“The Constitution is going to be the will of the Cuban people”

An Interview with Yamil Marero, Senior Official of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples

January 03, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Draft copy of new Cuban constitition
Draft copy of new Cuban constitition

On December 24, 2018, we sat down with Yamil Marero to discuss Cuba’s ongoing process of writing a new Constitution. Yamil is a Senior Officer with the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, or ICAP. Created in December 1960, this public organization promotes and cultivates friendship among nations. It is a place where friends of different cultures come to discuss and reflect on the situation in Cuba and the rest of the world. Yamil spoke to us about how the new Constitution is being drafted and its main implications for Cuba’s future.

Why is Cuba updating its Constitution?

This is a completely new constitution that comes at a moment, not only in Cuba but in the whole world, in which many important changes are occurring. We are updating many things, not only economically speaking, but also politically speaking, and it is an ideal moment for that to take place.

Why? First of all, we are trying to maintain a continuity in the legacy of Fidel and Raul and other important figures in the Cuban leadership. These are not only Fidel and Raul, but also Marti, Agramonte, and many other figures in our history. Also, the previous Constitution was from 1976. We needed to do something new. For instance, the private sector has increased in number. There are many laws targeting that sector. We need to support that in the Constitution.

The issue of same-sex marriage is one of the things that has raised the most discussion in Cuba. Some think that we are Latinos and we have a macho approach to the issue, but I must admit that with time people have started to change their perspective towards that. Although this is still something that should be discussed and better discussed with people.

All of these things are happening at the same time, so that’s why we need to update the Constitution. Especially for the future generations.

In relation to the 1976 Constitution, the new draft only maintains 11 articles, modifies 113 articles, and deletes 13 articles and then adds 87 new articles. The government has discussed this process as a constitutional ‘reform’, but is it not a replacement? Is it not creating a new constitution entirely?

First of all, it’s important to clarify one thing that you mentioned: when you say ‘government’ in Cuba, you mean people. When you refer to ‘government’, and you say the Cuban ‘government’ is doing this and that, for those who don’t have the experience of how it works in Cuba, they would say it’s the political party deciding X, Y, Z… but it’s not like that. It’s different from what happens in many countries in the world. And yes, this is a project that we ourselves say is a new Constitution, because of what you have mentioned. All the new changes that have taken place. All the new articles that we are proposing to add.

As I said earlier, there was a constitutional commission convened that was entitled to present a draft in July. This draft was present for popular discussion and consultation from August 13 to November 15, 2018.

Can you explain the process of popular consultation? How did it operate?

Cuba is a very institutionalized country. What I mean is, through the different institutions, mass institutions, political institutions, all institutions in Cuba, you structure and organize the way in which these discussions are going to take place.

At the level of the communities, in the neighborhoods, through the C.D.R.s, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which is the biggest and the oldest mass organization in Cuba, that gathers all the neighbors in a community. So, at that level, you organize different meetings for the people to express their opinions. You also organize discussions in workplaces. But for a person who is retired, or a person who is a housewife, if that person doesn’t work, they won’t be able to express their opinion at the workplace. So we organize these discussions at the neighborhood level too. We also discuss it in the different cells of the Cuban Communist Party, where people freely expressed their opinion.

Over 9 million people, from all different institutions, in the big sense of the word “institution”, were able to discuss the Constitution. So the Constitution is going to be the will of the Cuban people, of the grassroots level. Now, every single one of these opinions was considered and analyzed by the commission when revising the draft and preparing the second version. This second version which incorporated the popular input is now under discussion at the National Assembly, our parliament.

Previously, in the 1976 Constitution, marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman. In terms of the same-sex marriage provision you were talking about, the original draft prepared in July, had Article 60a, specified that marriage is between two persons. My understanding is that after the popular constitution, the revised draft has dropped the definition of marriage altogether. What does that mean for the possibility of same-sex marriage in Cuba?

What I understand according to the discussions I was able to watch – because all discussions are made public, but I was not able to see them all – is that Article 60a was eliminated, but somehow, part of the letter or the intention that this article expressed is reflected in many other articles. It’s not explicitly stated as it was in Article 60a, but the intention is reflected in other areas of the draft Constitution.

So, it doesn’t guarantee same-sex marriage, but it leaves the door open for it to be established in law in the future?

As part of the ongoing legal updating process, which goes beyond approving a new Constitution, we have a Family Code. One of the things that the National Assembly has to approve, in addition to the new Constitution, is a new Family Code. This issue will probably be clearly stated in this Code, that is, what the definitions of family and marriage are. But it’s something that definitely needs more discussion with people.

