End the illegal US Blockade on Cuba!

Imperialist Media Weaponizes ‘Nuance’ to Obscure the Blockade

Compared to the reactionary and oppressive landscape of TLGBQ+ struggles, rights, and healthcare in the U.S., the small island just 90 miles from the Florida coast, Cuba, has a national Family Code and a set of fierce national laws that prohibit all forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including the right of all people to form a family recognized by the state. Moreover, gender affirming care, which includes things like hormone replacement therapy (HRT), gender affirming surgeries, and other forms of special media care, is free for all Cuban citizens, as is the rest of their healthcare services. All of this, despite the world’s longest set of imperialist sanctions through the 65-year old U.S. Blockade, and Biden’s criminal refusal to remove Cuba from its Trump-appointed position on the U.S. “State Sponsor of Terrorism” list. Conversely, there are currently nearly 600 state and federal anti-TLGBQ+ bills proposed across the U.S., at least 35 homicides of transgender or gender-expansive people last year alone, with a majority of those being Black trans women. 

No country standing is perfect on TLGBQ+ issues, but we need not let an obsession for “nuance” move our attention from the primary contradiction, the U.S. Blockade and U.S. imperialism. The narrative surrounding Cuba’s approach to trans and wider TLGBQ+ rights is both complex and nuanced, and according to some so “nuanced” that it can even obscure the primary contradiction. A recent article by Teen Vogue, titled “Cuba Protects Trans Rights in Law – But Lacks Healthcare Resources,” sheds light on this intricate dynamic, highlighting the island-wide legal protections for trans individuals juxtaposed against the stark reality of inadequate healthcare resources. The article is framed within the context of contrast between legal protections and inadequate healthcare resources, as well as using clickbait headlines. This particular context is important to analyze, because the piece intentionally draws readers attention to the conclusion that Cuba is failing trans people without properly contextualizing the material. 

Drawing from my experience organizing with the Black Alliance for Peace Atlanta Citywide Alliance and the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente, this article portrays the situation in a disconnected, poorly contextualized manner. Teen Vogue, like many other publications, uses different headlines depending on where you are viewing the content – from their website homepage, within the article, or a tweet. In this instance, we see three different phrasings that are all rather politically ambivalent, yet could also be interpreted as negative towards the Cuban government as it relates to trans issues, for someone who does not read past headlines.  

“One Girl’s Struggle to Access Trans Healthcare in Cuba,” reads the headline from the direct TeenVogue homepage/website. (below)

When you tweet the article out, the subheading is used as the tweet, and reads, “Cuba protects trans rights in its laws, but — in part because of the U.S. embargo — lacks the resources to provide healthcare.” Again, political ambivalence and ‘nuance’ elide the reality of the situation, as well as any real explanation of the contents of the article. The U.S. Blockade, which is only mentioned twice in the article as the “Embargo”, cannot be falsely equated nor reduced to ‘just one part’ of the problems you describe, when it is in fact the primary construction. (Below)

Once you’re actually inside the article, published March 7, 2024, a very different headline is presented – “Cuba Protects Trans Rights in Law — But Lacks Healthcare Resources” – the closest to the truth, yet still politically tepid. (Below)

The article recounts the story of Nayer, a 21-year-old transgender woman in Havana, who is meant to embody the struggle of accessing gender-affirming healthcare in Cuba. Despite Cuba’s advanced and progressive legal protections, Nayer’s journey illustrates a wide gap between legislation and the availability of medical resources, a narrative that is not uncommon among trans communities globally but is particularly poignant in the context of Cuba’s political and economic realities, according to the writer.

Firstly, the criticism must acknowledge the external pressures that exacerbate these healthcare challenges. The U.S. embargo against Cuba significantly restricts medical supplies and economic resources, creating a blockade that directly impacts the Cuban healthcare system’s ability to serve its population, including trans individuals, in every single granular way imaginable. The article touches on this, noting the high per capita of medical doctors in Cuba, but instead of comparing Cuba’s roughly 90 doctors per capita to the 35 doctors per capita rate in the U.S. *in spite of* the monstrous Blockade, we’re presented with an ambivalent blame placed on Cuban’s healthcare system, not the cause of the healthcare system’s struggles. It would be like reporting about the color of someone’s hair while they struggle to breath with a foot on their neck; like forcing conversations about ‘social issues’ on people in the midst of a U.S.-funded genocide. 

