Cuba’s 1940 Constitution

By Repatriado

Uva de Aragon

HAVANA TIMES — Uva de Aragon is a renowned intellectual who lives in the US. She is the adopted daughter of Carlos Marquez Sterling, the President of the 1940 Constituent Assembly and leader of the non-violent opposition movement against Batista’s dictatorship. This Cuban woman who breathes sensitivity and love for an island which she belongs to in body and soul, which neither distance or time have been able to separate her from, is a first-hand witness and well-learned scholar of the Cuban Republic.

HT: What is the 1940 Constitution’s greatest merit and flaw?

Uva de Aragon: The Constitution’s greatest merit lies in it being a very progressive text socially-speaking, which defended workers’ rights. For example, it guaranteed three months paid maternity leave, a month of holidays and a bonus month, that’s to say workers would labor 11 months and earn 13 months’ worth of wages.  A certain percentage of the national budget had been allocated to education.

There were other important aspects too, such as protection for women and children, and private property was recognized as were limitations on foreigners buying land. However, it’s greatest flaw was that it was more of a list of objectives rather than a realistic program for a very young republic, and essential complementary laws weren’t always passed, or their requirements weren’t followed accurately.

HT: How was this Constitution possible amidst the violence that characterized that moment in our political history?

Uva de Aragon: After the 1933 Revolution, there was a desire to collect all of their aspirations together and write a Constitution. Fulgencio Batista wanted elections first and then the Constitution later. Federico Laredo Bru was the one to play an important role in inverting this order. After the Constituent Assembly, Batista was elected President from 1940 to 1944. Contrary to the 1952-1958 period, these years weren’t too bad. In 1944, Batista held honest elections which Ramon Grau San Martin from the Autentico party won.

The negative thing about creating a Constituent Assembly at that time was that it ended up being a kind of storage box where everyone added their programs. The Assembly had a certain amount of time to do their job, so they had to do it very quickly. The end result was that it wasn’t a realistic document for Cuba back then, even though it was a progressive Constitution.

HT: Did the following governments up to 1952 (Batista, Grau, Prio), approve the complementary laws this Constitution needed? Can we view them as an extension of the Constitution or did they rule against it or turn their backs to it in some way?

Uva de Aragon: I wouldn’t say that these three presidents ruled against the Constitution. They respected individual freedoms. Radio programs were a clear example of freedom of the press back then, especially Eduardo Chibas’ broadcasts which were very critical of Autentico party governments. Plus, all three elections (in 1940, 1944 and 1948) were honest. However, it was Congress’ responsibility to pass complementary laws, that is to say, the House of Representatives and the Senate’s job, who are meant to promote laws in a government where powers are separated.

These three governments managed to win majority support in Parliament, so the President’s guidelines or leadership weighed heavily. In reality, Prio was the only one who managed to pass some complementary laws, creating the Supreme Audit Institution and the National Bank, and maybe the Lease and Sharecropping Law, although I’d have to confirm that for you.

Anyway, 12 years in the life of a young Republic is nothing. The Cuban people believed that the road was being paved for the future (in spite of corruption and gangsterism in Autentico party governments), but Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’etat on March 10, 1952 broke the constitutional path. Therefore, Batista faced great opposition, which manifested itself in two ways, a political or electoral movement and the violent or revolutionary movement which prevailed. Ironically, both of them included reinstating the 1940 Constitution in their promises because Batista was constantly putting a stop to its guarantees.

HT: Did the 1940 Constitution have a wide representative basis when it was drafted?

Uva de Aragon: Without a doubt. If I remember correctly, 8 or 9 parties were represented, most of whom were opposition groups, including the Communist party, its legislators making great contributions towards it. Cuba’s old Communists, many of whom were family friends, were really very intelligent members of the bourgeoisie with progressive ideas, not dictatorial at all.

Not only was there wide representation of every level of society, but Cubans followed debates broadcast on radio. People say you would walk down the street and be able to listen to the radio in every home. The Constitution ignited national imagination. That’s why people opposed Batista’s coup so vehemently, because it broke the constitutional path that had been created, as I’ve already explained.

HT: What role did the United States play in this Constitution?

Uva de Aragon: None. Of course, men’s and women’s rights also feature in the US Constitution, but these come from the French Encyclopédistes. They didn’t play any other role apart from sharing this common ground.

