Participatory democracy in Cuba

The 2018 constitutional assembly formed by an entire people

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Preface - April 6, 2021

      In a reply to my August 27 commentary on the tendency of people outside of Cuba to dismiss the Cuban official discourse, Andrej Krickovic wrote that he would like to hear more about the formation of the new constitution during the period 2018-2019.  He suggested a follow-up post on the proposals and opinions of the people and the Party with respect to economic and political reforms.  I attend to this issue in today’s commentary

     Based on its belief that the 1976 Constitution no longer corresponded to Cuban reality, the Communist Party of Cuba proposed to the National Assembly of People’s Power the development of a new constitution.  In response, the National Assembly developed a six-step process.  (1) The National Assembly formed a Constitutional Commission, composed of deputies of the National Assembly.  (2) The Constitutional Commission developed a draft of the new Constitution and submitted it to the National Assembly, which voted on it article by article. 

     (3) A popular consultation was conducted from August 13 to November 15, 2018.  Some 133,680 meetings were held in neighborhoods and places of work and study, in which the people were given opportunity to express opinions and to make proposals with respect to proposed text.  There were 79,947 neighborhood meetings; 45,452 meetings in places of work; 3,441 meetings among small farmers and cooperatives in the countryside; 1,585 meetings among university students; and 3,256 meetings among junior high and high school students.  There were 8,945,521 participants, with an estimated two million attending more than one.  The participation rate, therefore, was approximately three-quarters of the adult population, defined as 16 years of age or older.  There were 1,706,872 interventions by the people, with 783,174 proposals, that is, proposed modifications, additions, or eliminations.  The media of communication, both television and newspapers, provided extensive coverage and analysis of the process. 

     There was widespread satisfaction with the extent and quality of the popular consultation.  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. 

     (4) Based on the opinions and proposals of the people, the text of the constitution was revised by the Constitutional Commission.  The Commission tried to take seriously every opinion, even those that were not expressed frequently.  The opinions were divided into groups for analysis and discussion.  The Commission debated each proposal, and it called on experts to aid in the reflection, consulting with various entities and organizations, universities, scientific centers, academies of science, legal specialists, and government ministries.  Based on this reflection, the Commission made 760 changes in the text, involving the addition or elimination of articles, paragraphs, sentences, or words.  More than 50% of the proposals of the people were included in the modifications.  Nearly 60% of the articles were modified in some form. 

     (5) The National Assembly received the revised proposed constitution, debated it, and introduced further changes.  On December 23, 2018, the National Assembly of People’s Power approved the constitutional draft for submission to the people in referendum.  Some 583 of the 602 deputies of the National Assembly approved the new Magna Carta; nineteen deputies were absent from the vote. 

     (6)  A popular referendum was held on February 24, 2019.  In a direct and secret vote by each citizen, the people approved the new Constitution that they had been constructing.  Some 90.15% of resident citizens voted, with 86.85% voting “Yes,” 9% voting “No,” 2.5% blank ballots, and 1.6% annulled.  The Cuban journalist Leidys María Labradror Herrera wrote that the approval of the Constitution on February 24, 2019 was a transcendent moment, representing continuity with the past and at the same time a point of departure for the future.  She declared, “Although the road be challenging, we do not renounce reaching for the stars.”

     What did the people say in their 1,706,872 interventions in 133,680 meetings?  Overwhelmingly, the people expressed approval of the socialist revolutionary road that has been in march since January 1, 1959.  The very high level of participation in the constitutional process itself is an affirmation.  Moreover, 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 constitutional definition of the role of the Communist Party of Cuba as the guiding force of the nation.  Going in the opposite direction, there were 4,802 proposals to change the name of the country to the “Socialist Republic of Cuba.”

     Some proposals could be construed as criticism of the Cuban judicial and political system, without implying a rejection of the socialist direction.  For example, the right of the accused to legal counsel was addressed in 2.33% of the proposals, which concerned for the most part a definition of the moment in which this due process right should begin.  These expressions may reflect dissatisfaction with the existing procedures as they operate in practice.  There is some sentiment among the people that those accused of crimes, in some cases, do not have a lawyer with sufficient time prior to the beginning of a criminal trial.  Similarly, there were 11,080 proposals (1.4% of the proposals and 0.6% of the interventions) in favor of direct election of the president.  Such a proposal is inconsistent with the structures of the Cuban electoral system, characterized by a combination of direct and indirect elections.  The raising of the issue by a small percentage did not stimulate discussion and debate at the meetings of the people.

