More than just words, ideas, and principles written on a few pieces of paper, even its definition as the Fundamental Law of Our Republic fails to capture the significance of the 137 articles which make up Cuba’s Magna Carta, because to speak of the Constitution is to speak of the State, equality, rights, democracy, social justice, respect for the full dignity of all humans…
Cuba’s parliamentary history was born amidst the clamor of our independence wars, when the island’s insurgent forces met at La Manigua to form a single government, whose first action was to proclaim all men equal.
The first Constitution to be implemented in the country was written during the Guáimaro Assembly in April 1869. The document recognized that all inhabitants of the island were free, a principle that would never be abandoned and would feature just as prominently in the three other constitutions that were to emerge in the 19th century over the course of the country’s independence struggles: The Constitution of Baraguá (1878); Jimaguayú (1895); and La Yaya (1897).
And as difficult as it was to achieve national sovereignty, creating a Constitution that represented the people, that served citizens’ interests and not those of a certain social class or government, was just as arduous. However, this was a feat that could only be achieved through revolutionary struggle, the only way Cuba could secure full independence and create a Republic “with all and for the good of all,” as envisioned by Cuba’s national hero, José Martí.
FREEDOM CUT SHORT
To realize Martí’s ideal, the Cuban people would be obliged to take up arms again and resist the yoke of domination, no longer imposed by the Spanish, but this time by another interventionist nation. On the brink of winning the war, U.S. intervention in 1898 cut short Cuba’s sovereignty.
In 1901, following pressure, political maneuvers, and hostility from the U.S. - threatening to remain in the country - delegates to the Constituent Assembly of Cuba met to write and approve a new Constitution, one which reflected the situation on the island at the time, particularly its relations with the United States.
On June 12 that same year, and despite the gallant, noble protests of true independence fighters such as Juan Gualberto Gómez, Manuel Sanguily, and Bartolomé Masó, to name but a few, it was decided that an appendix would be added to the Magna Carta.
The Platt Amendment, a depressing document that not only reinforced Cuba’s dependence on a foreign power and semi-colonial status, but also put the island at the disposal of its northern neighbor, which was allowed to intervene unilaterally in Cuban affairs whenever it deemed necessary.
Violations of the law, subjugation, and mass repression characterized the island’s governments in the years to come. Dictator Gerardo Machado was a prime example of such when, despite widespread opposition, he proposed that the 1901 Constitution be reformed in order to extend his mandate, a decision that was approved in 1928.
However, it was under the government of President Mendieta in 1934, that the most extensive reforms were made to the Constitution, none of which, however had any significant impact, the majority being designed to provide operational solutions, or facilitate political and electoral manipulation.
Following the revolutionary struggles of the 1930s a new more progressive Constitution was created in 1940. The text was the result of historic processes undertaken since the time of Mella, student-led protests and the revolutionary actions of Antonio Guiteras.
It recognized principles such as workers’ right to strike and to employment, while prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, or color. The new Constitution established the right to free universal education, public healthcare, as well as to suffrage, through a free, direct, and secret vote. However, many of its provisions required implementing legislation in Congress, much of which was never approved. Thus the Constitution of 1940 represented nothing more than a document of unfulfilled expectations and hopes, and was eventually suspended in 1952 when, four months before elections were scheduled to take place on June 1, General Fulgencio Batista, supported by a group of army officers and backed by the U.S., staged a coup; bringing the fragile and defenseless constitutionality to an end.
SOVEREIGNTY RESIDES IN THE PEOPLE
Although the 1940 Constitution signified progress, its previsions never translated into concrete deeds. Doing so would require another course of action, one which arrived in 1959 with the Revolution.
As such, Cuba would write another chapter of its history, full of profound and radical transformations which broke with old ways and gave life to a new society under construction.
This new reality would require an effective, functional, and efficient state apparatus, able to represent the people and make timely decisions.
Just as Fidel Castro would state during the First Party Congress: “The Revolution did not hasten to provide the country definitive state forms. It wasn’t simply a question of covering the basics, but about creating solid, well-planned, and lasting institutions able to respond to the country’s realities.”
However, the Constitution that had been in force until then and subjected to various changes since it was first written in 1940, needed to be urgently replaced by a new one, to reflect the changes that had taken place in the country.
The draft of the new Constitution was put in the hands of citizens. The text was analyzed in thousands of workplaces, educational centers, and military units across the country, as well as by internationalist collaborators serving abroad. Following the popular consultation process the document was reviewed during the First Party Congress; and as a result of various proposals, the prologue and 60 of the 141 articles were modified.
On February 17, 1976, during an extraordinary session of the Council of Ministers, it was announced that the new Constitution had been approved by over five million Cubans (97.7% of those who voted).
Later, the democratic character of the Revolution and citizens’ participation in national affairs was strengthened with the constitution of the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP), on December 2, 1976, the election of the Council of State, its president and vice presidents, and the appointment of the Council of Ministers.
Fifteen years after the system of People’s Power had been established and looking to perfect and strengthen Cuba’s democracy, the postulates of the Constitution were enriched in 1992, through the Constitutional Reform Law which allowed adjustments to be made to the national economy in order to deal with the effect s of the Special Period.
Following a broad process of popular debate which culminated in the Call to the Fourth Party Congress, the Constitution was modified to include the direct election, by citizens, of deputies to the National Assembly and delegates to provincial assemblies of People’s Power, and made ownership of the means of production, and management and control of foreign trade more flexible.
Meanwhile, in 2002, in the wake of hegemonic and provocative remarks by then U.S. President George W. Bush – another example of that country’s continued interference in Cuban affairs – mass mobilizations were held throughout the country expressing support for Cuba’s political system and government.
At the same time a new, unprecedented constitutional reform process was launched, supported by eight million Cubans in a clear demonstration of unity and unwavering commitment to the defense of their full independence and sovereignty.
The updated version of the Constitution, and the one that exists today, clearly expresses the irrevocable socialist character of the country’s revolutionary social and political system, and that relations with other nations will never be negotiated under conditions of hostility or threats by a foreign power.
Work now underway following the recent extraordinary session of the National Assembly, on drafting and approving a new Magna Carta which responds to the needs of contemporary Cuban society, while upholding the fundamental principles of our socio-political system, is set to mark another milestone in the nation’s history.