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Cuba Initiates Public Debate on Modernizing Constitution

The Communist Party-proposed constitutional overhaul will be discussed in 35,000 workplaces and community meetings across the Caribbean island scheduled to stretch into November
Cuba’s National Assembly (File Photo)Cuba’s National Assembly (File Photo)

Cuba on Monday began a rare public discussion on issues ranging from one-party rule and socialism to inequality, private property and restructuring of the country’s government to overhaul its Cold War-era constitution, a process the government is calling participatory democracy.

Cuba’s National Assembly approved a draft of changes to the 1976 constitution last month, including amendments that would pave the way for recognition of private small businesses, Reuters reported.

The Communist Party-proposed overhaul will be discussed in 35,000 workplaces and community meetings across the Caribbean island scheduled to stretch into November. Once the debate is concluded, the legislature will approve a new draft and submit it to a nationwide vote in February.

While state media have praised the participatory and democratic nature of the consultations, dissidents say the meetings will simply rubberstamp the changes proposed by party leadership.

With much fanfare in the state-run media, more than a million copies of the proposals have been distributed and they are also available online.

At a state-run health clinic in the capital Havana, a union leader presented the proposed changes point by point to some 50 employees. While a few people asked for clarifications on individual amendments, no one raised any challenges to them.

“We Cubans are going to ratify everything that has already been done, even if there are alternative proposals,” said Alina Morada, head of nursing for the municipality of Central Havana, where the meeting took place.

The draft omits a clause in the current constitution that enshrines the aim of building a “communist society” in Cuba. However, it does not change the “irrevocability” of the one-party system and socialist economy.

Alternative systems of government have been dubbed counter-revolutionary since the late Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

  Social, Economic Opening

The proposed version of the constitution in part codifies changes in Cuban society that have occurred since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, long the country’s benefactor, and in part modifies how the nation will function in the future.

Here are the basics of how the new version would transform Cuba and what it means for investors.

The new version keeps the Communist Party as the only legal party and its role as the guide of the nation, stating this is irrevocable. Yet, it eliminates a reference in the current constitution to reaching a utopian communism and another banning the use of private property to exploit the labor of others.

The new version doubles down on the state’s dominance over the means of production and land and the role of centralized planning. This too is deemed irrevocable. Still, for the first time there it recognizes the market as a fact of economic life, though it can be countermanded at will by the government.

An appointed prime minister has been added at the national level to supervise the day-to-day operations of the government, in particular the state-owned economy.

Provincial assemblies modeled after the national assembly are eliminated in the new version and replaced by an appointed governor and deputy governor. The governor will preside over a provincial council made up of municipal leaders.

Terms of ward delegates to municipal assemblies are doubled to five years. The position of mayor has been added to that of president of the municipal assembly.

Private businesses and non-farm cooperatives are included for the first time in the new version as legitimate economic activity, and the role of joint ventures and other forms of foreign investment are upgraded from secondary to “important” or “fundamental”. At the same time the “accumulation” of private property by citizens is banned.

The new version adds the presumption of innocence in criminal cases and the right to habeas corpus. For the first time a person can sue the state for damages and negligence. However, the judicial system remains unchanged and all lawyers are government employees.

The proposals do not by themselves reduce risk or change the rules of doing business in Cuba, but they do further foreign investment and are another step toward a mixed economy and modern society, foreign businessmen and diplomats said.

Cuban officials say changes in government structure aim to improve accountability and administration of the state-run economy.

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