Cuba Expands Rights but Rejects Radical Change in Updated Constitution

Cubans attend a public discussion to revamp the country’s Cold War-era constitution in Havana, in August 2018.  Reuters/Tomas Bravo

Cubans attend a public discussion to revamp the country’s Cold War-era constitution in Havana, in August 2018. Reuters/Tomas Bravo

Cuba has rejected a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage in its new and revised constitution, a move that disappointed some gay rights activists.

An article that would have redefined marriage as a “union between two people” – rather than a “union between a man and a woman” – was eliminated from a proposed new constitution, which was written last year by the National Assembly, analyzed and debated in thousands of public meetings across the island and, on Feb. 24, approved by the Cuban people at referendum.

But marriage equality is not totally off the table in Cuba.

Marriage is now defined in the constitution as “a social and legal institution” and “one form of family organization.” In other words, same-sex marriage is not explicitly permitted – but it’s no longer strictly prohibited, either.

This is how social change works these days in Cuba, my home country and the subject of my academic research. Progress is no longer revolutionary. It comes slowly, and cloaked in moderation.

Slow change

In this way, Cuba has undergone a gradual and dramatic metamorphosis under the governments of Raúl Castro and his successor, President Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Thanks to a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations under President Barack Obama, American tourists began visiting the communist country for the first time since the Kennedy administration placed a trade embargo on Cuba after Fidel Castro’s 1959 communist revolution.

Starting in 2008, Castro opened the economy to some foreign investment and allowed Cuban workers – once confined to government jobs – to start small businesses.

The new constitution – the fourth such update to Cuba’s founding document – creates official legal standing for Castro’s economic reforms, which had remained in legal limbo under a Cold War-era constitution that did not recognize private property or the business sector.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel with former President Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel Castro.  AP Photo/Desmond Boylan

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel with former President Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel Castro. AP Photo/Desmond Boylan

Many Cubans hoped the reform process would also expand civil liberties, bringing Cuban law more into line with its changing society.

LGBTQ rights groups, in particular, launched public awareness campaigns about sexual diversity. By late 2018, the path seemed to have been paved for gay marriage.

But religious groups fiercely opposed the move, and ultimately the government removed new language defining marriage as a “union between two people.”

Some hits, some misses

Still, the newly approved constitution does substantially expand social, political and economic rights in Cuba.

It limits Cuban presidents to two five-year terms. Previously, Cuba had no term limits. It also creates a prime minister position and strengthens local government, shifting power out of the executive. The criminal justice system in Cuba now operates on the presumption of innocence, not guilt.

Freedom of assembly, long restricted on the island, has also been expanded.

Previously, Cubans had the “right to meet, demonstrate and associate, for licit and peaceful purposes,” but only as part of a so-called “organización de masa” – the Cuban term for state-run groups. The new constitution removes the words “organizaciones de masa,” depoliticizing the freedom of assembly.

It remains to be seen whether the government will actually respect Cubans’ new right to form independent organizations – especially if those groups are political in nature.

“Spontaneous gatherings [in Cuba] are not seen positively and are always perceived to be the product of a foreign power,” wrote José Gabriel Barrenechea of La Trinchera, a blog for and by “young Marxists,” in a recent post.

Greater equality

Cuba’s prior constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, skin color, sex, national origin and religious belief. Now gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ethnic origin, disability and territorial origin have been added to the list.

The National Assembly stopped short of proposing any affirmative action policies, however, which would have been a more radical step toward equality.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution aimed to abolish all economic and racial differences among the Cubans, at least 36 percent of whom are Afro-Cuban. And Cuba’s inequality levels still remain well below other countries in the region.

But the recent economic reforms that increased prosperity for some have left certain minority groups – namely Afro-Cubans and the elderly – behind. Anti-discrimination statutes do nothing to close the widening wage gap.

The verdict is also mixed on how women fare under new laws.

Abortion, which unlike in the majority of Latin America and Caribbeanhas long been easily accessible in Cuba, is now officially protected in a provision guaranteeing women’s access to reproductive health services. And all forms of gender-based violence, not just domestic abuse and sexual assault, but also street harassment and workplace intimidation, are criminalized.

However, a popular constitutional guarantee that the government will provide free, universal child care and elder care to all working families women was eliminated.

