Nationwide Dialogue to Redefine “Family” Shows Strength of Working-Class Democracy
By Duane Stilwell
On September 25, at 24,000 polling stations across the Caribbean nation, Cuban citizens voted on a new “Families Code,” replacing existing statutes that regulate family relationships. The old code — in place since 1975 — has been rendered obsolete by new family structures and the deep social changes that have occurred in Cuba in the ensuing decades.
Ratification of the new code is a truly revolutionary achievement. The process of its passage also showed the strength of working-class democracy in Cuba.
The referendum was the culmination of years of activism, discussion, and an evolving consensus across the country that ultimately broadened the concept of what the Cuban family looks like today, in its growing diversity.
The Code redefines “family” as an association that may take different forms, but is based on values of love, respect, and solidarity. This represents a further break from the traditional “father family” — a heterosexual couple with children and sometimes elders, in which the father is dominant in both financial and social matters. That was the model in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
With this new definition, the Code legalizes gay marriage and civil unions, as well as the adoption of children by same-sex couples. The new law also strengthens the rights and protections of children and adolescents, further ensures the rights of women, and promotes equality in sharing domestic rights and responsibilities between parents — regardless of sex or gender. It also strengthens the progress that Cuba has made in addressing domestic violence and codifies the rights of the disabled and the elderly within the family.
The National Electoral Council released results showing 74% of the 8.4 million Cubans of voting age participated in the referendum. A decisive majority — nearly 4 million people, or about 67% of those who cast ballots — approved the measure. Alina Balseiro Gutierrez, president of the electoral council, gave details of the results in an appearance on state-run television the day after the vote. A substantial minority of nearly 2 million, or 33% of voters, opposed ratification.
The way the Cuban people effected this change through their mass organizations and government is a sign of the strength of participatory, working-class democracy in the Caribbean nation, a process quite different from the bourgeois democracy prevalent in the capitalist world. Rather than citizens only having the right to cast votes for candidates — all of whom represent the class that owns wealth and controls political power — the Cuban people debated and rewrote the proposal that was initially drafted by their representatives.
Between February and June of this year a thorough, nationwide dialogue unfolded on the initial text of the proposed law. More than 6 million Cuban citizens participated directly in approximately 79,000 meetings. The result was so many new proposals or changes that nearly half of the original text was rewritten. The National Assembly — Cuba’s parliament — approved the final draft before it was submitted to a referendum.
The Catholic church and a growing evangelical movement in Cuba led a concerted and vocal opposition to the new Families Code. Days before the vote, to cite just one example, Father Kenny Fernández Delgado posted on his Facebook page: “I do not believe in gender ideology. I do not accept the progressive autonomy of minors, I do not accept that people of the same sex can be allowed to adopt a minor, I do not believe in solidary gestation [surrogacy] and I also do not believe in marriage equality. I believe in marriage between a man and a woman.”
That such religious leaders and others were able to promote their conservative views on social media and beyond is testimony to the democracy of the process. And this campaign against ratification of the new code played a role in the size of the “no” vote.
The “no” vote, however, owes a great deal to the reality that social consciousness — on the question of the family as well as other issues — remains uneven for many years after a revolution, even as thoroughgoing as the Cuban Revolution.
Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel captured this idea while casting his ballot on the measure on September 25. “Most of our people will vote in favor of the code,” he predicted, “but it still has issues that our society as a whole does not understand.”
It is clear that the discussion within the Cuban population on these different concepts of “family” will be ongoing.
Surrogate pregnancy absent monetary incentives
The new law codifies new rights in many spheres of family life. It is more than 100 pages long and includes nearly 475 articles as well as dozens of ancillary provisions.
In addition to legalizing same-sex marriage, it expands the definition of marriage to include unions of couples who have lived together for more than two years without having wed. It makes it easier for anyone to change their last name.
The Code facilitates surrogate pregnancy by setting a framework for acts of “solidary gestation” that favor “the exercise of the right of every person to form a family and is based on respect for human dignity as the supreme value.”
Article 130 outlines this should only be done “for altruistic reasons and human solidarity; between persons united by family or close affective ties; provided that the health of those involved in the medical procedure is not endangered; and for the benefit of those who want to become mothers or fathers and are prevented from doing so for any medical reason that makes it impossible for them to do so, or when they are single men or a couple constituted by men.”
Emphasizing the altruistic nature of the practice, the code states: “Any type of remuneration, gift or other benefit is prohibited, except the legal obligation to give support for the benefit of the conceived, and to give compensation for those expenses generated by pregnancy and childbirth.”
