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Cuba votes in referendum on same-sex marriage

After 79,000 neighborhood meetings, months of discussions and a flurry of more than 300,000 citizen suggestions, Cubans will vote on Sunday in a referendum that could redefine family rights, including the legalization of same-sex marriage.

The proposed new Family Code would be among the most progressive in Latin America, challenging a long tradition of machismo in Cuba. In addition to endorsing same-sex marriage, it would allow same-sex couples to adopt and increase the rights of women, the elderly and children.

Supporters call it a sign of progress on LGBTQ+ issues under Cuba’s communist government, which was once so hostile to gay men that it sent them to forced labor camps for “re-education.” Yet leaders of the influential Roman Catholic Church and the island’s growing evangelical movement expressed unusually vocal dissent.

“It reminds me a lot of the debate we had in Canada and the United States 10 or 20 years ago, about the role of the family, the role of gay rights,” said John Kirk, a Cuban researcher at the Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

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What makes Cuba different is the political context. Gay rights activism has been channeled largely through the one-party system, rather than independent civil society groups, which are restricted. The government promoted the new law on billboards, at rallies and in the official media. President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Thursday urged Cubans in a televised address to vote for the code, linking the ballot to support for the political system.

“To vote ‘yes’ is to say yes to unity, to the Revolution, to socialism,” he declared.

This angered government critics, who noted that Cubans rarely had the opportunity to vote freely on other issues, such as choosing their leaders.

The vote comes at a time of widespread anger over food and electricity shortages. The economy is still hampered by the effects of the covid-19 pandemic and additional US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and partially maintained by the Biden administration. The discontent raises the possibility that some Cubans may cast a protest vote.

“I understand that the rejection of the dictatorship will make many people want to vote no, by reflex, so that the regime suffers a symbolic defeat,” freelance journalist Mario Luis Reyes told the dissident-run 14ymedio news site. Cuban Yoani Sánchez. “But if the ‘no’ wins, the ones who will really be defeated are us.”

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The 100-page proposal reflects a sea change in official attitudes towards gay rights in Cuba.

In the 1960s, after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Revolution, the communist government exalted the “new socialist man” and suppressed dissidents of all kinds. Homosexual citizens were fired and even sent to labor camps.

Sexologist Mariela Castro, the daughter of Fidel’s brother and co-revolutionary, Raúl, was a leading figure in transforming these homophobic attitudes. She runs a government sex education institute and is a prominent gay rights advocate.

Today, discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation is prohibited and the public health system offers free sex reassignment operations.

The new family law would not only expand gay rights, but also protections for women, children and the elderly. It urges couples to share household chores fairly, condemns family violence and insists that children have a say in family decisions.

“So it goes against the traditional paterfamilias [model]with the Latin father in charge,” Kirk said.

Cuba’s Catholic bishops and other Christian religious leaders have spoken out strongly against the proposal. He might also get a thumbs down from other social conservatives.

“The proposal is imbued with what is called “gender ideology”, which, as often happens with ideologies, is a construction of ideas that people want to impose by force on reality and end up distort,” said the Cuban Conference of Catholics. The bishops said in a statement.

The new measure, which would replace a 1975 family code, was discussed in more than 79,000 community meetings between February and April, and modified based on suggestions from citizens. Cuba’s National Assembly passed it in July. It needs more than 50% of the votes cast in Sunday’s referendum to take effect. Typically, measures put to a referendum in Cuba receive overwhelming support, but the outcome this time is not so clear cut.

While the government has presented the referendum as an exercise in democracy, some critics say gay rights should not be put to a vote.

“The fact that they ask people what they think about minority rights shows that they don’t really understand how democracies work,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul contributed to this report.

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