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Cuba’s National Assembly passed a new draft constitution, to replace its existing Soviet-era constitution via national referendum in a few months. Many changes are in the works, including the recognition of private property and gay marriage. But will it mean real change? We discuss the constitution with Prof. Liz Dore and James Early

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Cuba’s National Assembly unanimously approved a draft for a new Constitution last Sunday. The draft will be debated in public throughout the country, and then submitted to a vote sometime in the coming months. This is the first time that Cuba is completely overhauling its Constitution since the current one went into effect in 1976. The Constitutional draft includes many changes, such as a recognition of private property; substituting the goal of establishing communism with one of establishing socialism; allowing gay marriage; creating age limits and term limits for the president; and giving importance to the role of markets and foreign investment, among many other things.

Now, the exact draft of the coming changes are not yet public, but we can discuss the coming changes that we know of so far with James Early and Elizabeth Dore. James is a former director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and a member of the Real News Network’s board of directors. He has also traveled to Cuba as a guest of the government, and met with people in Cuba. He has a special interest in Afro-Cuban descendants. Welcome, James.

JAMES EARLY: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: Elizabeth is Professor Emeritus of Latin American Studies at the University of Southampton. She has a new book coming out on Cuba published by Verso books called Cuban Lives: What Difference Did the Revolution Make? Welcome, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH DORE: Hello. Very nice to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, both Elizabeth and James have been on another panel talking about Cuba. So if you haven’t seen that, do go and watch that on The Real News Network. Liz, let me start with you. This is a very defining moment for post-Castro’s Cuba, and a defining moment for the new president, Miguel Diaz Canal. The new draft of the Constitution recognizes private property, the rule of markets, and foreign investment. How do you see the proposed changes affecting the type of economy that Cuba will have once the new Constitution is approved?

ELIZABETH DORE: Well, I think it’s actually pretty difficult to tell. It’s difficult to tell how long it will take to implement these changes in terms of foreign investment because of Trump and the tightened U.S. embargo. Investors are fairly wary about committing to Cuba right now. That’s not to say that none of them are but few of them are, but few of them are. Raul Castro began the process of liberalizing the economy step by step, fairly slowly. And so we need to see, and it’s a question of watching, to see how fast things begin to move. And I really think it’s impossible to predict that.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. James, many changes are coming forth now. One is the term limits on the presidency, and on executive independent judiciary, and the presumption of innocence. So many legislative-type things are coming about. First of all, what do you make of these upcoming changes? As I said earlier on, this is a defining moment. And second, items like term limits. You know, how do you think it’s going to be received in general, in terms of upholding democracy in Cuba?

JAMES EARLY: Well, I think what the Cubans are attempting to do is to institutionalize the revolution to another level, and to combat a personalization of the revolution which rose not with intent, but arose around the extraordinary stature of Fidel Castro as a very decisive statecrafter from the middle of the 20th century into the early part of the 21st century. And of course the surname Castro was carried forth by his brother, and therein set a context for speculation and critique, even adoration, notwithstanding the fact that Raul Castro was a much more ordinary personality that I think demonstrated a very meticulous approach to statecraft, and moving away from any personalization, and really making a moving towards a more collective leadership. So I think they’re trying to institutionalize all of those factors.

The economy, of course, is the major issue, which I think are two factors that must be considered. One is that the revolution has not been able to achieve the kind of individual and collective prosperity that is stated in the present Constitution. And second, I think it’s a recognition that a socialist country on a communist trajectory does not exist in a parallel universe outside of the global economy. So they have had to make certain adjustments, certain compromises, that I would call them sort of a strategic tactical compromise, because they are not moving away from state enterprises as the main element in the economy, and the ideology wherein the modes of production belong to the citizenry.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Elizabeth, let me go to you on this. The shift from trying to achieve communism, or the goal being communism for the country, to an emphasis on socialism, what is this transition about, and how do you think it will transpire going forward?

ELIZABETH DORE: Well, I think, actually, the wording between socialism and communism is just that, just wording. Cubans in the past have tended, I know that the word ‘communism’ is in the present Soviet-style, Soviet-modeled Constitution that was drafted in 1976 and passed Cuba then. But most Cubans, whenever I would say something about the communist system here, they’d say no, no, no, we don’t have communism. We’re striving for socialism. That communism is at a much higher level, and we’re not going to achieve that level. So I think it’s a question of realism. And it’s a question of what, as James said, you know, looking at the world today and realizing the very, very difficult situation that Cuba is in. And so to start talking about communism is outside, really, of the realm of possibilities.

