Cuba, Constitutions

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Cuba, Constitutions

Since its independence from Spain, Cuba has had three constitutions. The first was drafted in 1901, immediately following the Spanish-American War, and reflected the new hegemonic role the United States played in Cuban affairs. The second, the Constitution of 1940, represented a thorough reworking of the Constitution of 1901 and reflected the strong sense of nationalism and liberalism that had begun to emerge in Cuban society in the 1930s. And while one of the goals of the revolution of 1959 was the enactment of a new constitution, the third constitution was not approved until 1976, seventeen years after Fidel Castro's forces entered Havana and established a new regime.

Enacted under the shadow of a just-terminated U.S. military occupation and the passage of the imperialistic Platt Amendment by the U.S. Congress, the Constitution of 1901 failed to fulfill the Cuban dream of a truly independent nation. While Cuba had successfully thrown off the yoke of Spanish imperialism, the United States more than filled that void; through the Platt Amendment, it delivered to Cuba conditions that limited independent action. The amendment limited Cuban authority to negotiate international treaties and to borrow money from abroad. The United States also claimed a coaling station on Cuban soil, and one clause of the amendment stated that "Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty…." While nominally independent, Cuba was expected to incorporate the Platt Amendment into the drafting of the Cuban Constitution. Even efforts to modify the amendment were vetoed by the United States, and in the end Cuba was forced to incorporate the original U.S. version.

Not surprisingly, the Constitution of 1901 bitterly divided Cuban society, and while the Platt Amendment was abrogated by the United States in 1934, the fact that the first Cuban constitution had obediently followed the dictates of the U.S. government was not lost on future generations of Cuban nationalists. Support for the Constitution of 1901 was generally drawn along class lines, with the European upper class arguing that given U.S. support for Cuban independence against Spain, its northern neighbor had a legitimate role to play in Cuban affairs. The Cuban middle class, on the other hand, accepted the constitution as a distasteful inevitability, while working-class and poor Cubans, in general, believed that the Constitution of 1901 was a humiliating concession to the imperialist United States.

The effects of the Constitution of 1901 were immediately felt in Cuba, and a series of governments with little real power passed in and out of office under the watchful eye of the United States. Under the authority of the Cuban constitution, the United States intervened militarily from 1906 to 1909, sent troops to quell an uprising in 1912, and again deployed troops from 1917 to 1922. It was not until the collapse of the pro-U.S. dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales in 1933 that steps would be taken to draft a new constitution.

Cuba's second constitution would take years to draft, and both the amendments of 1934 and the Constitution of 1940 were an outgrowth of the political and economic crisis that swept the island in 1933. While Machado openly ruled as a dictator (he forced the Cuban Congress to extend his term of office), the island was crippled in the early 1930s by falling sugar prices. Growing unrest led Machado increasingly to employ brute force to maintain his rule. From Cuban students, influenced by the Russian and Mexican revolutions, came demands to reject U.S. political and economic control and to nationalize Cuban industry. From labor, both rural and urban, also came demands for nationalization as well as for higher wages and better social programs. Finally, even the army revolted, and hounded by the popular slogan "Cuba for the Cubans," the pro-U.S. Machado was forced to resign in 1933. During the 120-day reign of Ramón Grau San Martín, who replaced Machado and enjoyed widespread support, a number of revolutionary decrees were issued, some of which were included in the "provisional" Constitution of 1934. Many of the demands of the revolution of 1933, however, were not fulfilled, most prominent of which were demands to nationalize some of Cuba's largest industries. Even the mild reforms enacted by the amendments of 1934 were negated when the regime of Carlos Mendieta y Montefur suspended constitutional guarantees.

