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Cuba Adopts a New Socialist Constitution

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

On February 24, 2019, the Cuban people overwhelmingly adopted a new constitution, as 84.4% of resident citizens voted in the constitutional referendum, with 86.8 % voting “Yes,” 9% “No,” 2.5% blank ballots, and 1.6% annulled.

Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Cuba has been striving to develop a socialist constitutional foundation.  The evolving Cuban constitutionality includes: reformulations of liberal bourgeois concepts of political and civil rights, including the development of popular democracy; universal protection of social and economic rights; proclamation of the rights of nations to sovereignty and to control of their natural resources, in opposition to imperialism; and definition of the necessary role of the state in the protection of the rights of the people and the nation.  Cuban socialist constitutionality has been developed on a foundation of extensive popular participation.  And it has been developed with consciousness of its historic antecedents: The Constitution of Guáimaro of April 10, 1869, which created the Republic of Cuba in Arms; and the Constitution of 1940, an advanced and progressive constitution, not implemented by “democratic” governments and set aside by the Batista dictatorship.

The revolutionary socialist constitutionality was announced on September 2, 1960, when the National General Assembly of the People of Cuba emitted the Declaration of Havana.  It affirmed the right of peasants to the land and the rights of the people to a just wage, free education, and medical attention.  And it declared full political, civil, and social rights for blacks, indigenous persons, and women.  The National General Assembly of the People of Cuba was a mass meeting of one million, constituting 20% of the Cuban adult population.  Along with the mass organizations of workers, peasants, students, women, and neighborhoods, the National General Assembly of the People was an early step in the development of “direct democracy.”

The evolving structures of popular democracy were provided a constitutional foundation by the Constitution of 1976, developed through popular consultation and approved in referendum by 95% of the people.  The Constitution of 1976 established 169 municipal assemblies, whose delegates are elected by the people in small voting districts, in secret and direct elections involving two or three candidates nominated in neighborhood assemblies by the people, without the participation of political parties.  Subsequently, the 169 municipal assemblies elect the deputies of the National Assembly of Popular Power, the highest authority in the nation, responsible for the election of the highest members of the executive and judicial branches of the State.  The Constitution of 1976 also assigns a pivotal role to the mass organizations of workers, farmers, women, students, and neighborhoods in the elections conducted by the municipal assemblies and in the legislative committees of the National Assembly.  In addition, the Constitution of 1976 establishes the Communist Party of Cuba as highest teaching and moral authority.  Unlike political parties in representative democracies, the Party leads through education and example, without administrative and legislative authority, and without electoral functions.  Moreover, like the 1960 Declaration of Havana, the Constitution of 1976 affirms the social and economic rights of the people, and it declares the right of Cuba and all nations to sovereignty.

A constitutional reform in 1992, developed on the basis of a popular consultation, declared state ownership over the principal means of production, thus permitting private property, including foreign property, in accordance with a development plan directed by the state. The modification gave constitutional foundation to economic policies made necessary by the collapse of the socialist bloc.

A further constitutional reform in 2002 declared the irrevocable character of Cuban socialism, responding to the Bush Plan to reestablish capitalism in Cuba.  The National Assembly of Popular Power approved the constitutional amendment following the signing of its ratification by virtually all citizens.

Based on its belief that the 1976 Constitution no longer corresponds to Cuban reality, the Party proposed the development of a new constitution.  The National Assembly of Popular Power appointed a Constitutional Commission, which developed a draft and presented it to the Assembly, which made modifications and approved a draft for presentation to the people.  An extensive popular consultation concerning the draft was conducted from August 13 to November 15, 2018.  Some 133,680 meetings were held in neighborhoods and places of work and study. There were 8,945,521 participants, with an estimated two million attending more than one, so that the participation rate was approximately three-quarters of the population.  There were 1,706,872 commentaries by the people, with 783,174 proposed modifications, additions, or eliminations.  On the basis of the opinions and proposals of the people, the Constitutional Commission revised the draft.  More than 50% of the proposals of the people were included in the modifications; nearly 60% of the articles were modified in some form.  The Commission presented a report to the National Assembly, which further modified the draft and approved it for popular referendum.

The extensive, vibrant, high-quality, and dignified participation in the popular consultation inspired a Cuban daily newspaper to describe the process as “an entire people constructing their constitution,” with a constitutional assembly of the people.  Television and newspapers provided extensive coverage, further stimulating popular awareness, engagement, discussion, and debate.

In their 1,706,872 commentaries in 133,680 meetings, the people expressed approval of the socialist revolutionary road that has been in march since January 1, 1959.  Some 62% of the interventions included some favorable expression with respect to the unfolding constitutional process.  At the same time, there were a scant thirty expressions of rejection of the socialist character of the revolution; and there were only 262 proposals (0.03% of the proposals) that rejected the definition of the Communist Party of Cuba as the guiding force of the nation.  On the other hand, there were 4,802 proposals to change the name of the country to the “Socialist Republic of Cuba.”  And there were more than 400 proposals for the elimination of private property, constituting an ultra-Left rejection of the direction taken by the Party and the government in 2012.

