Cuba's first daughter is touring through San Francisco, winning a warm welcome from gay rights advocates but infuriating Cuban-American activists who fled her family's regime.
The visit by Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, adds to the diplomatic dramas that have characterized U.S.-Cuba relations since her uncle, Fidel Castro, took over the island in 1959.
Cuban-American lawmakers on the East Coast sharply criticized the Obama administration for granting her a travel visa to attend an academic conference that begins Wednesday. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined the chorus, saying Tuesday that Obama "should not be welcoming the daughter of a dictator." In the Bay Area, however, scholars say the 50-year-old sexologist deserves a chance to speak about her work directing the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.
"I think Mariela Castro has important things to say," said Maria Elena Diaz, a native of Cuba and history professor at UC Santa Cruz. "Why is she so controversial? It's a controversy just because she's a daughter of a Castro?"
Mariela Castro is scheduled to speak Wednesday about transgender health at San Francisco General Hospital, meet with gay, lesbian and transgender advocates and head a panel at the annual conference of the Latin American Studies Association, or LASA. More than 4,500 researchers from across the United States and Latin America are expected for the conference at the Marriott Marquis Hotel.
Castro is a lightning rod because of her kinship with Cuba's Communist rulers but she is also "one of the most prominent activists internationally working to improve the lives of transgender people," said Daniel Karasic, a UC San Francisco psychiatrist hosting her visits to health clinics.
The paper she is presenting at the conference documents the history of sex education in Cuba and inserts sexual rights into the broader egalitarian goals of the Cuban Revolution. Cuban dissidents have criticized Mariela Castro for not showing the same tolerance for ideological diversity.
"When can we Cubans come out of the other closets?" blogger Yoani Sanchez posted in an argument with Castro on Twitter last year.
Once notorious for shipping gay men to labor camps, observers say Cuba has evolved. The island in 2008 passed a law covering sex-change surgery under national health insurance and gay pride rallies are now common.
"Cuba used to have a bad record on gay rights, but I think there has been a change and Mariela Castro has been particularly important to that change," Diaz said.
The U.S. State Department has taken criticism from all sides after granting the travel visas to Castro and 64 other Cuban academics while denying visas to at least 10 others.