What did Michael Petrelis do in Cuba?


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American Michael Petrelis became the only gay activist who has been banned by the Cuban government from entering the island. Despite his agreement with the Cuban government on several key issues, his work with independent LGBTI+ activists was enough to include him on Cuban authoritiesʼ black list.

Tremenda-Nota-TN-2018

On March 20th, Michael Petrelis got himself involved in a trip that would not end well.

«I traveled from San Francisco to Cancún on a turbulent flight and I´ll take another flight home in a few hours», he said on his Facebook profile at the beginning of a post where he explained to his followers why his trip to Mexican soil was unsuccessful.

Having Cuba so close that he could almost touch it from the coast of Quintana Roo, Petrelis grinned as if he was really arriving in Havana, until he was warned about his name being on a black list.

The activist was wearing a jacket with the colors of the rainbow, a cap with the colors of the rainbow and carrying a bag with the colors of the rainbow, which he wanted to leave with Interjet, the Mexican airline. He could not to check them in. He was not printed a boarding pass either.

The computer said something about him. A notice that he was not allowed to photograph. In response to his demanding insistence, the airport employee leaned over the counter and wrote a short note: «Due to migration issues we are not allowed to take you to Havana, because you are prohibited from entering the country».

The note that an Interjet agent gave to Michael Petrelis said the Cuban government will not allow him to enter the country.

It was his fourth trip to Cuba. His previous trip in January 2019 caused the Cuban authoritiesʼ real concern. He returned a few weeks later to celebrate, coincidently, Transgender Visibility Day and he was not allowed to board his flight.

«A good friend of Cuba»

Michael Anthony Petrelis is the same age as the Cuban Revolution. He was born on January 26th, 1959. His agenda does coincide in many aspects with the Cuban governmentʼs. Michael believes «the American embargo is a horrible thing». He frequently appears on social media networks with cartoons of Donald Trump, Havanaʼs number one enemy, who he also considers a threat for the LGBTI+ community, too. His political and sexual activism coincides in many aspects with that of Mariela Castro, he asked to take a picture together and she accepted.

This year, about to turn 60 years old, Petrelis came to Cuba and brought with him around 10 000 stickers and over 1000 bracelets. His luggage astonished the customs officials and, above all, the border police.

«The agent asked why I brought so many rainbow color items to Cuba and if I had traveled as a tourist», told Petrelis to the American newspaper Washington Blade.

The question was asked in a private room at the airport. He entered the room followed by a migration official and he found a table with printed copies of his posts on social media.

«I am going to give them away to the gay Cubans for free», answered Michael when he was asked about the stickers and bracelets. They talked for a half hour. The official, wanting to calm him down, told him he would be admitted as a tourist and he was asked a routine question about the address where he was going to stay in Havana.

But, inevitably, so many rainbow flags had caused concern. A few days after that, a uniformed police officer presented himself at the guesthouse where the American was staying and he asked him to appear in a place that looked like a barracks.

The same agent who was at the airport and another one who said his name was Carlos were there. They both set the rules for the trip: No demonstrations or meetings. Petrelis wanted to make a rainbow at the Capitol of Havana. Another one. A human rainbow with people with colorful t-shirts, together, hugging as if they were a single flag.

Carlos told him it was better if the meeting was cancelled. And to make his luggage lighter, he was ordered to give the stickers and the bracelets to the National Center for Sexual Education (Cenesex), the only institution authorized by the government to promote the LGBTI+ agenda. Petrelis obeyed. He was told not to worry about the matter. They promised to distribute those gifts.

The American continued his trip to Matanzas and Santa Clara, to the east of Havana, in order to meet other activists, old friends from social media, who Petrelis wanted to please with any leftover bracelets.

By the time Michael was going to leave the country, the political police were waiting for him at the airport. Carlos, who had almost became another friend to the activist at this point of the trip, was there.

«His arms were wide open as if he was going to hug me», told Petrelis to Washington Blade. «The translator told me Carlos was happy to see me and that I had nothing to worry about».

The agent nearly thanked him for not attending to the meeting with activists at Lennon Park, in Havana. He was concerned about two «counterrevolutionaries» who attended the meeting, revealed Petrelis to Blade.

Before saying goodbye the agent told him that he was considered a good friend of Cuba and that he will always be welcome. His only recommendation for future trips was to be careful in bringing so many stickers and bracelets.

Having this piece of advice in mind and a lighter suitcase, Michael Anthony Petrelis could not travel to Cuba this year on March 20th.

