Although the issue of animal welfare and protection has been on the table for years in Cuba, with so far unfinished attempts to establish specific legislation in this regard, it has gained strength in recent times along with the claims of a growing sector of Cuban civil society.
The popular debates around the island’s new Magna Carta, approved in a referendum in February 2019, exposed to public opinion the criteria and concerns of many Cubans about the treatment of animals in the country, both by state entities as well as by society itself, and they reinforced the need for up-to-date and comprehensive legal regulations, in tune with international advances in this direction.
In this scenario, the actions of an active animal-friendly community, articulated mostly independently, which has developed numerous animal health and protection actions, has insisted on the approval of new regulations and has played an outstanding role in unprecedented events until recently on the island, such as peaceful protests and a march authorized by the government, as well as some spaces for dialogue and participation with state institutions.
At the same time, the Cuban authorities finally gave the green light to the drawing up of a state policy and the postponed draft legislation on the subject, which, conceived as a decree-law—and not as a law, as at some point it was handled and many environmentalists requested—it was initially scheduled to be approved last November and only postponed to February, as part of the readjustments made in the legislative schedule due to the pandemic.
To learn about these documents, their preparation, main elements and other issues around them, OnCuba spoke with Yobani Gutiérrez Ravelo, Director of Animal Health of the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG) and Cuba’s delegate to the World Organization for Animal Health, and with Orlando Díaz Rodríguez, Legal Director of MINAG, the entity in charge of leading the legislative construction process, who gave us details and assessments on such aspects. Below, we offer you the first of the two parts into which we divided the interview, organized according to the topics discussed at different moments of the extensive exchange held with both officials.
Animal welfare better than animal protection
Yobani Gutiérrez Ravelo (YGR): The issue of animal welfare has now become a science. Everything that is said and recommended in this regard, both in relation to affective and productive species, has been studied for about twenty years and is based on proven scientific foundations. The World Organization for Animal Health, of which Cuba has been a member since 1972—one year after the eradication of African swine fever, introduced in Cuba by the U.S.—has a group of regulations, guidelines and recommendations that member countries, although they are not obliged to comply, must observe when developing policies and strategies, even when these are adapted to the national reality. And within them this issue is addressed.
In the glossary of terms and definitions, included in the code of terrestrial animal diseases of the world organization, the concept of animal welfare is defined, which states that “animal welfare is the appropriate physical and mental state of an animal in relation to the conditions in which it lives and dies,” that is, from the birth of the animal and during its life until its death. It is a broader concept than that of animal protection, which is not even included in this glossary of terms and definitions, and which rather refers to the physical protection of the animal, that is, its physical care, while that of welfare, in addition to that protection, also includes that the animal has a good mental state. This makes it possible, in the case of pets, for them to show a natural behavior, according to the species, to the breeds, and in the case of productive species, when they are cared for and exploited under suitable conditions, those species, which are used for commercial purposes, can express their full genetic potential.
The code also defines the so-called five freedoms or five basic needs that animals must have covered to enjoy animal welfare, and this is how we have defined them in our policy and in our legal regulations. They state that the animal has to be free from thirst, free from malnutrition, free from mistreatment. Everything related to good veterinary care should be foreseen and that the animals don’t get sick, that they do not suffer injurious actions, aggressiveness, that can cause them stress, fear, and that they can finally express their innate genetic behavior, both in the affective and productive species. In the latter, studies have also been carried out and important aspects have been defined to guarantee animal welfare, which are related to production technologies, living space, rearing, feeding, nutrition, and ventilation systems, so that the animals express their best behavior.
Background of the documents being drawn up
YGR: In Cuba we are not at zero point on the issue of animal welfare. During the extensive consultation process for the approval of the new Constitution, there was a citizen claim that there be a norm that would regulate this. However, since before this, veterinarians, specialists, producers, animal lovers, had been proposing in different spaces that in Cuba we should adopt these international guidelines and work on our own legislation. For this reason, since January 2001 the National Committee for Animal Welfare was created in the country, which is made up of professionals from various fields related in one way or another to work with animals: veterinarians, microbiologists, lawyers, specialists in the Department of Flora and Fauna, academics, who were working in this direction. First, to see what regulations related to the subject already existed in Cuba, what regulations were emerging at the international level, what adjustments had to be made in the Cuban context, and also to see the training issues, how this could influence that our country work based on this. And that committee also undertook the task of working on what they called at that time an animal welfare bill, of which up to a fourth version was worked. Therefore, there has been a transition in this sense, up to the work we have developed in the last year.
