Cubans search their names in lists as they prepare to cast their vote on Cuba’s new constitution in Havana, against the backdrop of an image of late Revolution leader Fidel Castro.

Cuba’s vote for a new Constitution was characterised by an unusual level of opposition as well as an unprecedented unity among churches.

Nearly 87% of the voters approved a new Constitution in a referendum held last Sunday (24 February), while about 15 percent stayed at home and more than 700,000 people voted against it.

Such a level of dissent is remarkable in the one-party country, even if it does not challenge the Communist regime. Still, “when you create a precedent that people can mobilize politically to pursue policy differences with the government, it’s not so easy to put that genie back in the bottle,” William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University and a specialist in United States-Cuba relations told the New York Times.

Churches, feeling that their concerns had not been taken into account in drafting the final text, started an un-official campaign to address constitutional issues including marriage, the weakening of language on religious freedom and freedom of conscience. They were joined by other socially more conservative members of society, as The Guardian reported.

“For the first time ever in Cuba, Christians formed a united front in defense of Christian values and religious freedom in the nation,” said Rosanna Ramirez, an analyst with Open Doors International’s World Watch Research unit.

“Opposition to elements of the new Constitution made allies of Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Assemblies of God churches, and many in the Catholic Church. Such a united front will help the Christian voice gain greater influence in society despite all government intimidation,” she told World Watch Monitor.

The government called them ‘anti-revolutionaries’ and put pressure on church leaders, including threats of arrest and intimidation, to support the new Constitution, as reported by CSW.

“The government sees the acceptance of the new Constitution as a sign of patriotism and support for the Cuban Revolution. For this reason, all who expressed discontent with the new draft and called for stronger constitutional protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief are viewed as ‘saboteurs’ and ‘counterrevolutionaries’ by the regime,” Ramirez said.

The Cuban Church has suffered a great deal of repression and persecution under the decades-long rule by the Castro family. The new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, although the first outside the Castro clan to lead the government, is not seen as a reformer.