Cuba votes in referendum on gay marriage

After 79,000 neighborhood meetings, months of discussion, and an outpouring of more than 300,000 suggestions from citizens, Cubans will vote in a referendum Sunday that could redefine family rights — including legalizing same-sex marriage.

The proposed new Family Code would be among the most progressive in Latin America, defying a long tradition of machismo in Cuba. In addition to approving same-sex marriage, it would allow gay couples to adopt, and increase the rights of women, the elderly and children.

Supporters call it a sign of the progress on LGBTQ+ issues under Cuba’s Communist government, which was once so hostile to gay men it sent them to forced labor camps for “reeducation.” Yet leaders of the influential Roman Catholic Church and the island’s growing evangelical movement have expressed unusually vocal dissent.

“It reminds me very much of the debate we had in Canada and the US 10 or 20 years ago, about the role of the family, the role of gay rights,” said John Kirk, a Cuba scholar at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

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What makes Cuba different is the political context. Gay rights activism has been channeled largely through the single-party system, rather than independent civil-society groups, which are restricted. The government has promoted the new law on billboards, at rallies and in official media. President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Thursday urged Cubans in a televised address to vote for the code, tying the balloting to support for the political system.

“Voting ‘yes’ is saying yes to unity, to the Revolution, to socialism,” he said.

That ranked government critics, who noted that Cubans were rarely given the opportunity to vote freely on other matters—such as choosing their leaders.

The vote comes at a time of widespread anger over food and electricity shortages. The economy is still hobbled by the effects of the covid-19 pandemic and extra US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and partially maintained by the Biden administration. The dissatisfaction raises the possibility that some Cubans could cast a protest vote.

“I understand that the rejection of the dictatorship will prompt many people to want to vote no, reflexively, so that the regime suffers a symbolic defeat,” independent journalist Mario Luis Reyes told the news site 14ymedio, run by the Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez. “But if the ‘no’ wins, those who will really be defeated are us.”

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The 100-page proposal reflects a sea change in official attitudes toward gay rights in Cuba.

In the 1960s, after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Revolution, the Communist government exalted the “new socialist man” and repressed dissidents of all kinds. Gay citizens were fired from jobs and even sent to labor camps.

A leading figure in transforming such homophobic attitudes was sexologist Mariela Castro, the daughter of Fidel’s brother and fellow revolutionary, Raúl. She runs a government sex education institute and is a prominent advocate of gay rights.

Today, workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation is outlawed, and the public health system provides gender-reassignment surgery free of charge.

The new family law would expand not just gay rights, but also protections for women, children and the elderly. It urges couples to share housework equally, condemns family violence and insists that kids have a voice in family decisions.

“So this goes against the traditional paterfamilias [model]with the Latin father being in charge,” Kirk said.

Cuba’s Catholic bishops and other Christian religious leaders have spoken out strongly against the proposal. It could also get a thumb’s down from other social conservatives.

“The proposal is permeated by what is known as “gender ideology,” which, as often happens with ideologies, is a construction of ideas that people want to impose by force onto reality, and wind up distorting it,” the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement.

The new measure, which would replace a 1975 family code, was discussed in more than 79,000 community meetings between February and April, and amended based on citizens’ suggestions. Cuba’s National Assembly passed it in July. It needs more than 50 percent of the votes cast in Sunday’s referendum to take effect. Typically, measures put to a referendum in Cuba receive overwhelming support, but the outcome this time is not as clear.

While the government has billed the referendum as an exercise in democracy, some critics say the rights of gay people shouldn’t be subject to a vote.

“The fact they are asking people what they think about the rights of a minority shows they don’t really understand how democracies work,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul contributed to this report.

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