HT: The image of an Interfered Republic, pseudo-Republic or Neocolonial Republic which are taught since we are children in Cuban schools doesn’t tie in with your previous answer… How could a Constitution be created without “any” US influence if we were a Neo-Colony? That is to say, were we a lifeless Neo-colony or not? Were we a part of the hemophiliac metaphor of the Yankee vampire drinking from our open veins?

Uva de Aragon: The Cuban Republic was born frustrated by the Platt Amendment, something Cubans back then couldn’t avoid with an occupation army on the island. However, they managed to slowly break down the Yankee’s ambitions for the island. For example, the US wanted three military bases and the Cuban people managed to reduce this to just one.  The US wanted to dominate its trade, but Cuba signed a bilateral trade agreement with Italy in 1907. In 1925, they were able to recover the Isle of Pines (now known as the Isle of Youth) with the Hay-Quesada Treaty. And in 1934, they negotiated the annulment of the Platt Amendment.  

I don’t know if this is a fair comparison, but I see the Platt Amendment and the US embargo (or blockade, like they erroneously call it in Cuba) as the same thing somewhat. Cubans managed to get rid of the former, which was an insult to national sovereignty, in 32 years, while the Revolution hasn’t been able or wanted to lift the US embargo in well over 50 years.

Not everything was perfect during the Republic, but there was definitely a tireless nationalism and enough astuteness to slowly move away from the neighbor to the north’s greedy hands. That doesn’t mean to say that there weren’t profound cultural ties, in sports, music, trade and even lifestyle.

We weren’t a neo-colony or a pseudo-republic. This term is ironic because Cuba depended more on the Soviet Union than it ever did on the US. The Cuban economy crashing after the Soviet Union collapsed is proof of this.

HT: What are the most important differences in contexts when it comes to our constitutional processes?

Uva de Aragon: The 1901 Constituent Assembly had a completely different context. It was drawn up with an occupation army on the island, and even though the Assembly’s discussions were very progressive for that time (it contemplated rights of minorities), it included the Platt Amendment which gave the US a right to meddle in Cuba’s affairs, like it did militarily in 1906 and in other more indirect ways on other occasions. Members of the Constituent Assembly approved it half-heartedly and it left them with a bitter aftertaste but they had no other choice because otherwise the US wouldn’t have left. Plus, they managed to revoke in just 32 years later.

The context of the 1976 Constitution was very different to the 1940 Constitution because, first of all, in 1976, there was only one political party who elected the Assembly. The document dismantled the foundations of a democratic republic in order to establish a socialist government. These foundations are diametrically opposed.

All of the rights that the 1901 and 1940 Constitutions granted its citizens (freedom of speech, religion and assembly), were restricted in 1976 because they were considered to be a threat to the Revolution or State in some way or another. Many guarantees that citizens had before were limited in this way.

HT: During the current constitutional process underway today, which is still being monopolized by the PCC with the highest, living historic figure of the Revolution at its head, will we be able to recover these rights you have just mentioned?

Uva de Aragon: To be honest, I don’t know. I believe it’s going to depend on how much the new government wants to change things. Up until now, I haven’t seen such an inclination. I believe that the Cuban people are realizing more and more every day how their rights have been taken from them, but there still isn’t any strong popular demands for them, like we are seeing in Venezuela or Nicaragua. The day has to come when Cubans understand that they need to turn things around, that citizens shouldn’t be working for the State or under its watchful eye, but the contrary, the State should be working for its citizens, and it is their duty and right to ensure that the State abides with the law and the law is just and written by real representatives of the people. 

People need to build strong institutions and not let themselves be guided by the will of commanders. I always prefer evolutionary processes rather than revolutionary ones. If only this better Cuba can be achieved without violence. I don’t even know if I will live to see it anymore.

HT: What does the Constituent Assembly mean for Cuba’s historic path?

Uva de Aragon: I believe that sometimes a lot of emphasis is made on the Constitution and not enough attention is paid to the meaning of the Constituent Assembly itself, which is one of the most beautiful times in Cuba’s history, in my opinion. It’s the only time that I can remember that Cubans from different movements, without any influence from a foreign power, are debating at this level, have reached agreements and given themselves a Constitution, which if it didn’t manage to fully come to life in the 19 more years of the Republic before the Revolution triumphed, made Cubans more than enough aware of their own aspirations and goals. That is to say, a document that embodies and captures a common dream was created. And that’s what a country is at the end of the day, a project that citizens in a country share.

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