In the next posts, I discuss the new Cuban constitution. I begin in this post with summary of the historic antecedents of the new Constitution.
(1) The Constitution of Guáimaro, a town in the liberated territory during the First War of Independence (1868-78), was adopted by fifteen deputies of the insurrectionists on April 10, 1869. It created the Republic of Cuba in Arms.
(2) The Constitution of 1901 established the Republic of Cuba following the third war of independence, 1895-1898. Written during the U.S. military occupation that followed the 1898 military intervention, and written in the aftermath of the elimination of Cuban revolutionary political and military institutions, the Constitution of 1901 copied the governmental structures of the U.S. model. It did not reflect the conditions of Cuba as a new state recently liberated from Spanish colonialism. It said nothing with respect to the protection of social and economic rights, the role of the state in the economy, or limitations on large estates and foreign capital. It provided the constitutional foundation for the U.S.-dominated neocolonial republic.
(3) At the end of the 1930s, the changing national and international situation led the Batista dictatorship to a democratic opening, which included the convoking of a constitutional assembly, a long-standing demand of the popular movement. Elections for the Constitutional Assembly were held on November 15, 1939, resulting in the election of seventy-six delegates from seven political parties, including six delegates from the Communist Party as well as other socialist and progressive delegates. Influenced by the Mexican Constitution of 1917 and the prevailing social and progressive ideals of the epoch, the Constitution of 1940 was advanced for its time. However, key aspects of the Constitution were not implemented with necessary complementary laws during the period 1940-1952. Following the Batista coup d’état of March 10, 1952 that launched the second Batista dictatorship, the Constitution of 1940 was replaced with Statutes of dubious juridical base.
(4) Following the triumph of the Revolution of January 1, 1959, the Constitution of 1940 was reestablished, with necessary modifications for the exercise of power. It was the base for the Fundamental Law of February 7, 1959 and the provisional revolutionary government.
(5) On September 2, 1960, the National General Assembly of the People of Cuba emitted the Declaration of Havana, which defined the concepts and rights that would guide the revolutionary process in the subsequent stage. It affirms the right of the Latin American peoples to sovereignty and self-determination, condemning the imperialist policies of the United States. And it proclaims: the right of peasants to the land; the right of workers to the fruit of their labor; the right of children to education; the right of the sick to medical attention and hospital care; the right of youth to work; the right of students to free, experiential and scientific education; the right of blacks and Indians to “the full dignity of man;” the right of the woman to civil, social, and political equality; the right of the elderly to a secure old age; the right of intellectuals, artists, and scientists to struggle, with their works, for a better world; the right of States to the nationalization of the “imperialist monopolies,” thereby rescuing national wealth and resources; the right of nations to full sovereignty; the right of the peoples to convert military fortresses into schools, and to arm their workers, their peasants, their students, their intellectuals, the black, the Indian, the woman, the young person, the old person, and all the oppressed and exploited, in order that they can defend, by themselves, their rights and their destinies. The National General Assembly of the People of Cuba was constituted by a mass meeting of one million persons at the Civic Plaza (today the Plaza of the Revolution), constituting perhaps 20% of the Cuban adult population of the time. Fidel named it “direct democracy,” an alternative to the prevailing structures of representative democracy.
(6) The Constitution of 1976 was approved on February 15, 1976 by popular referendum. Ninety-eight percent of the population of more than 16 years of age participated in the referendum, and 97.7% of the voters approved. Thus, 95.7% of the people voted “yes” in the constitutional referendum.
There are five important characteristics of the Constitution of 1976. (i) The most outstanding characteristic is that it institutionalized structures of popular participation that were initiated by the Revolution as “direct democracy” in the early 1960s. It established municipal assemblies as the foundation to national structures of popular power. The 169 municipal assemblies are formed by direct and secret voting in small voting districts, in which voters choose from two or more candidates. The elected delegates of the municipal assemblies, in “second-degree” or “indirect” elections, vote for delegates to the provincial assemblies as well as the deputies of the national assembly. Candidacy commissions, constituted by mass organizations of workers, farmers, women, students, and neighborhoods, play a pivotal role in the second-degree elections, proposing lists of candidates to the delegates of the municipal assemblies.
(ii). The Constitution of 1976 abolished electoral political parties. Candidates for the municipal assemblies are nominated by the people in a serious of nomination assemblies in neighborhoods in the numerous voting districts.
(iii). The Constitution of 1976 established the unity of power. It established a functional division among the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, but not a separation of powers or a balance of powers. Accordingly, the National Assembly is the highest authority of the nation; it enacts laws and designates the high members of the executive and judicial branches of government.
(iv). The Constitution of 1976 defines the Communist Party of Cuba as the only party, which is the highest leading force in the society. Distinct from political parties in representative democracies, the Party does not have electoral functions, and it does not participate directly in the electoral process. The Party leads through education and by example, but it is the people, through the structures of popular power, that ultimately decide.
(v). The Constitution of 1976, like the 1960 Declaration of Havana, affirms the right of Cuba to sovereignty as well as the social and economic rights of the people, including rights to employment, food, health, education, culture, and recreation.
In basing the election of the national assembly in local voting districts without the participation of electoral political parties, the Constitution of 1976 sought to ensure that the National Assembly reflects the people and functions to promote the interest of the people. In establishing the unity of governmental branches, the Constitution sought to ensure that the National Assembly would be able to effectively act. In creating a popular government that can act effectively in defense of the people, the Constitution reflects the most important principle of socialism, namely, that power is in the hands of the people, through the elected delegates of the people. Accordingly, Article One of the 1976 Constitution describes Cuba as an independent and sovereign socialist state.
The existence of a single party does not mean a negation of diversity or pluralism. Cuba is a society with ideological diversity and a culture of free expression of ideas, which is evident within the Party, within popular assembles, and within the mass organizations. Under the leadership of the Party, Cuban society has arrived to a consensus with respect to the principles of the Constitution of 1976, thereby demonstrating that a system in which a single party educates and exhorts can overcome confusions and dysfunctional divisions. However, the forging of a consensus does not imply that minority opinions that deviate from the consensus cannot be expressed.
Constitutions should reflect the society, and as societies evolve, constitutional reforms or new constitutions ought to be developed. In the case of Cuba, there have been significant changes since 1976. The collapse of the socialist bloc led to new economic and social measures as well as significant social changes. Moreover, in the period 2007 to 2014, the Party formulated and led the people in a discussion of a new economic and social model, adjusting to the evolving conditions. These evolutionary changes created the need for a new Constitution. The new Constitution, however, is built on the foundation of the Constitution of 1976, and preserves many of its elements, as we will discuss in subsequent posts.