New movement tackles constitutional changes in Cuba

More than 300 roundtable sessions that attracted 2,400 people were held last weekend in Cuba, part of a project to reach a consensus among political players and civil society — inside and outside Cuba — on a proposed constitution.

The debates of the so-called Constitutional Road Map, driven by opposition figure Manuel Cuesta Morúa, include the hope that thousands more people will sign on to the project, known as Constitution Assembly Now.

Morúa, leader of the Progressive Arch movement, said that the discussions focused on finding a consensus about whether to reform Cuba’s current constitution, reinstate the 1940 constitution or create a new one.

The initiative comes as a government commission is conducting a closed-door study of possible changes to the constitution.

Although the 72 organizations currently working on the road map are mostly in the opposition, Morúa said Tuesday that “the idea is to open the process to all citizens. It’s about reaching a wider legitimacy with the participation of citizens not linked to the opposition. This is not a discussion among opposition groups, and this first activity proved it.”

Morúa said that among the 2,400 participants were many people who were not activists or opponents of the Cuban government, and that the roundtables should fairly “open the discussion to citizens in their communities.”

To avoid government control — authorities often prevent similar meetings — the nature of the meetings and the places where they were to be held were not announced in advance.

The last attempt by civil society to change the constitution, known as Varela Project and driven by the late opposition leader Oswaldo Payá, was dismissed by the National Assembly in 2002 after it was presented with more than 10,000 signatures. The Varela Project advocated for a new electoral law, as well as laws protecting free expression, freedom of the press and to peacefully assemble, and other measures.

In 2002, the National Assembly passed the Law of Constitutional Reform, which affirmed that “Socialism and the revolutionary political and social system established in this constitution . . is irrevocable, and Cuba will never go back to capitalism.”

But Morúa is confident that, unlike in the 1990s, “the need for change is now shared by the majority of Cuba’s population. We don’t want to stay with the minimal 10,000 signatures required by the Cuban constitution to ask for changes, but we want to create a movement and a critical number of supporters so that the authorities will not be able to file away the proposal in a drawer.”

Armando Chaguaceda, a Cuban political expert living in Mexico, thinks the initiative has little chance of succeeding, though it does constitute a good political strategy, and “retakes the legal issue of citizens’ rights. To appeal to any rights, even those in effect, is highly subversive in a context like the Cuban society. On the other hand, it picks up on the idea of coexistence among Cubans.”

In recent years, the debate in Cuba on the need to reform the constitution has spread among academics, jurists and other members of civil society that present themselves as being independent from the government.

In a recent interview, Cuban jurist and historian Julio César Guanche said the current constitution is “outdated” in contrast to the United Nations’ human rights accords. In his judgment, “it’s very important to widen the catalog of citizens’ rights and guarantees in Cuba.”

Guanche said that the economic reforms underway in Cuba should be accompanied by constitutional changes. “The magnitude of the changes that are being made and must be made deserve a new constitution.”

In February, the magazine Layman Space, which is published by the Archdiocese of Havana and has debated the issue for years, hosted a panel at which Roberto Veiga, the magazine’s editor, said that the constitutional changes should include laws to defend the people, the revision of Article 5, which turns the Communist Party into “a control force beyond politics,” and the direct election of the head of state.

In an article that the magazine devoted to this topic in 2009, Veiga also advocated for reinstating habeas corpus, the legal doctrine that requires a detained person to be brought before a court.

Another panelist, Dimitri Prieto, had asked to insert “freedom of movement, religion, expression, the press, and assembly and demonstration” in a future text.

Veiga does not believe in “a great conciliation with totalitarian aspirations,” for what “we need is as many groups and proposals as possible and then foster a dialogue among these groups and the society. But for that, it would be necessary for the Cuban government to open a public space for such discussion.”

Morúa believes that debates like those of Layman Space “remain in the elite. This is about reinventing the citizens’ legitimacy as a mechanism to drive change. If the citizens’ discussion finally determines that the current constitution must be reformed and not create a new one, we will follow what the citizens say,” he concluded.

Morúa said that in July an event similar to the “Round Tables of Constitutional Initiative” will be held in Miami.

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