On 24th February 2019, the Cuban communist regime held a national referendum to revise its historic 1976 constitution. The proposed 224-article change had been designed to acknowledge the new realities faced by the island nation, specifically targeting economic reform, greater access to the Internet and the increased allowance of foreign investment and private property ownership within the national economy. The constitutional amendments will also limit the president to serving two consecutive five-year terms and will ensure political power will be divided between the president and a prime minister. The process of constitutional reform began in June 2018, following Miguel Diaz-Canel’s succession of Raul Castro as president; Cuban officials said the draft document was subjected to a process of popular consultation before its final submission for the planned referendum. The widely anticipated vote was overwhelmingly approved by 84.4% of the 8.7 million Cuban citizens that participated in the momentous occasion.
According to Diaz-Canel, the intention of the referendum was “to constitutionally formalize the island’s economic and social opening-up while maintaining the ‘irrevocable nature of socialism’.” Camilo Condis, an entrepreneur in Havana, told Al Jazeera, “This constitution is a step forward, we cannot deny that. But I think most Cubans were hoping for more”. Indeed, the failure of Cuban officials to completely give up the one-party socialist system has caused great controversy among the anti-government dissident groups within the nation, as expressed in the protest slogan “There will be no transition in Cuba… not even to communism” on the streets of Havana in the days immediately following the vote.
The 1976 constitution was enacted at the height of the Cold War. A political marker of Fidel Castro’s successful 1959 revolution, it foreground the desire of Cuba to ‘to advance towards a communist society’. This served as a direct challenge to the pre-eminence of democracy, and indeed the power of the United States as the sole global power. In a post-Castro era, following Fidel’s death in late 2016 and the stepping down of younger brother Raul as President in April 2018, Diaz Canel represented a political transition designed to ensure the single party socialist system would outlast the aged revolutionaries that created it. The constitutional reforms made to existing legislation demonstrate the island nation’s willingness to move with the times, a reflection of its changing attitudes as well as a new interpretation of socialism.
In the context of deep political discontentment, the Cuban referendum reflects a broader fragmentation of diplomatic relations between Latin America and Washington. According to Carlos Alzugaray, a Cuban diplomat, “Many people, seeing [Trump’s] quotes, will vote yes because they want to defend their independence against the U.S threat”. This tension is further demonstrated in the recent political turmoil witnessed in Venezuela. In a press statement delivered in early February, U.S National Security Adviser John Bolton blamed former Venezuelan presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro for allowing Venezuela’s “penetration by adversaries of the United States, not least of which is Cuba. Bolton stipulated, “Some call the country ‘Cuba-zuela’, reflecting the grip that Cuba’s military and security forces have on the Maduro regime”. He elaborated, “We think that is a strategic significant threat to the United States.” Reacting to these comments, Diaz-Canel noted, “We Cubans are voting for our new constitution, we’re voting for Latin America and the Caribbean”. With oil and the prospect of creeping U.S influence in the region as a growing possibility, the Cuban referendum reflects a stand against U.S superiority and strong-arm tactics.
The legacy of the Castros is one of a long repressed, economically stunted nation. The constitutional reforms presented under the presidency of Diaz – Canel in June 2018 heralded the beginning of a new contemporary political order. The recent ‘yes’ vote in the national referendum in Cuba reflects a turning point in the nations turbulent political landscape. The prospect of economic growth and development in light of loosening of private property regulations and the market promises a new, well-deserved era of prosperity for the citizens of the island nation. At a moment when Cuba-U.S relations appear to re-enter a phase of ‘confrontation’ as proclaimed by Raul Castro, the prospect of accelerated economic development by independent means provides renewed hope for a prosperous, socialist and free Cuba.
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