On the other hand, in the Cuban veterinary regulations we have Decree-Law 137, which is the one that governs this activity in Cuba, and we also have other regulations that have been approved in the country, in which there has been an approach to animal health and welfare. But there really was no specific legal regulation on the subject, and that was a problem that we saw in the diagnosis, according to the methodology that we followed to draw up the policy and the decree-law, once the process of drawing up these documents began.
Orlando Díaz Rodríguez (ODR): Already in our current legislation we have regulated issues regarding animal welfare. When reviewing the 1993 Decree-Law 137 on Veterinary Medicine, there is mention of the issue of animal welfare. Also in Law 85, the Law on Forestry, there is a reference to this when the protection of wildlife and flora is addressed. This shows the attention and concern on the subject of the Cuban government, the State and institutions.
A previous milestone was the analysis and extensive debate of the draft Constitution. The need for a specific regulation on animal welfare was a highly raised issue in those discussions, and the work we have been doing responds to these issues. In the decree-law being drawn up, article 75 of the Magna Carta is invoked as a development regulation, which ensures that all people have the right to enjoy a healthy and balanced environment. This article says that the State protects the country’s environment and natural resources and recognizes its close relationship with the sustainable development of the economy and society, in order to make human life more rational and ensure the survival, well-being and security of current and future generations. And it is that today in international organizations they talk about the concept of a single health, and talking about animal welfare also has to do with human health, not only with physical but even with spiritual health.
The policy and the regulation, why a decree-law?
ODR: Of all strategic issues for the country, a policy is always approved first, by the Council of Ministers as the highest governing body of the Republic of Cuba, with all the constitutional powers it has. This animal welfare policy involves an interesting work, because it is based on a methodology and a diagnosis of the main problems we had on the matter. This makes it possible that, based on this diagnosis, policy definitions can be made and the legal regulation worked on. Now, what is the interrelation between the two? Well, the policy is worked on and approved and the legal regulation is also worked on for its approval. Therefore, the legal regulation, when it is promulgated and takes effect, will be the legal implementation of the policy. In other words, the decree-law on animal welfare will legally implement the policy approved for animal welfare in Cuba. This is an important milestone, because in addition to the past work of our institutions and other legislative mentions, without a doubt the novelty now is that we are going to have a specific regulation on animal welfare that will make it possible to unify the legislation and it will to also be able to tackle some new topics. For this reason, the study that has been made of comparative law is very important. We have studied the laws of other countries, of Latin America, to see a bit of the reference, but using the policy and the legal regulation appropriate to our characteristics, to the historical-concrete conditions of our country, of our culture, of our idiosyncrasy. Let us remember Marti’s phrase: “insert the world into our republics; but the trunk must be that of our republics.” This has been an important objective of the working group created to prepare the regulation.
Why a decree-law? First, it is a higher-ranking regulation, an agile regulation, which is constitutionally dictated and approved by the Council of State and then ratified by the National Assembly. This means that it has all the guarantees, in our opinion, to provide a legislative response to the issue at hand. In addition, it will also have a decree, which will be its regulation, which is where the need for a contravention order will be addressed to establish some punitive measures for those actions or omissions that transgress animal welfare.
Drawing up of the documents
YGR: In the legislative schedule approved by the National Assembly in December 2019, the issue of animal welfare was included and President Díaz-Canel himself stated that this had to be addressed. Then a working group was created at the behest of the Minister of Agriculture, since January 15, 2020, made up of 42 colleagues, a very heterogeneous group, with specialists from almost all the agencies of the Central State Administration, from other entities that have to do with the field of animal health and welfare, following the methodology that exists for this. We have studied other laws at the international level, but very tempered to the national reality, because we cannot include questions that later we cannot fulfill. The group has in turn seven subgroups for the different topics covered by the documents, which include things related to pets, productive animals, events and fairs, veterinary public health topics, animal production, specific topics of zoonosis, that is, there are many issues that are included and in which we have been working.
