SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro's daughter Mariela said on Wednesday she was surprised by the warm welcome she received on arrival in the United States and was heartened by President Barack Obama's support for same-sex marriage.
Sexologist Mariela Castro, 50, heads the communist island nation's National Center for Sex Education and is an outspoken gay rights advocate. She is reputed to have used her influence to persuade Cuba to grant certain rights to gay communities.
Castro is in California this week to discuss sexual diversity in Cuba at a conference of experts on Latin America, during a rare U.S. trip by a member of Cuba's ruling family.
"I'm very excited. I wasn't expecting such a warm welcome from you," Castro said through a translator at an event.
The State Department's decision to grant her a visa was condemned by a number of anti-Castro politicians, including Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, who called her "a vociferous advocate of the regime and opponent of democracy."
Castro has visited the United States on previous occasions.
Dressed in a striped sweater, a violet scarf and blue jeans, Castro addressed about 200 people at the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender Community Center on Wednesday. She was greeted with a standing ovation and loud cheers as she took the stage to address the audience on LGBT rights, same-sex marriage and HIV/AIDS in Cuba.
Castro praised Obama's recent statement expressing support for same-sex marriage in the United States.
Coincidentally, Obama was in Northern California on Wednesday night, attending a fundraiser for his presidential campaign in Redwood City. The two are not expected to meet.
"I think in some circumstances gay marriage can become a political issue during campaigning and elections. But I think he is sincere, I think he speaks from his heart, I think it's something he truly believes in," Castro said.
Castro has been pushing actively for the legalization of gay marriage in Cuba, where homosexuality was repressed for many years under communist rule as a counter-revolutionary deviation. That policy was only relaxed in the 1980's.
"She's helping challenge and change homophobic attitudes in Cuba. We support that as that type of advocacy can always help save lives," said Jeff Cotter, executive director of non-profit group Rainbow Fund, who organized the event.
Raul Castro, 80, took over as president four years ago from his ailing older brother Fidel Castro, who ruled the island for 49 years after taking power in the 1959 revolution.
Fidel, 85, has been to the United States several times.
Mariela Castro visited the Unites States in 2002 during George W. Bush's administration.
U.S.-Cuba relations have warmed slightly since Obama took office. But progress has come almost to a halt since U.S. contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting up Internet networks under a semi-covert U.S. program aimed at toppling the Cuban government.
Reporting by Malathi Nayak in San Francisco; additional reporting by David Adams in Miami, editing by Tim Pearce