In Cuba, Church Leaders Report Communist Intimidation Ahead of Vote on New Constitution

Patrick Goodenough | February 20, 2019 | 4:19am EST
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Cubans abroad vote at an embassy ahead of Sunday's referendum on a new constitution. (Photo: Cuba Foreign Ministry)

( – Cuba’s communist regime is urging citizens to turn out in large numbers on Sunday to vote in favor of a new constitution, which religious advocates warn significantly weakens freedom of religion and conscience protections.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) are among those warning against intimidatory tactics directed at religious leaders.

According to CSW, religious leaders across the island have reported being summoned to meetings at which Cuban Communist Party (CCP) officials have sought assurances that congregations will be voting in favor of the new constitution.

CSW said that at one such meeting, in Santiago region last Tuesday, top party officials were quoted as having told the summoned church leaders “that the enemy was trying to destroy the Revolution, that a unanimous ‘yes’ vote was needed and that they would do everything in their power to ensure that things went well.”

“The CCP officials then asked the leaders directly how they and their members planned to vote.”

The advocacy group said the meetings came after leading Protestant denominations and the Catholic bishops’ conference publicly criticized aspects of the draft constitution.

CSW chief executive Mervyn Thomas said that during a process of public consultation on the draft constitution – which was held over four months last year – the concerns of religious groups had been largely ignored, “including those regarding weakened language on freedom of religion or belief and freedom of conscience.”

“Church leaders have exercised their right to share their views on the content of the new constitution, and have publicly stated that they will not tell their members how to vote,” Thomas said.

“CSW calls on the Cuban government to cease its efforts to pressure and intimidate religious leaders in an attempt to force a ‘yes’ vote, and to allow all Cubans to vote with their conscience on Feb. 24.”

The referendum follows a vote by Cuba’s parliament last December in support of the constitution – known in Cuba as the Magna Carta – which will replace the one instituted in 1976.

Some eight million people will be eligible to vote on Sunday, and more than 50 percent of registered voters are required to vote “yes” for the new constitution to enter into force.

Cuban advocates for voting 'yes' and 'no' have been active on social media. (Images: Twitter)

State institutions are strongly promoting a “yes” vote – under the slogan “YoVotoSi” (“I vote yes”) – and official media organs like Granma, the mouthpiece of the CCP’s central committee, are presenting success as a virtual fait accompli.

Parliamentary speaker Esteban Lazo was quoted as saying the new document “embodies Fidel´s concept of Revolution,” in reference to former dictator Fidel Castro, who died in 2016 aged 90.

Teresa Amarelle, head of the Federation of Cuban Women and CCP central bureau member called the vote “a momentous moment where the people will go to the polls and support the new Magna Carta.”

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said on Twitter, “Let’s ratify at the polls and with the Yes our commitment to the Revolution and to the present and future of this heroic island.”

Also on Twitter, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said that within a short period of time, “we will have approved the Constitution we have made together for the good of all. Cuba will be a better country, more in sync with its time.”

Still, dissenting voices argue that passage is not a given, since many Cubans may vote “no” for numerous reasons, others may spoil or leave blank their ballots in a show of protest, and still others may not bother to participate in the exercise.

Reinaldo Escobar, the editor of 14ymedio, a digital news outlet, explained in an article this week that the “yes” camp will “only triumph if it exceeds the combined number of those who opt for No, blank ballots, annulments, or abstentions.”

Those supporting “no” will be motivated by a range of reasons including unhappiness about religious freedom limitations, concern among evangelicals that the new text leaves the door open to same-sex marriage in the future, opposition to the institutionalization of the one-party socialist system – to more prosaic reasons such as housing or wage grievances.

“Although the champions of No would not win independently, those who propose abstention, annulers, and undecideds could celebrate together the defeat, unimaginable for many, of Yes,” Escobar wrote.

“It goes without saying that the government has a wide margin to manipulate the results. However, they could not get rid of the fact that they remain in power supported by a minority.”

(The official result of the referendum that approved Cuba’s 1976 constitution was 97.7 percent in favor.)

Last December the USCIRF, an independent statutory body that advises the executive and legislative branches, raised concerns about the upcoming referendum

“The integrity of this historic process is in serious question if religious leaders are being ignored, then pressured to publicly support a new constitution that fails to protect their rights,” USCIRF vice chair Kristina Arriaga said at the time.

“We urge the Cuban government to immediately cease all intimidation tactics and to fully consider the proposals put forth by religious organizations to ensure freedom of religion and conscience for Cubans of all faiths or none.”

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