Mariela Castro, 50, is a gay rights advocate. Coincidentally, she's also the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro. The first daughter raised some eyebrows today after news broke that she is being granted a U.S. visa to attend an academic conference in San Francisco, California.
The outspoken advocate is, of course, the niece of former president Fidel Castro -- a factor that is creating a bit of angst among Cuban-Americans who stand opposed to her family's rule.
Mariela received a visa from the U.S. State Department and will chair a panel on the politics of sexual diversity at a gathering in San Francisco next week organized by the Latin American Studies Association, an official at her institute told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the matter. The Web site of the New York Public Library says Castro is also scheduled to talk there on May 29.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment, saying rules prohibit discussion of individual visa applications. A diplomat at the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba also had no comment.
Reaction among the Cuban-American community to the news has been strong. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, derided the government's choice to allow Mariela into the U.S. He characterized her as someone who opposes democracy and advocates for Cuba's repressive regime.
Menendez isn't alone. Other prominent Cuban-Americans agree with his stance. In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and David Rivera (all from Florida) and Albio Sires (New Jersey) called the decision "appalling."
"The administration’s appalling decision to allow regime agents into the U.S. directly contradicts Congressional intent and longstanding U.S. foreign policy," they wrote. "While the Cuban people struggle for freedom against increasing brutality at the hands of Castro’s thugs, the Obama administration is greeting high-level agents of that murderous dictatorship with open arms."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ethoed this sentiment in a video released earlier today, calling it "shameful" that the Obama administration would grant Mariela a visa.
"I think the U.S. government’s decision to grant the daughter of Raul Castro a visa to come to the United States and spread the propaganda of her father’s regime is outrageous and an enormous mistake," Rubio said. "Not only that, it sends a terrible message to the democratic movement in Cuba, to those brave people in Cuba who every single day resist and speak out against the tyranny of the Castro brothers."
Watch his commentary, below:
It will not be Mariela Castro's first visit to the United States. She was granted a visa to attend an event in Los Angeles in 2002, during the administration of Republican President George W. Bush, and also made stops in Virginia and Washington.
Analysts noted that prominent Americans have also been frequent visitors to Cuba. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter came last March, and a bi-partisan delegation led by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, was here in February, meeting with President Castro as well as an imprisoned American subcontractor.
Carmelo Mesa-Lago, the dean of Cuba economy-watchers and an expert at the University of Pittsburgh, said Cuba has long had a large presence at the LASA conference, without sparking much protest.
"Academic exchanges like these are not new, but what's different in this case is who she is," he said.
The LASA International Congress, which includes hundreds of sessions on academic topics, takes place May 23-26 in San Francisco, a city closely associated with the history of the gay rights movement. Cuba's state-run press said Castro will be one of 40 Cuban experts in attendance.
According to the website of the New York Public Library, Castro is also to take part in a May 29 talk with Rea Carey, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, about international gay rights, as well as sexual identity and orientation in Cuba.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.