Expanded rights for the most vulnerable
The Code also details new rights and protections for vulnerable populations, including orphaned children, people with disabilities, and the elderly. It addresses issues of gender violence, adoption, common-law marriage, cohabitation, domestic partnerships, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals who are part of multi-parent and blended families, as well as all the legal and financial ramifications involved.
The new law revokes “patria potestad” — a legal construct that exists throughout Latin America and emphasizes parental rights. The new Cuban Families Code replaces that with “parental responsibility.” Teresa Amarelle Boué, Secretary General of the Federation of the Cuban Women (FMC) and a member of Cuba’s Council of State, noted that this includes parental obligations “to guarantee the well-being and happiness of children,” as well as the rights of children themselves.
Strengthening women’s rights
The Families Code also strengthens the rights of women through a wealth of detail woven into its fabric.
Title 1, Article 4, of the Code states that its provisions are based on the “full equality between women and men, the equitable distribution of time spent on domestic and care work among all family members, without special burdens on any of them, and respect for the right of couples to decide whether they wish to have children as well as their number and the best time to conceive them; preserving, in any case, the right of women to all decisions regarding their own bodies.” It is important to note here that abortion has been legal, safe, and free in Cuba for decades.
The Code further states that its core values are “the full development of sexual and reproductive rights in the family environment, regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, disability, or any other personal circumstance”. This includes “the right to scientific information on sexuality, sexual health and family planning,” underscoring that such information should always be age appropriate.
The new Code also spells out responsibilities and duties between partners. Article 209 states that both partners in any union “are obliged to conduct their relationships free from the use of violence or discrimination in any of its forms.” The Code also states that violence within the family “is the result of hierarchical inequality” and leads to the “destruction of individuals, coexistence and family harmony.” It notes that the main victims of domestic violence are women and others because of their gender, children and adolescents, the elderly and people with disabilities.
It is important to note that — with the help of the FMC — the Cuban government has taken measures in recent years to combat domestic violence. This includes the establishment of centers in 156 municipalities to assist women targeted by such abuse.
‘A better nation’
“Justice has been done,” Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel wrote in a tweet after the vote. “Love is now the law.” He added the new Code “is paying off a debt to several generations of Cuban men and women whose plans for a family have been waiting for this law for years. As of today, we will be a better nation.”
The achievement is all the more noteworthy because it was accomplished in the midst of enormous economic difficulties facing the Cuban people. These arise from Washington’s unrelenting economic war against Cuba over more than six decades, including 243 new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and continued under the Biden administration; the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic; the catastrophic accident at the oil storage facilities in Matanzas province on August 5; and the destructive impact of Hurricane Ian.
In fact, the results of the referendum were announced just as President Díaz-Canel led an emergency meeting to prepare Cuba to confront this latest disaster. Hurricane Ian made landfall in the Caribbean island on September 27, resulting in three deaths throughout the country. It damaged Cuba’s aging power grid and resulted in island-wide outages and widespread devastation, especially in economically important agricultural areas.
The new Families Code registers the cumulative conquests of Cuban society in combating racism, sexism, and all other forms of discrimination since the beginning of the socialist revolution. It is also a testament to the resulting transformation in the consciousness of working people in Cuba.
The Code outlines the historic leadership and educational role played over many years by the Federation of Cuban Women. The FMC has not only championed the rights of women but has also played a vital role in fighting homophobia and machismo, as well as other forms of discrimination.
The Code’s preamble highlights the contributions of Vilma Espín Guillois: “As President of the Federation of Cuban Women [she] dedicated her life, as a true educator, to the commitment to achieve the greatest justice for all people, and to make the highest ideals and purpose of [Cuban independence leader José] Martí a reality, by achieving the human betterment of all in a society without any form of discrimination.” A central leader of the Cuban Revolution, Espín was president of the FMC from its founding until her death in 2007.
Combatting anti-gay prejudice
The new Families Code is a product of Cuba’s history and past struggles in the social sphere.
News coverage of the Code’s passage in the United States and internationally acknowledged some of the positive aspects of the document, but often failed to mention the key role played by ordinary Cuban citizens in fashioning the final law. Many of these articles also went out of their way to cite past errors by the Cuban government, especially anti-gay discrimination.
Mariela Castro Espín — director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and daughter of Vilma Espín and Raúl Castro, Cuba’s former president — addressed these issues far more accurately during a 2012 U.S. speaking tour.
“In all social processes,” Mariela Castro said, “there is always a permanent struggle between progressive ideas and retrograde, dogmatic ideas.” She explained that the prejudice and discrimination against gays that existed in pre-revolutionary Cuba continued after the revolution.
