A child holds a banner reading “code yes” ahead of Cuba’s referendum on a radical new family law, September 2022. Photo: Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
Last month, Cuba voted in new family laws that have been widely proclaimed the world’s most progressive. The country’s ruling Communist party, which campaigned in favour of the reforms, wrote in state media that the new code would recognise “the existence in Cuba of multiple family structures that break with the traditional model”, and honour “the bonds of affection and love on which families are truly built.” Of the 74% of citizens who voted in the referendum, close to 70% ticked yes to the constitutional change.
While international coverage has focused primarily on the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the code is actually much broader in scope – and in many ways, more radical. The new law is made up of over 400 articles, ranging from the prohibition of child marriage to the supersession of “parental authority” with “parental responsibility”, from the protection of grandparental rights, to extended adoption and assisted reproduction rights, so-called gestational solidarity (or non-commercial surrogacy) and increased rights for women, children, disabled people and the elderly. The code also explicitly recognises the contribution of caring labour, both paid and unpaid, in society, and improves the rights of carers.
Perhaps most significantly, the code in effect redefines the family altogether, stating: “Love and solidarity are the platforms and axes on which family relationships revolve”, and describing the family as “a union of people linked by an affective, psychological and sentimental bond, who commit themselves to sharing life such that they support each other.” The draft goes on to state: “Family members are obliged to fulfil family and social duties on the basis of love, affection, consideration, solidarity, fraternity, partnership, sharing, cooperation, protection, responsibility and mutual respect.”
The code delinks the idea of family from an exclusively biological concept, instead hinging it on mutually caring behaviours. Arguably, the code is tantamount tofamily abolition, which advocates for the overhaul of the insular and narrowly-defined nuclear family, towards more expansive kinship bonds, from which no one is excluded and within which everyone is cared for.
The new laws have been a long time coming: drafts have been doing the rounds in government since 2008. Indeed, for years prior to the referendum, feminist and LGBTQ+ activists had called upon the government to expand rights for marginalised groups – including by reforming the family code, which had not been updated since 1975.
In September 2021, the government published a long-awaited draft of the code, which was then subject to popular consultation. Cubans met in workplaces and community centres, and within political and grassroots groups to discuss, debate and give feedback on the draft law.
Iván Ernesto Barreto López, who works at the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples, says the referendum was “an irrefutable demonstration of the socialist democratic model existing in our country.” Over 336,000 modifications to the code were presented back to the government commission, which incorporated them into the final draft – version 25 – of the code. The process, says López, demonstrated “the diversity of opinions existing in our country,” among which “progress towards a fairer and more pluralistic society prevailed.”
In particular, López believes a “paradigm shift” in the code from ‘parental authority’ to ‘parental responsibility’ “constitutes a major transformation” away from “a deep patriarchal sense of authority and exclusive power” over children, towards a sense of shared parental responsibility over children’s “full growth” into increasingly autonomous beings.
The family code passed in the context of determined campaigning on both sides. On the yes team sat the government and independent civil society groups. The state, for its part, filled media outlets and public communications with propaganda, presenting the code as part and parcel of an ongoing revolutionary project.
“Fidel [Castro], the historical humanism of the post-1959 government and socialism were often cited in the [government’s] argumentation,” says Yasmin Portales-Machado, an independent Cuban LGBTQ+ activist. But this approach, she argues, may have been counterproductive – it “alienated a significant part of the electorate,” who conflated a yes vote with a vote for the government.
Civil society groups, meanwhile, focused their campaigning on social media and the streets, and did not necessarily equate support for the code with support for the government. According to Portales-Machado, the state wants to claim the yes victory, but the win truly belongs to “feminist, LGBTQ+, anti-racist and child advocacy groups who have been fighting for decades for the recognition of family diversity, care work and strong responses to gender-based violence.
“The radical content of this text, its defence during the popular debates and the best yes campaigns came from independent civil society,” she argues, “which mobilised amid social prejudice, economic crisis, pandemic and government repression.” Cuba has been under US embargo for 60 years.
On the other side, the no campaign was led by conservative organisations – especially religious fundamentalists – and some groups that oppose the government, with financial backing from rightwing Christian groups in the US. The core message of the no side, says Portales-Machado, was “an amalgam of invocations of traditional values, with denunciations of government authoritarianism.” The no campaign “insisted again and again that the family must be free from state intervention, that education cannot take place without violence, and that the family code was part of a global conspiracy to destroy families.” The propaganda, she says, “shamelessly appealed to fear, loss of trust in government and manipulation, such as claiming that people as young as eight would undergo ‘sex change’ surgeries.”
In fact, while many trans people campaigned in support of the code, it does not mention them. Plataforma 11M, an LBGTQ+ activist collective that supported the yes campaign, says the code “still excludes non-cisgender people.”
While Plataforma 11M believes the family code is a significant victory for marginalised groups, it is concerned the vote amounted to a referendum on human rights – something that shouldn’t be up for debate.
The group says its important the state’s track record on LGBTQ+ rights is not forgotten – the government’s campaign, it says, was “textbook pinkwashing”, in that it promoted same-sex marriage while refusing to recognise and ask for forgiveness for the state’s historic complicity in the persecution of LGBTQ+ people. The group says a 2019 pride march where a number of activists were arrested and exiled marked a “visible rupture” between LGBTQ+ people and the state, that is yet to be repaired. The collective is also currently fighting for the release of Brenda Díaz, a trans political prisoner who was arrested during 2021 protests and incarcerated in a men’s prison.
The family code marks a huge step towards a more liberated society in Cuba. It is, however, “only one step,” says Portales-Machado. The campaigning has shown, she says, “that pressure from civil society inside and outside the country can influence the legislative agenda”. Now, she says, the implementation of the code must be “closely monitored,” while people continue to “fight for laws on gender-based violence; protection of access to abortion; prevention and punishment of discrimination; hate speech and hate crimes; access to health, education and employment for transgender people; freedom of expression and association.”
For López, “popular education” on “discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, racism, domestic violence, machismo [and] harassment,” is an important next step in the country “advancing towards the fairer and more united society to which we aspire.
“Many of these issues have deep structural roots in our imaginary, customs and culture after centuries of colonisation,” he says. “Despite the fact that progress has been made on certain issues with considerable speed, they have not been completely resolved.”
Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist and the author of Radical Intimacy.