By Irina Echarry
HAVANA TIMES – “Tell me, what’s the discussion here?” a young man was shouting and gesturing, while catching the attention of people on the corner of Zanja and Galiano streets. It looked like things were going to get ugly from the tone of his voice, when someone else suddenly responded: “I’m just saying what people are saying out on the street, what they are discussing.”
The man raised his voice again: “Asere, but don’t you realize that this is all a lie? Are you stupid or what? Everything’s already been thought out, man. They aren’t going to change anything. Your opinion is worth the same as shit.” That’s when I discovered that it wasn’t a street brawl, it was an opinion, one of the many discussions about Cuba’s draft Constitution have recently provoked.
There’s no denying the impact these assemblies have had on ordinary Cubans. Some people are more involved than others, some are more thoughtful, many are awestruck, but the majority aren’t only giving their opinions at meetings, they are out on the street speaking their minds, in lines, at bus stops, in collective taxis, hospitals, stores, etc.
Their opinions aren’t as profound as the ones that have been doing the rounds on the Internet over these past three months, they aren’t expert opinions, but they do help us to gauge how these assemblies have played out and what the Cuban people’s concerns are.
Patty is a student at the Varona Teaching University and she was surprised to find herself with this opportunity at 23 years old. Contrary to what many people believe, she says that many young people at her school had proposals and concerns about the new Carta Magna. Patty didn’t contribute to the debate because she doesn’t believe it will help and do anything. She says that professors in the assembly “were hellbent on getting out of there.”
Seeing that so many students were asking to take the floor, they threatened to lock them up at the school when the transport that takes students home came: “Ah, you want to speak? You’ll have time, they told us. They were discouraging and hurrying us up the entire time. At the beginning of the assembly, they told us that the pair of party representatives were ready to answer our queries, but every time somebody was going to speak, they asked the same question as if they were robots: what are you going to do? add something or take something out? If you said that you wanted to ask a question, they pulled funny faces and made a note on a piece of paper, but nobody explained anything. So, many of us left the meeting just as we had gone into it.”
Waiting for the bus to get to work, ICU nurse Maikel, who doesn’t normally take part in meetings, says that he didn’t miss “the draft Constitution assembly”, he believes that it was an opportunity to raise your voice for “the most vulnerable in our country: animals.”
After he explained that “there wasn’t a debate” in his neighborhood “just a few people came prepared and almost nobody brought along a printed copy of the draft Constitution, so you can imagine how few proposals there were. My proposal was that Article 86 consider animals as beings that feel and should be treated in an ethical and humane way. This would pave the road to legislation for their protection in the future and punishing those who abuse them.
“Abuse isn’t only beating them, there is also abandonment, or leaving them on a roof terrace without water, under the scorching sun; or training them up to fight; or hunting them to put them in cages, etc. Nothing can be done to the people who sell animals as pets or for sacrifice, but this also needs to be criminalized, but it’s a complicated issue for the State to get involved in because of the law on worship; it isn’t in their interests.”
Blanquita’s retirement pension cheque did increase a little this month, but it still isn’t enough to cover her basic needs, that’s why she works as a secretary at a primary school. “I didn’t say anything. What for? Many teachers did say things about low wages and about food and security at schools. It doesn’t happen at my school, but other schools let children go home with anyone, and that leads to many things.
“The librarian asked why her son doesn’t have the right to return to Cuba, he ended up stranded in Venezuela four years ago because he had financial problems, not political problems, he shouldn’t be labeled a traitor and his family be forced to suffer.
“However, the funniest contribution came from a cleaning person, she asked that the president be like Fidel, who only left power when his illness stopped him from fulfilling his presidential duties. And she also said that Raul should come back into power because she thinks that while Diaz-Canel isn’t a bad president, he doesn’t have the surname that will make the people follow him like they did the Castros. You had to see the look on people’s faces, everyone was looking at each other and whispering: what’s going on with Cuqui? Although the majority did the same as me, keep their mouths shut.”
On social media, people are talking about the fact that UNEAC didn’t hold an assembly with artists to debate the new Constitution. Gisela, a journalist at a state organization, said that UPEC, their association, didn’t call journalists together either. Meetings were only called for by neighborhood representatives and by the CTC (Workers Confederation locals) at workplaces.
Remembering her proposals, Gisela explains: “I think that there are parts of the draft Constitution that need to be written better and others need explaining in more detail, so that there isn’t room for confusion or misinterpretations. For example, when it talks about individual rights and that the State protects women from any kind of violence, I suggest that it specify the different forms of violence: physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, symbolic, etc. Because when you turn up at a police station, they always ask: but did he hit you?
The other point is when it mentions that a person can only be put away by the competent authority; I suggest that this be added: “and for a crime committed”. What am I talking about? Well, for example, there are girls who are locked up in detention centers for prostitution. This is an injustice because prostitution isn’t a crime in Cuba, so they shouldn’t be held prisoner.”
Opinions vary according to people’s age and interests. Kevin, 22 years old, thinks that “they should get rid of the obligatory Military Service, that they leave it for the people who like this extremely strict lifestyle, that’s not for me. It’s a big pause in your life, it takes time away from your studies which you will never get back. Here, everything should be geared towards people studying quickly so they can later contribute to the country, or begin to work in whatever it is they can, if they don’t want to go into further education. I don’t believe that these meetings have positive results, I don’t know. Who can assure us that they are going to keep in mind what people say?”
On the contrary, 80-year-old Jorge idealizes the discussion process and believes that it will bring about good results, as if it were a question of magic. “They are already taking note: they have increased pension cheques for those who were receiving the minimum, they are selling crutches at stores for an affordable price for the majority. Its because they realized a while ago that the country’s population is aging, but the truth is that we old people don’t have a good life, they need to do something about that.
They are selling root vegetables cheaper at state-run agro-markets: plantains, malanga, pumpkin; it’s a few extra pennies you save. Now, they need to sort out medicines which is a nightmare. Ah, and transport. And well, everything needs to improve, and it will slowly.”
An afternoon walking along Central Havana’s streets, after an assembly, gives us an idea about the variety of opinions that range from hope and despair, optimism and indifference. The vast majority seems to be removed from the process, immersed in day-to-day living and unconcerned, but a part of society has been keeping themselves informed, even though they think “it’s just for their own amusement”.
In the face of such mistrust, we ask: what will happen on February 24th when the referendum on the Constitution is held? Unfortunately, the answer is the same as always: nothing. The fact that nobody I spoke to questioned Article 5 is telling, which contrasts to what people are writing on the Internet because many have given their opinions about it online. It would seem that ordinary, off-line Cubans have it ingrained in them that the Communist Party, as this article states, is above everything else.