Cuba asked for public feedback on a new constitution. Now it’s deciding which suggestions to include

The newly renovated Capitolio will be the seat of legislative power in Cuba. A constitutional reform committee is in the process of deciding which proposals from a series of public debates will be included in a  new constitution that must be approved by the National Assembly before it heads to voters for an up or down vote next year.
The newly renovated Capitolio will be the seat of legislative power in Cuba. A constitutional reform committee is in the process of deciding which proposals from a series of public debates will be included in a new constitution that must be approved by the National Assembly before it heads to voters for an up or down vote next year.

Over a three-month span more than 7 million Cubans gathered at nearly 112,000 meetings at workplaces, schools and community centers across the island to comment on a 224-article draft of a new Cuban constitution.

Now comes the hard part: Shifting through more than 659,000 proposals, as well as suggestions for modifications and eliminations, that were made at the meetings and incorporating them into a new draft constitution. That document is expected to be submitted to the National Assembly, Cuba’s parliament, in January for approval. The final version will go to the Cuban people for an up or down vote some time next year.

A database and computer programs are helping organize the massive feedback by chapter, article and theme, but ultimately a 33-member constitutional commission will decide which suggestions to include in the constitution that Cubans will vote on and which to ignore.

There were updates to the Soviet-style Cuban constitution in 1978, 1992, and 2012, but this will be the first complete overhaul since 1976. It’s intended to reflect contemporary Cuban society better, according to Cuban officials. While Cuba is no longer defined as a Communist state in the new constitution, the draft still enshrines the Communist Party as the highest political entity of the state and does not allow opposition parties.

Although the government encouraged widespread participation in the constitutional process, some Cubans chose to sit out the meetings. As one man who skipped the debates said, “It was just going to be more blah, blah, blah, and the government doesn’t listen to us anyhow.”

But others took their task more seriously, relishing an opportunity to speak up on issues that will affect how the country is governed, how Cubans marry, the role of private businesses and foreign investment, and their legal rights. Among the proposed changes are adding a prime minister, restructuring the top echelon of government, and imposing term limits.

During the five meetings she attended in her Habana del Este community, Zuzel Cobas Pacheco, a municipal delegate for Havana, said people often came with two constitutions in hand, the old one and the proposed one. “They were aware of the changes and they came with their own proposals,” she said.

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Zuzel Cobas Pacheco, a municipal delegate for Havana, says Cubans who came to the five public debates she attended were well-informed about the proposed constitutional changes. Matias J. Ocner

“People are being more vocal; the debate has been more informed and the discussion has been good. People learned a lot,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat and academic. “We’ll have to see what happens.”

During the debates, there were calls for direct election of top-ranking officials, although the draft constitution states that the president will be elected by the National Assembly.

State media said that among the topics that attracted the largest number of proposals and comments were various articles, including: defining marriage as a “union voluntarily entered into by two persons” rather than a union of a man and woman; limiting a president to just two five-year terms and imposing an age limit of not more than 70 years at the beginning of the first term; defining work as a “fundamental value of our society” and a right and a duty; and one article that changes the structure of provincial government to include a governor.

Luis Puerta Batista, a Havana artist who is incensed at a new decree law scheduled to take effect in December that would restrict the commercialization of art to artists affiliated with state institutions, said he had no trouble speaking up at one of the meetings organized for cultural figures.

“At my constitutional meeting, I said that this decree law is unconstitutional because the new constitution talks about the right to work,” he said.

By far the most controversial constitutional change is the same-sex marriage proposal. Mariela Castro, a National Assembly delegate and daughter of Raúl Castro, has been one of the strongest advocates for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) rights. She heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.

A billboard advocating against gender discrimination and for inclusion was put up in Havana. YAMIL LAGE AFP/Getty Images

The Cuban opposition has rejected the top-down constitutional process as a fraud or declined to take part. The opposition group Cuba Decide, which favors a plebiscite on whether Cubans want free, multiparty elections and free speech, urged Cubans to reject all the articles of the new constitution.

Other sectors of civil society, including religious organizations, have used the debate period to voice their concerns, especially their opposition to Article 68, which addresses same-sex unions.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba, for example, issued a pastoral message in late October that was read from the pulpit at Catholic churches across the island.

The bishops said they considered Article 68 to be “poorly founded and erroneous.” While they said they didn’t want to “disparage the dignity of any person,” they said church teaching has always been clear that the underpinning of marriage and family is “reciprocal and complementary love” between a man and a woman.

The Evangelical Pentecostal Assemblies of God, the Eastern and Western Baptist Convention, the Evangelical League of Cuba and the Methodist Church in Cuba also have come out against Article 68 and have signed a declaration in which they also say marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

“The ideology of gender has no relationship whatsoever with our culture, our struggles for independence nor with leaders of the revolution,” they said in their declaration.

The Christian churches also have been putting up posters against same-sex marriage and are waging a social-media campaign. Although the government invited feedback, such organized opposition to a government proposal is unusual in Cuba.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi