Havana â€” Years before George W. Bush proclaimed his support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages in the United States, the ideologically rigid government of Fidel Castro made a big move in the opposite direction.
It sanctioned the production and viewing of Strawberry and Chocolate, an Academy Award-nominated film about the awkward friendship between a straight man and a gay man â€” and the homophobia they both had to battle.
Since this movie debuted in theaters here in the mid-1990s, the Cuban government's intolerance of homosexuals has given way to a more egalitarian treatment of gays and lesbians.
The public persecution of homosexuals has declined sharply. Two years ago, Cuba had its first gay film festival. Last year, the highest-rated show on Cuba's state-run television was a soap opera in which a married man fell in love with another man. And now this country is on the verge of enacting a law that gives same-sex couples some form of legal status.
"We have to abolish any form of discrimination against those persons," said Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly. "We are trying to see how to do that, whether it should be to grant them the right to marry or to have same-sex unions."
Alarcon said he expects Cuba's communist government will soon enact a law to do one or the other. "We have to redefine the concept of marriage," he said. "Socialism should be a society that does not exclude anybody."
This awakening comes less than a year after President Bush renewed his call for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "Our policies should aim to strengthen families, not undermine them, and changing the definition of marriage would undermine the family structure," Bush said in June.
Just one state, Massachusetts, allows gay marriages. And only four permit some form of same-sex union, which falls short of the definition of marriage but lets gay couples have some legal rights.
How ironic is this? While a country that successive U.S. governments have called a totalitarian state is moving toward expanding the rights of gays and lesbians, the president of the United States â€” the world's leading democracy â€” wants to restrict their rights.
To be sure, Cuba is not the Netherlands. Itâ€™s no gay mecca, but the attitudes of people inside and out of this countryâ€™s government are undergoing a dramatic change when it comes to gays and lesbians. This may be because one of the leading advocates of gay rights in Cuba is Mariela Castro â€“ the niece of Fidel Castro and daughter his brother, acting President Raul Castro. She heads Cubaâ€™s National Center for Sexual Education.
It also might have to do with Cuba's ever-evolving strategy for fending off U.S. attempts to topple its Communist government and replace it with a U.S.-style democracy. A same-sex union or gay marriage law could make Cuba appear to be more tolerant than the USA.
"Because of our historical heritage, Cuban society has been intolerant of homosexuals," said Ruben Remigio Ferro, president of Cuba's Supreme Court. "But there has been a change in thinking. We are developing a program to educate people about sexual orientation. But it is not a problem that has been solved."
It is, however, a problem that Cuba's government seems determined to solve. "I'm part of this country, like it or not. And I have the right to work for its future," Diego, the gay character in Strawberry and Chocolate, told his straight friend.
Cuba's half-century tug of war with the United States is an ideological struggle. It is a contest between this country's socialist ideals and America's efforts to impose its will on this island nation. While this battle plays out largely on the world stage, its outcome will be determined by the trench warfare that Cuba wages for the hearts and minds of its people â€” those who are straight or gay.
DeWayne Wickham writes every Tuesday for USA TODAY.