Washington Post Criticizes New Cuban Constitution

On March 1, a Washington Post editorial criticized the new Cuban constitution.[1]

First, the editorial expressed surprise over the “share of eligible voters who cast “no” ballots or stayed home.”   Indeed, the total number of registered voters who voted “No” or stayed home or who submitted spoiled ballots was 1,853,545 or 21.4% of the electorate while 78.6% voted “YES.” [2]

In contrast, the Post continued,  the last constitutional vote in 1976, when Castro had established a totalitarian state, 99.02 percent voted yes.” This change, argued the Post, constituted ‘unmistakable signs that hundreds of thousands of people have lost their fear of the authorities and lost their patience with a decaying economic and political system.”

Second, the new constitution “is the handiwork of the authoritarian clique that stumbles on after Castro’s death. The key decisions were made by a commission appointed by former president Raúl Castro, who still leads the Communist Party, and has amendments by the rubber-stamp parliament.”

Third, the “new constitution does not allow any oxygen into the closed political system, saying the [Communist Party]  is the “superior driving force of the society and the State.” Indeed, Article 5 states, “The Communist Party of Cuba, unique, Marxist, Fidelist, Marxist and Leninist, organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, based on its democratic character and the permanent bonding with the people, is the superior political force leader of the society and of the State.” 

Fourth, “[g]enuine political competition — the essence of democracy — was absent. The state-run news media ignored those who would advocate a “no” vote, and in the final day, nervous about the outcome, the authorities blacked out the digital newspaper 14ymedio, run by the dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, who had openly called for a “no” vote on social media. José Daniel Ferrer García, a tough-minded activist and regime opponent, was detained after sitting in a park in Santiago de Cuba with a hand-lettered sign that proclaimed, ‘No.’” [3]

Fifth, “The new constitution is hardly earth-shattering. It recognizes private property for a “complementary role in the economy,” but continues to enshrine a “socialist economic system based on ownership by all people of the fundamental means of production as the primary form of property as well as the planned direction of the economy.” For most Cubans, this reality is a dystopia reminiscent of the Soviet Union, with shortages of eggs, butter and other basics.”

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[1] Editorial, Cubans are losing their patience—and their fear, Wash. Post (Mar. 1, 2019).

[2] See Cuban Citizens Approve New Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 26, 2019)/  This total of 21.4% may be overstated as some qualified voters may not have voted even though they supported the constitution or spoiled their ballots for innocent reasons.

[3] See Cuba Arrests Opponents of Proposed New Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 14, 2019); posts listed in “Cuban Bloggers” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical; CUBA

U.S. and Cuba Exchange Insults Over Cuba’s Constitutional Referendum

As reported in a prior post, on February 24, Cuba held a referendum with 6.8 million “YES” votes (78.6% of eligible registered voters) approving a new constitution for the island.

Pompeo’s Statement

Two days later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement entitled “Cuba’s So-Called Referendum.” [1] It said the following:

  • “On February 24, the Cuban communist regime held what it called a “national referendum” on revisions to its constitution. No one should be fooled by this exercise, which achieves little beyond perpetuating the pretext for the regime’s one-party dictatorship. The entire process has been marked by carefully managed political theater and repression of public debate.”
  • “The new constitution primarily affirms the Communist Party’s role as the only legal political party and decrees the socialist system “irrevocable,” blocking the possibility of desperately needed economic reform. This document also fails to guarantee the Cuban people their fundamental freedoms.”
  • “While the regime claims Sunday’s vote was democratic, Cuban authorities harassed and detained dozens of observers and peaceful protestors, confiscating phones and devices. Earlier this month more than 120 activists initiated a hunger strike to send a message to the regime that the Cuban people reject these oppressive tactics. We strongly condemn these attempts to silence peaceful protests, which show that Cuba’s leaders fear the Cuban people.”
  • “The United States continues to stand with Cubans who have suffered for 60 years the revolution’s failed political system and economic mismanagement. We believe that history is on the side of the brave Cuban people, and that this hemisphere is a region where democracy, freedom, and human dignity reign supreme. We urge the democracies of the world to join us in standing with the people of Cuba and their peaceful calls for democratic reform.”

