Cuban legislators approve draft of new constitution

The draft, which includes changes proposed by citizens, is expected to go to a referendum on February 24.

    A general view of a session of the National Assembly in Havana, [Stringer/Reuters]
    A general view of a session of the National Assembly in Havana, [Stringer/Reuters]

    Cuba's National Assembly on Saturday approved an update of the country's constitution, the final step before a national referendum expected to approve the new charter in February.

    The draft new constitution, which has 229 articles and will replace a Cold War-era one, will maintain the Communist Party as the country's guiding force and the state's dominance of the economy, according to state-run media. A copy has yet to be distributed to the public.

    The document, however, also legitimises private business - which has blossomed over the past decade -  acknowledges the importance of foreign investment and opens the door to gay marriage.

    It imposes age and term limits on the presidency, after late revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his younger brother Raul Castro ruled the country for nearly six decades, and introduces the role of a prime minister, as well as provincial governors.

    The current draft incorporates into an original one published in July hundreds of mainly small changes proposed by citizens during a three-month public consultation at community meetings nationwide. It will go to a referendum on February 24.

    "This process is a genuine and exceptional demonstration of the practice of power by the people and therefore of the markedly participative and democratic nature of our political system," President Miguel Diaz-Canel told the national assembly in a speech closing its week-long, twice-yearly session.

    The 58-year-old took office from his mentor Raul Castro in April although the latter remains head of the Communist Party until 2021.

    Same-sex marriage clause dropped

    One controversial revision is the elimination of an article that recognised matrimony as the union of two persons as opposed to the union between a man and a woman as in the 1976 constitution. 

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    That article was the one that sparked the most controversy in a society that has made great strides in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in recent years but remains conservative on the topic.

    The new draft removes the definition of marriage altogether, thus still opening the door to same-sex unions albeit not giving it the same symbolic level of backing.

    The government has said instead it will update the family code and put it to a referendum in the next two years.

    Speaking on the island's economic challenges, which includes a weak 1.2 percent 2018 growth rate and similar growth expected next year, Diaz-Canel said Cuba needs to accept private business, joint public-private ventures and coops working together. He promised to fight the widespread public-sector embezzlement and corruption that makes it virtually impossible to get anything done in the country without a series of small bribes.

    "We've called a battle, and we'll wage it, an ethical battle against corruption, illegality ... and social indiscipline," he said.

    SOURCE: News agencies