HAVANA — She has her uncle’s penchant for speaking her mind. From her father, she inherited a disciplined tenacity.
But Mariela Castro, a married mother of three and member of Cuba’s most powerful family, has paved her own way in making gay rights her life’s cause. And now the 49-year-old daughter of President Raul Castro is about to make a controversial visit to the United States for a conference on Latin America.
“She has put herself at the forefront of the struggle for rights for the LGBT community,” said Gloria Careaga Perez, a professor of psychology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico who will be on Mariela Castro’s panel at the San Francisco gathering of the Latin American Studies Association on Thursday.
“What she does is praiseworthy because she is a pioneer, an academic and political authority who stands up for human rights,” Perez said.
Requests to interview Castro were not granted ahead of her trip, and four friends and admirers declined to speak on the record, a symptom of Cubans’ deep misgivings about openly discussing members of the Castro family.
But while others are shy of giving their name, Castro has not been, particularly when it comes to her signature issue.
She has lobbied for years for her father’s government to legalize same-sex marriage, something he has not done.
She said this month that her father privately shares her views on gay rights, but she declined to push him to go public.
While she has no doubt benefited from her surname, Castro said it has always been important to her to have a separate identity.
“I never wanted any part of that, ‘the daughter of,’?” she said several years ago at a book launch in Havana.
“I despise people who get on that kind of carriage, and I love myself very much for not doing so. I never did, and I never will.”
But no matter how much Castro desires to set her own course, controversy will follow her on her trip to San Francisco precisely because of her father and uncle, both reviled by many Cuban-Americans and enemies of Washington for more than half a century.
When word came last week that the State Department had issued an entry visa to Castro, as well as at least 60 other Cuban scholars, Cuban-American politicians were quick to pounce.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio accused her of bringing a campaign of anti-Americanism to U.S. shores, while New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez said he was indignant over her presence.
They and others noted that U.S. rules prohibited Communist Party members and other high-ranking Cuban government officials from entry without special dispensation.
While Mariela Castro is not officially part of the government, her personal ties to Cuban leaders are evident.
The State Department has refused to comment on individual visa cases. Castro is due to head a panel on the politics of sexual diversity in San Francisco and to meet with the local LGBT community.
On May 29 she is to participate in a talk at the New York Public Library.
As head of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education since 2000, Castro has acquired a much higher profile than her siblings and cousins, becoming a leading advocate for gay rights in Cuba, Latin America and beyond.
Intelligent and quick to smile, Castro has a flair for dressing elegantly in bright colors. She is commonly seen heading up annual gay-pride marches in the capital, flanked by six-foot-tall transvestites.
Outspoken and self-confident, she meets regularly with visiting dignitaries, including a delegation of U.S. women last year, and travels the world giving talks about gay rights.