Cuba approves new constitution amid unprecedented opposition. What changes?

Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel votes during a referendum Sunday to approve or reject a new constitution. The constitutional reforms maintain Cuba’s single-party political system and centrally planned economy while recognizing private property.
Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel votes during a referendum Sunday to approve or reject a new constitution. The constitutional reforms maintain Cuba’s single-party political system and centrally planned economy while recognizing private property. AP

Cubans ratified a new constitution that changes how the island is governed, recognizes property rights and imposes term limits — all innovations for a country that hasn’t had a complete overhaul of its constitution since 1976. But in an unprecedented show of opposition, a quarter of eligible voters didn’t go to the polls or voted “No.”

The vote was held Sunday, but preliminary results of the nationwide referendum weren’t announced until Monday afternoon. The government said that 86.85 percent of voters (6.82 million) ratified the constitution and 9 percent (706,000) cast “No” votes. There were 198,674 blank votes and 127,100 spoiled votes.

The “No” vote was supported by a contingent of dissidents and activists who had called on the populace to vote “No” or boycott the referendum because they considered the whole constitutional reform process fraudulent. Cuba’s National Electoral Commission said that 84.4 percent of eligible voters turned out. The previous constitution was approved with more than 97 percent of the vote.

And although the “Yes” vote won by a large margin, more than 2.1 million Cubans either voted “No” or didn’t cast a ballot.

The government campaigned hard for the “Yes” vote, making extensive use of social media, and the opposition answered with a Twitter campaign of its own that used the hashtag #YoVotoNo (I vote no).

A group of tourists walk near a government billboard in Havana that reads: ‘’A new Constitution of all and for all.” YAMIL LAGE AFP/Getty Images

The rewrite is supposed to bring the constitution up to date in a world where the Soviet Union no longer exists and Cuba has taken steps to modernize its own economy, including allowing limited private enterprise and trying to attract foreign investment.

But one thing that won’t change is that the new constitution reaffirms the socialist character of Cuba’s political, economic and social system, which is “irrevocable.” The constitution recognizes the Communist Party as the leading political force in Cuban society and it remains the only legal party in Cuba.

Cuba adopted some constitutional changes in 1978, 1992 and 2002, but this is the first total rewrite in more than 40 years. The new constitution has 229 articles, 92 more than the current one.

A change that many people view favorably is the imposition of term limits for the president of the republic who may serve only two consecutive five-year terms and must be age 60 or younger when first elected to the presidency by the National Assembly of People’s Power, Cuba’s parliament.

That guarantees a generational shift in power and means that any future president of Cuba will be drawn from the population born after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

In an effort to streamline and make governance more efficient, the new constitution also calls for creation of the post of prime minister who will be proposed by the Cuban president, currently Miguel Díaz-Canel, and approved by the National Assembly.

Díaz-Canel now serves as both head of state and head of government but those functions are separated under the new constitution.

While the Communist Party will remain the dominant force in the country, the president of the republic is expected to be far more influential than the prime minister, whose role will be that of a technocrat in charge of day-to-day operations of the government.

Cuba Government-GIOE5EID8.1.jpg
A member of the National Assembly studies the proposed update to the constitution.. The National Assembly approved a draft in July and in December ratified the final version that was sent to voters.. Abel Padron ACN via AP

As the new constitution goes into effect, it sets off a chain reaction that will change the face of Cuban governance.

Within six months, the National Assembly is required to pass a new electoral law that will govern elections for the National Assembly, the Council of State, the president and vice president of the republic, the National Electoral Commission and provincial and local posts.

Within three months of the approval of the new electoral law, the National Assembly must elect from among its deputies, the leaders of the legislative branch, members of the Council of State and the president and vice president of the republic.

Then within three months of the election of the president, he or she must propose candidates for prime minister, as well as the first vice ministers, secretary and other members of the Council of Ministers, to the National Assembly for approval. In the new structure, the prime minister is the head of government and will call and direct meetings of the Council of Ministers.

It is an executive and administrative body charged with making sure laws, decree-laws, policy directives and plans are carried out. Included in the portfolio of the Council of Ministers is directing international trade and foreign investment and coming up with the budget.

Members of the Council of Ministers cannot also be members of the Council of State. When the National Assembly is not in session, the Council of State, which remains in session throughout the year, issues decree-law and ratifies agreements and treaties that are submitted to the National Assembly the next time deputies meet.

Here are some other key provisions of the new constitution:

The economy: While property that belongs to all the people is still central under Cuba’s socialist system, the constitution also recognizes that private ownership of some means of production plays a “complementary role” in the economy. It also recognizes other forms of property ownership such as cooperatives and mixed enterprises. The constitution adds that the state “promotes and offers guarantees to foreign investment as an important element for the economic development of the country.”

Environment and climate change: It promotes the protection and conservation of the environment and confronting climate change, which “threatens the survival of the human species.”

International relations: It reaffirms that economic, political and diplomatic relations with any other country “cannot ever be negotiated under aggression, threat or coercion.”

Press freedom: It recognizes freedom of the press, but limits it by saying it must be exercised in conformity with the law and for the purposes of society. The fundamental means of social communication are the “socialist property of all the people or of political, social and mass organizations.”

Families: In the draft of the constitution, the definition of marriage was changed from a union “between a man and a woman” to the union of two people, which would have allowed gay marriage. But after opposition from church groups, that wording was missing from the final constitution. It was replaced by this: “Matrimony is a social and legal institution. It is one of the ways of organizing a family.”

Now, within two years of the new constitution going into effect, the National Assembly must begin a process of popular consultation, culminating in a referendum on the Family Code. What constitutes a marriage will be included in those discussions.

Legal rights: The presumption of innocence in legal cases has been added as has the right to request a lawyer immediately after arrest and habeus corpus. Anyone who suffers damages as a result of state directives or the negligence of state functionaries or employees may file a claim seeking a remedy or indemnization.

What’s missing from the constitution: There’s no provision for direct elections of top government officials, something that many Cubans had hoped for. Nor are there guarantees for the participation of emigrants in the life of the country.

Some Cubans also had hoped the constitution would allow for multiple political parties and more guarantees for freedom of expression and assembly. Because of the top-down nature of drafting the constitution, some dissidents have rejected it as “illegitimate” and object to its most important goal: sustaining the socialist system.

“The whole process is a strategy to give the impression that the government is slowly improving things,” said Rosa María Payá, a Cuban activist. But she said that is a tactic to distract attention from the government’s goal of making the Communist Party the preeminent force in society “forever.”

The constitution can be changed by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly. But Article 229, the last in the new constitution, says there are two things not subject to reform: “the irrevocability of the socialist system,” and the requirement that relationships with other countries cannot be negotiated under duress.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Mimi Whitefield has covered Latin America and the Caribbean for more than two decades. The Miami Herald’s former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief and a 2017 winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, she now focuses on Cuba coverage.