Cuba’s Response

Cuba strongly rejected  Pompeo’s “disrespectful statement,” which, Cuba said, is “an expression of the imperialist ideas which are deeply rooted in the foreign policy of the current US administration . . . [and] a reflection of the already announced desire to impose once again, in the western hemisphere, the Monroe Doctrine, accompanied now by some McCarthyist intolerance.” Moreover, the Cuban statement also said the Cuban people expressed “their will in a massive way, despite the pernicious campaign launched by the United States which was intended to influence their vote.  It’s been long since we Cubans decided to frustrate every US attempt to govern our country’s destiny.”

Finally, the Cuban Foreign Ministry stated, the U.S. “should put an end to the practice of interfering in the internal affairs of other States and the electoral or voting processes of other nations.  This is a weird habit that is contrary to International Law, with which the US government defies the norms that govern relations among sovereign States.”

Conclusion

There are legitimate grounds for the U.S. asserting that the new constitution makes the Cuban Communist Party the only legal political party and the socialist system  “irreversible.” In addition, there is evidence that the Cuban government harassed and detained critics of the new constitution.[3] But it is hardly diplomatic for the U.S. to say that this was a “so-called referendum.”

Cuba, on the other hand, had legitimate grounds for its criticism of the Pompeo statement. But, in this blogger’s opinion, Cuba went overboard in calling that statement an Interference in Cuba’s internal affairs that was contrary to international law.

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[1] State Dep’t, Cuba’s So-Called Referendum (Feb. 26, 2019).

[2] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Declaration by the Foreign Ministry of Cuba (Feb. 26, 2019). 

[3] See Cuba Arrests Opponents of Proposed New Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 14, 2019); Cuban Citizens Approve New Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 26, 2019). 

 

Cuban Citizens Approve New Constitution

On February 24, in a national  referendum Cuban citizens approved a new constitution for the country. Here are the preliminary results of that referendum:

 

Category

     

Number

  

Percent

YES

6,816,169

78.6%

NO

706,400

8.1%

Blank & Spoiled Ballots

325,774

3.8%

Total Vote

7,848,343

90.5%

Not Voting

821,371

9.5%

Total Eligible Voters

8,669,714

100.0%

The total turnout of 90.5% and approval by 78.6% are extraordinarily high by U.S. standards. But given the Cuban government’s control of the media on the island and the overwhelming message calling for the YES vote, it is amazing that the total negative vote was 21.4% (NO + Blank & Spoiled Ballots+Not Voting).

Indeed, it should be remembered that on February 11, Cuban military and security forces arrested activists of a leading opponent of the constitution, The Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPAC). According to UNPACU, the proposed new constitution “denies elementary rights, restricts basic freedoms {and Cubans] will continue oppressed and in the deepest misery.” The central reason for this conclusion, it says, is Article 5, which states as follows:

  • The Communist Party of Cuba, unique, Marxist, Fidelist, Marxist and Leninist, organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, based on its democratic character and the permanent bonding with the people, is the superior political force leader of the society and of the State.” (Emphasis by UNPACU.)

The new constitution recognizes private and cooperative businesses, creates the posts of prime minister and provincial governor and introduces presumption of innocence and habeas corpus into the justice system.

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Cuba Arrests Opponents of Proposed New Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 14, 2019); Cuba Says YES to new Constitution, Granma (Feb. 25, 2019);Special Coverage: The Cuban people vote in Constitutional Referendum, Granma (Feb. 24, 2019); Whitefield, Cuba approves new constitution amid unprecedented opposition, Miami Herald Feb. 25, 2019). 

