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No Yes-men: Some resist Cuba government's constitution push

Cars in Havana pass a sign calling for a "yes" vote in the referendum on Cuba's new Constitution
Cars in Havana pass a sign calling for a "yes" vote in the referendum on Cuba's new Constitution AFP

Havana (AFP)

"Yes, yes, yes, yes." On the streets of Havana, it's hard to escape the government's campaign urging voters to endorse the Communist country's new Constitution in a February 24 referendum.

Billboards blare out the message "#YoVotoSi" (I vote yes) at intersections. Buses pass carrying the same line in smaller letters, and there it is again on stickers at cash machines or supermarket displays.

But on social media, some in the Caribbean island are saying "No," an act of defiance against one of the world's last Communist regimes, whose electoral processes and rights record have often been criticized by the international community.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel took to Twitter last Monday to say that in about two weeks "we will have approved the Constitution we have made together for the good of all. Cuba will be a better country, more in sync with its time. #YoVotoSi."

Immediately, someone tweeted back: "My friend, so why have a referendum?"

The new Constitution is to replace one in force since 1976. The full draft was put before neighborhood and workplace assemblies for debate between August and November, and then was amended and approved at the end of December by the National Assembly.

The government considered that a vast exercise of democracy in the one-party state.

While reaffirming that Cuba is socialist by definition, the new Constitution recognizes the market, private property and foreign investment, providing a legal basis for Cuba's economic opening that started 10 years ago.

- 'Yes' to the Revolution -

More than 590,000 Cubans or 13 percent of the workforce now work in the private sector.

The final version of the Constitution left out changes that would have paved the way for legal same-sex marriage after opposition in local assemblies.

In 1976, the Constitution was adopted by referendum with an overwhelming vote of 97.7 percent in favor, according to official figures.

Going to the polls is considered an act of sovereignty and of "revolutionary affirmation" in Cuba, where not voting is frowned upon.

Questioned about the referendum campaign, several passersby voiced such "revolutionary" sentiments, saying they are convinced by the "yes" campaign.

Sara Martinez Tamayo, 54, a doctor, sees it as a chance to "say 'yes' also to the Revolution."

For Ariel Zumaquero, 49, a physiotherapist, "if we all feel Cuban and act for this Revolution, we must go forward and all go to the ballot box to say 'yes' to Cuba."

But there is another choice, said Norges Rodriguez, coordinator of the blog which is dedicated to new technologies.

"We use public money to support a single option, while citizens can vote 'yes' or 'no,'" he said.

"This makes me doubt the credibility of the process," Rodriguez added, regretting the absence of an independent authority to verify the final referendum result.

At a United Nations review of its human rights record in Geneva last May, many foreign diplomats criticized restrictions imposed on the freedom of expression and assembly in Cuba, whose officials decried such "false allegations."

- A changing society -

Cubans who want to demonstrate opposition at voting time typically spoil their ballots.

Even trying to send the slogan "YoVotoNo" (I vote No) through telecommunications monopoly Etecsa via SMS is not possible, as the independent blog 14ymedio revealed and AFP verified.

One Twitter post likened the experience to visiting Coppelia, a favorite Havana ice cream shop, "and being able to freely choose between the vanilla flavor or vanilla."

There was no internet when Cubans voted on the 1976 Constitution, but as of December the island became one of the last countries in the world to get 3G mobile internet services. Most Cubans can't afford it, though, and will still head to the WiFi zones in public parks and squares that they have relied on for years.

However they access the net, some are using it to counter the government's message. On its Twitter profile, the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights displays a large "Yo voto no" on a red background and lists 10 reasons to vote No, particularly because it is "legal" to do so.

Social networks have also seen a flowering of photomontages of Yes signs transformed into No.

According to Rodriguez, the official "YoVotoSi" campaign is a response to "YoVotoNo" voices online.

"The government's worry is precisely the impact that (the No campaign) can have on the vote," he said.

But "I think it must understand that society has changed, people start to think more freely, are informed in different ways..., and look at the internet."

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