Cuba could have a new government soon that would weaken the position of president if the new draft of the island’s Constitution recently approved by the National Assembly is ratified in a referendum in February.
According to the final version of the draft, published Saturday by the official media, the National Assembly must approve a new electoral law within six months after the new Constitution is enacted. Then, within another three months, the National Assembly must choose a new president, vice president and Council of State from among its deputies currently in office.
And a new office of Prime Minister would be enacted, requiring the president to share power.
Exactly when the new government could be formed is uncertain. It depends on the approval of the constitution in the referendum and its publication date in the Official Gazette, which dictates when it would take effect.
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The current government structure took effect in April 2018, when Raúl Castro ceded his seat as president to Miguel Díaz-Canel, whom Castro had been grooming for years. Diaz-Canel might be named president again by the National Assembly, but his political strength would be somewhat diminished because he would have to share power with a prime minister even though he would have a hand in the selection process.
Under the current government structure, the president also serves as head of the Council of State, which exercises legislative powers, and the Council of Ministers, the highest ranking executive and administrative body.
Under the approved draft Constitution, the new president can nominate someone for the office of the primer minister, and the National Assembly will vote to ratify him or her. The prime minister will be the head of government but the president will remain head of state and the country’s military.
The ruling Communist Party would remain intact with no opposition since the Constitutional draft establishes that the party is the “superior political power of society and of the State.” Castro, 87, also would remain as first secretary of the party.
Although the document establishes age limits (60 years old) to occupy the presidency in the first term — at Castro’s proposal — no similar limits were imposed to the prime minister. The president and vice president, however, would only hold two terms in office. That is a major departure from the decades in power by the late Fidel Castro.
Many of the changes in the new document were already known and its main elements — the irrevocable character of socialism, the main role of the Communist Party and a socialist planned economy — remained unchanged in the final draft.
Although the National Assembly announced that it made 760 changes to the final version to include suggestions made by the population in assemblies held throughout the country, the changes seem minor. There are few exceptions, including the elimination of the language referring to marriage as “the union between two individuals,“ a definition opposed by churches in the island.
The final version includes some legal guarantees, such as the right to file a petition for habeas corpus, as well as a declaration of respect for the “freedoms of thought, conscience and expression” that did not appear in the current Constitution, passed in 1976. But the scope of many of these rights, including freedom of association and freedom of the press, will be limited by current restrictive laws — or those to be written — or by what the government interprets as lawful.
The draft includes two new articles to allow citizens to seek compensation for damages caused by state officials or request rectification or non-disclosure of their public data, but this will also be regulated by laws yet to be written.
Although the government invited Cuban exiles to make suggestions to the Constitution draft, the final version does not expand the role of private property or the political rights of citizens residing outside the island, two of the most popular demands among Cubans living abroad.
The final document, in fact, includes a clarification — absent in the first version — to emphasize that private property only has “a complementary role in the [planned socialist] economy.”
Days before the document was made available to the population, Díaz-Canel and other government officials started to campaign for its approval in the referendum. Those who oppose it, have turned to social media to push for a no vote, but most Cubans are not online.
The government does not allow its critics to campaign on television or the press, something that will not change if the new Constitution is approved, since the text reaffirms state control of the “most important media” in the country.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres