By Dimitri Prieto
One of the subjects I teach at the university is constitutional law. I am a law graduate from the University of Havana, which is why I too hold close to heart many of the concerns of my students.
The subject of constitutional law is usually both interesting and complex for students. This is because it deals with systems of government in various countries. The course is divided into two semesters: first general and comparative constitutional law is taught, and later Cuban constitutional law.
Cubans are a people interested in the law, but the laws of Cuba work differently than those in the US, for example, or in Great Britain or France. Not only is the island’s judicial system distinct, but the concept of legality is perceived differently by its citizens.
Attitudes toward the law vary from seeing it as something distant and very technical to viewing it as either an impediment or a support in each person’s life. Everything depends on the law in question, the person’s social position and that individual’s ideas.
Periodically in Cuba, national debates are held on important legal initiatives, such as the recent discussion of the new Social Security Act. In those instances, however, divergent perspectives are not presented in the press; rather, these are raised only in meetings on the job and –sometimes– in neighborhood assemblies.
There are, of course, always opinions and informal comments exchanged between citizens all over the island. In fact, the “common citizen” becomes more used to talking about legality than reading about it. Notwithstanding, the interest in learning the law is great.
Constitutions have been important landmarks in the history of Cuba. First there were the constitutions that governed the areas liberated by the anti-colonial guerrilla movements in the 19th century and by the Liberation Army itself (the drafts of 1869, 1878, 1895 and 1897); these are marked by the sincere desire and struggle for democracy.
After the push for independence was interrupted by US intervention in 1898, another constitution was approved in 1901, this one modeled on the US one of 1787. Within this new charter was added the infamous Platt Amendment, which constricted Cuban sovereignty. In 1940, an assembly approved yet another constitution that immediately acquired the status of popular legend due to the broad social guarantees it provided.
Later, reactionary coups and revolutionary movements saw the development of there own bodies of law. The socialist constitution of 1976 was approved by the only popular referendum in Cuban history receiving the blessing of the great majority of the island’s citizens.
To give classes of constitutional law means keeping in mind that students will want to express their views about what they lean of that history, yet first they must study the legal codes of the United States, France, Germany, Spain, various Latin American countries, as well as the fundamental laws of Great Britain.
It is often difficult to communicate the complexities of political systems and governments in those countries, which have such features as the multi-party system, votes of confidence, proportional representation, impeachment and ombudsmen — to mention only a few of the more “exotic” examples.
My students pose questions about controversial issues, such as human rights or constitutional control. Some of them only study to pass the exam, but many like the subject, despite its reputation for being difficult. I still have the image of a certain student (today about to graduate) who painstakingly detailed in her exam the characteristics of the French semi-presidential system by the light of a candle (the time of blackouts had still not ended in the country).
When one studies Cuba, one has the advantage of knowing other systems, and there also exists a book compiled by teachers at the University of Havana that broaches controversial issues about current constitutional law in the country.
Likewise, I have had the opportunity to moderate interesting debates about municipal autonomy and decentralization; among the students in one group was the deputy-mayor of my municipality.
In my opinion, the idea that the law and the constitution are important elements for the life of a country is very important capital for any nation. The best investment would be to take it beyond the university classrooms, converting discussion around the laws we make for ourselves into ongoing social practice. This would serve to make the constitution a truly creative product and a patrimony of the entire nation