The dire shortages of medical supplies means that things like medications, gloves and PPE, and virtually everything within a doctor’s office are hard to supply, and budget cuts have to take place in response to the economic reality of economic embargo. The critical role of the 65-year old, violent, genocidal U.S. Blockade in perpetuating these healthcare disparities deserves more explicit and in-depth exploration to fully understand the constraints under which trans Cubans operate.

Moreover, while the article provides a valuable insight into the struggles faced by trans individuals in Cuba, it also risks generalizing the experiences of a handful of individuals to an entire community, as experiences within Cuba’s TLGBQ+ community are as expansive and highly complex as anywhere else when fully contextualized. The achievements and efforts made by not only the Cuban government, but Cuban civil society organizations like CENESEX, and Cuba’s popular grassroots and neighborhood-based movements like Afrodiverso, all must also be taken into consideration . The narrative could benefit from a deeper historical perspective on Cuba’s evolution in LGBTQ+ rights, recognizing the significant strides made while also critically assessing the areas of needed growth and support.

In critiquing this article, it’s essential to draw parallels with global struggles for trans healthcare access, highlighting that the issue of inadequate resources and support is not unique to Cuba but is a pervasive challenge uniquely exacerbated by economic sanctions and imperialist aggressions. The narrative must be framed within a broader discourse to provide true accuracy to scale of suffering caused by the U.S. Blockade; including the simple fact that just like a Gaza ceasefire position has been adopted by nearly every country in the world except for the U.S. and Israel, including the Palestinian Resistance themselves, so too has the entire world condemned the criminal, inhumane U.S. Blockade of Cuba. For over three decades in a row now, in fact, a vast majority of the world’s roughly 195 “UN-recognized” nations, regardless of political, class, or ideological character have called for an end to the U.S. Blockade, and diplomacy between the two countries. 

In both instances, the U.S. is the driving force funding the open air prisons; in Cuba, they punish Cubans in every way possible in a similar manner to Zionist tactics against Palestinians. Some examples include (1) restricting travel for Cubans by closing down their embassy (over completely debunked “sonic attack” claims), (2) severely restricting food and medicine, so much so that Cuba recently had to ask the UN for food aid for support for the first time, and Cuba could not distribute any of its five expertly developed COVID-19 vaccinations to its populations because of the U.S. sanctions blocking vaccine shipments, (3) the Blockade and its designation on the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SSOT) list subjects the Island to relentless media propaganda in the same way “gangs” are being used in Haiti to run cover for genocidal colonialism, and “terrorism” is being used to justify genocidal zionist and settler colonialism in Gaza. 

(4) Cuba’s “State Sponsor of Terrorism” designation is an example of the neo-colonial version of this same dynamic of distortion of the primary contradiction of colonialism, and distortion of history and public perception to justify grave imperialist violence, (5) collective punishment through the siege of sanctions, in the form of a restrictive blockade that includes food, medications, internet and telecoms access, travel, labor relations, economics and finances, and political, and (6) in the Rodneyist sense, we see similarities in the strategies of the necessary underdevelopment of both Cuba and Gaza’s labor force, the “loss of development opportunity” that Rodney explains “is of great importance”.

(7) The Conditions in Cuba due the compounding of the Blockade and the deep impact of the pandemic, thousands of Cubans are being forced to leave their homelands due to the intentionally difficult material conditions, as is the case for the many Gazan workers who worked within he Zionist entity with permits, and the many more who leave their homes never knowing if they’ll return. 8) There is also a constant misunderstanding of imperialism as the primary contradiction, and what we mean when we say that: a set of relations and conditions dictated by U.S. imperialism, within which transness, like Blackness, has a structural location

At no point should you think that I assume a Teen Vogue writer would have all of this information, and certainly not an anti-imperialist analysis of the situation. But despite being within the Belly of the Beast of imperialism only 90 miles geographically removed from the site of imperialism’s genocidal grip, we’re mentally planets away in terms of understanding our role in reporting and organizing transparently, and the material conditions of those suffering underneath U.S. sanctions. We should feel in part responsible for removing the boot from their necks, with our “tax dollars” going towards it, and how that boot itself is transphobic, homophobic, and racist for the multitude of ways that it severely harms TLGBQ+ Cubans, the state’s capacity to fully fulfill their revolutionary duties and stated intentions, and tries to use collective punishment to overthrow the Cuban government (in their own words). 

