November 15, 2018 at 2:14 pm EST | by Claudia Padrón Cueto
Constitutional debate in Cuba will not be televised

(Photo by Claudia Padrón Cueto/Tremenda Nota)

Editor’s note: Tremenda Nota is an independent e-magazine in Cuba that reports on the country’s LGBT and other minority communities and young people. It is the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba.

Tremenda Nota originally published this story on its website in Spanish on Nov. 7.

HAVANA — In Cuba, the debates around the draft constitution in local neighborhoods are much broader than what appears on television.

Some people want the president to be free to serve unlimited terms in office; to ban same-sex marriage and to make work “compulsory,” while others want direct elections and the right to protest.

In the Casino Deportivo neighborhood of Havana’s Cerro municipality, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) No. 3 has had no leader since the president left three years ago. A resident says that no one else has wanted to “get involved in that.”

People only discovered that the draft constitution was going to be debated on Monday because of a few posters stuck onto electricity posts by a state official. The posters announced: “A meeting for Casino Deportivo’s CDRs No. 3 and No. 6 in Cerro at 8 p.m. on Calle Cuarta.”

At the designated meeting time 35 people form a semi-circle around a table. Marlén Suárez, a Cuban Communist Party official (PCC), stands in front of the group to lead the meeting. She is joined by Pedro Santana, a delegate of the Municipal Assembly of People’s Power, representing the residents of District 82. It is their third meeting in 10 days. Once again the national anthem is sung, there is a Cuban flag and a recording secretary takes minutes.

Lina, a resident in CDR No. 6, wastes no time and, adjusting her glasses, interrupts. Her copy of the draft constitution is completely covered with notes and scribbles. She says that the state should not just promote economic development but guarantee it, to prevent young people from migrating. She argues that work should be compulsory. However, Miguel, a local small business owner, contends that first there should be decent wages. He counters, “That’s what should be compulsory.”

Lina pretends not to hear him and continues: “In Article 40 they should remove discrimination based on gender or gender identity. Sex and sexual orientation is sufficient.”

A young woman interrupts to explain that gender and sex are not the same thing and goes on to distinguish them. Lina insists that gender is unnecessary, “Cubans do not understand such academic concepts.” The young woman responds, “In Cuba barely anyone has read El Capital, hardly anyone understands Marxism but we have been quoting Marx for 60 years.”

Almost an hour later Marlén interrupts with renewed energy: “It’s time for controversial Article 68.” “Controversial Article 68,” as the party official calls it, modifies and expands the concept of marriage in Cuba, which has so far been restricted to the union between a man and woman.

“No one wants to talk about this?” No one speaks. “Are you sure?” she insists.

Finally, retiree Mario responds to Marlén’s question, blurting out, “I don’t agree…It’s unnatural and goes against communism. Also our religious comrades don’t approve. A measure like this is only going to divide the country.”

He goes on to say that “this” (it is not clear whether he is referring to divisions or to same sex marriage) “is what the enemy wants.” María, another retiree and grandmother of two girls, supports Mario. She is concerned about the new kinds of families that the constitutional change will produce. “How can a child live with two men? Who will they call mother? What values will they learn? They’ll teach them to be homosexuals!”

Only one young woman responded, “So it’s on the record that not everyone is against same sex marriage.” Mario and María argued that “society isn’t ready.” However, the young woman argues, “You don’t vote on rights. In this case the constitution doesn’t take anything from anyone, rather it gives rights to those who didn’t have any.”

Prieto, a middle-aged local man, broke with the debate’s predictable script, “In Cuba we need elections with direct votes, the right to peaceful protest and to finalize the unification of the currency,” he added boldly.

He also argued for the abolition of the law preventing professionals who “abandon” an international mission to return to Cuba for an eight-year period. He also asked to make it legal for the “proletariat” to take “motor boat” rides.

After each of Prieto’s points, Marlén states, “Well, that’s his personal opinion. You have to respect it.”

