Cuba’s National Assembly has published a draft update of the Family Code, with amendments that would allow for same-sex marriage, grant same-sex couples the right to adopt, and strengthen both women’s and children’s rights. The updated family law will be put to a public referendum on 25 September, and could make Cuba one of the first Communist states to introduce marriage equality. However, due to the Cuban government’s history of human rights abuses and its repeated misconduct in elections, many question the outcome of the referendum.
If enacted, the new legislation would signal a major step forward for LGBT+ rights in Cuba, a marked symbol of progress from the internment of gay men under former Cuban President Fidel Castro. Cuba has seen much progress in LGBT+ rights in recent years, banning workplace and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in 2013, and making LGBT+ discrimination illegal in 2019. Many celebrated the publication of the 100-page draft of the Family Code as the latest advancement of LGBT+ rights, among them Mariela Castro, Fidel Castro’s niece and long-time activist on behalf of the LGBT+ community. She applauded this “revolutionary” step forward and maintains certainty that the reforms will be approved in the referendum.
Others were less certain. Human Rights Watch has vocally denounced the government’s decision to put fundamental human rights up for referendum, stating that the government should be doing more to protect human rights, rather than subjecting them to popular vote. Cubans will be able to vote for their decision in September, but the Communist Party has a dubious record when it comes to fair elections and voting rights. This ultimately leaves the real decision-making to the government, which has been previously swayed by powerful opponents to such reforms, among them the influential Catholic Church. Evangelical churches managed to overturn reforms that would have paved the way for same-sex marriage back in 2018 through forceful campaigning. Many religious groups have already condemned the new draft Family Code, among them Methodist Pastor Henry Nurse who argued that “it goes against what has been taught for many generations of years throughout the world about the true traditional marriage.” Their opposition, and a culture of machismo in Cuba serve as two of the biggest obstacles to the draft legislation.
Currently, the updated Family Code is being reviewed by Cubans in town-hall-style meetings across the country, but unlike the landslide results that are normally seen in Cuban referendums, only 62% of people have expressed support for the reforms so far. This can be attributed in part to the fact that the public had little say in their drafting, which took place entirely behind closed doors. The meetings currently being held across the country will allow the public to engage with the reforms, but whether it will be enough to guarantee a successful result in the referendum remains to be seen. It is arguably a side effect of the extreme power the Communist Party in Cuba wields, and the lack of public participation in political and legal affairs that the party permits.
Aside from allowing for same-sex marriage and adoption, the updated Family Code would also advance women and children’s rights, advocating for shared domestic responsibilities and requiring parents to be “respectful of the dignity and physical and mental integrity of children and adolescents”. Women’s rights are already significantly better in Cuba than in its regional counterparts, with women making up 60% of professionals and having access to free abortions.
The publication of the draft Family Code is undoubtedly a landmark moment for human rights in Cuba, as two law professors at the University of Havana remarked, “it is a ground-breaking vision that breaks the traditional paradigms that have sustained the laws of the family: extending the cloak of protection to all people”. However, the future of the legislation may fall victim to historical issues in Cuba. To ensure the advancement of fundamental human rights, the Cuban government must do more to engage with the democratic process, advocating for human rights in ways that do not leave them subject to popular vote and remain impartial to the lobbying of religious groups.
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