On February 24, Cuba held a constitutional referendum whereby the new constitution was ratified by an overwhelming majority however, the amount of dissent has increased from past elections. The new constitution upholds Cuba’s one-party communist system and centrally planned economy and institutes some changes, such as legitimizing private business and foreign investment, adding a prime minister, and setting term limits for the president. The Cuban government held a massive propaganda campaign urging the people to vote yes, framing the issue as a matter of patriotism.
While 87% of voters approved the new constitution, this margin of victory is low compared to the 97.7% of voters who ratified the 1976 constitution. The quarter of eligible voters who either did not vote or voted “No” represent an unprecedented level of opposition in a nation with only one political party. According to Raudiel Pena Barrios, adjunct professor of law at the University of Havana, “there’s no longer political unanimity around government proposals. We should see this as an important minority of Cubans who hope for something more in the management of the state.” The vote has been seen as not just a referendum on the new constitution, but also on the new President Miguel Diaz-Canel and also the peoples’ support of the 1959 communist revolution.
In terms of the contents of the new constitution, Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former analyst with the Cuban interior ministry and professor at Gustavus Adolphus College says the additions of a prime minister and term limits are “important instrumental changes within the one-party system” and help open the door for building a “comprehensive mixed economy” in the future. However, Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban-American businessman and head of the Cuban Study Group which advocates engagement with Cuba, said that the new constitution is “another big missed opportunity” and that “the few important economic changes made are not sufficient to create economic growth and attract foreign investment in the needed quantities.”
The new constitution was first drafted in July 2018, and public consultations were held so citizens could submit their proposals. However, suggestions that many Cubans called for, like the direct election of the president and allowance of multiple political parties, were not included in the final draft. This demonstrates the discrepancy between President Diaz-Canel trying to establish legitimacy by creating an image of listening to the people’s desires, while not actually incorporating their desires and instead using the state-run media to push his goals and paint any opposition as enemies of the state. The level of dissent during the referendum vote demonstrates that there is a significant portion of the population that doesn’t agree with Cuba’s political system. As Cuban’s have more ability to travel and access the internet, people become more vocal and socially active, with activists using social media to promote their #YoVotoNo campaign. As Claudia Padrón Cueto, a journalist who writes for El Toque, said “contrary opinions haven’t been allowed for many years… Access to the internet has started to change this context.”
The constitution referendum results don’t present any challenge for Diaz-Canel and his government, but the unprecedented level of dissent and the process of public consultations to provide potential avenues for future reforms. Opposition groups have gained the confidence to debate the government’s positions in various sectors and create a new political dialogue. As William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University and a specialist in United States-Cuba relations, said “None of those issues threatened the basic structure of the single-party system… but when you create a precedent that people can mobilize politically to pursue policy differences with the government, it’s not so easy to put that genie back in the bottle.”