February 26, 2019 at 11:53 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Cubans overwhelmingly approve country’s new constitution
Participants in an LGBTI march that Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, organized in Santa Clara, Cuba, on May 17, 2017, carry a large rainbow flag along the march route. A pro-government activist and blogger says the country’s new constitution that voters overwhelmingly approved on Feb. 24, 2019, “expressly” protects LGBTI Cubans. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Cuban voters on Sunday overwhelmingly approved the draft of their country’s new constitution.

Maykel González Vivero, co-founder of Tremenda Nota, an independent online magazine that is the Washington Blade’s media partner on the Communist island, reported 86.85 percent of Cubans who participated in Sunday’s referendum voted for the new constitution. Official results indicate 9 percent of voters voted against it, but González reported this figure may be higher because of abstentions or ballots that were either left blank or thrown out.

Independent LGBTI rights advocates in Cuba sharply criticized the government’s decision in December to remove an amendment from the draft constitution that would have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples in Cuba. The issue also sparked a rare public debate in the country, with evangelical church groups highlighting their opposition to nuptials for gays and lesbians.

Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay Cuban blogger who supports Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro who spearheads LGBTI issues as director of the National Center for Sexual Education, on Monday wrote the new constitution “backs the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in a specific way.” Rodríguez in his blog points to three amendments that “expressly prohibits and punishes under law discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity”, recognizes “the right of all people to form a family and protects all families” and defines marriage not as the “union between a man and a woman” but rather as “a social and legal institution.”

Mariela Castro and her supporters have said they plan to push for changes to Cuba’s Family Code that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

“The new constitution is the result of more than a decade of citizen and institutional activism in support of the sexual rights of LGBTI people,” wrote Rodríguez on his blog.

Those who publicly campaigned against the new constitution argued it will not improve Cuba’s economy or overall human rights record.

The Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, a group that works independently of Mariela Castro and CENESEX, urged LGBTI Cubans to vote against the new constitution. González is among those who posted pictures to their social media pages that showed their “no” vote.

“My no,” wrote González in a tweet. “And it is not even dictated to me by LGBTI community’s frustration regarding the postponement of equality that is submitted to consultation. I voted no because there is no opportunity in Cuba under the (Cuban Communist Party) and its perpetual character.”

Blade media partner’s website blocked in Cuba before referendum

Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Education on Feb. 15 released the results of a survey that found 77 percent of Cubans between 15-74 said same-sex couples should receive the same rights as heterosexual couples. González told the Blade the Cuban government blocked access to Tremenda Nota on Saturday after it reported Mariela Castro and Luis Ángel Adán Roble, a member of the Cuban National Assembly who advocates for LGBTI issues, knew about the survey results before they were made public.

The Cuban government has not responded to the Blade’s request for comment, but González and other independent journalists and activists have said they face harassment and even arrest if they publicly criticize Mariela Castro and/or the Cuban government. Michael Petrelis, a prominent LGBTI activist from San Francisco, said Cuban authorities “harassed” him last month while he was in the country because he planned to distribute 10,000 rainbow stickers and 1,200 Pride bracelets.

“On Feb. 24, the Cuban communist regime held what it called a ‘national referendum’ on revisions to its constitution,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement he released on Tuesday. “No one should be fooled by this exercise, which achieves little beyond perpetuating the pretext for regime’s one-party dictatorship. The entire process has been marked by carefully managed political theater and repression of public debate.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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