Interview with Mariela Castro: 'We Need Changes in Cuba'

Mariela Castro, daughter of the Cuban president, talks about economic reforms and human rights in her country, her relationship with her family and Cuba's sexual revolution.

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Ernesto Mastrascusa

SPIEGEL: Ms. Castro, you are the proponent of a modern policy on AIDS and sexuality, the sort of policy one is more likely to see in the Western democracies. Is this a harbinger of reforms and overdue liberalization in Cuba?

Mariela Castro: That could possibly be the case.

SPIEGEL: Why is it taking such an endlessly long time? Even the president, your father, openly admits that the situation, in agriculture, for example, is worse than ever before. He has sharply criticized the inefficiency of government-owned operations. In other words, reforms are critical to Cuba's survival.

Castro: Our people stand behind the Cuban form of socialism, but now it should be better than before. We are sufficiently self-critical to know this, and to know that our people want more flexibility and liberality. How this can happen is now the subject of discussion in many committees. It's a slow process, but something is moving.

SPIEGEL: There isn't much evidence of that.

Castro: And yet it moves, as Galileo once said. But we have to be careful. Cuba is a country that has always had enemies and is now under pressure from powerful groups in the United States seeking to dominate our country economically.

SPIEGEL: Many members of the opposition have lost patience. In February, imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata died after an 85-day hunger strike, with which he sought to obtain the release of other political prisoners. The governments of the United States and the European Union have sharply criticized Havana's behavior.

Castro: There was no political background to this strike. Zapata wanted to achieve personal privileges in prison: a telephone, a TV set and a kitchen. Of course, no one wanted him to die, but people abroad, in Miami, encouraged him to continue and to stick with his campaign until the end. He was used for a media campaign against Cuba.

SPIEGEL: You're simplifying the issue. Even renowned Cuban artists often campaign against restrictions on free thought. The popular singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, for example, recently made an appeal to the regime when he said: "You discuss and fight ideas, but you don't lock them up."

Castro: No one is punished for free speech in Cuba. If free and inconvenient thoughts were a crime in our country, I would have been a good candidate for prison, with my advocacy for sexual self-determination. Those people are in prison because they are mercenaries paid by Washington.

SPIEGEL: If they were all truly guilty of treason, you couldn't simply release them this easily. The first of 52 political prisoners have just been released.

Castro: This isn't the first time that mercenaries and terrorists have been allowed to emigrate after political talks. It shows that Cuba is always willing to engage in reasonable conversations. But we make our own decisions.

SPIEGEL: Cuba's government is alone in the world with its view that these are mercenaries and terrorists. Without reforms, how do you intend to stop the exodus of young, well-educated Cubans?

Castro: Cuba is a poor country. Most of the Cubans who leave only do so if they can find better economic conditions elsewhere. That's why we need changes. We have to offer incentives to keep people here. We have to create more attractive policies for young people, so that it also makes economic sense for them to stay. We need growth and a better quality of life for everyone.

SPIEGEL: Most of all, you need more freedom: more and better mobile phones, and unlimited and affordable use of the Internet and new media, for example.

Castro: Cubans are curious, no less than people elsewhere in the world. We want to try everything, but we also want to decide for ourselves on what is good for our country and what isn't.

SPIEGEL: Why is Cuba so bold when it comes to the rights of homosexuals, of all people? After all, your uncle, the revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, claimed that a homosexual lacked the "strength of character of a revolutionary."

Castro: The successful fight for equal rights by the women's movement has opened the door to fight offensively against other prejudices in our society. It's like a new revolution, which Fidel also had to recognize.

SPIEGEL: Is there a personal reason why you campaign for the rights of gays and lesbians in particular?

Castro: For me, sexual identity and orientation is a human right, which should also be accepted by the United Nations. Of course, innovations in this area provoke contradictions, especially in a society like ours, which has so many revolutionary processes.

SPIEGEL: Cuba's revolutionaries always liked seeing themselves in the role of lady-killers and truly macho men. Were they homophobic?

Castro: No more than others in other societies of the day in Europe and America. The ideals of our revolution were very progressive on some fronts but not on others.

SPIEGEL: For many decades, homosexuals in Cuba were sent to reeducation camps. Even today, the police still conduct raids at popular gay hangouts. Haven't the reforms taken hold yet?

Castro: The police don't always proceed with completely legal methods. That's why we still have so much work ahead of us, which includes educating the police.

SPIEGEL: Do you owe the success of your work to your family name?

Castro: I don't know. Of course, there has been and still is resistance in the party, as well as opposition within the population and on the part of some churches. And sometimes it's the name Castro that provokes opposition.

SPIEGEL: Why did you withdraw a bill to legalize same-sex life partnerships for men and women? Did it go too far for your father?

Castro: No, he understood it and supported it. But there are people in his environment and in some governing bodies of the church who cannot understand it. We continue to fight. Where there are people there are sexual differences and homosexuality, even in the Communist Party. The opponents must recognize that our policy also benefits many party members by allowing them to have political careers.

SPIEGEL: Do you discuss politics with your father Raul?

Castro: We had more time to talk about politics before my father became president. He supported me in my work at the time, but now it's become much more difficult. He was right to say: this is your fight, and you have to win it on your own.

SPIEGEL: How is your uncle? Is he still involved in politics?

Castro: I haven't seen Fidel since he fell ill. But my father tells me that he is now much better. There have also been foreign visitors who have met with him since then.

SPIEGEL: The party newspaper, Granma, regularly publishes his controversial "reflections." He recently predicted the premature end of the football World Cup, because he expected a war to break out against Iran.

Castro: He still has a lot of energy. He writes a lot and, if he had his way, would still be changing the world. But he is less and less involved in everyday politics. There are others who do that now.

SPIEGEL: At 79, your father Raul isn't exactly the youngest, either. Could you imagine being his political successor one day?

Castro: No, I have played my role in politics, both professionally and as a citizen. My parents even prevented me from being nominated for other political tasks, because politics is also emotionally stressful. I suppose they wanted to protect me.

SPIEGEL: What will Cuba look like after the Castro era?

Castro: I hope that the economic, financial and trade blockade against Cuba will be lifted, so that the economy can grow and wages can rise. But I also hope that we will not compromise our independence and become weak, and that we will never betray our ideals of equality and social justice. This is what our parents fought for, and we owe it to them.

Interview conducted by Manfred Ertel. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Mariela Castro
Mariela Castro, 47, is the daughter of current Cuban President Raul Castro and the niece of former President Fidel Castro. The director of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), Castro actively campaigns for the rights of homosexuals and transsexuals. Castro is married to an Italian and has three children.

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