Cuba Arrests Opponents of Proposed New Constitution

On February 11, Cuban authorities arrested 20 activists of thePatriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) for their promotion of voting “No” in the upcoming  referendum on February 24 on the country’s proposed new constitution.

These arrests of Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) members for their promotion of voting “No” in the upcoming  referendum on February 24 occurred at UNPACU’s headquarters in eight houses in Santiago de Cuba in connection with an early morning assault by over 200 Cuban soldiers and police, who seized computers, printers, telephones and other equipment and records. 

UNPACU’s national coordinator, José Daniel Ferrer Garcia, blasted these arrests: “They attack us, they beat us, they rob us, they torture us and they even want to stave us.”  On February 11 he also started a hunger strike until at least February 24 (the day of the national referendum seeking approval of the new constitution). Three days later at least 25 of the organization’s activists had joined the hunger strike.

There also are reports that José Daniel Ferrer Castillo (the 16-year-old son of UNPACU’s national coordinator) arbitrarily had been detained and beaten. In addition, on February 13, the Cuban police again appeared at UNPACU’s headquarters to harass members of the organization.

UNPACU, which was founded on August 24, 2011, defines itself as a civil organization that advocates the peaceful but firm struggle against any repression of civil liberties in Cuba. According to Amnesty International, it “is an organization that brings together dissident organizations based mainly in Santiago de Cuba, but also in neighboring provinces in the east of the country. Its goal is to achieve democratic change in Cuba by non-violent means. Since its inception . . . its members have suffered harassment and intimidation . . ., including arrests by the authorities.”

According to UNPACU, the proposed new constitution “denies elementary rights, restricts basic freedoms {and Cubans] will continue oppressed and in the deepest misery.” The central reason for this conclusion, it says, is Article 5, which states as follows:

  • The Communist Party of Cuba, unique, Marxist, Fidelist, Marxist and Leninist, organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, based on its democratic character and the permanent bonding with the people, is the superior political force leader of the society and of the State.” (Emphasis by UNPACU.)

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José Daniel Ferrer: “Either they respect or they kill us,’ Diario de Cuba (Feb. 12, 2019); Marco Rubio on the violent opposition against the UNPACU: ‘More sanctions come to the response,’ Diario de Cuba (Feb. 13, 2019); UNPACU: 25 opponents on hunger strike ‘at least until 24 February,’ Diario de Cuba (Feb. 14, 2019); UNPACU; UNPACU Release, UNPACU calls to vote NO on the new Cuban Constitution; José Daniel Ferrer, Wikipedia.

New Cuba Constitution Draft Recognizes Right to Private Property

Since Cuba’s election of a new president this past April, an official commission has been drafting a new constitution for the island nation. Recently, the commission presented the draft to the 7th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Party and the Council of State, in which each of its precepts was “deeply analyzed.” On July 21-23 the draft will be presented for approval to Cuba’s national assembly (the National Assembly of the People’s Power), and later this year to the people in a national referendum.[1]

On July 14, an official website of the Communist Party of  Cuba, published a summary of the current draft of the new constitution that said it recognized both a free market and private property. More specifically, it said the draft “ratifies constitutionally the importance of foreign investment for the economic development of the country, with due guarantees. Regarding private property on the land, a special regime is maintained, with limitations on its transmission and the preferential right of the State to its acquisition through its fair price.”

On the other hand, this summary reaffirmed that state enterprise and central planning are the pillars of the economy and that the Communist Party would remain as the dominant political force.

Cuba expert Luis Carlos Battista at the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas cautioned that the acknowledgement of private property did not mean the government wanted to give private enterprise a greater role. Last week, he noted, the government published a set of regulations tightening control on the self-employed and hiking possible fines to include property confiscation.[2]

Other changes in the draft are the creation of the position of prime minister as the head of government, making the president the head of the national assembly with a limit of two consecutive five-year terms and creating a new presumption of innocence in the criminal justice system. It will maintain religious freedom.