SHARMINI PERIES: And James, let me get you to respond to that as well. I mean, obviously it will have some especially social and cultural significance, and do you think that there will be some sort of departure from how Cuba is presented to the world, and how Cuba is defined in terms of its own Constitution, but also to the people?

JAMES EARLY: Well, Esteban Lazo, who is head of the National Assembly, and one of the older members of the Central Committee in his late 70s, has indicated that they want to unburden themselves with the weight of the past. I will speculate that that is a reference to the failure of the Soviet Union, and also Cuba’s own self-critique over the last 15 years or so of Eurocentrism; meaning that while they uphold the principles of Marxism and Leninism in the context of the Jose Marti revolutionary nationalism, they have been self-critical that they too often tried to set down actual models from Eastern Europe into a tropical, multiracial country where the major religion is not Western religions, but a mixture of these African religions with Catholicism.

So I think they’re trying to make a realistic adjustment, a kind of materialist adjustment, if you will, to situate these principles in the context of their actual internal reality, and in the context of global reality of the failure of communism by the leading country, the federation of the time of the Soviet Union. And they are asserting that they will maintain their socialist principles, that the state will control the economy in the interests of the people. And of course, they are also asserting that the Communist Party will remain the sole and leading governance organ in the context of executive and administrative changes they’ve made at the level of president, and now a prime minister which will, who will oversee the Council of Ministers. And it’s unclear whether that prime minister will also oversee the Council of State.

SHARMINI PERIES: Liz, would you like to respond to what James is saying here?

ELIZABETH DORE: Yes. I think the biggest change that we’re going to see, and we have been seeing in Cuba in the last 10 years, is a loss of equality, a loss of egalitarianism. And that was written into the principles of the Communist Party. In 2011, the Communist Party crossed out the word ‘egalitarianism’ from their statement of principles, and substituted it, substituted ‘equal rights and opportunities.’ Those two things are very different things. ‘Egalitarianism’ means that the state is, wants to struggle, or the goal of the state is for everyone to live more or less at the same level and to be more or less equal. As we know from Western social democracies, ‘equal rights and opportunities’ means everyone would have access to schooling and access to health care. But some- we’re talking about a meritocracy. Some people will become much better off, wealthier, and some will be poorer.

And that what’s been happening in Cuba in the last 10 years. And I think that the Constitution, by including six forms of private property, along with the majoritarian state property, is institutionalizing in some way that statement of principles of the Communist Party, that they’re no longer aiming for egalitarianism. It’s not because maybe they wouldn’t like to have egalitarianism, but they don’t think it’s possible with private investment. And they would like to see a growing private sector in the Cuban economy. And so I think that’s the biggest change, and that’s the biggest change we’re seeing in this Constitution.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, my next question is going to be directed to both of you, but let me go to James first. James, the draft Constitution has little so far on the issue of civil society, the rights of civil organizing, resisting the state, and of course the role of social movements, and the right to exist and organize, and bring about demands and protest and so forth. So far from what we have assessed this element is missing. What do you make of that?

JAMES EARLY: I think you put your hands on, actually, the fundamental issue of democracy, and that is the active role of the citizen, protagonismo, as they would say in Latin America; the citizen’s agency to envision the world, and to express, to critique, to praise, and to be a participant in the actual conceptualization and implementation of policies. This is a key issue that I don’t think the Communist Party and the government have fully worked out.

There’s a lot of emphasis coming from Canal, the new president- whom I had the occasion to spend some time with, a couple of hours, a year and a half ago- emphasizing the need to listen to the citizenry, to respond to the citizenry, and to, quote, encourage debate. On the side of a kind of centralism of the most advanced, the Communist Party, and the functionaries and governance to take responsibility. And it has not been calibrated more in an institutionalized way towards the citizen. There is a critique online from a young Cuban socialist patriot whom I’m familiar with, I read on my Facebook page a few days ago, raising the question of why was not the draft that the politicians are looking at not circulated to the public in advance, so that they would be able to compare the original document with the editorial debates going on, rather than to simply receive the summary of what is going on by their political representatives?

So I think there is still an outstanding question of how to center, recalibrate a Communist Party socialist centralism to guarantee the safety and integrity of the country towards a proactive citizenry that is organized, self-organized and engaging with its public servants.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Elizabeth, let’s get you in on this. The democracy of a nation depends very much on freedom of speech and association, right to civil disobedience, and so on. And yet we don’t see that in the draft. And as James just said, if that draft is actually circulated and there’s a consultative process in place, people would actually comment on items like this.

