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Mariela Castro visits New York; addresses gay rights issues

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 4:08 AM EDT, Wed May 30, 2012
Mariela Castro Espin, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, is widely seen as a champion of gay rights.
Mariela Castro Espin, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, is widely seen as a champion of gay rights.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mariela Castro Espin is on a multiday visit to the United States
  • Castro is the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro
  • She is among several Cuban scholars granted U.S. visas, spawning controversy

New York (CNN) -- The daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, widely seen as a champion of gay rights in Cuba, brought her brand of outspoken advocacy to a New York audience Tuesday.

Mariela Castro Espin, who is her country's director of the National Center for Sex Education and is the niece of Fidel Castro, is on a multiday visit to the United States.

Castro told an audience of about 130 people at the New York Public Library Tuesday evening that her work with gay rights in Cuba "is a pretext to fight other forms of discrimination."

"I also have a dream of a Cuba that achieves, in the long run, its full sovereignty," said Castro. "Within that sovereignty, we have the right to choose the path to maintain that freedom, and we have chosen through popular referendum a type of socialism which experiments towards the search for justice for all."

Last week, Castro kicked off her tour by attending meetings in San Francisco on issues such as transgender health care, a topic that she has advocated for in Cuba.

"The current developments in (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights in Cuba are remarkable given the discrimination suffered by gays, lesbians and transgender people in Cuba in the 20th century, as well as comparison with current LGBT movements in the U.S. and abroad," the New York Public Library said in a statement ahead of Castro's address.

At the start of Fidel Castro's revolution, gays and transsexuals were locked up or sent to labor camps, while even a decade ago they were regularly harassed by police.

But Cuba began making sex-change operations available in recent years, providing the surgery to a handful of individuals. The financing and the medical specialists, at least in part, come from Belgium, which has a longstanding partnership with Cuban medicine.

Mariela Castro, who helped launch a nationwide campaign to battle homophobia in a country often know for it's machismo, is expected to join Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in discussing gay rights and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

She is among several Cuban scholars granted U.S. visas to attend the events, spawning controversy particularly among Cuban American hardliners critical of the Castro regime.

Earlier this year, Mariela Castro and others said they hoped a two-day government meeting in January, which was closed to the press and brought together 811 delegates to discuss changes to the island's Communist party, would take up the issue of legalizing same-sex civil unions in Cuba.

President Raul Castro, however, had cautioned against "illusions" and high hopes over what the party conference would suggest to the country's parliament.

In New York, lawmakers last year legalized same-sex marriage after Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a first-term Democrat governor, lobbied opposition and undecided state senators to secure the lone vote needed for the bill's passage.

President Barack Obama announced his support of same-sex marriage, a change in his position, in early May.

CNN's Rafael Fuenmayor and Danny Guerra contributed to this report.

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