Cuba’s referendum on 25 September is about far more than gay marriage

On 25 September Cubans will go to the polls to vote in a popular referendum on a new Family Code, which, if approved, will become law. Media coverage, in and outside of Cuba, including in the UK and US press, has presented the referendum as a vote on gay marriage. The truth is that the proposed family code runs over 100 pages; only a handful of the 474 articles are relevant to LGBTQ+ rights.

Presenting it as a referendum on gay rights is not only incorrect but also dangerous. It allows the Cuban government to obscure some of the highly problematic aspects of the code, which have the potential to violate the fundamental rights of all Cubans and would give the authorities another, and very effective, way of silencing independent or critical voices.   

Most worrying is Article 191 which would allow for the removal of children if their parents fail to fulfil a list of responsibilities detailed in Article 138. These include the duties to instill in their children love for the homeland, respect of its symbols, and respect for the authorities (Article 138 (ñ)).

Such language would be problematic in any country, but in Cuba, where hundreds of political prisoners are serving long sentences on charges including ‘disrespect’ (desacato), and where for decades, the government has labeled anyone it does not view as sufficiently supportive of the regime, including religious leaders, human rights defenders, independent journalists, librarians and independent LGBTQ+ activists as counter-revolutionaries, it constitutes a genuine threat.

Over the past year, and since the spontaneous protests which swept the island on 11 July 2021, in which Cubans of all ages, races and genders took to the street to demand change, the government, under the leadership of President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez and the Cuban Communist Party, has made it clear that there is no openness on the part of the State to any change that would weaken the power of the government over almost every aspect of the lives of its citizens.

Hundreds of political prisoners, including Protestant pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo and the Afro-Cuban Yoruba religious leaders Loreto Hernández Garcia and Donaida Perez Paseiro, continue to languish in prison. Roman Catholic priests have been threatened and expelled from the country. Tens of thousands of Cubans, including human rights defenders and religious leaders who were given an ultimatum by Cuba internal intelligence agents to leave the country or go to prison, have fled the island to seek asylum abroad in the biggest wave of emigration in decades.

Now, on 25 September, the Cuban Communist Party is asking Cuban parents and guardians of children to endorse its ability to judge whether or not they are fit parents, based on criteria that includes their real or perceived political beliefs, and to remove their children if it is deemed that they are not sufficiently loyal to the system.

For some this is a very real threat

The removal of parental rights is not an abstract legal concept to Pastor Mily Marín Marrero, a religious leader and defender of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), who in March 2021 received a call from a State Security agent who warned her of consequences, including a machete attack that could lead to the deaths of both her and her husband, if he was to return to Cuba (he was traveling abroad at the time). In the same call, the agent added that “the good thing about their deaths was that the State would then take their children and make them into true Revolutionaries.” Her husband, in agreement with Mily, did not return.

One year later, on the morning of 26 March 2022, two State Security officers, a man and a woman, arrived at Mily’s home. They informed Mily that, because she continued to meet with a group of women to teach them the Bible, she would be taken to court to face criminal charges.  The two agents showed her documents indicating that there was an active criminal case against her and threatened her with the removal of her three children and who would be placed in foster homes where “the government would be responsible for educating them and she would never be allowed to see them again”. Shortly thereafter, Mily fled Cuba along with her children.

The threats carried in the new Family Code are also very real to Pastors Juan and Yulia (whose names have been changed for their security) who lead an independent church that the government has refused to register and considers illegal. The couple received a visit to their home in April this year from a woman who identified herself as the counsellor at the primary school their young son attends. She questioned their son’s decision to opt out, as is his constitutional right, of participation in pro-Cuban Communist Party youth organisations and warned that their leadership of an ‘illegal church’ and the fact that they were “educating their children to rebel against the Cuban Revolution” constituted grounds for the removal of their children to “save them from ending up as anti-social individuals.”

A few weeks later, Pastor Juan received a summons to the secondary school attended by their older son. He obeyed the summons and was met again with similar threats and questions about his son’s failure to participate in supposedly voluntary political youth organisations. This time he was warned that not only would the State remove their children from their custody, but they would send them to a correctional school for juvenile criminals.

The pastor replied that “…if State Security wanted to close his church, they should take him straight to prison instead of threatening his children.” In response the authorities forced him to sign a legal document accepting responsibility for the actions of his son at school, which could be used to justify  future actions by the government against the family including the removal of their custodial rights.

One month later, in May, State Security agents paid an unannounced visit to the home of the two pastors. They informed the couple that the cases of their two children had already been sent to the Ministry of the Interior’s Department of Minors, and warned that the children would be taken to separate correctional schools, where they will remain imprisoned because of their parents’ decision to lead an “illegal” church, until they are of legal age. The couple was given until the end of September to close their church and warned that if they do not, the government will remove their children.

Reaching into the heart of every Cuban family

With the date of the referendum looming, Cubans like Pastors Juan and Yulia are being urged by the authorities to vote in favour of a new Family Code which would weaken their rights as parents and would bolster the government’s ability to carry out its threats to take away their children. In recent weeks religious leaders have reported coming under intense pressure by State Security to publicly speak out in favour of a ‘yes’ vote and threatened with negative consequences, including, ironically, the loss of their parental rights if they do not.

The referendum on 25 September is not a referendum on gay marriage, nor is it a referendum on children’s rights. It goes far beyond that, allowing the Cuban Communist Party to reach its fingers into the heart of every Cuban family.

Given that Cuba has been under one party rule for over half a century and that the authorities are currently conducting one of the most severe crackdowns in decades, with artists, writers, activists, human rights defenders and religious leaders serving lengthy prison sentences because of their participation in peaceful protests calling for change, it is understandable that many Cubans, religious and otherwise, would have reason to vote ‘no’ in the September 25 referendum on the new Family Code. They should not be criticized for doing so.   

By CSW’s Head of Advocacy and Team Leader for the Americas Anna Lee Stangl