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Cuba’s new Family Code: made possible by socialism

Rather than simply ‘legalising gay marriage’ the new laws in Cuba addressed everything from domestic work to children's rights, engaging half of the entire population in a uniquely socialist process, explain MARY DAVIS and ANGUS REID

THE result of the referendum on the new Family Code in Cuba, held on September 25, is a landmark victory for socialism, a major advance and a signal of the virtue of a genuine people’s democracy.

At stake was an entirely new social settlement that recognises in law a redefinition of the family. And that family can be, simply, any combination of adults of any ages, whether gay, lesbian or straight. Every couple now has the right to marry, and to adopt. There is no specific law for LGBTQ+ people because they are simply accepted as people. As equals.

It also recognises the family as a place of labour — the labour of bringing up children, and caring for the elderly and disabled — and it rewards that labour, whoever does it. Only socialists think like this.

The most unusual part of the code relates to children. Parents no longer have “custody” of a child, but “responsibility” for the child, and the burgeoning maturity of the child must be respected.

The child has a voice, and from today, in Cuba, a child can choose which family they wish to live with, and be heard.

This comprehensive settlement contrasts sharply with the piecemeal and opportunistic way such rights are given (and taken away) in capitalist democracies.

Rather than a tiny minority of representatives making the law themselves, for this issue, under Cuban socialism, such changes must be directly endorsed by the people.

This is the innate strength of Cuban socialism — that it is bottom-up and carries all the people with it.

There were more than 80,000 public consultations and the code was significantly changed in the course of them.

Yamilla Gonzalez, a member of the drafting committee, describes it as the fruit of collective endeavour, and says 50 per cent of the content was changed through public input.

And with a turnout of 74 per cent and a 67 per cent vote in favour, half of the entire population — everyone over 16 — has understood and committed themselves to this change.

And it was no easy task.

Many men felt that their authority in the family would be undermined — and the privilege of patriarchy runs deep in this Latin society.

The No vote was strongly advocated by religious organisations, notably the evangelical Protestants and the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Havana preached a fiery denunciation of the new law on the very day of the referendum itself.

There is also a significant sense in which the family remains the focus of traditional gender roles. A mountain tour guide in the southern town of Trinidad said to me: “I have gay friends, but I don’t want any of that in my family.” The new law has addressed such anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice in the last citadel of its power, and won.

It is also stunning that in a country with such a large proportion of the population working in small-scale agriculture that these people, whom one might wrongly assume to be “traditional,” voted Yes.

These are the people who benefited most from Castro’s revolution in 1959, his expulsion of foreign owners and the redistribution of land to workers.

The result shows that they remain motivated and loyal to the evolving programme of Cuban socialism more than 60 years later.

This historical memory of revolution has another precedent in the past: over 100 years ago, in 1918, the Soviet code on marriage and the family was enacted (and extended in 1926) to replace the old tsarist laws with a similar comprehensive social emancipation.  

Women had been central to the two revolutions in Russia in 1917 and the October (Bolshevik) Revolution enshrined their liberation according to socialist principles.

The Zhenotdel (the women’s department of the Communist Party) and Kommunistka, the communist women’s paper, were the main conduits of women’s emancipatory theory and practice. This was led by women such as Nadezhda Krupskaya, Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai who pioneered revolutionary policies to end women’s oppression.

One of the results was the Family Code of 1918.

It was one of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the young Soviet republic. It gave women equal status to men, granted illegitimate children the same legal rights as legitimate ones, secularised marriage, and allowed a couple to take either the husband or wife’s name once married.

The Zhenotdel also helped legalise abortion in 1920, which was the first time that abortion would be free in state hospitals in any country in the world.

Lenin could justly claim that “in the course of two years Soviet power in one of the most backward countries of Europe did more to emancipate women and to make their status equal to that of the ‘strong’ sex than all the advanced, enlightened, ‘democratic’ republics of the world did in the course of 130 years.”

Similarly, the law swept away all discrimination against gay men until homosexuality was re-criminalised in a secret way in 1934.

In Soviet Power and the Status of Women, 1919, Lenin argued that the high-sounding talk of equality in bourgeois democracies was specious and hypocritical because their laws enshrined the “inequality of women in marriage rights and divorce, the inequality between the ‘legitimate’ child and the child born out of wedlock, the privileges of men, the humiliation and degradation of women...

“The Soviet Republic, the republic of the workers and peasants, has swept away these laws, and has smashed all this bourgeois falsehood.”

These words of Lenin can be applied to socialist Cuba today.

Cuban women, similarly to the Bolshevik women of the last century, have played a tremendous role in the revolutionary process and in the building and defence of socialist society.  

It is no surprise that a prime mover behind the Family Code is Mariela Castro Espin, the daughter of the first-generation Cuban revolutionaries Raul Castro and Vilma Espin.  

In both cases the work of revolutionary women has involved a root and branch challenge to centuries of ingrained patriarchal, misogynist and sexist ideology.  

The two codes are a reflection of this. Such legislative breakthroughs are only possible in a socialist state and their survival is contingent on state power remaining in the control of workers and peasants.

The extinction of the USSR has meant that Bolshevik code has been long forgotten, but the Cuban code remains in safe hands.

It is unsurprising, but very sad, that the capitalist press around the world — and even a socialist paper like the Morning Star — chose to report the referendum simply as “Cuba endorses gay marriage,” as though that were the only issue, and Cuba was backwards and had only just caught up with their own standards.

This is a travesty that misrepresents the whole spirit of the Cuban achievement, and deliberately turns a blind eye to what only socialist countries are capable of achieving.

Despite Covid and the endless ongoing economic attrition of the US blockade and along with a series of unforeseeable disasters that have led to fuel shortages and the rationing of electricity in some cities, this result shows that only socialism can present the most emancipatory solutions for modern societies, and that this remains the Cuban priority.

Today socialists throughout the world can look to Cuba for inspiration and a guiding light.

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