Despite the level of the education of the Cuban people, it is very difficult to change people’s perception of an issue just by approving or not approving one law. That needs to change little by little in the consciousness of people for them to understand.

The new Constitution is seen as an attempt to learn from past experiences of socialism in power, to adapt to the post-Soviet reality, and modernize the Cuban state. This is especially relevant given the discussion of the state’s economic structure in the Constitution, and in particular, Article 21, which recognizes private property. Article 21 specifically refers to private ownership of the means of production and is distinguished from personal property in Article 22, which is just property for satisfying a person’s own individual needs. Of course, this has led to certain alarmist interpretations about the ‘restoration of capitalism’, while Raul Castro, who has been involved with the constitutional commission, has clarified that private property will be merely a complementary aspect of the economy that is limited by law. But if this is going to be part of the new Constitution, how do you see it affecting the legal system and the economy? Do you see it as recognizing something that already exists, or opening the door for something new?

It’s legalizing, or recognizing, as you say, something that already exists. In this regard, I must express two main ideas. On the one hand, the main means of production in Cuba will continue to be socialist. On the other hand, we have clearly stated that in Cuba what we are going to avoid is the concentration of wealth that is in the end what brings about individualism rather than collectivism.

Right, Article 22 states that there shall be no concentration of wealth.

Yes. And we are recognizing that there is private property, but that it is never going to be the most important branch of our economy, because as I said earlier, the main means of production will remain in the hands of the people. One of the main things that we have realized is that the government was focused on so many things that it was a burden for the budget, for the good development of the country’s economy. What we’ve decided is that those sectors that are not key for our economy can be left in the hands of the private sector. This is logical, and accurate, I think. For instance, why should the government be worried about a beauty parlor, paying the salaries every month, creating a whole structure for probably two or three people that are working there? Same with a small restaurant. That’s something that can be handled by people themselves.

Do you anticipate that this will lead to increased economic growth?

Well, it’s another way of helping our economy. It’s not the most important way, but we are talking about over half a million who are involved in the private sector in Cuba, and that’s a growing figure. In the beginning, many people started getting enthusiastic about it. But little by little, when people realized their objective capacities to realize their business, people have retreated. Yes, it is growing, but I don’t see it as a threat. We have clearly stated that Cuba will remain socialist because the main means of production are going to be owned by the people, owned socially.

As the Constitution was drafted, both by the commission and then by popular consultation, did Cuba look to the Constitutions of other progressive states in the region or around the world?

Yes. Actually, one of the things that the commission explained when they presented their first draft, and has been explained in many other moments during the discussion, is that this draft was presented having in mind other experiences. Not only those from China and Vietnam, but also many other examples. That is one important thing. We are not copying and pasting everything, but copying, analyzing, saying, this might not be suited for us, this might be. We make something with a little bit from everybody and try to create something our own, adjusted to the characteristics of our economy, of our idiosyncrasies, of our people, and especially, foreseeing the future.

It’s curious. In Cuba, whether we recognized it or not, we did have a sort of private sector in Cuba. Agricultural cooperatives are a sort of private property. The means of production were granted by the state, but the land was owned by the cooperative, the neighborhood. They had to give a part of their production to the government, for the people, but it was sort of private. And that was not recognized by our previous Constitution. Now, with the creation of non-agricultural cooperatives and private property, that has to be recognized in these two Articles. We are recognizing them. They feel recognized in this Constitution. Our intention is to have everyone on board in working for a better country.

One of the other changes in the new Constitution relates to local governance. The Provincial Assemblies are being replaced by Governors and Councils, and my understanding is that municipal bodies are going to become more autonomous. Why are these changes being made?

Because, in the end, we realized that in many aspects, the Provincial Assembly was not the correct linkage between the municipality, or the grassroots level, and the national level. So that intermediate structure was not as functional as it should be. I think that the way we are presenting it now is more accurate. For each of the 168 municipalities that we have in Cuba, we have at least one representative in the National Assembly. The Provincial government, in trying to solve their own problems in the province, tried to address issues that could only be solved at the national level. And so the solution never came. This change is based on the exercise we had with the creation of the new provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque in 2010. With this new structure, we are trying to split the administrative aspect from the political aspect of the government.

The original draft prepared by the commission dropped the reference to the goal of the “advancement towards a communist society.” During the popular consultation, I understand that this received a lot of opposition, and the Cuban people expressed their demand that the new Constitution, like the old one, would include the goal of the “advancement towards a communist society.” What’s your interpretation of this?