     There were more than 400 proposals for the elimination of private property, rejecting the greater space for private property granted by the new Constitution, in comparison to the Constitution of 1976.  This could be interpreted as an ultra-Left criticism of the direction taken by the Party and the government in the New Social and Economic Model of 2012.  However, inasmuch as such proposals constituted less than 1% of the proposals, this constitutes an implicit support for the new direction formally established in 2012.

     By far, the theme most addressed by the interventions was that of marriage.  The proposed new Constitution changed the 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 issue.  Overwhelmingly, the proposals were in favor of reverting to the 1976 language of “a man and a woman,” or arguing that a constitution ought not enter into the issue.  The theme was addressed in 66% of the meetings.  On the other hand, in the section expressing the equal rights of all without discrimination, the insertion of sexual orientation and gender identity did not provoke controversy.  The people seemed to be saying that, yes, all people have rights, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, but gay marriage ought not be legitimated or legalized.  Tolerance for lifestyle choices and identities is one thing; but full cultural and social affirmation by the society is another.

      The second theme most addressed in the popular consultation was the placing of a limit of two five-year terms on the office of the President of the Republic.  Some 11.24% of the proposals addressed this theme, and they overwhelmingly expressed the view that no term limits should be placed on the office of the president.  In a related vein, 2.33% of the proposals addressed the establishment of a maximum of sixty years of age for a person to be elected president for a first term.  Overwhelmingly, the proposals called for placing no age limit on the office, or making the age limit higher.

      Some 6.56% of the interventions addressed the constitutional article asserting that all able persons have the duty to work, and the interventions overwhelmingly expressed the view that work should be made obligatory.  Such interventions reflected the sentiment in the society that too many persons are not working, yet they are receiving full rights and social benefits, and they may be living better materially than most, because of illicit activities or family remittances from abroad. 

     On December 20, the National Assembly met to begin debate on the Constitution, dividing into three work commissions.  None of the commissions had authority to make changes in the text; it was a question of discussion and clarification, with changes in the text reserved for the plenary session of December 22.  The three commissions were held simultaneously; they were broadcast on national television on the evening of December 20 in a special six-hour program that included two-hour edited versions of each session. 

      On December 21, 2018, at a Plenary Session of the National Assembly, Homero Acosta, speaking on behalf of the Constitutional Commission, made a four-hour presentation of the revisions in the document made by the Commission, based on the popular consultation.  Beyond his duties as a Commission member, Acosta was Secretary of the Council of State, which was the executive branch of the Cuban government, elected by the National Assembly.

      Reviewing the text section by section, Acosta reviewed the recommendations of the Commission to the National Assembly.  He noted that the few proposals rejecting the socialist character of the revolution and the constitutional definition of the role of the Party were rejected by the Commission, because of the small number of people proposing it, and because of the ample popular support for socialist principles.  In addition, the Commission rejected the proposal of 4,802 citizens to change name of the country to “Socialist Republic of Cuba,” for historic reasons and because of tradition.

     Acosta explained that there were some changes made in the draft with respect to the section on Economic Fundamentals, specifically the article that defines the various forms of property in the context of a socialist economy.  The description of private property was amplified, such that its complementary role in the socialist economy is affirmed.  The article now makes more explicit that the state regulates and controls the manner in which all the forms of property contribute to economic and social development.  And the new constitution continues with the affirmation of the 1992 reform, that the socialist property of all the people, in which the state acts in representation of the people as proprietor, is the principal form of property. 

      Thus, a strong majority of the people accepted the expanded role of private property in the economy; indeed, the proposed change originated from the desires of the people.  At the same time, in response to the concerns of some, modifications were made in the final text of the constitution, clarifying the socialist character of the economy.  A consensus was reached: there is space for private property in the context of a socialist economy, in which the state plans, directs, and regulates the economy; and in which state-owned enterprises are the largest sector.

     Acosta reported on the relatively small (less than 500) ultra-left proposals for the elimination of private property, and a few similar proposals to eliminate the market.  Acosta maintained that these proposals “do not know our reality.”  Some are prejudiced against self-employment, but workers that are not part of the state sector are part of our revolutionary process, Acosta argued.  “This is a reality that we have to accept; this is the reality of socialism in our circumstances.”  Foreign investment, also, is necessary for our development, Acosta affirmed.  The Constitutional Reform of 1992 recognized this.  Even the Constitution of 1976, when there was no foreign investment, suggested possibilities of cooperation of this kind.  We have to abandon prejudice against foreign investment and recognize its place, as well as that of self-employment, in the socialist economy, he maintained. 

