HAVANA – When Victor Manuel Dueñas was advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ community in Santo Domingo, a municipality in the province of Villa Clara, Cuba, he said police officers treated him like a criminal.
He said they harassed him and wrongly accused activists of prostitution just because they were meeting at his home, where he said he ran a community center to help anyone identifying as LGBTQ. The 23-year-old activist was able to leave the island for the Netherlands in January.
He arrived in flight to Moscow that had a layover at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol before authorities detected a rise in asylum requests and started to require a transit visa. After spending a few days at the airport, authorities took him to a shelter where he remains, as his application for asylum is pending.
"If they decide to deny our request and we are forced to return, what ever happens to us will be their fault," Dueñas said in Spanish.
Dueñas fears reprisal and said police officers left a threatening message with his grandmother, after learning of his departure. He is also concerned that what he says is the Cuban government's propaganda and misinformation is influencing Dutch officials to deny the majority of Cubans' requests for asylum.
Cuban President Raul Castro's daughter Mariela Castro remains the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, or CENESEX, in Havana. Although she has been an activist for LGBTQ rights on the Communist island, Dueñas said more needs to be done. To many the situation there might be "acceptable," but it really isn't, Dueñas said.
The days when Fidel Castro ordered officers to place gay men in labor camps to undergo "psychological re-programming" training are part of Cuban history. Before his death, Fidel Castro apologized and the government's tourist industry engaged in campaigns like Gay Tours in Havana, but Dueñas said Cubans are still the victim of harassment and discrimination.
The transgender community deals with limitations. Although the island's universal health care system provides sex-reassignment surgery for eligible patients with the help of Belgian doctors who travel to the country annually. There is a long waiting list. The system doesn't cover cosmetic surgery, so breast implants are also not an option.
Dueñas said part of the activities he was coordinating at his center in Cuba were related to lobbying for same-sex marriage on the communist island. Mariela Castro is a supporter of sex marriage, but Dueñas said he and others believe the Cuban government isn't doing enough to improve the human rights of the LGBTQ community.
"I am not going back," Dueñas said about his desire to stay in Europe even if immigration officials in the Netherlands decide to reject his petition for asylum.