By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s communist government is seeking to rally support for a new family code that would open the door to gay marriage and boost women’s rights, but experts and a recent survey suggest an upcoming referendum vote may not provide a rubber stamp.
Tepid support for the reforms, which clash with the island’s entrenched “machista” culture, threatens to hand state-backed supporters a defeat amid a government push to encourage open and frank debate.
The proposed 100-page code, under scrutiny in town-hall style meetings throughout Cuba, groups together a swath of new regulations on family conduct. It overhauls several 1975 laws from the era of former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Castro in 2010 acknowledged the persecution of gays on the island, who were rounded up shortly after his 1959 revolution and placed in forced labor camps. Castro took personal responsibility and called it a “great injustice.”
The new code would legalize same sex marriage and civil unions, allow such couples to adopt children, double down on women’s rights, and promote equal sharing of domestic responsibilities. It also adds such novelties as prenuptial agreements and assisted pregnancy.
Parents would have “responsibility” instead of “custody” of children, and be required to be “respectful of the dignity and physical and mental integrity of children and adolescents.”
The code repeatedly states parents and courts should grant maturing offspring more say over their lives.
But the outcome of the referendum vote, slated for sometime this fall, is far from certain.
The Cuban Roman Catholic Church has lashed out against gay marriage, saying the proposal is riddled with “gender ideology” that threatens parental authority and would lead to “indoctrination of children in schools without parental consent.”
The Communist Party daily, Granma, reported in mid-March on a high level meeting where organizers said that with more than half of the scheduled meetings through April already complete, just 54% of participants had expressed support for the new code.
Referendums in Cuba typically pass by overwhelming majorities, but this one may face an uphill battle as the vote nears, three experts consulted by Reuters said.
Bert Hoffman, a Latin America expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, said the code was perhaps the most progressive in Latin America on gender and generational rights. But the text was largely compiled by state authorities, rather than being a grassroots movement, Hoffman added.
“All elections, all referendums, have been under the guidance of the Communist Party or Fidel Castro’s leadership, and the outcome was always a given, and now for the first time the outcome is uncertain,” Hoffman said.
Proponents argue that the 46,000 neighborhood meetings held on the issue so far constitute a model of democratic process.
“People have the possibility of raising their doubts or concerns,” said Rafael Ortega, who attended a night-time meeting earlier this year in the Havana neighborhood of Diez de Octobre. “I consider this to be a very democratic thing.”
The code reflects the growing clout of women on the island, where they are increasingly represented in political leadership, experts said.
Females already head nearly half of Cuban households, according to government statistics, and make up more than 60% of Cuban professionals.
Codifying those changes would be “revolutionary,” said Mariela Castro, daughter of former Cuban leader Raul Castro, adding she was convinced Cubans would approve the reforms.
“Anything new always brings with it uncertainty,” the long-time social activist said.
(Reporting by Marc Frank, editing by Dave Sherwood, Christian Plumb and Richard Chang)