The draft constitution does not mention the dual currency, or the laws that limit the return of Cuban professionals who “deserted” Cuba, or the ban on taking recreational boat rides, which all weigh heavy on Cubans. The Communist Party official suggests that the proposed constitution has “other characteristics, other purposes.” But Prieto insists that his opinions be included in the minutes.

At moments the debate on the constitution seems more like a call to the delegate’s accountability to his community. People take advantage of the circumstances to complain about scarcity in farmers’ markets, potholes, water leakages or the limitations of the transportation system. The constitutional debate provides an opportunity for catharsis with party officials.

According to the official media more than 135,000 meetings will be held throughout the country, in places of work and study, in communities and abroad. (Photo by Claudia Padrón Cueto/Tremenda Nota)

By 9:30 p.m. the meeting has run overtime and Prieto continues to argue with another Communist Party representative, a man with a moustache wearing a guayabera shirt. Prieto does not understand what type of socialism is being built, “Is it the 21st century [communism], is it Chinese or Korean?”

The official becomes irritated, arguing that we have never copied any model and that “few countries exist that are as free and democratic.” And that, of course, “We are building a Cuban socialism.”

Another 10 minutes go by. Marlén sighs and fidgets in her chair, the recording secretary turns over a page and continues writing. People start to quietly leave. The closing theme song of the Brazilian soap opera draws participants like a magnet.

An English man at the meeting
Fourteen people are waiting for Marlén Suárez, the Communist Party official running the debate, in front of the old CDR Number 1 office (District 82). One woman is playing Candy Crush on her phone while others chat with the draft constitution tucked under their arms. A foreign journalist is carrying a tripod and a Canon camera.

Someone says, “The meeting is going to be broadcast on an international channel.” The Communist Party official gulps and searches for a number, she goes to the public telephone, dials and explains to her superior on the other end of the line that a foreign journalist wants to “film everything.” She immediately starts to fire questions into the phone: Is filming the meeting authorized? What should she do? Is it allowed or not?

“What media do you represent?” She asks the reporter without hanging up.

“The Guardian,” he responds with an English accent, showing his photo ID.

Marlén breaks the newspaper’s name down to syllables: de-gar-dian. It seems that neither she or her superior know who the correspondent is, what the Guardian is or what the Cuban revolution thinks.

Finally, Marlén agrees and the reporter presses record.

In the first shot the official asks attendees to sing the anthem, “Very loudly so you can hear the dedication.” The recording secretary is taking notes in the background. A Cuban flag is tied to a railing.

The anthem finishes. Marlén reads a text by Fidel Castro, the Concept of Revolution, loud and clear. She also “shares” the forward of the draft constitution and requests residents’ opinions chapter by chapter.

Except for the delegate Pedro Santana, those present barely say a word. Santana wants to make it clear that there has never been religious, or any other kind of discrimination in Cuba. “Here we only pursue those who try to change the system.” The delegate pauses, then corrects himself, “Actually, they are not pursued, they are controlled.”

Pedro Santana, the delegate, first on the left, explains the importance of “constitutional reform” to the locals. (Photo by Claudia Padrón Cueto/Tremenda Nota)

There are few comments until Article 121, which refers to electing the president.

Calixto, who is 80 years old and from Manzanillo, Granma, does not believe there should be a limit to the age or number of terms a president can serve. “And if we have another Fidel?” he asks, “With that measure we could truncate the presidency of an exceptional man.”

The others agree. Some applaud.

Orquídea, a former official from the Department of Migration and Foreign Affairs, does not agree that Cubans must return to the country every two years to maintain their residency. Also, Félix, the owner of a nearby café, thinks it is unfair to prohibit the accumulation of wealth when it comes from honorable work.

The meeting ends just after 9 p.m. The English journalist asks the delegate and the woman running the debate to stay a little longer to chat. Pedro agrees but Marlén refuses to give an interview in her role as an official, explaining that, “It isn’t appropriate to appear in the foreign press.”

Before leaving the president of the CDR (the same woman who was playing Candy Crush) reminds the recording secretary to “include in the attendants those who weren’t present because of illness or because they had to work.” She takes out a paper with several people’s names and with a few strokes of a pen multiplies the 14 people attending the debate.

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