This issue is not about whether we should strive to achieve a communist society. It is instead about clarifying the role of the Cuban Communist Party in building that new society, which is something different. We clearly stated in our previous Constitution that the Cuban Communist Party was the leading force of the Cuban society. Many people wanted to clarify, OK, what is the role of that leading force?

If we are readjusting our Constitution, we need to clarify this for the future generations. The discussion was more focused on, let’s define clearly what the leading force of the Cuban society. What is that? How do you understand that? I think it was a proper and accurate question. It’s similar to the article that says that the government will aim to provide decent housing for every Cuban person. The discussion was then, what is decent? Because what is decent for you is probably not decent for me. The concept of decent for you is not the same as for me. That brought about a lot of discussion. And this issue was addressed, and more clearly stated in the new draft. That is what happened here too.

When Fidel was in power, we expressed that if it is for the benefit of the people, or the interest of mankind, Latin America, we will do anything in Cuba. The term is not important. If it is socialist, communist, capitalist, or whatever, a new term, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the essence, what is behind it. If it is for the benefit of mankind, if it is for the benefit of the Cuban people, we are more than willing to change one term. The term is not important. What matters is what you are seeking in the end. That’s the way it should be.

Let’s turn back to the economy. In terms of analyzing the current global situation and the potential for increased economic growth in Cuba, we are faced with ambiguity. On the one hand, the US is maintaining its criminal blockade on Cuba, imperialist countries are encircling progressive forces in Latin America and conducting color revolutions in Nicaragua and Venezuela, we see the re-emergence of the far right, with Argentina and especially Brazil, with the election of the fascist Jair Bolsonaro.

On the other hand, we see the re-emergence of Russia and China, which offers greater trading opportunities, there was a recent meeting between representatives of Cuba and the DPRK, we’re seeing a decline in the power of the US dollar as the global reserve currency, known as de-dollarization, which is weakening the effect of sanctions, and finally we see the construction of a new canal in Nicaragua as an alternative to the US-dominated Panama canal.

So we see positives and negatives. Do you see that there is an opening, a greater potential for economic growth, or do you think because of regionally what’s happening, especially in Brazil, which is so important in Latin America, do you think that there will be an intensified struggle in the near future?

Definitely. I don’t want to sound chauvinistic here, but all of those processes that imperialism is focused on right now, in the end, in my perspective, what they’re thinking about goes back to the original sin. By that I mean Cuba. They are targeting Cuba.

Because if Cuba cannot provide the medical doctors that Brazil needs, because Brazil can’t – Cuba had some agreements in that regard with Brazil, same with Nicaragua and Venezuela, through ALBA – if all of these countries are having economic problems which are not the main, but an important support for the Cuban economy, it will lead to problems. Imagine a building. If you start removing the bases of that building, in the end, what you achieve is to have the building fall down.

Cuba has been a bad example for the big companies, for capitalism. We have proved with little, and I mean “we” not Cuba but we the world, we can do a lot of things if we have the political will. If we want to do it, it can be done.

We have proven that there are things more important than money. That example is a bad example for big companies. That’s why I think what they are seeking not only to suffocate those revolutions or those progressive movements but also, in the long term, to suffocate the Cuban revolution.

In that context, all the help that we can get must be welcome. Despite what many people think, the first country that Fidel visited after the revolution triumphed was not the Soviet Union. It was precisely the United States. We understood that we didn’t want to have such a powerful enemy. But in the end, everybody knows what happened and what all of that brought about. Today, we have China and Russia. We understand also that they are seeking opportunities. Not only because they want to help Cuba, but also because they will benefit from us as well. There is a lot of collaboration and benefits from each other, as with any other business. We will do anything that we can do to prevent our people from continue suffering the impact of the cruel policy of blockade.

Two or three years ago we approved a new investment law encouraging foreign investment. This was discussed in the guidelines for socialism in Cuba and is also projected in the Agenda for 2030, our plan for our economy. That foreign investment, different from what happens in many other parts of the world, is going to be directed to those branches of the economy where we don’t have the expertise or infrastructure to develop. That means that I don’t foresee a KFC, or a Dominos, or anything like that, in Cuba, at least for a long period of time. I know that has been in the news: “Little by little, Cuba is going back to capitalism.” But it’s nothing like that. We do need foreign investment because we don’t have the possibility of developing those branches of the economy.

We will give people an opportunity to invest in Cuba. But we will always preserve and maintain our sovereignty. That is something that will never be put into danger. With that clear in our minds, we will do everything that we can do for the benefit of our people, despite the challenges that this will, of course, bring about. What cannot happen is that we continue suffering the way we are suffering.

(The author lives in Vancouver, Canada.)