Cuba debates new Constitution

Cuba's National Asembly.

More than 600 delegates in Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, the country’s highest decision-making body, approved the draft of a new Constitution on July 22. It came after two days of debate in which more than 100 delegates participated, writes Helen Yaffe.

The Constitution will be distributed throughout the island between mid-August and mid-November and the population will debate it in grassroots meetings, in communities and centres of work and study.

A second version of the Constitution will then incorporate opinions expressed in the popular consultation. After approval by the National Assembly, the new Constitution will be put to a nationwide referendum in a secret ballot, probably early next year.

The socialist character of the Cuban system and the role of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) as the country’s ideological leadership remain “principles set in stone”. However, a clause in the 1976 Constitution about the ultimate aim of building a communist society is omitted from the draft.

“This does not mean we are renouncing our ideas,” said National Assembly President Esteban Lazo.

At the time of the earlier Constitution, one-third of the world’s population lived under socialist regimes. Today, Cuba is almost isolated as a country building socialism. Under such circumstances, the idea of a transition from socialism to communism is abstract and remote.

“We believe in a socialist, sovereign, independent, prosperous and sustainable country,” Lazo said.

State enterprises will remain the mainstay of the economy. There will be limits to the concentration of private ownership. Access to healthcare and education will remain free and universal.

Defence of environment

New in the Constitution is defence of the environment and the need to mitigate climate change. Other articles are rights the state will work to make viable, and some require will subsequent legislation.

The draft Constitution’s recognition of private enterprise and the need for foreign investment has been the focus of international media. This change is consistent with the process of economic restructuring underway in Cuba since 2011, and the development challenges the island faces as a small, trade-dependent, developing country hounded by a punitive and relentless US blockade, in a globalised capitalist world.

Cuba needs capital to invest in its productive infrastructure, and it cannot get that internally. Therefore, capital must come through foreign direct investment or remittances to individuals.

Work on a new constitution has been underway since 2013, just two years after adoption of the “Guidelines for updating the economic and social model”. Nearly 9 million Cubans (out of a population of 11.2 million) took part in debates about these guidelines before they were approved by the CCP’s 6th Congress in 2011.

Cuba has since introduced new forms of ownership and management. It has changed the employment structure (extending self-employment, enabling small businesses, and creating non-agricultural cooperatives), removed some restrictions on market exchanges and sought to increase foreign investment.

Today about 600,000 Cubans work in the private sector, or 13% of the workforce. In 2016, then-President Raul Castro recognised the concerns this provoked and its unplanned consequences. Responding to concerns recognising the existence of private property was the first step toward restoring capitalism, Castro said: “I have the duty to assert that this is not, in the least, the purpose of this conceptual idea.

“The increase in self-employment and the authorisation to contract a workforce has led in practice to the existence of medium, small and micro private enterprises, which today operate without proper legal status and are regulated under the law by a regulatory framework designed for individuals engaged in small businesses conducted by the worker and his/her family.”

Having private property recognised in the constitution will allow legislation to be introduced to control its expansion.

Contrary to sensationalist media headlines, neither private property nor foreign investment are new in socialist Cuba. The revolutionary government’s first Constitution of 1976 established that all land belongs to the state, except the holdings of small private farmers or agricultural cooperatives — about 20% of arable land.

In 1982, foreign investment was first approved for joint ventures with the Cuban state. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Constitution was amended to say that mandatory state-ownership applied only to the “fundamental means of production”. In 2014, a new law on foreign investment was implemented.

Since 1993, 67% of agricultural production has been carried out in the non-state sector. Meanwhile, 85% of Cubans own their homes.

Private sector controlled

The private sector will be tightly controlled and reined in whenever it undermines the interests of national development. Evidence of this was seen last August, when the issuing of licences for self-employment was frozen.

Authorities worked to create an adequate legislative framework to enforce taxation, prevent exploitative practices and the concentration of wealth, and strengthen mechanisms to ensure that private profits have social benefits.

From October 8, the process of issuing licences will resume, but with greater restrictions on existing and new private businesses. For example, only one licence will be granted to each Cuban for private work.

Tax concessions previously granted for those who hire more than five workers will be removed. Financial transactions must pass through a bank account. Other measures will clamp down on tax avoidance.

The new Constitution also introduces political and institutional changes to give municipalities greater autonomy and authority. Provincial Assemblies will be abolished, replaced by Provincial Governors and Councils made up of municipal presidents and leaders of the municipal administrative councils.

The aim is to decentralise and streamline authority, to improve administrative efficiency.

Power and responsibility will be more balanced at the top of government. New roles of president and vice-president of the republic will be created. Until now, there has been a president of the Council of State.

The president of the republic will preside over the Council of State, while the prime minister (designated by the President and approved by the National Assembly) will preside over the Council of Ministers.

There will also be a new National Electoral Council. These posts will be elected by the National Assembly, delegates representing the entire population. Term limits will be introduced.

The other powerful role will remain the CCP general secretary, a post Castro will likely hold until 2020.

Rights and responsibilities

The new Constitution has more detail on the rights and responsibilities of Cuban citizens. It codifies the right to equality, without discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, disability or any other form “harmful to human dignity”. Religious freedom, and the right to change religion, will be protected.

Marriage will also be recognised as “between two individuals”, rather than “a man and a woman”, endorsing equal marriage. Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Centre for Sex Education, and an activist for LGBTQI rights in Cuba celebrated this “maturity achieved by the revolutionary process”.

Despite the distortions appearing in the mostly hostile foreign media, this process demonstrates both the Cuban Revolution’s enduring commitment to building socialism and the degree of democratic participation that entails.

[Slightly abridged from Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!]

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