In addition, the draft expressly calls for “the promotion of respect for international law and multipolarity among States; the repudiation of all forms of terrorism, particularly State terrorism; the rejection of the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons, of mass extermination or others with similar effects; the protection and conservation of the environment and the fight against climate change, as well as defends the democratization of cyberspace and condemns its use for subversive and destabilizing purposes of sovereign nations.”

The proposed new constitution, according to Cubadebate, was made necessary by “the experience of the years of the revolution [since 1959], the new directions drawn from the implementation of the guidelines for Economic and Social Policy approved by the Sixth Party Congress [in 2011], the objectives emanating from the First National Conference [of the Party in 2012], as well as the decisions adopted in the Seventh Party Congress [in 2016].”[3]

The commission is headed by Raúl Castro while one of its members is the new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel.

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[1]  Know the main aspects of the Draft of the new Constitution, Cubadebate (July 14, 2018); Reuters, Communist-Run Cuba to Recognize Private Property in New Constitution, N. Y. Times (July 14, 2018); Assoc. Press, Cuba to Reshape Government With New Constitution, N.Y. Times (July 14, 2018).

[2]  See these posts and comments on dwkcommentaries.com: Cuba announces New Regulations for Private Business (July 10, 2018); More Details on New Cuban Regulations on Private Business (July 11, 2018);  Comment: Yet More Details on New Cuban Regulations on Private Business, (July 13, 2018).

[3] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Raúl Castro Discusses Cuba-U.S. Relations in Report to Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (April 18, 2016); Raúl Castro Discusses Scio-Economic Issues in Report to Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (April 19, 2016); Conclusion of Seventh Congress of Communist Party of Cuba (April 20, 2016).

A Pessimistic Assessment of Cuba’s Economic Future

Jorge G. Castañeda, the Foreign Minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003,[1] has rendered a pessimistic assessment of Latin American socialism, especially in Venezuela and Cuba.[2]

He starts with the assertion that the recent “Cubana de Aviación airliner’s crash in Havana . . . [was an] illustration of the utter bankruptcy of the 21st century socialism.” Later in the article he says, like “the Cuban economy, the plane was old, poorly maintained, leased by the national airline because it was the only one it could afford, and the rest of Cubana de Aviación’s domestic fleet had already been grounded.” (A subsequent article reported that Cubana de Aviación has suspended all domestic flights until September.[3])

Cuba, he says, “paid a heavy price for the initial, and perhaps enduring, successes of its revolution: education, health and dignity. But from the very beginning — with the exception of a few years between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies to Cuba in 1992 and the advent of Venezuelan support in 1999 — it always found someone to pay the bills. The next option was meant to be the United States. That no longer seems possible.”

Now, with a new president, Cuba “again faces enormous economic and social challenges. They stem from three problems with no solutions.”

“First, says Castañeda, is the fall of tourism from the United States and the new tough line on Cuba adopted by the Trump administration. Through March of this year, the number of visitors from the United States is down more than 40 percent compared with 2017. This is partly because of travel warnings over safety issued by Washington, partly because of new travel restrictions put in place by President Trump [[4]] and because after the initial boom of nostalgic tourism, Cuba is now competing for normal travelers with the rest of the Caribbean. Its beauty and charm do not easily outweigh other destinations’ far superior services and infrastructure, and lower prices. Today myriad start-up businesses — always thought to be too small and numerous to survive — that sprang up for United States visitors are failing as a result of falling tourism.” [5]

Second, according to Castańeda, “American sanctions and Cuban fear of economic reforms have rendered the push for greater foreign investment somewhat futile. After an initial rush of highly publicized announcements, some United States companies have proved reluctant to run risks, particularly given Mr. Trump’s hostility toward all things Obama, and his dependence on Florida for re-election.”

