When Cuba adopted its current constitution, the sugar-based economy was being bolstered by aid from the Soviet Union, citizens were forbidden to run private businesses or sell homes and gays kept their sexual identity a tightly guarded secret.
Now a rewrite is on the way as the country’s communist leaders try to adapt to the post-Soviet world in which hundreds of thousands of Cubans work for themselves, American remittances and tourism keep the economy afloat and the daughter of Communist Party chief Raul Castro is campaigning for gay rights.
The country’s parliament is scheduled on Saturday to name the commission to draft a new constitution, consulting with the citizenry and eventually bringing it to a referendum.
Officials have made clear that the constitution will maintain a Communist Party-led system in which freedom of speech, the press and other rights are limited by “the purposes of socialist society.”
But Castro and other leaders apparently hope to end the contradictions between the new, more open economy and a legal system that calls for tight state control over all aspects of the economy and society.
The current ban on dual citizenship collides with the government’s effort to reach out to exiles. The definition of marriage as between a man and a woman runs up against Cuba’s growing gay rights movement. Many small businesses employ workers even though the constitution now forbids “obtaining income that comes from exploiting the work of others.”
The current constitution allows worker cooperatives, but only in the farm sector, and officials have allowed other types of cooperative but placed sharp limits on their growth and operations, keeping them as a marginal economic player.
The government, too, is likely to see changes. Castro, who turned over the presidency last month to Miguel Diaz-Canel, has proposed limiting presidents to two five-year terms and imposing an age limit — a dramatic shift following a nearly 60-year run of leadership by Castro and his late brother Fidel, who both ruled into their 80s.
“Cuba needs to change its constitution because our society has been radically transformed in recent years,” said political scientist Lenier Gonzalez, one of the directors of Cuba Possible, a think-tank aimed at promoting reform with the limits laid out by Cuban law and its single-party system. He noted the society has become more international, forms of property ownership have diversified and new social movements have emerged that now exist on the margins of the law.
He also said the revamp could help build the legitimacy of Diaz-Canel, 58, and other members of the new guard who are finally replacing the men enshrined as national heroes of the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.
The Communist Party newspaper Granma has reported that the new constitution could boost the role of the country’s parliament, which now usually meets for two days a year to listen to speeches and approve official proposals. It said the congress might be professionalized and its membership trimmed. The 605 deputies now receive no pay other than what they get from their other jobs.
Parliamentarian Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raul and director of the Center of Sexual Education, has said the reform will expand gay rights, partly by tackling the current wording of the constitution that limits marriage to a man and woman.
The current constitution was adopted four decades ago at a time when Cuba was a potential Cold War flashpoint and a pillar of the Soviet Bloc. The document proclaims Cuba’s adherence to Marxist-Leninist socialism and to solidarity with countries of the Third World, particularly Latin America.
The Communist Party is described as the “superior guiding force” of Cuba’s society and it says the economic system is “based on socialist property of the entire people over the fundamental means of production and on the suppression of the exploitation of man by man.”
“It is a historic constitution, the only one that remains in our hemisphere” from the time of Soviet-style socialism, said Julio Antonio Fernandez Estrada, a law professor at the University of Havana. “It’s more than 40 years old … It continues speaking of things that now do not exist in the world, such as the formation of the citizen for communism.”
He said the economic reforms promoted by Castro, which sought to allow the limited introduction of private enterprise within the communist system, “have been carried out, if not against, then in large part in spite of the constitution.”