This shifts the burden of care away from the government and onto the family. In a patriarchal society like Cuba’s, I believe women will inevitably assume these domestic duties.

Cubans evidently feared that other heralded rights would be lost, too.

In last year’s island-wide public meetings, people frequently requestedassurances that universal health care and free public education through the post-graduate level would be maintained.

They were.

Rights deferred

But some long-hoped-for rights remain elusive.

Independent media is still prohibited, a blow to the blogs and alternative news sites that have cropped up to fill the information vacuum of a country where all news sources are government-owned.

Some analysts have observed that, as in the case of gay marriage, language defining the role of the media in Cuba was loosened somewhat. And in December the government announced it would allow Cubans to access the internet on their smartphones.

This may leave the door open for greater press freedom in the future.

However, in my analysis, regional politics make that unlikely to occur any time soon.

For six decades, the U.S. government has tried to destabilize Cuban society by broadcasting anti-Communist messages on radio and TV broadcasts.

Now, the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting has turned its attention to social media. The Trump administration in 2018 admitted that it tried to create fake Facebook accounts to foment dissent on the island, though it says the project “never got off the ground.”

This revelation will likely only strengthen the Cuban government’s resolve to limit Cubans’ access to information.

The constitutional reform process has confirmed that radical progress in Cuba will have to wait. But Cuba is changing, in zigs and in zags – just perhaps not as fast as some might hope.

MARIA ISABEL ALFONSO is the Professor of Spanish at St. Joseph's College of New York.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION

As Cuba Backs Gay Marriage, Churches Oppose the Government’s Plan

As gay Cubans gain more rights, opposition is also growing. AP Photo/Desmond Boylan

As gay Cubans gain more rights, opposition is also growing. AP Photo/Desmond Boylan

Cubans are debating a constitutional reform that, among other legal changes, would open the door to gay marriage. It would also prohibit discrimination against people based on sex, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity in the communist nation.

The proposed new Constitution, drafted by a special commission within Cuba’s National Assembly, was unveiled in July. If the National Assembly and President Miguel Díaz-Canel approve the document after a Feb. 24, 2019 public referendum, marriage would be defined as a “union between two people.”

Cuba’s 1976 Constitution, known as the Carta Magna, defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. And it does not fully protect private enterprise, freedom of association or allows for same-sex marriage – despite growing social acceptance and political tolerance for such rights.

Emigrés who retain Cuban nationality have been invited to participate in Cuba’s public debate on the constitutional reform – though not to vote on it – via a digital forum run by the Foreign Ministry – a level of citizen outreach that’s “unprecedented” in Cuba, says Ernesto Soberón, the ministry’s director of consular affairs and Cubans residing overseas.

Cuba’s political process opens up

This lively, broad-based debate is a sign of how much Cuba – a main subject of my research as a professor of literature and cultural studies – has changed in recent years.

President Raúl Castro, who took over for his ailing older brother Fidel in 2006, began to open Cuba’s economy to foreign investment and normalized diplomatic relations with the United States, which has maintained its economic embargo on the Communist island since 1962.

Raúl Castro also worked with President Barack Obama to ease some economic restrictions on Cuba.

Castro stepped down in April 2018, handing power over to the much younger Díaz-Canel.

Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro met in Havana in 2016, the culmination of the diplomatic ‘normalization’ process between the U.S. and Cuba. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro met in Havana in 2016, the culmination of the diplomatic ‘normalization’ process between the U.S. and Cuba. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Cuba has moderately amended its Carta Magna just three times. A 1978 constitutional reform created an official channel for youth political participation, for example, while that of 1992 liberalized elements of Cuba’s socialist economic model to revitalize Cuba’s economy.

Today’s proposed reform is a complete overhaul. It would add 87 articles, change 113 and eliminate 13, even a section of Article 5 affirming Cuba’s “advance toward a Communist society.”

Beyond legalizing gay marriage, the new Constitution would protect private property, limit the presidential term to five years and introduce the role of prime minister.

Intense debate has surrounded the possibility of marriage equality in Cuba, and not just within the government’s official public meetings. Cubans are also discussing and debating gay marriage with neighbors and friends, in the streets and online – a departure from Cuba’s traditionally more top-down style of government.