As a result, he continues, the Cuban “economy has stopped growing, scarcities have re-emerged and new opportunities for employment and hard-currency earnings are not appearing. If one adds to this the government’s decision to suspend new cuentapropista or private self-employment permits, it is no surprise to discover that economic prospects are dim.”

Third, “Venezuela is no longer able to subsidize Cuba’s transition to a Vietnam-style socialist economy the way it did before.” In short, Venezuela cannot now provide oil to Cuba at below-market prices and on credit and cannot pay for Cuban doctors, teachers and intelligence personnel, which has been a major source of Cuban export earnings.

Nevertheless, Venezuela is “Cuba’s only unconditional ally in the world.” Hence, the first foreign leader to visit Cuba’s new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, was Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, and Diaz-Canel returned the favor by making his first foreign visit to Venezuela.[6]

Now the U.S. is pressing for increased hemispheric sanctions against Venezuela with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 4 being expected to drop the next shoe in an address to the  General Assembly of the Organization of American States.[7] If any of those anticipated U.S. requests are met, this will increase the pressures on Cuba.

Conclusion

 In partial response to these issues, on June 2 Cuba started the process for revising its constitution with the agenda for an extraordinary session of its national legislature (the National Assembly of People’s Power) including approval of “the process to be followed in carrying out Constitutional Reform and the commission of deputies responsible for drafting and presenting the proposed Constitution of the Republic.”  This first step was the approval of a commission to prepare a draft of a revised constitution that will be headed by Raúl Castro, the former president, Diaz-Canel, the current president, and 31 others. Once the constitutional draft is ready, it is slated to be discussed first by the national legislature and then by the broader population, before being submitted to a referendum.[8]

One of the major anticipated challenges for drafting the new constitution will be validating private ownership of property and businesses while simultaneously upholding the “irrevocable nature of socialism.” Perhaps the selection of Castro as the chair of this constitutional commission is not as anti-economic reform as might appear to outsiders. After all Raúl first announced the need for a new constitution in 2011 after embarking on a series of reforms cautiously opening up the economy to foreign investment and the private sector in order to make Cuban socialism sustainable. And at the Communist Party’s Congress in 2016, Castro praised the innovations of the private sector and criticized the “outdated mentalities” and “inertia” of state-owned enterprises.[9]

Such a change will have to delete or modify a current constitutional clause forbidding Cubans from “obtaining income that comes from exploiting the work of others.” “According to Julio Perez, a political analyst and former news editor at state-run Radio Habana, said “Cuba has to make substantial changes to the constitution that endorse private property, self-employment and cooperatives as part of the Cuban economy.”

Simultaneously there are reports that the government is preparing decrees regarding norms for 2,386 Cooperatives of Credit and Services (CCS), 650 Cooperatives of Agricultural Production (CPA) and 1,084 Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC) operating in the agricultural sector and producing 92% of the island’s food.[10]

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[1] Castañeda now is Associated Professor of Public Service, New York University (NYU) Wagner; Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies, NYU Faculty of Arts and Science. He also is a former member of the  board of Human Rights Watch and a noted author.

[2] Castañeda, The Bankruptcy of 21st Century Socialism, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2018).

[3] Cubano de Aviación will maintain the suspension of domestic flights at least until September, Diario de Cuba (June 2, 2018).

[4] This blog has criticized the 2017 State Department’s urging Americans to reconsider traveling to Cuba because of the still unresolved medical problems experienced by some U.S. (and Canadian) diplomats in Havana and the U.S. cancellation of individual person-to-person travel to Cuba. (E.g., A New Travel Warning for Americans Traveling to Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 19, 2017); New U.S. Regulations Regarding U.S. Travel to Cuba and Transactions with Cuban Entitles, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 8, 2017).)

[5]  As this blog has reported, Cuba’s private sector was flourishing in 2015-2016, but has fallen into hard times as a result of new Cuban restrictions on such enterprises and the decline of American visitors, a result that should be contrary to the normal Republican promotion of entrepreneurship and of a potential challenge to Cuba’s socialism. (See., e.g., Why Is the Cuban Government Trying To Slow Down the Private Sector? dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 3, 2017).)

