Cubans may have a chance this year to do something they have very rarely done: cast a meaningful vote. The government, which rarely consults its people, says it will allow Cubans to have “a say” in a referendum on whether same-sex couples, a minority, can marry.
The Cuban government has a well-documented history of violating citizens’ rights to vote in free and fair elections and to participate in public affairs. The Communist Party, the only one authorized in the country, has governed since the 1959 revolution without giving citizens the opportunity to vote for the ousting of its leaders, or even to protest against their actions.
But now the authorities are subjecting fundamental rights to a political football between advocates of equality and non-discrimination and their opponents, some of whom mistakenly label their work as “gender ideology”.
Admittedly, the inclusion of marriage equality in the draft Family Code, which has been the subject of “public consultation” since February, is a positive development. It includes a gender-neutral definition of marriage, thereby opening the door to marriage between same-sex couples.
The draft Family Code also strengthens women’s rights in domestic law by strengthening their sexual and reproductive rights and preserving the equitable distribution of domestic work and care. It also expands the rights of children by enshrining, for example, their rights to be heard and to physical integrity, as well as the principle of progressive autonomy, to allow children to participate in decisions affecting them according to their age. and their maturity. The right of same-sex couples to be free from discrimination, however, turns out to be one of the most controversial provisions of the draft code.
The “public consultation” process ended on April 30 and the project will go to a referendum vote later this year. But there are serious reasons to doubt that the plebiscite will fully respect voters’ rights. Given that the administration of Miguel Díaz-Canel controls all branches of power and severely restricts freedom of expression, respecting the will of the people at the ballot box will ultimately rest with the administration.
Equally troubling is the political pageantry of subjecting individual rights, including the right of gay and lesbian couples to freedom from discrimination, to a vote of popularity. In Cuba, it comes after public protests in 2019 against the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples in the proposed new constitution. In response to this outcry, the government withdrew this provision from the bill, approved the same year, and referred the issue of marriage equality to this referendum on the Family Code.
Other countries have tried this. Ireland (which was required by law to hold a referendum to change the constitution) and Australia upheld the rights of same-sex couples when citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equality. Referendums in Bermuda and Taiwan rejected same-sex marriage (Taiwan’s legislature later adopted it).
Referendums can be an important component of democracy and can, in certain circumstances, help break political inertia to uphold rights and promote rights-respecting policies. Yet, ultimately, recognition of the rights of minorities, including LGBT people, should not depend on a vote of popularity. It is an affront to the human dignity of already marginalized people subjected to violence and discrimination, and it could expose their lives and identity to unnecessary and harmful public debate, scrutiny and evaluation.
What would we say if the referendum was about whether a religious minority can practice their religion openly? Or, should an ethnic minority be free from discrimination? This would cause a moral scandal. There should be no difference when the right of same-sex couples to be free from discrimination is at stake.
Worse still, in Cuba, news and government reports suggest the vote could be close, a prospect not helped by the Catholic Church describing the Family Code as attacking “the nature of the family” and constituting “gender ideology”. Evangelical and other churches have also opposed the provisions of the Code on these grounds.
“Gender ideology” is an empty catch-all term usually meant to refer to an ill-defined homosexual and feminist conspiracy to wreak havoc on traditional values. Far-right movements and politicians around the world, including Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Ron Desantis of Florida, have peddled misinformation to popularize the term, using it to attack LGBT, children’s and women’s rights. Yet what they call in Cuba “gender ideology” is actually about gender equality.
Cuba should urgently rectify its poor rights record, including by allowing people to periodically participate in free and fair elections. But this potential referendum is categorically wrong. The will of the people should certainly guide public policies, but not dictate whether well-established international human rights will be respected. Instead of passing on their duty to the electorate, the Cuban authorities should defend these rights themselves, even if the referendum does not do so.