By Erasmo Calzadilla
This diary post is in response to a comment from Marce Cameron on Respect for Constitutional Order.
In the first few days of the coup d’état against Zelaya, I heard the word “constitution” bandied about in the media more times than I had ever in my life. Prompted by this, I wrote a few words about how unusual this was for the Cuban people; perhaps the situation is similar with Australians, I don’t know.
I noted in my commentary that Cuba had gone without a constitution for many years after the revolutionary victory, and that even today the notion of a constitution is something strange in this country.
As a result of this account, a few days later, reader Marce Cameron affirmed on this website – in fairly strong language – that my statements were untrue, because from 1959 (the year Batista fled) up to 1976 (when the new constitution began to operate), the Constitution of 1940 was in force.
Let me clarify one point, because partly I agree with what Marce Cameron says, but only partly. On paper the Constitution of 1940 continued operative, but in concrete terms I don’t find that this was quite the truth.
The Constitution of 1940 was what is referred to in communist vernacular as a “bourgeois constitution,” which implies that it served to protect private property, multi-party democracy, freedom of the press, the right to assembly, the right to worship, and – among other many entitlements – the protection of individual rights, independent of one’s political affiliation or membership, and other individual preferences.
Marce Cameron and other readers probably imagine that in those so very convulsive years, with or without good reason (I won’t discuss that here), those rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution of 1940 were not respected.
Keep in mind though that when 1976 arrived, the year in which the current constitution entered in vigor, there were no longer opposition political parties in Cuba, hardly any private property, not even the very smallest; and there were numerous prisoners of conscience.
On the individual plane, if you were not expressly “pro-revolutionary,” if you practiced some religion or your sexual attitude or morals were not in agreement with communist standards, you could lose the right to study at the university, to advance yourself, to work in an even halfway decent place – occurrences that the Constitution of 1940 should have prevented.
When the very essence of a constitution is being attacked so systematically, with or without laws issued by decree, we cannot say that it remains in vigor, although that is affirmed in some history books.
That was why – perhaps without sufficiently explanation – I stated that we didn’t have a constitution until the current one appeared, 17 years later.
The other point on which Marce Cameron differed with me seems to refer to people’s knowledge about the Constitution; I asserted that few people know about it and even less use it. Cameron, on the other hand, recalled that the current Constitution was discussed and endorsed by the people before it was put in vigor.
I agree that it was approved by the immense majority, which surpassed 90 percent of the population according to official data, but now I must begin my “howevers.”
I’m not going to go into what happened more or less at the time when I was only a year old and wasn’t yet interested in political issues, but I don’t know if that was really a referendum or a mockery.
A good bit of doubt arises in my mind when considering that only five years later (when the Mariel port opened allowing those so desiring to go to the US, which seemed more like a stampede) the exodus reached the point that it was necessary to hastily halt this flow that showed no signs subsiding on its own.
Who were the people involved in that mass departure? Could it be that they were among the ten percent who didn’t support the constitution, or perhaps were many among them people who voted yes but privately didn’t support the new constitution or didn’t care about it?
Alternately, it could it be that those first five years under the revolutionary constitution were enough to discourage so many? I don’t have an answer.
I found myself surprised this past July 31 when I read – in nothing more or less than the Granma newspaper itself (“the Official Organ of the Communist Party of Cuba”) – an article by Felix Lopez that in some way supports my argument on the issue of the constitution.
In that article the columnist discusses a survey he carried out with 15 of his colleagues, professionals in most cases, who were asked if they had ever read the Constitution.
Of these, only three responded in the affirmative, which is a very low figure, and one that you might suppose could be multiplied among non-professionals. Moreover, the other twelve responded with questions like, “How do I get it?” “Where do they teach it?” “Is it a public document?”
Subsequently – on August 7, in another edition of our very own Granma, within a section in which readers comment – F. Perez Silva affirmed, “The number of people who aren’t familiar with our constitution is incredible; what’s worse is that they don’t know how to get a copy of it… I consider that this contributes to the violation of the same rights they endorsed in the referendum…”
Thus, even Granma agrees that the Constitution is not very well known or circulated, which is what I defended in my initial argument.