutional reforms.
In his first interview since assuming office in April, Diaz-Canel told Venezuela-based broadcaster Telesur that Cuba shouldn’t “give way to any kind of discrimination”.
“We’ve been going through a massive thought evolution and many taboos have been broken,” he said.
Acknowledgement of same-sex marriage was included in a draft constitution that National Assembly members approved in June. It is currently under popular review, with a referendum expected to take place in February 2019.
The move to update the Caribbean island’s 1976 national charter, which defines marriage as being “between a man and a woman”, also includes changes to private ownership laws and dropping the goal of advancing “towards Communist society”.
LGBTQ rights have been a divisive issue on the Communist island for decades, but experts say attitudes are beginning to change.
“Sexual diversity was considered to be anathema to the revolutionary ideology in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Emily Kirk, a specialist in sexual diversity in Cuba, based at Dalhousie University, Canada.
“Homosexual men were among those forced into labour camps, you have Fidel Castro, in the beginning, as well as the likes of Che [Guevara], who are vociferous opponents of homosexuality, and this has changed over the years,” she told Al Jazeera.
Cuba decriminalised homosexuality in 1979 and in 2010, Fidel Castro, who led Cuba from 1959 to 2008, formally apologised for his participation in imprisoning homosexual Cubans in so-called “re-education camps”.
For Kirk, Diaz-Canel’s comments are a notable departure from the discriminatory attitudes of past administrations.
“It’s significant first because he’s a new president […] but fundamentally it’s significant because Cuba was once considered to be among the most prejudicial and homophobic countries in the world,” she said.
“It has been a very complex evolutionary process but nonetheless to have the president formally show his support for this cause is really significant.”
Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and daughter of former President Raul Castro, is often credited with leading the change in attitudes towards LGBTQ rights on the island.
CENESEX operates under Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health to conduct research and training into LGBTQ issues, while its team of specialists also work with other organisations to minimise discrimination.
“[It] has really spearheaded the national strategy to improve rights so they have campaigns, debates, promote films and [Mariela Castro] became a member of parliament in 2014 to further engage this discussion and this national debate and she’s been very influential,” Kirk said.
At a grassroots level, Cuban bloggers, activists and researchers have been working to highlight LGBTQ issues. Since 2007, the island has hosted large pride celebrations, which now run for three weeks in May.
“It took time, but eventually discrimination was brought into the socialist ideology,” Kirk said. “Discrimination on the basis of anything is not congruent with the revolution of today. While previously [sexual diversity] had been seen as counter-revolutionary and that really evolved based on anti-discrimination,” she said.
While no recent polls exist to show how Cubans feel about same-sex marriage and the other proposals in the draft constitution, researchers say the new charter has split opinion.
During Sunday’s 45-minute interview, Diaz-Canel, who is the first person outside the Castro family to lead the country since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, also discussed US-Cuba relations.
The Cuban leader slammed the United States’s ongoing blockade of the island, calling it “inhumane”.
“It has become even more difficult. There is constant financial persecution because there are difficulties with the flow of money and investment, something intentional by the US government, a blockade that is already 60 years old,” he said.
“It’s a brutal practice, I would say that it is an inhumane practice against a people, condemning them to die of hunger or to die of necessity.”
According to Arnold August, an expert in US-Cuba relations, the effects of the embargo are sorely felt by Cubans.
“It affects the whole life of all the Cuban people,” he said. “Not only economic goods, such as construction material and food, but also some medications are hard to acquire as a result,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Cuban president said he was ready for dialogue with the US if the current administration under President Donald Trump abandoned it’s “abnormal” attitude towards the island.
“We want to talk but it must be as equals. We do not accept impositions and we are not willing to make concessions,” Diaz-Canel said.
Relations between the US and Cuba have been largely-hostile since Communist fighters led by Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed government of Fulgencio Batista in the 1959 revolution.
“Obama went from aggression to seduction, now Trump has returned to aggression. However, he did not break diplomatic relations with Cuba,” August said.
“Now, even though those relations are very tense, [they] are still effective. There have been negotiations between both sides on questions of common concerns such as drug trafficking and the environment in both Washington and Havana during the Trump mandate,” he told Al Jazeera.
The relationship between the two countries further soured after 21 US diplomats based in Havana suffered mysterious health attacks in late 2017.
The US has said the attacks could not have happened without the Cuban government’s knowledge, a claim Diaz-Canel rubbished in Sunday’s interview, saying: “Cuba does not attack, Cuba defends, Cuba shares”.