Foreign commentators overwhelmingly view the code as extremely positive, particularly the rights granted the LGBTQ community. Several dozen same-sex marriages in Cuba immediately followed the code’s passage. This a huge step forward for a country that marginalized homosexuals and sent them to work camps in the 1960s and for decades weeded them out from the teaching profession and medical schools. These provisions were the main target of evangelicals and the Catholic Church.
The family code survived a nationwide referendum despite a strong conservative push against it and a highly complex domestic situation marked by economic crisis, unprecedented emigration, and the feeling among some sectors of the population that their vote doesn’t count.
“I voted yes, but I don’t think this was a good time to make big changes in this law,” said Maida, a 66-year-old grandmother who for years has worked cleaning diplomatic residences for a Western embassy. “There is too much uncertainty already in our lives without this new law that raises many questions.” Her worries on the future focus on the current food and medicine shortage and the seemingly uncontrolled inflation that is making it hard for the average Cuban to put food on the table.
For its part, the government dominated the mass media, with its “pull out the ‘yes’ vote” campaign drawing criticism for throwing a virtual curtain of silence over opposing views. It’s difficult to pinpoint the government’s motives, but the media flurry seems of a piece with the island’s desire to project a general image of moving forward on the world stage. Coverage of the upcoming vote also far overshadowed information on Hurricane Ian, then en route to the island.
Despite the barrage of government propaganda, there was, by Cuban standards, an unusual 26 percent abstention rate (some 2.2 million people), and 32.1 percent, or nearly 1.9 million, voted no. When you add up the abstentions, votes annulled or left blank, and the “no” votes, the number of people against the code—or perhaps just protesting daily hardships—reaches 4.4 million, or just over half of the eligible voters.
Both supporters and opponents of the government attempted to turn the referendum into a plebiscite on the Cuban government and the socialist system. And a lot of people questioned why the code was passed by the National Assembly (a unicameral parliament) and printed in the Official Gazette, making it law, before the popular referendum was held. Several younger voters cited this as the reason they didn’t bother to vote, even though they support the changes in the new code. “It’s already a law whether I vote or not,” said several men and women in their early 20s hanging out at a seaside café in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana.
Over 3.9 million Cubans, or 67 percent of the country’s 8.4 million eligible voters, checked the “yes” box on the ballot, Maida among them. But she expressed doubts. “I’m not sure about the provision on adoption and I really don’t know what to tell my 6-year-old granddaughter about two men being a couple,” she said. She did, however, speak strongly in favor of the provisions that provide protections for grandparents and the elderly.
Echoing her was Raú, a private chess instructor in his mid-40s. “I didn’t read the whole code,” he said, “but I’m happy that it includes protection against elder abuse.” He declined to comment on the other provisions. Raul did not cast a ballot, saying he was out of the province where he lives on the day of the polling.
When the results were in, President Miguel Díaz-Canel described it as a “victory of Cuba and the Cuban people,” a majority win despite the current economic difficulties, energy shortages, people leaving the country en masse, and what he called “understandable discrepancies,” a reference to the current diversity of opinions in the country.
The magnitude of the difficulties facing the Cuban government and people should not be underestimated. Legislative advances such as the new family code have been undertaken despite increased poverty and widening class differences. People struggle to feed their families as prices in both government shops and the private sector rise further, devaluating their wages. Daily blackouts, long lines at gas stations, worsening public transport, and garbage overflowing and piling up in the streets create an atmosphere of hopelessness as the country struggles to recover from the pandemic, which effectively killed its tourism industry and severely damaged the private sector for two years.
On top of that, there are the 200-plus sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and basically left intact by President Biden that are strangling the economy. As the UN General Assembly geared up to vote on a Cuban-sponsored resolution condemning the US embargo, Havana accused Washington of more than 850 actions taken to impede operations between Cuba and foreign banks. On top of which must be added the Cuban government’s own resistance to proceeding with needed reforms previously approved at the highest political level and intended, in part, to raise lagging agricultural and industrial production.
Unprecedented migration is not surprising in this context. US border officials say that in fiscal year 2022 they had encounters with 220,908 Cubans. This number surpasses the 1980 Mariel boatlift exodus and the 1994 rafters’ crisis combined.
Even with this background, the code itself is by near-unanimous opinion historic and one of the most progressive in the world. It replaces one passed in 1975 and contains rights and guarantees that have been hard to envision in Cuban law, considering the homophobia embedded in Cuban culture (despite advances in recent years spearheaded by Mariela Castro, Fidel Castro’s niece and daughter of former president Raúl Castro who directs a National Center for Sex Education). Cuba is now the ninth Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage.
These measures, however beneficial, may be difficult to implement in a society facing major survival challenges. Much depends on the government’s ability to improve the current hardscrabble life of the population.