      Acosta maintained that the State works to create more equality, but it also has to create more wealth, and this sometimes involves adopting measures that promote more inequality.  The adoption of internal use of foreign currency in 1993 is an example, but it had to be done.  We do not presently have the conditions for total equality, and we cannot do things that are beyond our capacity, Acosta argued. 

      In response to the polemical debate on the proposal to define marriage as “union between two persons,” Acosta explained that a new chapter on “Families” has been included in the draft.  He stressed that the designation of “families” in the plural affirms that there are many types of families, including traditional families, single parent families, and multigenerational families, as well as couples.  Among Cuban couples, 52% are married; and 47% are consensual unions.  And there are homosexual couples.  This is the reality, and the Commission believes that the Constitution has to legitimate what exists. 

     However, Acosta continued, the Commission believes it must accept and be respectful toward the various opinions, on both sides of the debate.  Seeking to arrive at a position that respects both sides and to formulate a constitution that reflects equilibrium and consensus, the new formulation does not mention the subjects that form a marital relation.  It sets aside the debate for another moment, by requiring that the National Assembly develop a new Family Code within two years, and that the development of the Code include a popular consultation and a referendum.  Acosta declared that with this resolution of the issue by the Commission, there are no winners and losers.  “We all win (a declaration greeted by applause). We continue to affirm the rights of all, and we will not abandon the struggle.  But we have to recognize what is possible today, in a form that respects the positions of all.”

     The Commission appears to be taking the position that it supports constitutional and legal sanctioning of gay marriage, but it does not want to impose it on the people.  The Commission is in effect assigning to defenders of gay rights the duty of educating the people, so that a majority would confirm support for the change.

     With respect to the limit of two consecutive terms on important offices of the government and the setting of age limits, Acosta maintained that these proposals came from the Party, and they did not originate in the Constitutional Commission itself.  He cited comments by Raúl on various occasions, who argued that the situation is different from the earlier years, when the Revolution confronted many challenges.  Acosta also cited Fidel on this matter.  The Commission wishes to maintain these proposed restrictions, in accordance with the views of the Party, its historic leader (Fidel), and its present leader (Raúl).

      Homero Acosta concluded his four-hour presentation with the affirmation, “Never before in the world has an entire people participated in the development of a constitution.”

      The debate in plenary session of the National Assembly was held on December 22.  Prior to the beginning of the plenary session, fifty-eight deputies had solicited the opportunity to speak, but some, when their name was called, indicated that subsequent conversations had satisfied their questions or concerns, and they would not be making a declaration or raising a question.  Some indicated the same satisfaction with the addressing of their concerns, but still took the floor, giving a brief expression of support for the process.  Among them were declarations that the popular consultation has been a success for the Revolution and the people, and that the new Constitution is yet another victory of the people.

     Among those who spoke, a deputy who identified himself as religious expressed his contentment that the Constitution declares, for the first time, that Cuba has a lay state.  Another deputy later spoke extensively and enthusiastically of the article referring to religious beliefs and of the general orientation toward inclusion of religious persons in the revolutionary process; the deputies of the Assembly warmly applauded his intervention.

     Three deputies who are representatives of the LGBT community expressed satisfaction with the modifications made by the Commission with respect to families and the definition of marriage.  They called for all to vote for the Constitution, for it endorses the rights of all.  Among the three was Mariela Castro Espín, the most visible defender of LGBT rights and Director of the Center for Sexual Education and Teaching (CENEX); as well as the daughter of Raúl Castro, General Secretary of the Party, and the late Wilma Espín, founder of the Federation of Cuban Women.  She maintained that the reformulation is an advance in the cause of inclusion and anti-discrimination, contrary to what is disseminated in the international media of communication, which has taken out of context the decision of the Commission to not define the subjects that enter a marriage union.  The reformulation, she notes, is different from the 1976 Constitution, in that it does not refer to gender in the marriage union, and thus it does not preclude gay marriage.  Moreover, the new Constitution recognizes diverse forms of families, which can include the formation of couples, regardless of sexual orientation.  She announced that after the passage of the new Constitution, CENEX will concentrate on the development of a new family code; it will make reference to scientific developments on the theme, as well as international tendencies, in efforts to educate the people.  It will combat the international campaign of disinformation concerning the theme.  CENEX congratulates the Commission for its work in developing a democratic constitutional process, and it calls upon the people to adopt the constitution on February 24. 

