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Opportunities Created by the Constitutional Debate in Cuba

Will the leaders of the opposition and community of exiles prove able to successfully play this game of change?


The article by Dimas Castellanos published in this newspaper on August 2 represents a rundown of vital topics for the future of the country, issues that should be debated by as many citizens as possible.

That the Cuban government has left some three months for public "consultations" generates a rare opportunity for Cubans to organize and gather to discuss, thoroughly, the various aspects of the constitutional draft, despite its illegitimate origins. That possibility for meeting and discussion – for which citizens must prepare in order to get the most out of them – can be described as exceptional in the context of almost six decades of dictatorship.

Although most Cubans are not accustomed to this type of free exchange, this is an opportunity not only to exercise their rights to express various opinions, but also to organize themselves into discussion groups that eventually lead to collective actions in accordance with their personal interests. The power of the dictatorship has been based as much on restricting the freedom of expression as on monopolizing citizens' organizational capacity, keeping them isolated so that they cannot collaborate with each other, and lack the strength to influence the Government. 

For example, Dimas Castellanos underscores three constitutional issues of critical importance: the nature of socialism and communism in Cuba, the diversity of beliefs and discrimination, and property and wealth.

Of course, there are many other issues that can and should be debated, but these three give one plenty to work with, and are intimately linked to the factors that will shape Cubans' quality of life in the coming years. But how prepared are citizens on the island and the leaders of those organizations independent of the Government to participate in the debates and extract maximum benefit from them? This is not a rhetorical question. The capacity of the leaders of Cuba's independent movements is being tested under these circumstances. The challenge is to take advantage of this opportunity intelligently. Apathy or indifference about participating actively and repeatedly in the debates would be interpreted as evidence that many Cuban citizens, men and women, are essentially in agreement with the regime and its ways of handling political and economic matters.

We must bear in mind that the debates regarding the preliminary draft of the Constitution in the National Assembly, despite having been extremely poor and superficial, did reveal contradictions and inconsistencies in the document and in the discussion process surrounding it. It is precisely with regard to these points that elements arise revealing, by accident, a set of discrepancies that can serve as the basis for major debates and follow-up actions.

For example, how will the name of the Communist Party of Cuba be reconciled with the decision to eliminate the concept and even the word "Communism?" Cubans must reflect on the previous legitimacy of these concepts, why they were important for so many years, and the factors that suddenly appeared to justify these changes. Along these lines, it is logical to wonder about the value and role of the Party in the context of a new constitution, and which entity should prevail over the other. And, along this same line, the question arises: how are the members of the Party chosen? Shouldn't they be subject to constitutional precepts too? In a similar way, one can question the validity of respect for certain beliefs and extend it, as Castellanos suggests, to ideological and political creeds. If the constitution establishes the right of every citizen to freely adopt the creed of his or her choice, why are Cubans discriminated against for believing in multiple forms of economic, political and social organization? 

These topics are intimately intertwined with the article’s focus: the relationship between property and wealth. For example, Cubans should understand and discuss the implications of the government deciding, centrally and arbitrarily, how many properties a citizen can have, and how much wealth he can accumulate. In this context, what do Cubans know about the properties (and their price) owned by the top leaders of the government, the Party, and military officials in charge of state companies? Where and how can that information be verified?

The opportunities opened up for citizens by constitutional debate and consultation include questioning themselves and the Government about matters of maximum national interest. Since the advent of Castroism in 1959, Cuba's leaders have ruled without making the slightest effort to inform the people about the most elementary questions affecting the economy, their salaries, international relations, foreign wars and even life and death issues. Thus, today's citizen has become accustomed to standing by as a mere spectator of his country's public affairs.

This situation is so aberrant that sooner or later it will have to change, due to a purely evolutionary process. But, with an increase in citizen awareness of these problems, perhaps facilitated by opportunities of high strategic value, such as the one appearing now through constitutional debates, the chronic stagnation that has dominated Cuban affairs for so many years could be overcome. Will the leaders of the opposition and community of exiles prove capable of ably playing this game of change? Will they be able to organize the public and guide it towards structured and fruitful debates? And will the leaders of the opposition in exile be able to respond effectively to possible Castroist initiatives to influence or repress the debate called for by the government itself?

There is an old saying: "strike while the iron is hot". These debates can (and should) be extended for more than the three months indicated. Everyone's historical responsibility is great, but that of the activists is especially so. To fail in the preparation and organization of these debates would be unforgivable, and would delay the beginning of a progressive march towards a true republic in a free Cuba.

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