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Cubans to decide same-sex marriage in national referendum

Matanzas, Cuba

The cake with figurines of two brides on top melted in the Caribbean heat and wedding guests worried aloud that one of Cuba’s frequent power outages could strike at any time, but for Annery Rivera Velasco and Yennys Hernandez Molina, the day was one of the happiest of their lives. Lives.

The two women married in September, surrounded by a small group of LGBTQ activists in the seaside town of Matanzas. But their union is not recognized by the Cuban government, at least not yet.

That could change as early as Sunday, when millions of Cubans are expected to vote for or against a major overhaul of the island’s communist-ruled, more than four-decade-old family code that would include the historic step of legalization. sexual marriage.

“It is a legal right and we should all be equal before the law. It’s a matter of human rights,” Yennys Hernandez told CNN moments after her wedding at the Metropolitan Community Church, an LGBTQ-friendly church that is one of the few on the island performing weddings. homosexuals.

After the church service, the couple reminded friends and family members gathered to vote for the new family code.

“I believe that we are all equal in terms of rights, options, possibilities and in terms of being a citizen and expressing that citizenship. I don’t think we’re any less than the rest of society,” said Annery Rivera, who said if the new family code passed, she and Hernandez would arrange a civil marriage, which in the eyes of the public would mean. Cuban state that they are legally married.

According to the Cuban government, the 100-page family code provides greater protection for women, children and the elderly and allows LGBTQ couples to marry and adopt children.

Members of the LGBTQ community in Cuba have been waiting for this moment for decades.

But some also fear a backlash if the code passes.

After the 1959 revolution, homosexuals were among those sent to labor camps known as military production aid units, along with political dissidents, priests and others considered undesirable by the new government of Fidel Castro. Some homosexuals and lesbians have even declared that they practiced fictitious marriages to avoid being suspected.

Castro later apologized for the way gay people were treated, but the government never revealed the full number of people sent to the labor camps and who ordered their establishment.

In 1979 homosexuality was legalized in Cuba although many gay men and women said they still faced overt discrimination.

In 1993, the Cuban film “Strawberry and Chocolate” about the unlikely friendship between a young revolutionary supporter and an older gay man was released and sparked a national debate about the treatment of LGBTQ people on the island.

For more than a decade, Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raul Castro, has openly advocated through a government-funded center for improved rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people.

But the push for greater equality has been met with stiff opposition from both outside and inside the Cuban government.

In 2018, Cuban lawmakers scrapped provisions that would have legalized same-sex marriage, fearing a homophobic backlash could lower turnout in a referendum to approve a new constitution.

The following year, Cuban police broke up a peaceful LGBTQ rights parade, saying the marchers did not have permission to hold the rally.

Cuba’s growing evangelical community, in particular, has openly argued against approving the family code.

Evangelical pastor Yoel Serrano told CNN that while evangelicals have been more outspoken about their opposition to same-sex marriage, many groups in Cuban society have their reservations.

“I think about 95% of Christians disagree, but it’s not just Christians,” Serrano said. “There are communists who don’t agree, materialists who don’t agree. Lots of people who believe in different things who disagree with the changes they want to make with the new family code.

Even at government-organized neighborhood “consultations” across the island, some people who identified themselves as loyal revolutionaries said they were unsure how they would vote.

“It would be unfortunate if the code didn’t get massive approval because of one article,” a woman named Melba – referring to the same-sex provision – said at a 2021 neighborhood meeting that CNN was told. allowed to cover.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the Cuban government made a big push in favor of the new family code in the state media, claiming that the new code is proof that the island’s revolution, more than six decades, is able to adapt to the times.

It remains to be seen whether Cubans will vote overwhelmingly to allow same-sex marriage or whether they will use the referendum as a rare opportunity to vent their anger at the government over widespread power cuts, runaway inflation and supermarket shelves. increasingly empty.

At the church in Matanzas, Reverend Elaine Saralegui Caraballo, the pastor who married Yennys and Annery, said whether the referendum passes or is defeated, the fight for full equality must still continue.

“I have faith that love will win,” she said. “If it’s a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, it’s the same thing. We tell our community that no one can take away your worth, who you are.

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