Cubans Approve a Constitution, but Opponents Speak Out
MEXICO CITY — Cubans voted to approve a new constitution, the government announced Monday, but the growing boldness of those opposing its policies seemed to overshadow the modest legal changes that were on the ballot.
Nearly 87 percent of Cubans who cast ballots voted “yes” in Sunday’s referendum, the National Electoral Commission said, according to Cuban media reports. But about 15 percent of voters stayed home, and those Cubans, along with the ones who voted “no,” represented an unusual show of opposition in the one-party state.
While the final result presents no real challenge to the leadership of President Miguel Díaz-Canel and the continued control of the Cuban Communist Party, it reflects the growing confidence of diverse groups that have pushed back against official decisions in recent months and forced the government to negotiate.
Evangelical groups protested a provision in the proposed constitution that would have legalized same-sex marriage, artists demanded the repeal of a decree they said would give the government more power to censor them, and small private businesses bristled at new regulations.
“None of those issues threatened the basic structure of the single-party system,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University and a specialist in United States-Cuba relations. But, he added, “when you create a precedent that people can mobilize politically to pursue policy differences with the government, it’s not so easy to put that genie back in the bottle.”
While it is unclear how far these voices of civil society will resonate, they reveal the narrow line that Mr. Díaz-Canel is walking between a conservative old guard and an increasingly pluralistic society.
Without the authority that Fidel and Raúl Castro enjoyed as leaders of the 1959 revolution, and with no real economic improvement that he can point to, Mr. Díaz-Canel, who succeeded Raúl Castro as president last April, is seeking to establish his legitimacy. To do that, analysts say, he is cultivating an image of a president who is responsive to people’s needs.
At the same time, the widening reach of the internet makes it easier to mobilize groups around a single issue, and independent voices have multiplied online as Cubans have tested the limits of free expression.
In December, Cuba introduced 3G service, which allows people with mobile phones to access the internet, sign on to social media and read foreign media. Service is expensive, and for many Cubans, packages cost from almost a quarter to a full month’s salary, but those who work in the private sector or receive money from relatives abroad can afford it.
In some ways, the new constitution is catching up to Cuba’s changing reality as it assures the continuity of the political system. It recognizes private property and foreign investment and gives legal status to Cuba’s opening to the private sector, now almost a decade in the making. Some 30 percent of Cubans are self-employed or work in small businesses.
But the document maintains the one-party state and socialist management of the economy, does not recognize the separation of powers and does little to broaden civil and political rights. Indeed, the final text that voters endorsed proved to be more conservative than the draft that was presented last summer.
The government held public consultations across the country and invited citizens to submit their proposals. But it ignored some suggestions, like the call for citizens to elect their president directly, and incorporated more conservative language, including new limits on the press.
Most significantly, it restored the word “communism” in the final version and scaled back a proposal to allow same-sex marriage. That suggests that the “most conservative and unmovable” sector of the Cuban elite prevailed in the debate over the text, wrote Rafael Rojas, a Cuban historian at Cide, a Mexico City university.
“That the constitution ended up far below the reformist expectations that it raised two years ago, when Raúl Castro announced it, speaks to the inability of Miguel Díaz-Canel’s leadership to cope with a real constitutional modernization of the Cuban system,” Mr. Rojas wrote in an email.
Ted Henken, a Cuba expert at Baruch College of the City University of New York, said that the constitutional vote was an important effort to establish legitimacy for Mr. Díaz-Canel. He has “an easily digestible, more hip image that is covering over the same unworkable revolutionary edifice,” Mr. Henken said.
The government had campaigned heavily for ratification, as its appeals filled radio and television programming, and billboards declaring “Yo Voto Sí” covered Cuba’s streets.
With little open opposition, the government’s campaign on behalf of the changes seemed to some to be excessive, at times including accusations that those who would vote “no” were siding with Cuba’s “traditional enemies” — a veiled reference to the United States.
But on social media, some Cubans spoke up, anyway, to declare that they would vote “no.” In one test of government monitoring, people sent text messages declaring “Yo voto No,” but the messages never arrived, though the senders were charged texting fees, Mr. Henken said.
Claudia Padrón Cueto, 26, a journalist who writes for El Toque, a nonofficial online publication, said some people were beginning to shake off their fear. “Contrary opinions haven’t been allowed for many years,” she wrote in an online interview. “Access to the internet has started to change this context. There is more access to information, and people have more platforms where they can express themselves.”
Ms. Padrón said she was voting against the new constitution because she disagreed with having one party, the Communist Party, remain above all other government institutions and with the enshrinement of only one economic model, socialism. Her opposition was also rooted in the document’s failure to guarantee basic political freedoms, she added.
But expressing opposition offline is more complicated. José Daniel Ferrer García, a leader of the dissident group Patriotic Union of Cuba, was briefly detained twice this month, most recently as he protested in a park in Santiago de Cuba with a large handmade “no” sign.
The police also raided his home and those of several other activists, taking computers and camera equipment, he said.
The biggest surprise came from evangelical churches, which opposed a proposal in the initial draft to recognize same-sex marriage.
Almost a quarter of the proposed changes submitted to the government drafting commission dealt with the article that would have defined marriage as a union between two people. Most of these comments were in opposition, the government said.
Evangelical churches hung posters on their facades declaring: “I am in favor of the original design. Marriage: Man+Woman” in a presumably unprecedented public display of opposition to the government proposal.
In the end, the government backed down and removed the article, but promised to bring up the issue again under a change in the country’s civil code.
“What was there before was the willingness we had” to change the law, Homero Acosta, the secretary of the Council of State, said in December when he presented the changes to the draft constitution. “But now is not the time to establish it because there was no consensus,” he said.
The partial retreat on same-sex marriage came on the heels of another concession, this one to private business owners. In an effort to regulate the private sector, new rules would have limited Cubans to only one business license, and the number of seats in restaurants to 50.
But in early December, the government agreed to lift those proposals — although it kept many others — after protests by the private sector. And in the constitution’s final version, a proposal to “limit” the concentration of property was altered to say the government would “regulate” it.
The government’s sometimes contradictory approach to the private sector reflects an ideological discomfort and a concern that some people are amassing too much wealth, said Michael Bustamante, a Cuba historian at Florida International University.
“In the Cuba context this private sector got pretty successful, pretty quickly,” he said. “It’s an issue of growing inequality that’s real.”
At the same time, he said, the government portrayed its backtracking on the new rules as evidence of Mr. Díaz-Canel’s new approach.
“This is not a retreat, this reflects who we are as a government; we listen, we adjusted course,” Mr. Bustamante said, describing the message that was intended. “You could see moves like that as helping him to build legitimacy, as being responsive.”
The government was less willing to completely overturn its proposal when it came to a new decree regulating artists, one that artists said would lead to arbitrary censorship. Instead, the government said it would study the implementation of the rules.
But the government reversals can be read in a different way, Mr. Henken said.
“Mr. Díaz-Canel has a lot less power to dictate,” he said. “He has a more difficult balancing act.” He “had to keep the old guard in his corner” even as he tried to build bridges to religious groups, artists and the private sector.
Cuban society is becoming more heterogenous socially and economically, Mr. Henken said. But is the government’s response to these diverse groups a sign of its increasing tolerance or of their growing demands? The answer is not clear, Mr. Henken said.