¿Qué Bola?: What’s New (and What’s Not) in Cuba

IJLI readers may remember the piece on Cuba that several colleagues and I published in the Summer 2017 issue (Vol. 45, no. 2). Since then, much has transpired in Cuba, and much has happened vis à vis the island’s relationships with the outside world. Rather than publish an update in IJLI, this blog post will serve the same purpose.

New Leadership

On April 18, 2018, the 605 newly seated members of the National Assembly of People’s Power (IX Legislature) elected Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez to serve as President of the Council of State, and accordingly, President of the Council of Ministers per the 1976 Constitution (article 96).

Díaz-Canel, now fifty-nine and a former electrical engineer, was groomed for this role and was generally expected to be Raúl Castro’s successor; he is a hardline communist and is seemingly faithful to the 1959 Revolution’s ideals. At eighty-eight, Raúl is also still deeply involved with the nation’s governance; he remains a deputy in parliament and the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC)—a role he plans to relinquish in 2021.

New Constitution

As demonstrative of Raúl’s continued grip on Cuba, the National Assembly appointed him last June to oversee a commission charged with drafting a new constitution. The first draft was introduced in the National Assembly last July with much fanfare globally, as it made marriage gender neutral (article 68) and contained other seemingly progressive provisions. The National Assembly approved the draft on July 22, 2018, and it was next introduced to the general population for comment. By the time the updated draft made it back to the National Assembly in December, the marriage equality provision had been removed (purportedly due to public pushback). Interestingly, one of the island’s most vociferous proponents of LGBTQ rights is Mariela Castro Espín (Raúl’s daughter), who is the director of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX). Miguel Díaz-Canel also reportedly supports gay marriage.

Cubans went to the polls on February 24, 2019, to vote on the new constitution, with almost 87 percent voting yes to ratify (compared to 98 percent for the 1976 constitution); voter turnout was slightly over 84 percent. Outside observers generally viewed these statistics as a sign of increasing opposition, while the US nonprofit Cuba Decide called on the international community to “denounce the illegitimacy” of the new document.

The 2019 constitution went into effect on April 10, 2019, when it was published in an extraordinary edition of the Gaceta Oficial. Some of the 2019 Constitution’s noteworthy changes include restructuring the executive branch to include a prime minister (article 140); limiting the president to two consecutive five-year terms (article 126); setting the age of sixty as the upper threshold for the president-elect (article 127); recognizing private property (article 22d); prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation (article 42); and expanding women’s sexual and reproductive rights (article 43).

The new executive branch structure will reportedly be implemented before the end of the year. It remains to be seen, however, if the 2019 Constitution will have any great impact on everyday life in Cuba, as the document appears to be largely aspirational.

New Legislation

On the books since July 2018 is Decree 349/2018, which has been criticized profusely both domestically and globally for its potential to limit artistic expression. In June of this year, Decreto Ley 373/2019 was promulgated, which legalizes independent filmmaking, but there are concerns about how it will actually be applied. The National Assembly on July 14 passed a new electoral law, which implements some of the changes mandated in the new constitution; it also reduces the number of delegates in the assembly from 605 to 474 (starting in 2024) and replaces provincial assemblies with local councils. More recently, on July 24, the English-language edition of Granma reported that the Cuban government had created a new set of regulations on the “computerization of Cuban society.”

The 2019 Constitution specifies that, within eighteen months of its promulgation, the Governing Council of the People’s Supreme Court must propose a new Law of the People’s Courts to the National Assembly (Tenth “Transitory Provision”). And, within two years, the National Assembly must initiate the process of “popular consultation and referendum” for the “Family Code program,” which must address the definition of marriage (Eleventh “Transitory Provision”). The latter requirement was presumably included to appease gay rights activists who criticized the removal of article 68’s language from the original draft constitution.

In terms of accessing the Gaceta Oficial, issues from June and July are posted as PDFs, while earlier editions are still in the cumbersome .rar file formats. Hopefully, this is a sign that Cuba’s official government gazette will at least be available as PDFs going forward.

US-Cuba Relations: On the Chopping Block

The Trump administration has undone much of the progress that the Obama administration made in thawing US-Cuba relations. After assuming office in January 2017, Trump announced new economic and travel regulations pertaining to Cuba. In March 2019, the administration cancelled an agreement negotiated during the Obama administration between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Cuban Baseball Federation. In April, the Trump administration announced that it would activate Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, which allows US citizens to sue for losses that stem from the 1959 Cuban Revolution: Carnival Cruises has already been hit with a lawsuit by a Cuban-American family that claims to have once owned various Cuban docks. The Trump administration has also announced that it is banning cruise ships travelling from US ports to Cuba and that US citizens may no longer travel to Cuba under the auspices of group “people-to-people” exchanges.

The Economy

Although Cuba has been hit hard by the recent tightening of US sanctions, the political turmoil in Venezuela has also played a role in plunging Cuba into a deepening economic crisis. When I was in Cuba two years ago, I thought that the Cuban economy was struggling (see my June 13, 2017 DipLawMatic Dialogues post), but the situation has apparently worsened as evidenced by the government’s launch of widespread rationing of consumer goods. For photos of Cubans waiting in line for various staples, see #LaColaChallenge on Twitter. At the end of June, the Cuban government announced that it would raise wages (although they will still be extremely low), as part of a set of economic reforms that may be a sign that the country is moving away from its dual-currency system. There have also been reports that the country is considering the use of cryptocurrency for its international and national transactions.

Noteworthy New Resources

Final Thoughts

Despite new leadership and a new constitution, much has seemingly not changed on the ground for Cuban citizens in terms of economic conditions and human rights. As far as the latter, reports of abuses are still rampant, such as the recent confrontation between gay rights activists and the state police during an unauthorized pride parade in Havana. Cuban Prisoners Defenders, a relatively new NGO based in Madrid, has also reported on the forced exile of numerous Cuban dissidents over the past two years. For unofficial accounts of developments on the island, I would recommend the website of the aforementioned NGO (Spanish only); CubaNet (Spanish only); and 14yMedio (Spanish and English).

There are some signs of progress, however, in terms of information connectivity on the island and with the outside world. Although still a propaganda machine, the Cuban government has improved its Web presence, making it somewhat easier to track its official activities. And, by all accounts, it appears that the Gaceta Oficial is moving to a PDF format, although access to past issues is still extremely cumbersome. I plan another update to the IJLI article next year—to note what has changed (and perhaps again what hasn’t) in Cuba.

Julienne E. Grant

Reference Librarian/Foreign & International Research Specialist Loyola University of Chicago Law Library

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