For example, Castro noted, during the 1960s mobilization of the Cuban people to defend themselves against U.S.-inspired counterrevolutionary assaults, all men were called up for military service. However, religious and conscientious objectors, gays, and others sometimes labeled “counterrevolutionaries” were assigned to do agricultural work in Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP).
This was “humiliating and discriminatory” to homosexuals, Castro emphasized. The practice “continued the pattern of homophobia and stigmatizing of gays that prevailed in Cuban society. [The UMAP] lasted only three years and were closed in 1968.”
She noted that during an interview with La Jornada in 2010, Fidel Castro explained and took responsibility for these errors. “Those were moments of great injustice” against homosexuals, he said, and “if anyone is responsible, it’s me… We didn’t understand the importance of this issue [in the face of] systematic sabotage, armed attacks… We had so many problems of life and death… that we failed to give this adequate attention.”
During her 2012 U.S. tour, Mariela Castro noted that while the fight to eliminate barriers to gay and transgender people has often encountered resistance, it continues to advance as prejudices break down.
An important moment in this process was the 1993 release of “Strawberry and Chocolate,” a movie directed by renowned Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío. The movie was pivotal in highlighting anti-gay prejudices and practices in Cuba and sparked a nationwide debate on how to confront them.
All this indicates that a revolution does not eliminate bigotry, racism, or other such prejudices from one day to the next. It simply opens the door to combating them. And the struggle to uproot such prejudices is often arduous and long — requiring consistent revolutionary leadership.
The new Families Code represents a significant achievement in light of this legacy. It is the product of what Cubans often refer to as the “battle of ideas,” a phrase that captures the many facets of the struggle that has taken place in Cuba since the 1959 victory over the Batista dictatorship. It has been a struggle aimed at maintaining a revolutionary course in the face of destabilizing world events, economic challenges, and political setbacks.
The role of mass organizations
Among the mass organizations that have taken the lead on issues addressed by the new Families Code are the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the National Union of Writers and Artists in Cuba (UNEAC), and the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX).
Formed in 1960, the FMC organized Cuban women to participate in all aspects of the revolution. It led the fight for free and accessible abortion services and promoted the creation of childcare centers. This contributed to increasing the percentage of women in the workforce more than fourfold, from 13.5% in 1953 to 55% today. Women now constitute more than 67% of teachers and other personnel in education, 62% of doctors, 64% of those engaged in internationalist missions around the world, and 35% of the self-employed.
Women’s participation in leadership positions at the local and national level of the Cuban state has also increased. By the end of 2021, nearly 52% of the decision-making positions in government were occupied by women. This includes 53% of the members of the National Assembly and 52% of the Council of State.
The Federation of Cuban Women has also fought against homophobia, leading discussions on the issue throughout the island for many years. As part of these efforts, in 1972 the FMC created the National Work Group on Sex Education — a precursor of CENESEX — that promoted a vigorous public debate on issues of sexuality.
Reforms in the late 1970s removed homosexuality as a crime from the Penal Code. Then, in 1979, El hombre y la mujer en la intimidad (Men and Women in Intimacy) by East German sexologist Siegfried Schnabel was published in Cuba. The book explained that homosexuality is not an illness, providing a scientific framework to help combat anti-gay prejudice. It was a bestseller but was also highly controversial.
In 2007, CENESEX and other gay rights advocates established the first annual March Against Homophobia in Havana and other cities on May 17. In 2008, the Cuban health-care system introduced sex-change operations as part of its programs. And in January 2012, the Cuban Communist Party adopted a resolution opposing all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The ‘battle of ideas’ is not over
Much has been made in the mass media, both in the United States and other countries, of the fact that the referendum on the Families Code was approved by “only” two-thirds of those casting ballots.
However, the decisive “yes” vote registers one incontrovertible fact: The Cuban working class, together with its revolutionary leadership — including the trade unions and other mass organizations — continues to make political progress in the face of intense and unrelenting economic and other challenges. And it does so based on democratic and open debate — often difficult and painful — on a range of social issues.
For decades, just 90 miles from the most powerful military and economic force the world has ever known, this small island nation has stood its ground in the face of unyielding economic persecution from its northern neighbor, a factor that has distorted and retarded its development. The Cuban people have not just survived under this pressure; they have taken giant steps forward in creating the foundations of a society built on human solidarity and justice. The Families Code is an exemplary part of that progress.
 The term “patria potestad” comes from the Latin “power of the father.” Under Roman law, the male head of the family held power over his children and alone had legal rights to property, to inheritance, to discipline members of the family, etc. His children had no rights. His wife was subject to “manus,” the corresponding autocratic power of the husband.
Categories: Cuba/Cuba Solidarity