By far, the theme most addressed by the commentaries was that of marriage.  The draft proposed changing the 1976 language defining marriage from a union “between a man and a woman” to a union “between two persons.”  Some 24.56% of the proposals addressed the issue, more than twice that of any other; and the theme was raised in 66% of the meetings.  Overwhelmingly, the proposals were against the proposed change. On the other hand, the proposed draft’s affirmation of the equal rights of all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, did not provoke controversy.

In accordance with the prevailing sentiments and conviction expressed by the people in the popular consultation, the Cuban Constitution of 2019 continues with principles and structures that have been evolving in Cuba since the revolutionary triumph of 1959.  The Preamble of the new Constitution identifies with the historic Cuban struggle against slavery, colonialism, and imperialism for a free, independent, sovereign, and democratic nation, with social justice. It declares that Cuban citizens are determined to carry forward the Revolution that triumphed in 1959, guided by the ideals and the examples of Martí and Fidel as well as the ideas of Marx and Lenin.

The new Constitution affirms the socialist character of the Revolution and the nation.  It proclaims that Cuba is a socialist, democratic, and sovereign nation. It proclaims that its socialism and its revolutionary social and political system are irrevocable.  As in the Constitution of 1976, the proposed new constitution names the Communist Party of Cuba as the vanguard party that organizes, educates, and leads the people toward the construction of socialism.

The new Constitution conserves the structures of Popular Power that were established by the Constitution of 1976. In addition, it reaffirms the social and economic rights to education, medical attention, housing, and nutrition; and the civil and political rights of due process and freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly.  The new constitution, like the Constitution of 1976, declares the duty of the state to protect the environment; and it affirms the principle of gender equality.

Like the Constitution of 1976, the new Constitution affirms the right of Cuba to sovereignty in international relations.  It affirms Cuba’s foreign policy principles of sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and self-determination.  It recognizes the need for the unity of the Third World in opposition to colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.  It reaffirms its commitment to integration and solidarity among the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean.

All revolutions and societies evolve, and the Cuban Revolution has evolved to be more inclusive, including all the people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious belief. Whereas the Constitution of 1976 affirmed the equality of all, regardless race, color, sex or national origin, the new constitution expands the equal protection clause to include sexual orientation, gender identity, religious belief, or disability.  This amplification of the equal protection clause of the Constitution is in accordance with international tendencies, and it reflects changes in Cuban society, as it has evolved since 1976.

In recent years, the revolutionary leadership has moved toward embracing the international tendency toward affirmation of gay and transgender rights.  However, its orientation has been to educate rather than to impose; it has sought consensus, with the intention of avoiding a conflictive divide among the people.  In accordance with the orientation toward consensus, the new Constitution affirms the rights of all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  It removes the traditional definition of marriage, found in the 1976 Constitution, as a union between a man and a woman; but out of respect for the sentiments of the people, the new constitution, as finally modified by the National Assembly, does not define the subjects that enter the marital relation.  Instead, it mandates a popular consultation on a new family code, which will provide extended opportunity for further popular debate and popular education.  At the same time, the new Constitution requires a final popular referendum on the new family code, ensuring that new laws and regulations, if not accepted by the majority, will not be imposed.

The Cuban Revolution also has evolved to be more inclusive with respect to self-employed persons and small capitalists, thus legitimating a tendency among the people to engage informally in small-scale trading in goods and services.  This evolution reflects the need to improve the productive capacity of the nation, in response to a growing popular dissatisfaction with the material standard of living.  Responding to this evolving reality, a New Social and Economic Model, modified through an extensive popular consultation, was developed by the Party and approved in 2012 by the National Assembly of Popular Power. In essence, the new model expands self-employment, small-scale private property, cooperatives, and foreign investment, while maintaining state ownership as the principal form of property; it preserves the role of the state as manager and regulator of the economy.

The 2019 Constitution gives constitutional legitimacy to the New Social and Economic Model of 2012.  Both the 1976 and the 2019 constitutions declare that the Cuban economy is a socialist economy directed by the State in accordance with its plan for social and economic development.  However, the 1976 Constitution recognizes non-state property only as exceptions; and the 1992 Reform does not name non-state forms of property.  In contrast, the new Constitution recognizes various forms of property that exist alongside state property, including cooperatives, joint ventures, and private property.  However, the new Constitution clearly affirms that the State plays a primary role in formulating and directing a development plan and in regulating the various forms of property.

The overwhelming support for the new constitution in the popular referendum of February 24 constitutes a vote for sovereignty, affirming the right of the nation to decide the characteristics of its political-economic system.  It is a vote for democracy, confirming the structures of popular democracy that have been developing since the early 1960s.  And it is a vote for continuity, proclaiming that the passing from the political scene of the generation of the revolution only means the continuation by a new generation of the historic Cuban struggle for definitive sovereignty and social justice.

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Charles McKelvey is a journalist/columnist at Radio Havana Cuba.  He has a thrice weekly column, “Notes on the Revolution;” a weekly educational program, “Imperialism and Revolution,” and a Sunday weekly news review program, “This week in Cuba” which are broadcast from Havana and available at the Website of Radio Havana Cuba  (www.radiohc.cu/en).  He is the author of The Evolution and Significance of the Cuban Revolution: The Light in the Darkness (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).  

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