The Teen Vogue piece also mentions nothing of the many popular neighborhood-based projects and organizations like the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente and Afrodiverso, which focus on using popular education in Havana and Matanzas to support Black TLGBQ+ people in a number of ways, including through international solidarity donations of important items. There are countless grassroots initiatives all across the island, nearly all of whom are supported by the state, the Party, and Cuba’s institutions. Cubans are clear that they have to solve their own problems, and their experiences are very valuable and important; we have to be careful of the narratives we use them to sew, and learn from them how the blockade uniquely impacts them and share that message. The same way we need not parse through the peculiars of social values and perceptions of homosexuality among Palestinians in the midst of a genocide, because we understand that the primary contradiction is the violent colonization campaign by Israel, so too should we view the struggles of social groups within Cuba as operating within Neo-Colonial conditions by the U.S. Blockade. 

A glaring omission with the article is the lack of acknowledgment for the revolutionary Family Code, the landmark legislation and testament to Cuba’s revolutionary stance on TLGBQ+ rights, which passed in 2022. The Family Code provides some of the most comprehensive protections for TLGBQ+ individuals found anywhere in the world, and was passed after the state and the grassroots collaborated to facilitate over 78,000 public forums, debates and engagements in a 6 month period. This underscores a commitment to inclusivity and societal engagement, yet such a monumental and relevant achievement goes unrecognized in this article. Despite not mentioning Cuba’s Family Code, the author does dedicate space to a Fidel Castro diss track, overshadowing the substantive progress made on the island for outdated harking to decades-old criticisms. Such discrepancies in the conversation not only diminish the significance of Cuba’s advances in TLGBQ+ rights, which are deeply related to the contents of the article, but also divert attention from a critical examination of the Code’s impactful and pioneering provisions in spite of the Blockade.

Despite Teen Vogue’s ‘progressive’ rebrand in recent years, sensationalism still dictates content and reporting to an extent, and the stories of Cubans and other marginalized folks get weaponized within the sensationalism. The Code’s extensive public consultation process, embodying a genuinely democratic engagement, set a global benchmark for legislative reform in support of TLGBQ+ communities, yet was sidelined by tangential topics. This narrative gap underscores the necessity for a more studied and informed discourse around Cuba, that accurately reflects the complexities and achievements of socialist nations like Cuba, and to move away from using them as a cheap talking point or punching bag. By refocusing the narrative to include these critical advancements and the reality of how Cuban society functions completely alternatively than within the U.S. for TLGBQ+ and African peoples, the discourse not only becomes more accurate but also enriches the global understanding of diverse approaches to TLGBQ+ rights, protections, and liberation.

There are principled and materially-guided ways to discuss the situation for TLGBQ+ people that doesn’t posit the U.S. situation as the same or even closely similar; Cubans are operating within a socialist state that is supportive of their struggles and rights, but extremely limited; the battle for Cubans is not against their own state which, unlike ours, is a people’s state. It’s not antagonistic to trans people and nor the entire TLGBQ+ community, and the struggle is much more of a ‘horizontal’ struggle than vertical in nature. Politically important, the call for a more “nuanced” portrayal of Cuba’s situation that doesn’t “romanticize nor vilify” but seeks to understand the complexities within its proper social and political context, with U.S. imperialism through the Blockade as the primary contradiction. It emphasizes the importance of centering the voices and experiences of trans individuals like Nayer, while also critically examining the systemic and external factors that influence their realities.

The impacts of the media narratives and framings are also very real and immediate. The U.S. is at constant war with Cuba, trying to assassinate its president over 600 times (that we know of), arming terrorist Cuban fascists in Miami to invade Cuba, and other relentless lines of aggression. In the late 80s through the early 2000s, the CIA began using gender, race, TLGBQ+, religious, and other social issues as wedges to intrigue and divide journalists and academics, who gleefully write about these things. Social issues are used as red herrings to distort and manufacture public perception to against Cuba, and to this day they funnel millions into anti-Cuba propaganda machines like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and religious institutions through USAID. The recently passed $1.2 trillion spending bill allocates around $25 million to anti-Cuba propaganda networks, in the form of “pro-democracy” work, as well as other trouble changes to policy with Cuba, Haiti, and Palestine. So when Westerners attempt to discuss and report on social issues in Cuba without doing proper research and ridding oneself of imperialist chauvinism, it can also have negative perception and impact on these struggles on the island. When one’s struggles are used as cannon fodder in Western think-piece propaganda machines, one becomes much less eager to speak about one’s experiences more broadly, as do those around you. 

If you’d like to explore the topic of Cuba deeper, check out the Hood Communist Guide to the US Blockade of Cuba


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Musa is a cultural worker, community organizer, and independent researcher. They are a member of the Walter Rodney Foundation, and host of the Groundings podcast.