The debate on the new constitution by the deputies of the Cuban National Assembly of Popular Power was had three parts. First, on December 20, the assembly divided into three work commissions. None of the commissions had authority to make changes in the text; it was a question of discussion and clarification. Secondly, a report by the Constitutional Commission to a plenary session of the National Assembly, held on December 21. Thirdly, debate in plenary session of the proposed constitution, held on December 22.
(1) The three December 20 commissions were held simultaneously. They were broadcast on national television that evening in a special six-hour program as edited versions of each of the three sessions. Some of the highlights of the sessions follows.
A deputy of the National Assembly addressed the article that declares the duty to work of all persons with the conditions for working (that is, not too old or too young, or not incapacitated in some way). Observing that persons who do not work receive all the same social benefits as those who do, the delegate expressed concern that there is not a mechanism to enforce this duty. Another delegate expressed that some people who do not work live better that those who do, and that this was a major concern of the people in the popular consultation. Members of the Commission responded, saying that the State cannot obligate people to work, or pass a law to the effect. This would create numerous legal problems, including with respect to international agreements. The best way is to do it indirectly, by establishing greater rewards for working.
Deputy Eusebeo Leal, Historian of the municipality of Old Havana and a public figure in Cuba, expressed the view that the Preamble ought to include mention of the first Constitution of Guáimaro, which was the constitution of the Republic in Arms from 1868 to 1878. The amendment was supported by the members of the Commission present, and it was included in the draft approved by the National Assembly on December 22.
A delegate asked, with reference to the article referring to the sovereignty of the State and its jurisdiction, why is cyberspace sovereignty not included? A Commission member responded that, since cyberspace is international, it is not possible to speak of sovereignty with respect to cyberspace, in the same sense as nations having the right to exercise sovereign control of their territory and natural resources.
A delegate expressed support for the article guaranteeing religious freedom, especially its declaration that the Cuban State is a lay state, meaning that the state does not interfere in religion, and religion does not interfere in political affairs. He noted that the separation of the state and religious institutions is a modern principle dating from the French Revolution. The Constitution of 1976 did not proclaim the state atheistic. Rather, it established is non-confessional state, not favoring any religion. It established in effect a lay state. Now, this is explicit.
Deputy Fernando González Llort, one of five Cuban heroes who endured years of imprisonment in the United States as a political prisoner, addressed the article affirming that the state guarantees the just distribution of wealth. In recognition of the fact that the state must work toward this goal in accordance with the capacities of the nation, he proposed changing the language to “an increasing more just” distribution of wealth.
One of the members of the Commission explained the modifications in the definition of marriage following the popular consultation (see “The Cuban people speak” 1/18/2019; and “Cuban Constitutional Commission Reports” 1/21/2019). The member noted that the modified language avoids mention of the subjects that enter a marriage, that is, whether marriage be defined as a union between a man and a woman or between two persons. Rather, the question is turned over to the National Assembly, which ought to formulate a family code following a popular consultation, with the new code being subject to approval by the people in referendum. A delegate who presented himself as a representative of the LGBT community accepts the modification, but he is not agreement referendum; the National Assembly ought to decide, as it does with other laws, and which it has the constitutional authority to do. Another delegate declared that she considered the modified language, in abandoning “union between two persons,” to be a reversal for the cause of the rights of all, regardless of sexual orientation. Members of the Constitutional Committee defended the modified language and approach. Although not declaring that marriage is a union between two persons, the new Constitution affirms diversity in marriage. In conjunction with another article that affirms the rights of all regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, the new constitution represents an important advance. No other country in the world has brought the issue to the level of constitutional change. The articles on the family in the modified constitutional project point to the need for a change of popular attitudes, and the popular consultation led to much popular education on the theme. The Commission appears to be taking the position that it supports constitutional and legal sanctioning of gay marriage, but it does not want to impose it on the people; the Commission is in effect assigning to the defenders of gay rights the duty of educating the people, so that a majority would confirm support for the change.
A delegate referred to the fact that some in the popular consultation had asked, why not have direct election of the president? A member of the Commission responded that the Cuban system has a highly democratic political process in which the people have control, much more democratic than multi-party systems. Many systems with parliamentary multi-party democracies do not have direct elections of president. The Cuban political experience demonstrates that its system is highly democratic and participatory process, with power in the hands of the people. The people participate in the nominations and elect the national assembly in elections of the second degree, in which power is concentrated. We have to defend our model, he asserted, which is different from other countries.
(2) The report by the Constitutional Commission to a plenary session of the National Assembly was held on December 21. For a summary of this session, see “Cuban Constitutional Commission Reports” 1/21/2019.
(3) The debate in plenary session of the National Assembly was held on December 22. Prior to the beginning of the plenary session, fifty-eight delegates had solicited the opportunity to speak, but some, when their name was called, indicated that subsequent conversations had satisfied their questions or concerns, and they would not be making a declaration or raising a question. Some indicated the same satisfaction with the addressing of their concerns, but still took the floor, giving a brief expression of support for the process. Among them were declarations that the popular consultation has been a success for the Revolution and the people, and that the new Constitution is yet another victory of the people.
A deputy proposed amplifying the references to the activists in the revolutionary movements of the colonial and neocolonial epochs. Members of the Commission spoke against the proposal for stylistic reasons, saying that the Preamble has to be succinct. The delegate indicated that she understood, and she withdrew the proposal.
