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Queers in Revolutionary Cuba
Machos, Maricones, and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality. Ian Lumsden. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. xxvii + 263 pp. $69.95 cloth, $22.95 paper
A British trade unionist and queer activist who hails from Turkey greeted me at the Havana airport on the vespers of the millennium with the warning "In order to understand Cuba, you need a lot of patience." This, for me, was not a problem. It had taken me twenty-five years to visit this tropical island at long last. I had attempted to travel with a squadron of enthusiastic radicals on the fifth Venceremos Brigade in 1975 to show solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, but I was bounced for allegedly being "insensitive to Third World issues." Twenty-some years later my cousin, at the time a member of the National Committee of the Brigade in the United States, which made the decision to ax me, confessed that it was actually pure and simple homophobia. At Cuba's 1971 First Congress on Culture and Education, homosexuality had been declared "antisocial behavior." Wayward leftists and gay and lesbian activists who might have questioned or protested this reactionary position of the Cuban government were carefully weeded out of the next few contingents of brigadistas who circuitously voyaged to the land of Fidel in defiance of the United States-imposed blockade of the island. There they cut sugarcane, harvested fruit, and built houses to show support for a new regime that [End Page 649] challenged Washington's hegemony in Latin America and offered a radical alternative to consumer capitalism.
Many years later, as an established Latin Americanist with impeccable progressive credentials, I again attempted the journey on two different officially sponsored tours, but both trips were canceled because of political turmoil in the Cuban government. So late in 1999, with the desire to avoid millennium madness and Y2K hype, and with a copy of Ian Lumsden's Machos, Maricones, and Gays discreetly tucked into an inside pocket of my suitcase, I finally organized my own private excursion to experience Cuban-style socialism and see for myself what gay life was like there.
Havana is a surrealistic combination of the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s. Meticulously conserved 1955 Impalas and Chevies, remnants of the ubiquitous U.S. presence on the island, still serve as taxis and coveted means of personal transport. Gaudy late-1950s structures, built to meet the booming demands of the prerevolutionary sun and gambling crowds that poured south from the States after World War II, stand interspersed with decaying early-twentieth-century mansions that now serve as multifamily dwellings for the popular classes. Although in a post-Soviet period the mighty Yankee dollar has begun to permeate a Cuban economy that relies on European, Latin American, and Canadian tourists to remain afloat, colorful billboards with revolutionary exhortations to follow the path of Che have not yet been replaced by signs peddling Coca-Cola and McDonald's.
Even the seasoned expert in Latin American history and culture requires forbearance to unravel the anomalies embedded in a society led by a regime determined to maintain a socialist vision and an egalitarian discourse in a whirling sea of global capitalism. For some progressive observers of the Cuban experiment, the government's treatment of homosexuals is one of numerous examples of how the revolution has failed in its utopian promise. Untangling and understanding the complexities of same-sex eroticism among Cuban men or between islanders and foreign visitors under a regime that has been largely hostile to manifestations of homosexuality, however, is a challenging proposition. Fortunately, Lumsden, associate professor of political science at York University, Canada, has written an excellent book to assist foreign observers in that task.
Crucial to the revolutionary macronarrative about pre-Castro Cuba is the image of Havana as the center of decadent foreign tourism, resplendent with gangsters, gambling, prostitution, and assorted manifestations of "perversion," including male prostitution and homosexuality. In the early years of the new...