ELIZABETH DORE: I agree. And I agree with James that this is something that is not in the Constitution. And I don’t think it is something that the Cuban political leaders is taking very seriously now. The day before yesterday there was a very small, all demonstrations making demands among for, you know, making demands of the Cuban government are very small. And there was a small demonstration of artists in front of the Capitol building in Havana, because there was a new decree that was just passed that gives the official Writers Association, that is, the state-controlled Writers Association, the state-controlled Film Association, the state-controlled Music Association more power to censor artists.

And so there was a group of artists who had organized a small demonstration. Every one of them was arrested. And even the minister, the ex-Minister of Culture Abel Prieto, very, very, very indirectly- it’s sort of you have to deep look at, you know, what’s going on- what he wrote was about a Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton. But it was clearly that he posted it right now because he’s critical of the fact that there is not more space for people in his area, the area of culture, to have more freedoms. And so the artists, where there’s a lot of artists in Cuba who are demanding more freedoms for their own creativity; also to show their kind of installation art that is demanding more political space. Tania Bruguera is the most famous, who was about to have an exhibition here at the Tate in London. And the Cuban government is not accepting to give those artists more liberties.

I think this is a real issue. And I think it has to be- Cubans are pushing. Cubans on the island are pushing about that, and I think we need to watch that.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. James, let me give you the last word here.

JAMES EARLY: I think there are two considerations here. I think on the one hand there is an earnest drive within the Communist Party and within the government to recalibrate their center towards a more collaborative relationship with the citizenry, and a reflection of the citizens’ interests. I think it’s more than just a philosophical statement.

However, within the Communist Party there will be those who are very, very concerned. I would not use the term hardliners, but I would use the term conservatives, who are very concerned about what has happened throughout Latin America with the overthrow of governments in Paraguay and Brazil, that displacement of two Kirschners in Argentina, the brutal, constant attack on Maduro, and what is going on in Nicaragua with the Ortega government; notwithstanding critiques to be brought in all of those situations. So I think they’re trying to calibrate how to move towards a more people-centered democracy as is in the Constitution while protecting the national integrity.

Because there are those in the U.S. State Department, there are those sitting in Miami, there are right-wing Colombians and Venezuelans sitting in Miami and in Latin America in general who will try to overthrow them. So I think the fact that Abel Prieto, who is a really significant figure, has stepped forward is a reflection of democratic expression that is not to relieve any responsibility on the part of government of fostering that. But it’s not simply an either-or situation. They are trying to maintain their revolution. Raul Castro made it very, very clear when he came in that if the embargo, which has really hindered the development of Cuba, were removed tomorrow, the caution is would the revolution survive because of its own failures and its own errors?

So I think it’s a breath of fresh air that artists are stepping forward, and that Abel Prieto, who has been a stalwart in the Ministry of Culture on the question of race, on the question of gay and lesbian life, and on the question of more expression is stepping forward. And it is a hopeful sign of democracy.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. I thank you very much, James and Elizabeth. Both of you are dynamic together, and looking forward to having you back as this conversation moves forward. Thank you so much.

JAMES EARLY: Thank you.

ELIZABETH DORE: Thank you very much.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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James Early is the director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Prior to his work with the Smithsonian, Mr. Early was a public program officer at the National Endowment for Humanities in Washington, D.C. He was host of Ten Minutes Left, a weekly radio segment of cultural, educational, and political interviews and commentary at Howard University's radio station. He is a former board member of TransAfrica, and a current board member of the U.S.-Cuba Cultural Exchange as well as the Institute for Policy Studies.

Elizabeth Dore is author of the forthcoming book We Are Not the Same Cubans We Were Before, Oral Histories of Life in Cuba (Verso Books). She headed Cuban Voices, the first large oral history project authorized by  the Cuban government since the 1970s. Cuban Voices was under the auspices of the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (CENESEX) in Cuba, directed by Mariela Castro, and the University of Southampton. In Cuba she also worked with the Instituto de Investigaciones Culturales Juan Marinello. Dore presents highlights from her book in the BBC World Service Programme Cuban Voices. She is a frequent guest on the BBC and Sky News. Her recent articles are published in NACLA’s Report on the Americas, Dissent, Nueva Sociedad, the Hispanic American Historical Review, and Oral History. She is Professor Emeritus of Latin American Studies at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.