     The Cuban Constitution of 2019 continues with principles and structures that have been hallmarks of Cuban society since the revolutionary triumph of 1959.  The Preamble of the new Constitution declares that Cuban citizens, in adopting a new Constitution, are inspired by the heroism, patriotism, and sacrifice of those that struggled against slavery, colonialism, and imperialism for a free, independent, sovereign, democratic, and just nation.  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, Engels, 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 state.  It proclaims that its socialism and its revolutionary social and political system are irrevocable.  As in the Constitution of 1976, the new constitution names the Communist Party of Cuba as the Martían, Fidelist, Marxist, and Leninist vanguard party that organizes, educates, and leads the people toward the construction of socialism. 

     The new Constitution conserves the structures of People’s Power that were established by the Constitution of 1976, concentrating power in the National Assembly, elected directly and indirectly by the people.  Like the Constitution of 1976, the new Constitution affirms the right of Cuba to sovereignty in international relations.  And like the 1976 Constitution, the new constitution guarantees freedom of thought and expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.  It affirms freedom of the press, in the context of a system with state ownership of the fundamental means of communication.  It affirms due process rights, including the presumption of innocence, the right to a lawyer, and the right to a fair trial.  Like the Constitution of 1976, the new constitution affirms social and economic rights, including the rights to adequate housing; free, quality health services; free and accessible public education from the pre-school to university post-graduate level; and to a healthy and adequate diet.  Like the Constitution of 1976, the new constitution affirms the principle of gender equality and the obligation of the state to protect the natural environment.  And the new Constitution affirms that the state supports the development of science and culture. 

     Both the 1976 and new constitutions dictate that the Cuban economy is a socialist economy that is directed and regulated by the State in accordance with its plan for social and economic development.  However, there is a difference between the two constitutions with respect to the various forms of property, taking into account the New Social and Economic Model of 2012.  The 1976 Constitution established state ownership of agricultural land, sugar processing plants, factories, mines, banks, and natural resources; and it recognized other forms of property as exceptions to state property.  These exceptions included: the agricultural property of small farmers and cooperatives; joint ventures of state and private capital; self-employment in transportation; and the property of mass, social, and political organizations.  In contrast, the new Constitution recognizes various forms of property, including: socialist property of the people, in which the state acts as representative of the people; cooperatives, now expanded beyond agriculture; joint ventures; the property of mass, political, and social organizations; and private property, which is regulated to ensure that concentration is limited, in accordance with socialist values of equity and social justice.  The non-state forms of property are not exceptions to state property, as in 1976; rather, they are forms of property that exist alongside state property.  Furthermore, foreign investment has its role: “The State promotes and guarantees foreign investment as an important element for the economic development of the country, over the base of the protection and reasonable use of natural and human resources as well as respect for national sovereignty and national independence.”  

     The central role of the state as principal property holder, planner, and regulator is clear in the new Cuban constitution.  It affirms that Cuba has a “socialist economy based on the property of all the people over the fundamental means of production, as the principal form of property, and based on the planned direction of the economy, which regulates and controls the market in accordance with the interests of the society.”  “The State directs, regulates, and controls economic activity, reconciling national, territorial, collective, and individuals interests in benefit of the society.” “The State socialist company is the principal subject of the national economy.  It has at its disposal autonomy in administration and management, and it plays the principal role in the production of goods and services.”

Previous Commentaries

      Such recognition of various forms of property, including private and foreign property, is in accordance with what I call “pragmatic socialism,” which is the form of socialism being developed in theory and in practice in China and Vietnam as well as Cuba.  In the case of Cuba, the expansion of space for private property emerged as a demand in the breast of the people.  Following the collapse of the socialist bloc, the people began to develop informal capitalistic activities, and they increasingly expressed their dissatisfaction with the material standing of living.  Responding to the inquietude of the people, the Party proposed a new social and economic model.  It was developed through a popular consultation primarily in places of work, culminating in the approval in 2012 by the National Assembly of guidelines for a new social and economic model.  The entire process from 2011 to 2019, involving the development of a new social and economic model and its constitutional foundation, was characterized by an ongoing dialogue between the leadership and the people; with the results ultimately approved by the National Assembly of People’s Power, composed of the deputies of the people, and by the people in referendum.

     With respect to this exceptional and impressive process of popular participation and intelligent reformulation of the constitutional foundation of the nation, nary a word was said in the great media of communication in the United States.  Cubans are accustomed to it being so.

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