While Republican and Democratic lawmakers spar over the politics of allowing Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, to visit the United States, she's winning praise from the international gay, lesbian and transgender community for her advocacy work.
Castro has been the head of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education for more than 12 years. The 49-year-old mother of three has publicly come out in support of gay marriage and speaks often about transgender issues such as sex reassignment surgery. While homosexuality is not illegal in most Latin American countries, homosexuals still face widespread discrimination.
Castro is in the United States to chair a panel on sexual diversity at the Latin American Congress in San Francisco on Thursday. She's also scheduled to give talks at the San Francisco LGBT Center and at the New York Public Library before returning to Cuba.
For groups working on global gay rights, this visit is not about rewarding a woman Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney calls a "dictator's daughter." It's a chance to hear how a repressive regime has, over time, become more open to the rights of the gay, lesbian and transgender community.
"We know that her advocacy has been very important within Cuba, which has a very unfortunate history in regard to gay people and LGBT rights," Roberta Sklar, spokesperson for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, tells ABC News. "The fact that she has played a central role in changing hearts, minds, and impacting parliament to change legislation in Cuba itself is very encouraging."
Gloria A. Careaga Perez, a professor of psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who will be on Castro's panel, told the Associated Press that Cuba's first daughter was "praiseworthy" for putting herself on the front lines of the struggle for gay rights.
"She is a pioneer, an academic and political authority who stands up for human rights," Perez said.
Republican lawmakers paint a different picture. Her father Raul's communist regime stands accused committing its own human rights abuses including holding political prisoners and detaining journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Cuba as the 9 th most censored country in the world. In its description of the Caribbean country, Human Rights Watch, calls Cuba the "only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent." The group says it uses harassment, surveillance, travel restrictions and threats of imprisonment to maintain its one-party Communist regime.
"This is a time when repression has been increased by the regime, just in the last couple of years," Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart told reporters. "So while repression is increasing, this administration is giving visas to the highest levels of the Castro dictatorship, because I don't know who gets higher than the daughter of the so-called president of the terrorist regime."
The State Department maintains that legally there is not a blanket ban on issuing visas to Cubans, however high-level officials from the communist regime cannot be issued visas without a waiver. The State Department does not comment on individual visa issues, but spokesperson Victoria Nuland has said that Castro's visa was issued in accordance to the law. The State Department granted 77 Cubans visas for the San Francisco conference, including Castro.
"The law was applied, the cases were reviewed," she said."I can't speak to individual cases but we considered the reasons for applying legitimate."
Castro's gay rights work would not be a factor in determining her eligibility for a visa according to the law, but it does highlight one of Secretary Clinton's hallmark issues. For Human Rights Day last December, the Secretary gave what gay advocates called a landmark speech where she announced that the U.S. supports equal rights for gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens around the world. Clinton spoke forcefully against countries that still criminalize homosexuality, or encourage discrimination. She also committed $3 million in foreign aid to support the initiative.
"Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct, but in fact they are one and the same," Secretary Clinton said. "Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights."