Constitutional Reform in Cuba Launches Unusual Public Debate

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A report by Kelly Jean Kelly for VOA.

Cuba does not have public opinion studies, campaigns or large independent media groups. But meetings about reforming the country’s constitution have launched an unusual public debate.

Cuba’s government has organized the meetings. They are part of a nearly two-month period during which Cubans are invited to discuss a draft of the country’s new constitution.

Cuba’s National Assembly and ruling Communist Party have already approved the draft. Government officials are expected to review the public’s comments and add the ideas into a final constitution. The public will then have a chance to approve it next February.

But it is unknown how many and which ideas will be included. Cuba’s single-party government does not have a history of showing the people how it works or giving them a strong voice.

In this Oct. 2, 2018 photo, tourists take a joy ride in a vintage convertible car, past a billboard promoting constitutional reform
In this Oct. 2, 2018 photo, tourists take a joy ride in a vintage convertible car, past a billboard promoting constitutional reform

Direct elections and same-sex marriage

However, as a result of the meetings, everyday people are formally talking to each other about Cuba’s political system and values. Some are calling for direct election of the president and other officials.

“We don’t need multiparty democracy, but we should have direct elections,” Reinaldo Gonzalez said during a meeting in Havana.

Currently, members of the National Assembly choose the president of Cuba. And government-controlled groups choose the members of the National Assembly.

Many Cubans are objecting to a constitutional amendment that would permit same-sex marriage. Hilario Brache, who calls himself a loyal revolutionary, said, “Nature says marriage should be between a man and a woman.”

However, the daughter of Raul Castro, the country’s Communist Party leader, strongly supports the amendment. Mariela Castro leads the country’s institute of sexual health and education. She has pushed for increased rights for homosexuals.

But most of the proposed changes are not major reforms. For example, the draft identifies roles for foreign investment and private property. These reforms have already been part of a slow move over the last 10 years toward a more market economy.

Other changes deal with the country’s large government structure. They suggest creating the positions of a prime minister and area governor.

Reporters from the Associated Press have been attending some of the meetings. They say many Cubans believe the new constitution aims to make the current situation in the country official. They note that many people in the government were revolutionary fighters with Fidel Castro. Those officials may want to make sure things stay the same before they retire or pass away.

The meetings have shown that Cubans are informed, interested and excited to talk about their country. Citizens meet in public areas and parks across the country. Many carry cards with the 224 articles of the proposed constitution. They stand for the national song. Then, they share their opinions while someone takes notes. The comments are later sent to the constitutional reform commission, which is led by Raul Castro.

Arturo Lopez-Levy was born and educated in Cuba, and is now an international relations professor in the United States. He said the debates have demonstrated that people in other countries “underestimate the extent of debate and popular feedback in the Cuban system.”

Constitutional lawyer Julio Fernandez Estrada noted that the meetings have been extremely good and useful. However, he is worried about how much of the public’s opinions might actually be included in the final draft of the constitution.

I’m Dorothy Gundy.

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