Cuba’s Constitutional Conundrum: Half-baked Attempts at Reform

David Young

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For the first time since 1976 there will be formal alterations to the Cuban constitution, the original having been put in place to enshrine single-party Communism under the guidance of Fidel Castro. The conditions of the Cuba have drastically changed since 1976: neither Fidel or Raul Castro serve as the head of state, a first in the Communist government’s 60-year history. The Soviet Union, Cuba’s most important ally, has ceased to exist, and freer markets have been created on the national level. Given Cuba’s experience on the international stage since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the National Assembly has created a new Constitution which they believe to be “the now and future of the nation.” According to released proposals, prosperity and the future of the nation can be found economic, political, and social alterations to the current regime. The current draft proposes the recognition of private property, the creation of a freer market, the restoration of the post of Prime Minister, the introduction of term limits on the office of the President, banning discrimination based upon sex, ethnic origin, or disability, and a presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” in the criminal justice system.

Given the hardline position of Fidel Castro, and therefore of the National Assembly, in economics and politics it is logical to question what has caused this drastic change. The largest factor to have altered the position of Cuba’s political elite was the economic crisis of the early 1990s, which began with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Before 1991, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc accounted for 85% of all Cuban imports, 80% of Cuban exports, and 80% of foreign investment – but overnight in 1991, Cuba’s most valuable ally ceased to exist.[1] From 1989 to 1993 the Cuban gross domestic product (GDP) fell nearly 35% and the government deficit reached 33% of the GDP, but outside of economic figures this drastically affected the living conditions of Cuban citizens. For example, the consumption of calories and protein among Cubans dropped nearly 30% in four years, causing widespread illness associated with nutritional deficiency.[2] Drastic conditions required drastic action by the Cuban government; therefore, the government began to tolerate private industry, foreign currency circulation, and direct elections of National Assembly delegates.

After the devastating effects of the 1990s recession in Cuba and the government’s unprecedented action to combat crisis, the Cuban economy began to recover in 1995. The regime was forced to adapt to foreign investment and tourism on the island, as well as allowing the private employment and economic activity of its citizens. (Actions which would have been unthinkable in the revolutionary fervor of the 1970s.)  From January to October of 2017, Cuba had received over $2,000,000,000 in foreign direct investment, which, under the laws of the 1976 Constitution, was technically still illegal due to provisions which banned the ownership of private property and the accumulation of private wealth.[3] The implementation of an updated constitution has been touted by the Party as a project which “reaffirms the socialist character of [the] political, economic and socialist system, as well as the directing role of the Communist Party of Cuba."

In the economy, the Communist Party is proposing the legalization of private property and private enterprise on a limited scale. American University Cuba scholar William LeoGrande cites this as “an important symbolic step by doing away with the old commitment to build a communist soviet… [with] the recognition that a mixed economy is the future” of the nation.[4] The driving force of these reforms is in the economic stagnation of Cuba since 2009, which despite not being comparable to 1991 has still had profound effects on the nation. Over the period of seven years, over a million public sector jobs have been eliminated by austerity measures, compounded by a drop in tourism as the result of Hurricane Irma and restrictions instated by the Trump Administration. It is the hope of the government that the emerging private sector will be able to pick up the slack of these industries, which it has done timidly. (About 500,000 people in Cuba are currently working in the private sector, out of a population of about 11,500,000.) Recently, the Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, attended Havana University to speak on limited market techniques and to share the experiences of his own nation. He counseled the Cuban Communist Party by stating “to build socialism with success it is necessary to develop a market economy in an adequate and correct way” to dispel the myth that the market alone has the capacity to destroy socialism.[5] With the disappearance of the USSR and the recent implosion of the Venezuelan economy, it has become necessary for the Cuban government to search their increasingly slim alternatives.

In the realm of political organization, the new Constitution proposes the creation of a political hierarchy on a national level and effectively eliminates the notion of a ‘communist’ system. The constitution would recreate the post of Prime Minister, who would lead the Council of Ministers in the day-to-day running of the country. While the Prime Minister would not be directly elected by the people, the position would be filled at the discretion of the National Assembly and with the recommendation of the President. Additionally, any future Presidents would be limited to two, six-year terms – preventing the creation of a political dynasty like that of the Castro brothers. Another change would be the appointment of governors who would rule their provinces with “municipal autonomy,” rather than the current system of having the president of the provincial assembly.[6] This new draft of the constitutional proposal heavily stresses the “municipal autonomy” of provincial governors, deviating heavily from the previous dictatorial power of Havana. Perhaps this has to do with the elimination of the phrase “advancement toward the communist society,” or it could be a measure to increase economic vitality in the countryside.[7] Despite increased autonomy of localities and the establishment of new governmental posts do not be fooled, Cuba will still be far from a democratic society. The Communist Party of Cuba will maintain complete supremacy in the government and newly created positions will be appointed at the behest of the President, rather than by an election of the people.

Despite the heavy-handed support of the constitutional update by the Cuban Communist Party, many members of the Cuban exiled population, political opposition parties, and many foreign economists remain unimpressed by the proposed changes. In their research on the proposed constitution, the Miami Herald interviewed a man who skipped all local debates since “it was all going to be more blah, blah, blah, and the government doesn’t listen to us anyhow.”[8] This cynical perspective on the constitution pervades all the opposition parties within Cuba and political exiles, who view this as a last desperate grab for power after in the post-Castro era. Foreign economists, too, seem grim about the prospects of half-baked economic liberalization – which UCSD scholar Richard Feinberg has called “a great leap backward.”[9] Additionally, other economists have noted the lack of a developed banking structure, the state monopoly on wholesale markets, and new sets of regulations upon cuentapropistas, Cuban entrepreneurs.[10] Current regulations and laws force entrepreneurs into the black market for appropriate capital, effectively breaking a well-functioning market system. Despite current predictions on the future of Cuba, politically, economically, and socially, that is only something we can see in the future, perhaps years from now.

Bibliography

[1]José Luis Rodríguez García, “The Cuban Economy: Experiences and Perspectives (1989-2010),” Estudos Avançados 25, no. 72 (August 2011): 29–44, https://doi.org/10.1590/S0103-40142011000200004.

[2]“The Cuban Economy: Experiences and Perspectives."

[3]Pascal Fletcher, “Cuba’s New Constitution: What’s in and What’s Out,” July 26, 2018, sec. Latin America & Caribbean, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-44971445.

[4] “Cuba’s New Constitution Won’t Fix Its Economy,” August 24, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-08-24/cuba-s-new-constitution-won-t-fix-its-economy.

[5]“Cuba’s New Constitution Won’t Fix Its Economy.”

[6]Fletcher, “Cuba’s New Constitution.”

[7]“Cuba Asked for Public Feedback on a New Constitution. Now It’s Deciding Which Suggestions to Include,” miamiherald, accessed January 11, 2019, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article221917690.html.Constitution

[8]“Cuba Asked for Public Feedback on a New Constitution. Now It’s Deciding Which Suggestions to Include.”

[9]“Cuba’s New Constitution Won’t Fix Its Economy.”

[10]“Cuba’s New Constitution Preserves Communist Power,” The Economist, July 26, 2018, https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2018/07/26/cubas-new-constitution-preserves-communist-power.