Advocates of more far-reaching reforms found an unexpected ally in Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, the Cuban army officer who supported the U.S.-backed Mendieta as president in the wake of the revolution of 1933. Ever the pragmatist, Batista recognized the need for some type of reform, and the Constitution of 1940 was, on paper, a radical departure from Cuba's 1901 Constitution. Article 24, for example, acknowledged the right of the government to expropriate property "for reason of public utility or social interest," while Article 66 authorized the government to use all of its powers to "provide jobs for everyone." Articles also banned latifundia, allowed for state control of the sugar industry, and placed restrictions on foreign ownership of land. Labor was a particular beneficiary of the Constitution of 1940, whose pro-labor articles reflected the growing numbers and collective strength of the Cuban working class. Pro-labor provisions included the right to a job, the eight-hour workday, minimum wages, mandatory union membership, vacation pay, collective bargaining, and old-age pensions. The fact that these provisions were spelled out in the new constitution, however, did not mean that they were ever enacted; a much more militant political and economic movement would have to emerge to forge the hopes of the 1940 Constitution into reality. The Constitution of 1940 was nonetheless significant in two ways: it reflected in concrete form the aspirations of the revolutionary generation of 1933 and served as a rallying point of disappointed aspirations skillfully exploited by Fidel Castro in the 1950s.

While the Constitution of 1940 spelled out important reforms that were never carried out, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 enacted many of those reforms without embodying them in a new constitution. The constitution governing postrevolutionary Cuba was not to be enacted until 1976. With the victory of the Twenty-sixth of July Movement in 1959, the revolutionary government enacted the Fundamental Law, a provisional body of laws intended to guide the country until a permanent constitution could be drafted. Ignoring the Constitution of 1940, the Cuban government instead chose to govern by amending the Fundamental Law. Between 1959 and 1963 over one hundred new statutes were enacted, reflecting the rapid shift to the left that the Cuban government was then undergoing. These and other changes guided Cuba until the enactment of the Constitution of 1976.

The Constitution of 1976 reflected the Cuban government's commitment to a political and economic system modeled after the Soviet Union. To that end the constitution replaced previous civil law with "socialist" law. Marxism-Leninism was recognized as the state ideology and the Communist Party was made the only legal political party in the country (which in fact had already been the case for many years). While the Constitution defined state and political power as resting in the "dictatorship of the proletariat," power was actually concentrated in the bureaucratic class—not in the workers and peasants. The Council of Ministers was the "highest ranking executive and administrative organ" of the regime and was headed by a president (Fidel Castro) and vice president (Fidel's brother, Raúl Castro). The Council of Ministers was in theory accountable to the National Assembly. But given that the National Assembly met only a few days each year, real political power rested with Fidel Castro, much as it had with Batista before the 1959 revolution. A small step toward greater democracy was taken in 1993, when the first popular elections were held for the National Assembly. While no opposition was allowed to run candidates, voters were given the option to abstain from voting or to reject the Communist Party candidate on the ballot. While the vote was, not surprisingly, an overwhelming victory for Castro's government, neutral observers acknowledged that the 1993 election proved once again that Fidel Castro and his government still enjoyed widespread support among Cubans.

See alsoBatista y Zaldívar, Fulgencio; Castro Ruz, Fidel; Castro Ruz, Raúl; Platt Amendment; United States-Latin American Relations.


Ramón Eduardo Ruiz, Cuba: The Making of a Revolution (1970).

Samuel Farber, Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933–1960 (1976).

Max Azicri, Cuba: Politics, Economics, and Society (1988).

Louis A. Pérez, Jr., Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution (1988).

Sandor Halesky and John Kirk, eds., Cuba in Transition: Crisis and Transformation (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Bernal, Beatriz. Cuba y sus leyes: Estudios histórico-jurídicos. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2002.

Bronfman, Alejandra. Measures of Equality: Social Science, Citizenship, and Race in Cuba, 1902–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Domínguez, Jorge I. A Constitution for Cuba's Political Transition: The Utility of Retaining (and Amending) the 1992 Constitution. Miami, FL: Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, 2003.

Whitney, Robert. State and Revolution in Cuba: Mass Mobilization and Political Change, 1920–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

                                      Michael Powelson