MORE THAN 86 percent of the votes cast Sunday favored approval of Cuba’s new constitution, which barely tweaks the system of single-party rule established by Fidel Castro six decades ago. But far more telling was the surprising share of eligible voters who cast “no” ballots or stayed home. In the last constitutional vote in 1976, when Castro had established a totalitarian state, 99.02 percent voted yes. What’s notable in Cuba is not the lame maneuverings of the Communist Party but the unmistakable signs that hundreds of thousands of people have lost their fear of the authorities and lost their patience with a decaying economic and political system.
The new constitution is the handiwork of the authoritarian clique that stumbles on after Castro’s death. The key decisions were made by a commission appointed by former president Raúl Castro, who still leads the Communist Party, and has amendments by the rubber-stamp parliament. Genuine political competition — the essence of democracy — was absent. The state-run news media ignored those who would advocate a “no” vote, and in the final day, nervous about the outcome, the authorites blacked out the digital newspaper 14ymedio, run by the dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, who had openly called for a “no” vote on social media. José Daniel Ferrer García, a tough-minded activist and regime opponent, was detained after sitting in a park in Santiago de Cuba with a hand-lettered sign that proclaimed, “No.”
The new constitution is hardly earth-shattering. It recognizes private property for a “complementary role in the economy,” but continues to enshrine a “socialist economic system based on ownership by all people of the fundamental means of production as the primary form of property as well as the planned direction of the economy.” For most Cubans, this reality is a dystopia reminiscent of the Soviet Union, with shortages of eggs, butter and other basics.
In the 1976 document, marriage was defined as between a man and a woman. Hopes were raised earlier in the drafting process that the new constitution would recognize gay marriage, but the provision was yanked after church leaders voiced opposition — a placeholder was added instead, praising the institution of marriage.
The new constitution does not allow any oxygen into the closed political system, saying the party is the “superior driving force of the society and the State.” But something else is happening on the ground. Two decades ago, the Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Payá mobilized thousands of Cubans for the principles of democracy with the Varela Project, a citizen petition drive. Payá, who was killed in a suspicious car wreck in 2012, sought support for the Varela Project by urging Cubans not to be afraid. The recent vote is a sign that some part of society — small, but growing into hundreds of thousands, increasingly restive, connected and expressive — are no longer afraid. This is a sign of a real hunger for change.