[6] E.g., Cuba’s New Leader Praises Maduro in ‘Solidarity’ Visit to Venezuela, N.Y. Times (May 30, 2018); Why did Díaz-Canel make his first state visit as President to Venezuela?, Granma (June 1, 2018).

[7] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary of State Pompeo to Lead U.S. Delegation to the Organization of American States General Assembly (June 1, 2018).

[8] Reuters, Cuba Set to Launch Constitutional Rewrite to Reflect Reforms, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2018); Raúl will lead the Commission in charge of the project of Constitution of the Republic (+ Video), Granma (June 2, 2018); Díaz-Canel: The new Constitution will take into account the principles of our political system, Granma (June 2, 2018); Deputies will continue meeting following extraordinary session, Granma (June 1, 2018); Romero, Constitutional Reform in Cuba: Priority for ANPP commissions, Cubadebate (June 2, 2018); Assoc. Press, Cuba Forms Commission to Update Soviet-Era Constitution, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2018); Reuters, Raul Castro Appointed to Head Rewrite of Cuba Constitution, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2018).

[9] Raúl Castro Discusses Socio-Economic Issues in Report to Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (April 19, 2016); President Raúl Castro Affirms Importance of Cuba’s Private Sector, dwkcommentaries.com (July 18, 2017).

[10] The government prepares laws for Cuban agricultural cooperatives, producers of 92% of food, Diario de Cuba (June 2, 2018).

U.S. Current Assessment of Cuban Human Rights

As discussed in a prior post, on April 20, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on the status of human rights in nearly 200 countries around the world. Here is the Executive  Summary of its report on human rights in Cuba in 2017.

Executive Summary

“Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Raul Castro, who is president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, Communist Party (CP) first secretary, and commander in chief of security forces. The constitution recognizes the CP as the only legal party and the leading force of society and of the state. The government postponed October municipal elections due to recovery efforts related to Hurricane Irma but conducted them in November, although they were neither free nor fair. A CP candidacy commission prescreened all candidates, and the government actively worked to block non-CP approved candidates.”

“The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces.”

“The most significant human rights issues included torture of perceived political opponents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; politically motivated, sometimes violent, detentions and arrests; a complete absence of judicial independence; arbitrary arrest and detention that was politically motivated and sometimes violent; trial processes that effectively put the burden on the defendant to prove innocence; and political prisoners.”

“ There was arbitrary interference with privacy, including search-and-seizure operations in homes and monitoring and censoring private communications.”

“Freedom of expression was limited to expression that ‘conforms to the goals of socialist society’ with strict censorship punishing even distribution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There were bans on importation of informational materials; strict control of all forms of media; restrictions on the internet, including severely limiting availability and site blocking; restrictions on academic freedom, including punishment for any deviation from the government line; criminalization of criticism of government leaders; and severe limitations on academic and cultural freedom, including on library access.”

“There were restrictions on rights of assembly to those that the government deemed to be “’against the existence and objectives of the socialist state;’ criminalization of gatherings of three or more not authorized by the government, and use of government-organized acts of repudiation in the form of mobs organized to assault and disperse those who assembled peacefully; denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations; restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement; restriction of participation in the political process to those approved by the government; official corruption; outlawing of independent trade unions; compulsory labor; and trafficking in persons.”

“Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.”

Conclusion

I believe that a lot of what this Report says about Cuba is true. But it reflects a common failure of Americans to recognize and appreciate Cuba’s situation. As a relatively poor, small nation, Cuba has faced over the last 59 years a vastly larger, wealthier, stronger United States which has overtly and secretly attempted to impose or encourage regime change on the island. Under those circumstances, it should be easy for Americans to understand why Cuba has sought to control opposition.