A delegate who identified himself as religious expressed his contentment that the Constitution declares, for the first time, that Cuba has a lay state. Another delegate later spoke extensively and enthusiastically of the article referring to religious beliefs and the general orientation toward inclusion of religious persons in the revolutionary process; the deputies of the Assembly warmly applauded his intervention.
A delegate proposed that the article referring to the right to sell property include the requirement that the seller inform the state. A Commission member spoke against the proposal, saying that the right of the State to be informed is protected in other articles and in the law. The matter was put to a vote of the assembly, and only one delegate voted in in favor of the proposal.
A deputy proposed a change in the language concerning the socialist property of the people. It was approved by a strong majority of the deputies of the National Assembly.
Fernando González Llort presented his proposal concerning an “increasingly more just” distribution of wealth. The proposal was approved unanimously by the Assembly.
Delegate Jorge Gomez proposed a change in the article on creative artists. It was accepted by the members of the Commission, and approved unanimously by the Assembly.
A delegate expressed the view that egalitarians, an extremism that emerged in Cuba in the 1960s, is not revolutionary, because absolute equality is not possible. He proposed a change in the article declaring that all persons are equal before the law. In addition to declaring that all persons have the same rights, “without any discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic origin, skin color, religious belief, disability, national origin, or any other distinction detrimental to human dignity,” he proposed including “persons with less material resources or social condition.” A member of the Commission expressed agreement with the principle, but argued that including it would complicate the article. Such protection already is included in various articles of the Constitution. The delegate decided not to submit to matter to the vote of the Assembly, because of agreement concerning the principle.
A delegate spoke concerning the articles on freedom of the press and freedom of speech, noting that the theme very much manipulated internationally. He maintained that the goal of socialism is an autonomous press with commitment only to the people, and therefore, it rejects private ownership of media. He noted that the text asserts that the fundamental media of communication are the socialist property of the people, but it ought to say that the media cannot have any form of property other than the socialist property of the people. A member of the
Commission responded that the language in the text follows the historical constitutions of 1940 and 1976, and it is consistent with the formulation of Martí and Fidel that the press is obligated to seek the truth. The Revolution recognizes freedom of the press and the rights of a person to express free though and expression, he maintained. It would be a step backward for the constitution to confine the media to socialist property of the people; it is a right for the people to express themselves, with limits and regulated. Socialism does not take this right away, although it does not interpret the right in a liberal bourgeois sense, which seeks to legitimate that the major media of communication are in private hands.
Three representatives of the LGBT community expresses satisfaction with the modifications made by the Commission with respect to families and the definition of marriage. They called for all to vote for the Constitution, for it endorses the rights of all. Among the three was Mariela Castro Espín, the most visible defender of LGBT rights and director the Center for Sexual Education and Teaching; as well as the daughter of Raul Castro, General Secretary of the Party, and the late Wilma Espín, founder of the Federation of Cuban Women. She maintained that the reformulation is an advance in the cause of inclusion and anti-discrimination, contrary to what is disseminated in the international media of information, which has taken out of context the decision of the Commission to not define the subject that enter a marriage union. The reformulation, she notes, is different from the 1976 Constitution, in that it does not refer to gender in the marriage union, and thus it does not preclude gay marriage. Moreover, the new Constitution recognizes diverse forms of families, which can include the formation of couples, regardless of sexual orientation. She announced that after the passage of the new Constitution, we will concentrate on the development of a new family code; we will make reference to scientific developments on the theme, as well as international tendencies, in our efforts to educate the people. We will combat the international campaign of disinformation concerning the theme. We congratulate the Commission for its work in developing a democratic constitutional process, and we call upon the people to adopt the constitution on February 24. She concluded her intervention by paying tribute to her mother and father, who encouraged her in the defense of this cause, but counseled her to do so within the Revolution.
Deputy Susely Morfa, General Secretary of the Union of the Young Communists, expressed support for a new article that focuses on youth. He declared that “our youth affirm the spirit of the Constitution.”
A deputy applauded inclusion of the protection of flora and fauna. He notes that this was one of the expressions of the people in the popular consultation.
A deputy supported legal guarantees that are affirmed in the modifications. She proposed a change concerning when the right to legal counsel begins, indicating that the Constitution should make clear that the right is protected from the beginning of the process. A member of the Commission maintained that this matter should be attended the laws of the penal code, rather than the Constitution, because when the process begins is complicated by various factors. The deputy accepted the explanation and withdrew the proposal.
A proposal was put forth by a deputy who is President of the Supreme Court. It was approved unanimously.
On December 23, 2018, the National Assembly of Popular Power of Cuba, elected directly and indirectly by the people and in accordance with the authority granted to it by the 1976 Constitution, approved the new constitution for submission to the people in referendum. There were 583 votes in favor, none against, and nineteen absences.
During breaks in the session, a constitutional specialist, who is president of an organization of Cuban civil society, offered extended commentaries for the television audience. He noted that a constitution ought to reflect the society. The Cuban Constitution of 1976, he maintained, reflected Cuban society of that time, and the proposed constitution reflects Cuban society today. He also noted that few countries in the world have had a popular consultation with respect to a constitution. In the great majority of countries, a Constitutional Assembly debates and decides, followed in some cases by a popular referendum., but there is not a popular consultation, in which the people are converted into a constitutional assembly (see “People’s Constitutional Assembly in Cuba” 1/11/2019).
In my next post, I will discuss the content of the proposed Constitution that will be voted by the people in referendum on February 24. I will note the similarities and differences between this new constitution and that of 1976.