Since the 1993 reforms, civil society has slowly emerged in Cuba. Since then, the Cuban government also started allowing private sector businesses, such as restaurants and tourist agencies, to coexist alongside state run businesses. Because of this, the Cuban people are relying less on the government and more on community and foreign capital, including the likes of AirBnB, casas particulares, and inflated taxi and tour guide rates. This is a huge departure from the typical, post-Cold War United States perspective which still sees Cuba a communist, scary country. But while the world focuses on US-Cuban relations, it is missing what is happening within Cuba. Namely, the modern evolution of Cuban politics and civil society. Civil society groups, such as progressive youth and the Evangelical Church, have made strides in influencing Cuban law.
In April 2018, the Cuban National Assembly began reviewing and writing a new constitution for the first time since the 1990s. Requests by the LGBT+ community followed, pushing for the legalization of gay marriage to be introduced in the new constitution.
Cuban youths represent a new, progressive wave of LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) advocates working towards legalizing gay marriage in Cuba. With the introduction of 3G data and wifi hotspots, LGBT+ rights advocates have been able to come together in a civil society-like manner on social media to convey their opinions. Their leader? Mariela Castro. Mariela Castro is a long time LGBT+ advocate, director of the National Center for Sexual Education, and daughter of Raul Castro, and her role in the government as well as her name gives her influence within Cuba. The combination of Cuban youths and Mariela Castro in the movement for gay marriage in Cuba was successful for a time. There was overwhelming support within the government that the legalization of gay marriage be included in the new constitution, even from the Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. While advocates have been limited by the government, their efforts still substantially influenced the government’s position on the updated constitution. Cuban youths as a civil society group evolved and built up a lot of power through this process. In contrast to Cuban youths’ efforts, the Evangelical Church began pushing that gay marriage should not be legalized in the constitution.
The Evangelical Church today makes up about 10% of the Cuban population. While some say now “there is religious freedom in Cuba”, religious freedom certainly did not have a place in the Communist Cuba of the 1960s and ‘70s. In those decades, the main sector of the Evangelical Church suffered “severe persecution”, including confiscation of church property, threats of confiscation of land used for church services, being declared illegal, close surveillance and interrogation of religious leaders, arbitrary detention, prevention from attending religious services, and demolition of church property. Fast forward to 2018, and the Evangelical Church is exerting its power unexpectedly with its push against the legalization of gay marriage.
In June of 2018, the Evangelical Church released a statement stating that “marriage is between a man and a woman” with supporting Biblical verses. The following October, they delivered 178,000 signatures to the National Assembly. With the Evangelical Church’s power in numbers, LGBT+ advocate voices were lost. The Evangelical Church made such an impact that, after a national referendum siding with anti-LGBT+ sentiments, the National Assembly changed the new constitution so that the language no longer legalized gay marriage; instead, it left room for future proceedings on the issue. With its seemingly blossoming power, the Evangelical Church demonstrates a clear evolution of civil society in Cuba. The Church went being persecuted and eliminated by the Cuban communist state to becoming a non-governmental civil society organization with real influential power on state policy.
As the Cuban government continues transitioning from the Castro regime to their new leaders, civil society is evolving and growing. Through youth power using social media, progressive leaders such as Mariela Castro changing the political scene, and the Evangelical Church centralizing its religious base in Cuba to create change in Cuban law, there is a clear power shift. No longer are citizens relying on the government to act on their behalf without their voices being heard. Citizens are coming together and petitioning the government, advocating for their causes, and wanting a say. Where this evolution in civil society will take Cuba is hard to say, but the country presents a view of itself far from the “scary, communist” nation I grew up being told it was. In fact, it’s starting to sound a bit like the United States these days.