Analysis: One-third of voters said ‘No’

Official media touted what they portray as an overwhelming “yes” for the new Family Law. Approved in a Sept. 26 referendum, after many months of preparation, the new law certainly is a step forward for the rights of Cuban children, women, and the LGBTQ community, and the 67.87% who cast a “yes” vote certainly are an important figure to measure the legitimacy of the law.

However, in the context of Cuban elections, making a big deal about the 67.87% who voted in favor seems quite exaggerated. While it is legitimate to say that there was a majority in favor, it is also necessary to point out that one-third of voters — an unusually high number in Cuba — said “no”.  

Even more relevant is the low turnout of 74.01%, a fact official media duly avoided to mention. The abstention of more than one-fourth of voters points to another way of expressing rejection: A “negative vote”, as it was called in another era before 1959.

When performing a simple arithmetic exercise, the official figures offer us something very different from the success the official Cuban media want to sell us. If we add the 33% of the “no” votes to the 25% abstention, we get no less than 58% of the Cuban electorate voting against. We could also throw into the mix the 180,000 voting-age Cubans who left the island last year, overwhelmingly to the United States. If the Cuban government had granted the right to vote to its emigrants -as many other countries do- how would they have voted?

The times in which the Cuban government received 97% “yes” votes have been irreversibly left behind. A previous vote in February 2019 — for a new constitution, which replaced the similar version of 1992 — ended with 9% against and 4% abstention. In the 2018 general elections, the vote against the slate of official candidates exceeded 10%, and abstention was above 25%.

The Family Law referendum happened amid an aggravated economic crisis with a stalled recovery, tightened U.S. sanctions and other aggressions, and continued failure to reform the system, all of which added up to the great social outburst of July 11, 2021.  The government continues to describe this as “a complex situation,” an understatement given the current challenges. In the midst of such a tremendous crisis, the preparations for the Family Code were a waste of time and resources. The authorities could well have waited for a more stable future.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel had to admit publicly that, given this “complex situation”, it was possible that many Cubans would cast “a punishment vote”. It happened indeed, but to a far bigger extent. It could indeed be said that Cubans did not say “yes”. Only a minority did, while a majority did not.

Looking ahead, the government must now prepare for the 2024 general elections. If the previous trends hold, the leadership will find itself in a particularly unpredictable situation with a very high cost in terms of credibility and legitimacy, leading to incalculable consequences. Most governments elsewhere lose their right and ability to govern for much less than this.

Let’s wait and see what this government does in a situation that Politburo member Jorge Lezcano Pérez described in the 1990s as having “to govern in minority”.  If the leadership can overcome the current challenges and recover legitimacy and support within these two years, it will have performed a miracle…

Former Cuban intelligence officer Domingo Amuchastegui has lived in Miami since 1994. He writes regularly on Cuba’s internal politics, economic reform, and South Florida’s Cuban community.

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