Cubans celebrated the results of a landmark referendum on Sept. 25 that legalized same-sex marriage, redefined the legal family, expanded rights for the elderly and children, and more. The referendum proposed a significant amendment to the Family Code, the articles of law pertaining to domestic relationships in Cuba’s constitution, and was backed by the Cuban government, but it required over 50 percent of the vote to become law. Two-thirds approved the proposition following tens of thousands of community consultations and many draft revisions leading up to the vote.
While conservative religious groups on the island opposed the referendum, the new Family Code also enjoyed vocal support from progressive Christians in Cuba who have been finding a voice in recent decades and campaigned for the success of the referendum.
“The referendum means hope, really the whole process has been a sign of how we should and can participate in the decisions that are made in the country,” said Rev. Izett Samá Hernández, a theologian and pastor in the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba. “And the Code itself is a ray of light in our society. It is the opportunity to establish permanent rights for people, groups, and families.”
The Cuban Revolution, LGBTQ Rights, and Christianity
The new Family Code is a turning point for LGBTQ Cubans, who were severely targeted, incarcerated, and abused in the early days of the Cuban Revolution. Since then, LGBTQ rights on the island have slowly expanded. Same-sex relationships were decriminalized in 1979, and sex reassignment surgeries have been provided for free under the country’s public health care since 2008.
Culture within the Communist Party of Cuba, the island’s leading political party, changed as prominent political figures became strong advocates for LGBTQ dignity and rights in Cuba, especially Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raúl Castro and niece of Fidel Castro. In 2010, Fidel Castro apologized and took responsibility for the government’s treatment of the gay community. Miguel Díaz-Canel, the current president of Cuba, came to his post in 2019 with a history of advocating for LGBTQ rights as a Communist Party secretary.
Díaz-Canel has also built stronger relationships with progressive Christians in Cuba, developing another historically complicated relationship for the Cuban state. In the 1985 book, Fidel and Religion, recording conversations between Fidel Castro and Brazilian liberation theologian Frei Betto, Castro admitted the revolution made mistakes with respect to religious people, and said discrimination against people of faith must end.
In 1991, the Communist Party of Cuba dropped a requirement that members could not be religious, opening a path for Christians and others to participate openly in the party. Cuba changed its official designation from being an “atheist” state to being a “secular” state in 1992, and the island has received visits from Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.
Leading up to the referendum, Díaz-Canel invited representatives from civil society to discuss the Family Code, including the Student Christian Movement in Cuba, a youth movement for progressive Christians tied to the World Student Christian Federation. Jorge González Nuñez, the president of SCM and a gay activist and theologian, told Sojourners that the president was very attentive to their thoughts during a two-hour meeting.
“It was a very emotional meeting, because all of us who were there had a personal or collective story that made us fight for the approval of the Code,” González said.
That meeting also signals greater cooperation between the Communist Party of Cuba and Christians working for social justice. Jim Hodgson witnessed that relationship grow in his role as a partnership coordinator at the United Church of Canada, working with people in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2000 to 2020.
“It took until the ’80s and early ’90s for space to open up for better collaboration between the state and churches,” Hodgson told Sojourners. “The Office of Religious Affairs [set up by the Communist Party] has been well staffed by people who are very knowledgeable about religion in Cuba. I would almost always meet with the people and staff at the office. These were cordial conversations, and it was possible to raise all kinds of questions.”
Contradictions among Cuban Christians
Some churches and the Cuban government have built mutual trust through years of dialogue and compromise on a variety of issues from building construction to citizen participation.
“The churches have really used the trust they've built over the years with the Cuban state to carry forward this conversation [around the Family Code],” Hodgson said. “And I would say it’s a trust that extends in a couple directions. I might have liked the government of Cuba to take a sterner line with the anti-LGBT crowd.”
Despite perceptions of Cuba as a repressive regime, Hodgson said Cuba has decided to allow an open debate, defending free speech when it comes to deliberations around the Family Code.
“Churches that speak against extending rights and benefits to LGBT people are as free to speak publicly as the churches that favor expanded rights,” Hodgson said.
Along with conservative protestants, the Catholic bishops in Cuba also participated in the debate. Leading up to the vote, the bishops released criteria and guidelines, praising parts of the Family Code amendment, like stronger protections for the elderly and more assistance for people who are pregnant, but criticizing other parts, including what it refers to as “gender ideology,” a common complaint in the Catholic Church globally.
Samá said the debate around the referendum is an “alert of the level of conservatism in Cuban society.”
In 2019, Cuba held another important referendum related to a new draft constitution. Among the many proposed changes was altering the Cuban constitution’s definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, igniting a flurry of debate. Five evangelical denominations released an opposition statement citing their faith and arguing same-sex marriage is against communist principles. Pastors and Catholic bishops also loudly opposed the change. The final version of Cuba’s constitution, passed by a strong majority, removed the gendered language from its definition of marriage, but the overhaul of the Family Code was postponed as a separate referendum.
“There is a diversity of responses and reactions from the churches to the Code, and there is a group of churches visibly opposed to it,” Samá said. “There is another group that actively participated, created campaigns, opened spaces of formation for the communities with the objective of preparing people in all the aspects of the code, and to show all the benefits that it brings. [That group also] shared biblical theological foundations as to why the code does not deny any ethical principles of the gospel, but on the contrary materializes them.”
SCM was among the latter. González says the Family Code “is one of the most progressive legal norms we have in our country, even in the world.” As the code was being drafted, SCM advocated for stronger inclusion of equal marriage rights; once the code was finalized, SCM and other Christians began a campaign to highlight the positive contributions of the code. González said they had to combat a lot of “myths and fake news that were circulating in digital social networks.”
“We know that for many Christians the Code has been an issue of conflict,” González said. “But I only think of the testimony of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was committed to the excluded people of society, and to them he announced the Kingdom of God. … The Family Code does not impose models of families but recognizes those that already exist and until now had been unprotected by the law.”
Christians and Cuban Democracy
Beyond the immediate gains of the Family Code, the extensive democratic process of the referendum itself offers a unique model of dialogue and participation.
Viewed from Canada, Hodgson sees a healthy example in the Cuban process.
“The way people perceive voting and participation in the processes of decision-making in the Cuban state is different from in a liberal democracy,” Hodgson said. “The grassroots debate and conversation, proposals of candidates and policies from the grassroots, these get worked up through the system. That’s what's going on here: a good process of consensus building, people talking and discussing, changing each other's minds over a long period of time, so what you get at the end is something people can agree on.”
In Cuba, González identifies important critical questions raised by the Cuban experience and emphasizes that being a “democratic” society does not necessarily mean being a just society.
“‘Democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are concepts that have been manipulated too much,” he said. Though Cuba is often derided as undemocratic, González points out that the United States is home to injustices like school shootings, police violence against Black people, and economic insecurities.
While Christians in Cuba may still be divided on the new Family Code, the referendum process offers a path forward for those working for justice.
“The referendum was a good exercise in deliberative democracy, and hopefully it will widen the way for this type of practice in other spheres of Cuban legality,” said Samá, who works with the Martin Luther King Center, a space for Christians to explore participation in Cuban society. “The churches that supported the Code left a message of liberation and inclusion, the ethics of respect and responsibility for every human being. We offered an image of the God of love and justice that Jesus inspired us to follow.”