Better Than Nothing: Cuba’s Constitutional Reform

Cuba's constitutional reform has drawn a large amount of international attention from as it viewed as the most significant political change since 1976. Adriana Melchor examines the changes that can be expected in Cuba as a result of these reforms.


Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel made headlines on September 17th, 2018 by publicly affirming his support for legalising same-sex marriage, in an interview with Venezuela-based broadcaster Telesur. This is one of several proposed reforms to Cuba’s constitution, a matter which has drawn significant attention to the island nation in recent months.

The current constitutional rewrite, officially led by Cuba’s National Assembly since June 2018, is widely viewed as the communist nation’s most significant political change since the creation of its 1976 national charter.

Cuba’s new constitution has the basic aim of giving a legal basis to the island’s economic and social liberalisation. The reforms are long-awaited and, on the surface, signal a strong commitment to modernising public policy, adding to the incremental efforts to open up Cuba’s economy set in motion by former president Raúl Castro.

Cubans have had some involvement in the process of reforming their country’s supreme law. In August 2018, the government launched a public consultation to gather feedback on the new text, already analysed and approved by the National Assembly. Following the consultation, citizens will vote on the changes in a referendum scheduled for February 2019.

But closer examination of the constitutional reforms suggests that citizens should not expect a major change to their everyday lives, nor should the international community assume that major opportunities for foreign investment will follow. Key amendments to the 1976 constitution are overshadowed by other aspects of new government policy that largely maintain the status quo.

One example of this is the new constitution’s omission of building communism as an aim of the Cuban state, instead focussing on “socialism”. Despite this, the document keeps the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) as the only legal party permitted to rule the country. Electoral democracy is not in Cuba’s plans for the foreseeable future.

Another contradiction regards reforms aimed at private sector development. With official economic growth at 1.1% in the first half of 2018 and while  its main economic ally, Venezuela, undergoes economic meltdown, Cuba would benefit from private enterprise expansion. To this end, its new constitution will give legal recognition to “the role of the market” and private economic activity.

This may seem like a bold move towards liberalisation, but the reality is that self-employed workers had already soared in numbers before constitutional reform took place. Cubans have opened a wide range of small businesses since Raúl Castro’s initial market reforms in 2010.

The National Assembly is therefore legitimising existing conditions on the ground, rather than encouraging new economic activity. In addition, the “accumulation” of private property by citizens remains a forbidden activity.

Most harmful to private sector expansion are new regulations that impose significant restrictions on business owners’ activities. One such restriction is allowing only one business license per person, rendering multiple-business ownership impossible.

Not only will this limit household incomes; it will also discourage foreign investment. While the restrictions apply to domestic firms, foreign investors are likely to view them negatively as they suggest Cuba’s government continues to be hostile to private enterprise.

International reactions to Cuba’s reforms have been mixed.

Most commentators agree on the observation that Cuba does not aim for market liberalisation mirroring the Chinese or Vietnamese economies. Some exiles and dissidents of the regime have described the new constitution as “a fraud” or a “trap”, arguing it is mostly a strategy to portray Cuba as a modernising state whilst ignoring demands for greater political freedoms. More optimistic analysts have argued that the pace and inconsistency of the reforms is a result of the complexity of the socio-economic issues at stake.

Taking everything into account, Cuba’s reforms have undeniable limitations. Still, they are better than nothing. A change to the rules of the game was inevitable, as much has changed since the current constitution of 1976 came into force. But the contradictions of new government policy, particularly as they concern the economy, suggest that the PCC is fearful of losing its grip on power. A growing business-owning community represents a threat not only to state-owned enterprise, but also to the political establishment.

Probably the most revolutionary of changes to Cuba’s constitution is expected to be the abolition of discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnic origin or disability. But the fate of Cuban entrepreneurs and their livelihoods remains uncertain, if not worrisome. Private sector development has been reigned in just as it gained traction. Incentives for external investors will remain lukewarm so long as the PCC and its leaders fight hard to maintain the supremacy of the centrally-planned economy. Unless Havana loosens its grip, Cuba will struggle to stay afloat.

Adriana holds a Bachelor’s in Social Policy and Government from the London School of Economics and has worked in financial services for a number of years. At University, her studies focused on international welfare state analysis, international development and economics. She is fluent in Spanish and proficient in French.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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