Interview with the President of the National Assembly of the People’s Power Commission on Constitutional and Judicial Affairs Dr. José Luis Toledo Santander
Numerous international media outlets are currently describing the future of Cuba as unknown, given the upcoming 2017-2018 general elections. While many people, both within and outside of the country, have doubts, questions, and apprehensions about the Cuban electoral system
Participation and representation are key pillars supporting the right to vote, the conscious exercise of nominating and electing those with the best qualifications and values.
Today Razones de Cuba (Cuba’s Reasons) addresses this issue in an interview with the President of the National Assembly of People’s Power Commission on Constitutional and Judicial Affairs, also a tenured professor at the University of Havana, Dr. José Luis Toledo Santander. In this first approach, basically historical, the institutional foundation of the Cuban state is explained.
What are the basic elements of the Cuban state’s organizational/institutional system?
The first element that characterizes the system of institutional organization is that it is a very young institutional organization, in operation for only 41 years. If it is compared with any other system anywhere in the world, it is very new, put into place in 1976. In addition to being a very young system, it has no references anywhere in the world; ours is a sui generis system. We, the nation and the Cuban people, have created it in a sovereign act on our own. This implies that we learn from our correct decisions and from our errors.
Another element that distinguishes us is the principle of unity. Not the unity viewed as a slogan or a mobilizing element, but unity as a substantive, essential element to maintain our independence and sovereignty.
Another principle is its conformation based on bodies associated in the exercise of power. We do not have stand-alone bodies, all are collegial bodies, and the essential, fundamental elements of decision making within the state’s organization are based on what is decided by the Council of State, on what is decided by the National Assembly of People’s Power, or what is decided by the Council of Ministers, which are the associated bodies of (state) power.
Another element which distinguishes us is the existence of a single party, which has a series of unique characteristics – a party that is not electoral, that does not nominate electoral candidates, but is the state’s and society’s leadership body.
What is the foundation upon which the institutional organization of the Cuban state is based?
The history of the nation. The principle of unity is going to define the entire process: unity for Cubans is a strategic survival element. Every time we Cubans have been divided, the nation has lost its most valuable interests.
Thus, the expression of our unity is going to be our party. Our party is going to be the foundation, the base that is going to establish the unity of Cubans in the struggle. That is why it is said, with good reason, that it is the party of all Cubans, even those who are not members. And it is the party which has as its forerunner the one founded by Martí, amidst the struggle for unity.
We Cubans learned from this, so that in 1959, when the Revolution triumphed, the first thing done by the government of that era, to carry out the Moncada program, was to resurrect the Constitution of 1940, which Batista had trampled with the coup d’etat of March 10.
A series of changes to this 1940 Constitution were needed, because there was no legislative body to take charge of implementing laws, to put them into practice.
So it was established that the existing expanded council of ministers would assume an executive-administrative role and the legislative role. A new norm was created, taking as its foundation the postulates of the 1940 Constitution, which was called the Fundamental Law, and remained in effect from February of 1959 until February of 1976.
Why did so many years transpire before the establishment of a new constitution?
These were times during which the Revolution was obliged to focus on consolidating power. I will quickly cite: Girón (the Bay of Pigs), Operation Mongoose, the struggle against bandits in mountainous areas, etc. These were times to defend ourselves from enemies and to strengthen revolutionary power, and this explains a bit the provisional period of the Cuban state.
When the state reached the 1970s and the Revolution was consolidated, this is when a period was initiated that was called the Cuban state’s institutionalization period, and the first thing done was the creation of a joint party-government commission, advised by a group of the country’s recognized jurists, which took on the task of drafting a constitution for the Republic.
This draft constitution was subjected to a broad process of popular consultation. It was a process in which the entire Cuban people participated. Therefore, unlike other countries which establish a constituent assembly to create a constitution, in our case, the entire people were the constituent assembly. All of the people had the opportunity to hold the proposed draft constitution in their hands, to study it, to express their opinions about it.
And these are elements that not only strengthen the democratic nature of the 1976 Constitution – which is in effect today – but also make it more democratically advanced than the Constitution of 1940.
In your opinion, what elements distinguish the 1976 Constitution from that of 1940?
I recognize that from the normative point of view, the Constitution of 1940 is a great constitution, and in its time, precisely because of the revolutionaries’ struggle, reflected the people’s main concerns and hopes.
But from the point of view of democracy, considering the drafting of the constitutional text, the 1976 one was more democratic than that of 1940, because in 1940, it was done by representatives in a constituent assembly, who were, moreover, proposed by political parties of the era.
These constituent representatives, therefore, responded to specific interests of a political nature, and this Constituent Assembly, held precisely in the Capitolio’s chamber of representatives, was the only body to have access to the proposed draft, to discuss it, offer opinions, and approve it.
At no moment were the people consulted, although all the debates were broadcast over the radio, but the people had no decision-making authority in the Constitution of 1940. But that of 1976 was submitted to popular consultation. More than 70,000 opinions were collected from the entire population and this led to the modification of almost 60 articles in the draft.
And then later, this new version of the draft constitution was submitted to a popular referendum. That is to say, all Cubans, eligible to exercise the vote, went to the polls and via a free, secret, direct vote recorded their position on the constitution. Some 98% of the electorate went to the polls, and of these, 97.7% approved the constitution. On February 24, 1976, compañero Raúl proclaimed the Constitution of the Republic in effect.