Cuba’s national assembly receives proposed reform of 1976 constitution
By this time next year, under a new constitution, Cuba may have a prime minister, a president of the republic — and another president who will head both its parliament and Council of State.
That structure is a big departure from recent decades when Raúl Castro — and his predecessor, the late Fidel Castro — was president of both the Council of Ministers and Council of State and also headed the Communist Party of Cuba. Since April, Miguel Díaz-Canel has served as both president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers and Raúl Castro continues to lead the powerful party.
While the Communist Party will continue to be the dominant force in the country, Cuba analysts say they expect the president of the republic will be far more influential than either the new post of prime minister, who is expected to be a technocrat who will direct the day-to-day operations of the government, or the dual president of Cuba’s National Assembly and the Council of State.
The National Assembly, Cuba’s parliament, recently approved a draft of the new constitution, which will replace a 1976 Soviet-style constitution. But it still must undergo an approval process and face a national referendum, most likely some time next year.
If approved, as expected, Castro and Díaz-Canel will likely remain the two dominant figures in Cuba’s government. Castro said he expects Díaz-Canel to succeed him when his term as party chieftain ends in 2021. In the meantime, Díaz-Canel has acknowledged he will be looking to Castro as a “lucid and tireless guide.”
“Díaz-Canel has clearly been selected to be the guy,” said William LeoGrande, an American University professor who specializes in Cuba. “The creation of a prime minister, who will focus on the work of the ministries and making sure the economic reform program is carried out, makes perfect sense.”
Nevertheless, there will be some significant changes. Currently, Díaz-Canel is both head of state and chief of government. Those functions are separated under the new constitution.
“The idea is to create a more collective form of leadership within the framework of a one-party state. I don’t see this as a separation of power so much as functional differentiation,” said Arturo López-Levy, a former Cuban intelligence analyst and a lecturer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “The president will be more in charge of strategic projects and setting development goals.”
Borrowing a page from the Chinese constitution, Cuba’s new prime minister will serve at the will of the president of the republic, who is the more powerful figure. But unlike China, which removed term limits for president and vice president in a March 2018 revision to its constitution, Cuba has imposed a maximum of 10 years of service.
From National Assembly discussions and the text of the draft constitution, it appears this is how Cuba’s government will be organized in the future and how leadership roles will function:
▪ President of the Republic: The president will be the head of state and make strategic decisions on the development and direction of the country.
To become president, a candidate must be a National Assembly member and a Cuban citizen by birth. There are also age restrictions. The president must have reached at least 35 years old and cannot exceed 60 years of age when beginning a first term. There is no upper age limit for the vice president, who also must be a National Assembly deputy.
The president also will be limited to a maximum of two consecutive five-year terms. That virtually guarantees that any future Cuban president will be drawn from the generations born after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Rather than being elected by direct vote, the president and vice president will be elected by the National Assembly.
During the National Assembly debate, Homero Acosta, the secretary of the Council of State, said that because of the electoral college system, the United States doesn’t elect its president by direct vote either. “No one questions this,” he said.
The president of the republic will carry out some of the duties that currently correspond to the president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers but will pick up a few new responsibilities under the proposed constitution.
Among them: making decisions on granting and withdrawing Cuban citizenship, giving out decorations and honorific titles in the name of Cuba, granting pardons, presiding over the National Defense Council, declaring general mobilizations and natural disaster emergencies, proposing to the National Assembly and Council of State declarations of war or the state of war, calling meetings of the Council of State, signing laws and decree laws, and promoting high-ranking members of the armed forces.
Another interesting change is that if either the president or vice president of the republic is unable to serve, the president of the National Assembly will assume the role until a new president is selected by the National Assembly.
▪ Prime minister: Being a National Assembly member is also a requisite for the new prime minister, who will serve as head of government for a period of five years.
The president will propose the prime minister, who must be approved by an absolute majority in the 605-member National Assembly.
Currently, the president appoints and presides over the Council of Ministers or cabinet. But under the new constitution, the prime minister would direct and call meetings of the Council of Ministers, the chief administrative and executive body in Cuba.
Why the change? Government officials say the changes are to improve efficiency and accountability.
The Cuban economy grew only 1.1 percent in the first half of this year, Cuba’s future oil supplies from Venezuela are in doubt, and its economic reform process has stalled.
“There have been bottlenecks with the current form of government,” López-Levy said. “The prime minister will be a position in which performance will be measured as well as how well the economy is managed.”
“The prime minister will be like a COO [chief operating officer] who makes sure the bureaucrats are following the policy they’re supposed to be carrying out,” LeoGrande said.
This isn’t the first time Cuba has had a prime minister. The late Fidel Castro served as prime minister from 1959 until 1976, the last time the Cuban constitution got a full overhaul. After that, Castro assumed full control until he ceded power to his brother Raúl in 2006.
There was discussion of bringing back the role of prime minister in 1992, “but I don’t think Fidel Castro wanted to dilute his power,” LeoGrande said.
▪ President of the National Assembly and Council of State: This new combined position will more closely align the work of the National Assembly with the Council of State. Not only will the same president head both entities, but they will also have a common vice president and secretary.
While the National Assembly meets twice yearly except when extraordinary sessions are called, the Council of State remains in session throughout the year, issuing decree laws and ratifying agreements and treaties when the National Assembly isn’t in session.
This will continue to be the Council of State’s role, according to the government.
“The Council of State will shed most of its executive functions,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat.
Currently, there’s some overlap between the 31 members who sit on the Council of State and the 32 members of the Council of Ministers. But under the proposed constitution, those who serve on the Council of Ministers won’t have a seat in the Council of State. Those in the judiciary, the electoral council or bodies of state control such as the Office of the Comptroller General can’t serve on the Council of State either, said Homero Acosta, the current secretary of the Council of State.
But it also will be getting some new duties under the proposed constitution. Among them are interpreting the constitution and setting and eliminating taxes.
Cuba still hasn’t released a complete timeline for its constitutional approval process. It plans to open a comment period for the Cuban populace from Aug. 13 to Nov. 15.
More than 135,000 meetings will be held in workplaces, schools, community centers and abroad to solicit feedback on the draft, according to Granma, the newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party. The meetings will be run by 7,600 two-person teams who will receive specialized training.
On Tuesday, the first of about 600,000 copies of the proposed constitution went on sale for one Cuban peso (4 cents) at newsstands and post offices, and the government also posted a downloadable version online.
After the pubic feedback period, the constitutional reform commission will evaluate the suggestions and the constitution will be sent back to the National Assembly for approval. That’s expected to happen late this year or early next year. When the final version of the constitution is set, there will be a nationwide referendum where voters will be asked to vote yes or no by secret ballot.
Alzugaray said he expects the referendum will be held by next Feb. 24 at the latest, and that the new constitution will probably be implemented in the July 2019 session of the National Assembly.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi