Castro kin’s visit stirs politics 

click to enlarge Love ambassador: Sexologist Mariela Castro, niece to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, will be taking audience questions during a discussion tonight at the LGBT Center. - REUTERS FILE PHOTO
  • Reuters File Photo
  • Love ambassador: Sexologist Mariela Castro, niece to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, will be taking audience questions during a discussion tonight at the LGBT Center.

Anticipation over a multiday San Francisco visit by the niece of Fidel Castro has thrust The City into U.S. presidential election politics while stirring up some classic fears of communist infiltration.

Sexologist and gay rights activist Mariela Castro — the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro — was granted an exception to strict international travel restrictions by U.S. officials and obtained a visa for her trip. She plans to participate in panels on LGBT issues in health and culture at San Francisco General Hospital and the downtown Marriott Marquis, where the Latin American Studies Association is holding a conference.

Castro is not expected to grant interviews during her visit, but she will also appear at the LGBT Center on Market Street tonight for a discussion slated to include audience questions. And while Cuba hasn’t always been known for its support of gay rights — with the 1959 communist revolution leading to persecution of homosexuals with imprisonment and “re-education camps” — local LGBT leaders are pointing to Mariela Castro as
someone who is helping to change the legacy her family helped establish.

“She has a unique position as the president’s daughter, and she has a lot of influence in the country,” said Jeff Cotter, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Rainbow World Fund. “That sends a really fantastic message to everybody that it’s time for change.”

Organizers of the conference did not respond to several requests for comment, and the Marriott Marquis declined to say if security had been stepped up for Castro’s visit. Rachael Kagan, a spokeswoman for San Francisco General Hospital, said Castro is being accompanied by a security team provided by the State Department, although the hospital has extra security available if it is needed.

Castro’s visit, which was approved by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while other Cuban academics were denied visas for the conference, comes at a time when President Barack Obama is attempting to court Hispanic  voters for his 2012 re-election bid and beginning to voice support for same-sex marriage.

The State Department’s decision to give Castro access is drawing harsh criticism from mostly Republican lawmakers, but the chorus also includes New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, whose parents were driven out of Cuba during the communist takeover.

Obama’s 2012 presidential opponent Mitt Romney released a statement Tuesday saying the U.S. shouldn’t be offering an “open hand to a regime engaged in the systematic and flagrant denial of basic human rights.”

The Florida Democratic Party responded by telling Republicans to “stop playing politics with people’s emotions on Cuba” and by noting that Mariela Castro also came to the U.S. in 2002 on a visa approved during the tenure of Republican President George W. Bush.

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com

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Dan Schreiber

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