Cuba is one of several Latin American countries that once harassed homosexuals as a matter of policy. But Mariela Castro, who is also an executive member of the World Association for Sexual Health, insists that job discrimination and mass arrests are a thing of the past.
"[Homosexuals] still sometimes face arrest by bigoted police" says Castro, adding that she has sometimes clashed with the authorities in her efforts to release gay men and women from prison.
"Now, society is more relaxed. There is no official repression of gays and lesbians," she argues confidently.
Cuban writer and culture minister Abel Prieto has also emerged as an influential power broker in a changing Cuba. Since joining the state bureaucracy and the politburo, the long-haired, middle-aged minister still exudes a passion for culture and a common touch.
In response to a question about the conflict of interest between writers and the state, Mr. Prieto laughs, saying that, "sometimes I feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I hope that artists and writers feel that I am still one of them."
Unlike many members of the government, Prieto is very candid as he speaks about allegations that the Cuban government censors political websites.
"It would be a delusion to think we could hide that torrent of information," he insists, referring to anti-Castro websites. "The only possibility is to beat them with a better concept of life."
Prieto also defended the arrest of the dissident writer Raul Rivero in 2003.
"He was not arrested for his views, but for receiving US funding for his collaboration with a country that has besieged our island," argues the minister, referring to the 45-year-long US trade embargo.
An avid fan of the Beatles since the 1970s when their music was essentially banned by the Cuban state, Prieto has led an appreciation campaign of John Lennon. In 2000, he unveiled a statue and dedicated "John Lennon Park" to the musician's memory. Many Cubans joke that he is not as much a Marxist-Leninist as a "Marxist-Lennonist."