HAVANA -- She has her uncle's penchant for speaking her mind. From her father, she inherited a disciplined tenacity.

But Mariela Castro, a mother of three and member of Cuba's most powerful family, has paved her own way in making gay rights her life's cause. And now the 49-year-old daughter of President Raúl Castro is about to make a controversial visit to the United States for a conference on Latin America.

"She has put herself at the forefront of the struggle for rights for the LGBT community," said Gloria A. Careaga Perez, a professor of psychology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico who will be on Mariela Castro's panel Thursday at the San Francisco gathering of the Latin American Studies Association.

On May 29, she is to participate in a talk at the New York Public Library.

Requests to interview Castro were not granted ahead of her trip, and four friends and admirers declined to speak on the record, a symptom of Cubans' deep misgivings about openly discussing members of the Castro family.

But while others are shy of giving their name, Castro has not been, particularly when it comes to her signature issue. She has lobbied for years for her father's government to legalize same-sex marriage, which he has not done. Earlier this month, Castro said the president privately shares her views on gay rights, but she declined to push him to go public.

While she has no doubt benefited from her surname, Castro says it has always been important to her to have a separate identity.

"I never wanted any part of that, 'the daughter of . . .' " she said several years ago at a book launch in Havana. "I despise people who get on that kind of carriage, and I love myself very much for not doing so. I never did, and I never will."

No matter how much Castro desires to set her own course, controversy will follow her on her trip to San Francisco, precisely because of her father and uncle, both reviled by many Cuban-Americans and enemies of Washington for more than half a century.

When word came last week that the State Department had issued an entry visa to Castro and 60 other Cuban scholars, Cuban-American politicians were quick to pounce. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio accused her of bringing a campaign of anti-Americanism to U.S. shores, while New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez said he was "indignant" about her visit.

They and others noted that U.S. rules prohibit Communist Party members and other high Cuban officials from entry without special dispensation. While Mariela Castro is not officially part of the government, her personal ties to Cuban leaders are clearly evident.

In San Francisco, Castro is to meet with the local LGBT community, and will chair the panel.

Latest videos

Newsday LogoCritical LI Information You NeedDigital Access$1 for 5 months