Cuba expands rights but rejects radical change in updated constitution

Cuba has rejected a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage in its new and revised constitution, a move that disappointed some gay rights activists.

An article that would have redefined marriage as a “union between two people” – rather than a “union between a man and a woman” – was eliminated from a proposed new constitution, which was written last year by the National Assembly, analyzed and debated in thousands of public meetings across the island and, on Feb. 24, approved by the Cuban people at referendum.

But marriage equality is not totally off the table in Cuba.

Marriage is now defined in the constitution as “a social and legal institution” and “one form of family organization.” In other words, same-sex marriage is not explicitly permitted – but it’s no longer strictly prohibited, either.

This is how social change works these days in Cuba, my home country and the subject of my academic research. Progress is no longer revolutionary. It comes slowly, and cloaked in moderation.

Slow change

In this way, Cuba has undergone a gradual and dramatic metamorphosis under the governments of Raúl Castro and his successor, President Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Thanks to a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations under President Barack Obama, American tourists began visiting the communist country for the first time since the Kennedy administration placed a trade embargo on Cuba after Fidel Castro’s 1959 communist revolution.

Starting in 2008, Castro opened the economy to some foreign investment and allowed Cuban workers – once confined to government jobs – to start small businesses.

The new constitution – the fourth such update to Cuba’s founding document – creates official legal standing for Castro’s economic reforms, which had remained in legal limbo under a Cold War-era constitution that did not recognize private property or the business sector.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel with former President Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel Castro. AP Photo/Desmond Boylan
Many Cubans hoped the reform process would also expand civil liberties, bringing Cuban law more into line with its changing society.

LGBTQ rights groups, in particular, launched public awareness campaigns about sexual diversity. By late 2018, the path seemed to have been paved for gay marriage.

But religious groups fiercely opposed the move, and ultimately the government removed new language defining marriage as a “union between two people.”

Some hits, some misses

Still, the newly approved constitution does substantially expand social, political and economic rights in Cuba.

It limits Cuban presidents to two five-year terms. Previously, Cuba had no term limits. It also creates a prime minister position and strengthens local government, shifting power out of the executive. The criminal justice system in Cuba now operates on the presumption of innocence, not guilt.

Freedom of assembly, long restricted on the island, has also been expanded.

Previously, Cubans had the “right to meet, demonstrate and associate, for licit and peaceful purposes,” but only as part of a so-called “organización de masa” – the Cuban term for state-run groups. The new constitution removes the words “organizaciones de masa,” depoliticizing the freedom of assembly.

It remains to be seen whether the government will actually respect Cubans’ new right to form independent organizations – especially if those groups are political in nature.

“Spontaneous gatherings [in Cuba] are not seen positively and are always perceived to be the product of a foreign power,” wrote José Gabriel Barrenechea of La Trinchera, a blog for and by “young Marxists,” in a recent post.

Greater equality

Cuba’s prior constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, skin color, sex, national origin and religious belief. Now gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ethnic origin, disability and territorial origin have been added to the list.

The National Assembly stopped short of proposing any affirmative action policies, however, which would have been a more radical step toward equality.