With Mariela Castro and against Donald Trump

«I donʼt know what changed», Petrelis says Tremenda Nota, while he evokes agent Carlosʼ affable goodbye at Havana airport. «I want to know why I was prohibited to enter and if I can come back some day. Would it be a great fantasy to find those answers?»

Last year in Pinar del Río province, to the west of Cuba, the activist invited Mariela Castro to pose for a picture with the transgender flag. Petrelis smiles while he holds the blue end. Mariela smiles while holding a poster with the tag #MeIncluyo and something else written in English, May 17 th ,  IDAHOT in Cuba. Probably Michael´s work.

Michael Petrelis with Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro, in Cuba in 2018.

«She was more than happy to accept a rainbow bracelet and posing for a picture with me», he remembers.

Yet, the campaign held by some evangelical churches against egalitarian marriage was unsuccessful by that time of the 11th Conference against Homophobia and Transphobia organized by Cenesex. It was in June, a month later, when the Cuban Parliament passed a draft Constitution that defined marriage as «the union of two people».

By the end of the year, at the end of parliamentary debates, the article about marriage had been technically dissolved. Furthermore, another referendum was announced to pass a Family Code, an act that could finally implement the LGBTI+ unions within a term of two years. The Constitution was passed by an overwhelming majority in a referendum held February 24th, although the figures showing abstentions and negative votes are the highest in the history of the Cuban Revolution.

From San Francisco, Petrelis encouraged his colleagues on social media, and was publically interested in the activistsʼ attempts to stage public demonstrations against the churchesʼ. None of the scheduled demonstrations could summon many people. The situation was the same in January with the American activist when the police intervened to contain the activists.

«While some pastors come to this country and address their speeches in evangelical temples this man pointed it out and he has become a threat», commented to Tremenda Nota Roberto Ramos Mori, a designer and activist.

Ramos Mori confirmed that Petrelis wanted to meet with an LGBTI+ group in one of the busiest avenues of Havana, but did not due to the pressures of the State Security.

The designer assures he was also told to avoid the meeting. Finally, without the presence of the American, activists met at a lower profile place, Lennon Park.

It was the same thing in Matanzas, according to Yadiel Cepero another Cuban colleague of Petrelis. «He could never attend the actions because of the problems with the Security», he told Tremenda Nota.

Isbel Díaz Torres believes than prohibiting the activist to enter «is a sample of conservatism prevalent within the Cuban police».

Michael and Isbel met in San Francisco in November 2018.

They were friends on Facebook so they decided to meet, walk together around the Castro, the famous gay neighborhood and attend the celebration of the Transgender Day of Remembrance. The celebration was a good opportunity to show a piñata with the face of Donald Trump, to accuse him of homophobia and to challenge him as president of the United States.

Díaz Torres recalls the protest and says Petrelis «is more revolutionary than the islandʼs own leaders».

Isbel Díaz Torres, left, and Michael Petrelis in San Francisco.

Cepero presumes than prohibiting Michaelʼs entrance to Cuba is a sign of the Cuban authorities concern over increased LGBTI+ activism.

«We might have been doing something good to trigger such a reaction. Though they might reject Petrelisʼ entrance that won’t be enough to stop the LGBTI+ citizenry from attending public demonstrations», he said.

Activists will probably try again another demonstration on March 31st, to celebrate the Day of Transgender Visibility. Michael Petrelis will not walk with them, although he will be following the whole process from San Francisco via social media. There he awaits an answer of Cuban authorities, to whom he addressed some questions about his status via e-mail.

«Why a sixty years old gay man, who is a friend of Cuba, canʼt share rainbows, build solidarity, ask for ending of the horrible American embargo, make friends and spend money for three weeks [in Cuba]? Why does it seem to be so dangerous [to the point] that I end up being rejected?» asked the activist.

Tremenda Nota asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the reasons why the Cuban government prohibits Petrelis from entering the island. No answers so far.

«Maybe theyʼre angry because I helped organize a Valentineʼs Day protest in solidarity with LGBTI+ Cubans, or because I shared pictures and pieces of news with independent activists in Havana and Matanzas», presumes the activist.

( All the images used for this article were taken from the American activistʼs social media pages.)

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Maykel González Vivero

Maykel González Vivero

Periodista y activista LGBTI. Tuvo un blog mientras se lo permitieron y se llamaba El Nictálope, porque siempre ha presumido de ver bien, como algún animal de la noche. Echa de menos la radio y el insomnio que le favorecía antes para escribir. Ahora escribe cuando puede, donde puede colaborando con varios medios cubanos y extranjeros.

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