The United States joined freedom activists on Feb. 26 to dismiss the results of Cuba’s national referendum—which was orchestrated by the communist regime—and to condemn the new constitution.
“No one should be fooled by this exercise, which achieves little beyond perpetuating the pretext for the regime’s one-party dictatorship,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “The entire process has been marked by carefully managed political theater and repression of public debate.”
Cubans voted Feb. 24 to decide the fate of the first new constitution for the impoverished nation since 1976. Amid reports of widespread voting fraud, the president of the regime’s national electoral commission said nearly 87 percent of voters ratified the charter, 9 percent opposed ratification, and 4.5 percent spoiled or left ballots blank.
Cuban pro-democracy activists called the referendum a fraud even before official results were announced. The communist regime made campaigning against the referendum nearly impossible, violently suppressing those who opposed the new constitution, according to Rosa Maria Paya, a leading activist promoting the right to self-determination for the Cuban people.
The referendum itself was marred with fraud, Paya said in an interview with The Epoch Times. Her group, Cuba Decide, documented more than 100 arrests on the day of the referendum. Nine people are still missing after being kidnapped by the special forces of the Cuban regime, she added.
“The process was twisted and illegitimate. The text itself is a violation. And the whole referendum was lacking the minimal conditions … to be credible,” Paya said.
Preliminary results showed 84.4 percent of the 8.7 million potential voters participated in the referendum, Alina Balseiro Gutierrez, president of the electoral commission, said at a Havana press conference on Feb. 25. By comparison, in 1976, when the prior constitution was ratified, 99.02 percent of voters in a 98 percent turnout reportedly voted in favor, while just 54,000 were opposed.
José Daniel Ferrer, a human-rights activist operating from Cuba, told The Epoch Times that more than 500 people with his organization who had planned to watch the counting of the ballots were prevented by police from leaving their homes. At least 78 members of his organization alone were arrested on the day of the referendum, some violently, to prevent them from observing ballot counting at the polls.
Ferrer’s observers reported officials at polling places marking ballots with “yes” and depositing them in ballot boxes and requiring that only pencils may be used to cast a ballot so votes can be changed. Some human rights activists were simply not allowed to vote, Ferrer added.
Cuba’s best-known dissident and pioneer blogger, Yoani Sanchez, who runs an online newspaper from a barrio known for its support of the government, wrote that she braved insults and yelling to witness the count in her precinct of 400 “yes” votes, 25 “no” votes, and 4 blank ballots.
“We are completely sure because we have many testimonies from observers, the results that the regime has offered are false. The abstentions and the ‘no’ votes were much higher,” Ferrer said through a translator. “The referendum was a great fraud carried out under intimidation, under many of the actions that without a doubt we can describe as state terrorism.”
The new constitution provides meager economic and social reforms while reaffirming communism as the eternal guide of the Cuban people and socialism as an irrevocable system. The regime orchestrated a months-long public approval process, holding debates throughout the country. The document proposed for the referendum was virtually identical to the draft presented before the debates.
“The new constitution primarily affirms the Communist Party’s role as the only legal political party and decrees the socialist system ‘irrevocable,’ blocking the possibility of desperately needed economic reform,” Pompeo said. “This document also fails to guarantee the Cuban people their fundamental freedoms.”
In uncharacteristic fashion, the communist regime used its total control of the media to run a massive promotional campaign for the “yes” vote, while activists were left with door-to-door tactics and social media. Hashtags backing the “yes” and “no” votes competed on Twitter.
Some 120 activists, faced with suppression of their attempts to campaign against the new constitution, went on a hunger strike, according to Pompeo.
“We strongly condemn these attempts to silence peaceful protests, which show that Cuba’s leaders fear the Cuban people,” Pompeo said.
According to Ferrer, Cubans were initially inspired by the changes in Venezuela, where the elected National Assembly declared socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro’s presidency illegitimate. Juan Guaidó declared himself the interim president, with the United States and 50 other nations recognizing his legitimacy. But Cubans are now growing worried and dispirited as Maduro continues to refuse to step down, despite international pressure.
“If more radical measures are not taken, the dictatorship will be strengthened and, together with the Havana regime, they will continue with their crimes and attempt against freedom in other nations of the continent,” Ferrer said.
Trump has said that the days of socialism and communism in South America and around the world are numbered, and suggested that changes in Venezuela will ripple to Cuba and Nicaragua. Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed Washington’s support for Guaidó at a meeting of the Lima Group in Colombia on Feb. 25.
Ferrer and Paya called on the United States to declare the constitution and the communist regime illegitimate. Both say communism synonymous with oppression and misery.
“You don’t need to convince the Cuban people that this system failed and failed in a big way,” Paya said. “Failed to meet basic human needs, respect the most basic human rights, and failed to create an environment where each Cuban can pursue happiness.”
Ferrer said, “It is synonymous with repression, political prisoners, hunger, generalized misery, backwardness, crisis in all sectors.”
Ferrer, who has advocated for freedom in Cuba since 2003, said his group will continue to fight.
“Continue fighting, continue to inform the population, continue to attract citizens to our struggle and train them in methods of nonviolent struggle,” Ferrer said. “We will continue to denounce the fraud and demand a true referendum where the people decide on their future.”
Reuters contributed to this report.