The rise of gay rights in Cuba

Cuba’s nascent LGBTQ rights movement also began under Raúl Castro, thanks in large part to the leadership of his daughter Mariela Castro, a National Assembly member and president of the semi-governmental Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual, founded in 1987 to advance sexual awareness in Cuba.

A lack of opinion polling makes it difficult to measure Cuban public support for gay marriage. But acceptance of homosexuality, both within the government and in civil society, has grown appreciably.

During the 1960s and 1970s, homosexuality was considered incompatible with Cuba’s model of the revolutionary man: atheist, heterosexual and anti-bourgeoisie. Gay people, active Christians and others who defied these ideals were sent to military work camps to “strengthen” their revolutionary character.

Today, the Cuban government appears to accept homosexuality as part of socialist society. In 2008 the National Assembly approved a law allowing sexual reasignment surgery.

La Habana holds annual marches against homophobia and transphobia and cities across the island celebrate the Gay Pride parade.

Mariela Castro (center), daughter of former president Raúl Castro, is a leader in Cuba’s LGBTQ movement.Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Mariela Castro (center), daughter of former president Raúl Castro, is a leader in Cuba’s LGBTQ movement.Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini


But legacies of intolerance remain.

The Assembly of God Pentecostal Church, the Evangelical League and the Methodist Church of Cuba, among other Christian churches, have issued a joint statement opposing gay marriage.

Traditionally, religion has taken a back seat to politics in Cuba. AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera

Their public letter, published on June 8, argues that such “gender ideology” has “nothing whatsoever to do with our culture, our independence struggles nor with the historic leaders of the Revolution.”

Cuba is a secular country where political ideology has historically trumped religion. Religious opposition to a government proposal is rare.

It is even more unusual for the church to attempt to mobilize the Cuban public, as some Christian leaders are trying to do now.

According to the Cuban magazine La Jiribilla, preachers on the streets have been handing out fliers saying gay marriage defies God’s “original design” for the family.

Traditionally, religion has taken a back seat to politics in Cuba. AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera

Traditionally, religion has taken a back seat to politics in Cuba. AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera


LBGTQ activists answer

Gay rights groups and feminists are responding with a creative show of force.

Clandestina, Cuba’s first online store, and the tattoo studio La Marca are spearheading a campaign called “Cuban design,” celebrating a “very original family” – phrasing that rebuts Christian claims about God’s design.

“More than anything, this is an issue of free expression,” Roberto Ramos Mori, of La Marca, said in an email. “The way to push back against hate is calmly, with intelligence – and, of course, humor.”

Cubans with internet access use the hashtag #mifamiliaesoriginal to signal their support for LGBTQ rights on social media.

The church’s powerful opposition to marriage equality reflects a strategy commonly deployed across Latin America, says the Cuban feministAilynn Torres Santana.

Catholic and evangelical groups in Ecuador used similar language, for example, to oppose a 2017 law allowing citizens to choose their own gender identifier, she says. In response to the legislation – which recognized gender as “a binary that is socially and culturally created, patriarchal and heteronormative” – churches called for “citizens to live in harmony with nature.”

Similar scenes played out when both Colombia and Brazil advanced LGBTQ rights, with Christian groups dismissing any attempt to change traditional gender roles as the “result” of what they pejoratively call “gender ideology.”

What’s next for Cuba

Gay marriage is not the only battlefield for Cuba’s newly empowered churches.

Abortion, illegal in most of Latin America, has been a woman’s right in Cuba since 1965. Traditionally, not even Cuba’s Catholic church publicly opposed it.

Recently, though, Christians in Cuba have begun publicly advocatingagainst abortion.

If conservative religious groups manage to prevent gay marriage in Cuba, I believe it would be a setback for social progress on the island.

But the mere existence of alternative voices in Cuba’s public sphere – including that of its churches – is, itself, proof that the country has already changed.

MARÍA ISABEL ALFONSO is a Professor of Spanish at St. Joseph's College of New York.


THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION



Travel to Cuba

 

A return to the past, old cars, colonial houses, and decoration anchored in the 50s. Cuba, marked by dictatorships and political revolutions, maintains its lifestyle intact. A tour of the north and center of the island: Havana, Viñales, Cayo Jutías, Playa Larga, Bahía Cochinos, Playa Girón, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Cayo Santa María.