Already in our ministry, in the legal department and in the rest of the departments that participate in the processes of drawing up legal regulations, we have experience in this regard, which led to already having a work methodology when creating the working group for the elaboration of the policy and the decree-law. It is always based on a diagnosis of what the existing problems are and what society demands in this regard. In this case, a diagnosis was made that has around 14 fundamental problems mentioned: first, legal dispersion, because, although there are certain laws, there is no specific regulation governing this issue in Cuba. Also the educational component from early ages, from children to general and specific training for professionals in careers related to this topic. In the diagnosis, problems related to the abandonment of animals in the streets and others that have been frequent in social networks, for example, with Public Health, on the methods of capturing stray animals, their treatment and care in the observation centers, and even the methods of sacrifice if it is necessary to get to that point. In the same way, regarding the man-induced confrontation between certain species of animals, mainly dog fights, cockfights, around which there is also a lot of illegal gambling. Also the issue of the possession of pets in agricultural production facilities, which have regulations to comply with and which are often also violated and affect animal welfare. In addition, the problems that occur in fairgrounds, zoos, in the care of the animals, the indiscipline of people in complying with the regulations and procedures established for these sites. And there’s what is related to the transfer of the animals, and also to the sacrifice, how to do it, how to desensitize the animal so that the process is the least painful, something about which the international body recommends methods following scientific bases. We made a survey of all those problems detected in the diagnosis and they practically coincide with the proposals made by the population, which are very recurrent. That is why we believe that, thanks to this methodology we have applied, together with the study of comparative law, we are in a position to have a good policy and a good legal regulation in Cuba, among all the actors that participate in it, and we are quite a few, not only the MINAG, and not only have it but also implement it for the good of animals and society.
Our ministry sees to 16 associations, which are its related body, and many have to do with animal health. This is the case of the Cuban Association of Veterinary Medicine, the Association for the Protection of Animals and Plants (ANIPLANT), the National Ornithological Association, the Pigeon-breeding Federation, whose related body is the Ministry of Communications, but we have ties with it , the Canine Federation, which has its clubs, the Cat-Lovers Association, the Cuban Association for Animal Production (ACPA), for the issue of productive animals, which is also very important and has its associations. And we are interacting with all of them based on this issue and the documents that have been developed, so that each one, from its position, provides us with its approach and how animal welfare is being addressed. And there are also many people who are members of protectionist and environmental groups, such as PAC, CEDA, BAC, who have echoed this problem and have issued their proposals, have sent them to us or have even sent them to the president’s office. They even sent a draft of a draft decree-law that jurists who belong to these groups had worked on, and we have taken all these criteria into account as well. We have communicated with them, we have talked about the process, about their proposals, to take what is positive to elaborate the policy and the decree-law. In a general sense, it has been a systematic work, of review, of contact, of construction, to advance to what we have today, and I believe that professionally it has been a unique, a very beautiful experience for all of us who have participated in it.
Population’s opinions, call to legislate
ODR: The process of developing the policy and regulation has been very participatory and inclusive. From the beginning we made an opening in our social networks, on Facebook, on Twitter, we enabled an email specifically to receive opinions from the population on the subject, with a view to the construction of the policy at first. Thus, we collected various criteria, and we even received 72 proposals that a group of colleagues sent us and that we were also evaluating. And as of November we launched our call to legislate, which has a line of continuity with the initial process that we opened on our social networks and which has had a very interesting response: more than 6,000 readings at the November cutoff, and more than 1,200 comments. In that call, we published the main issues of construction of the policy and especially the decree-law, and its impact has been very positive. We have taken into consideration all the opinions that have reached our website and in our networks, they have been valued by the working group. The MINAG system of attention to the population throughout the country has also received criteria and we have had direct meetings with people interested in animal welfare, because we advocate these exchanges that can enrich the documents. In this way, we have developed a very interesting legislative construction process, which falls to the working group, but which is accompanied by the population, by their criteria and assessments. Even in the tough months of the pandemic, the group has remained active and we have continued to pay the utmost attention to the issue and the opinions that have continued to be sent to us.
YGR: As part of the process of preparing and consulting these documents with the main legislative authorities and of the country, we have received a group of recommendations, and one of them has been precisely to observe and take into account all the proposals and recommendations made by the population, by all individuals and legal entities, including persons inserted in protectionist groups who are not today recognized by the Ministry of Justice as associations, but who have also approached us and we have approached them, to exchange, share opinions, and take into account all the criteria to enrich the document and make it as complete as possible.
We have to recognize that in many of the proposals, of the messages from the population, which were first sent to the electronic addresses and platforms that we set up in the working group, we received a lot of valuable information. From the president’s office we also received complaints, claims, opinions of the people on the subject, which were sent to us, and then we opened the call to legislate, which has been very useful because people saw there not only the content of the regulation, but the structure, the chapters, the fundamental themes. The regulation will tentatively have 14 chapters and 95 articles, although these figures are not the initial ones and could vary in the final version, and then people have been following these guidelines and expressing their opinions. The work process that has been followed is that the working group follows up on all these states of opinion and with the support of the communication department of our ministry, it is analyzing every day all the information that is arriving, so that all the elements that have not been considered up to that moment are taken into account, and that people see that their opinion was attended to and their criteria may have an impact on the issue we are working on. That involves rigorous work, of systematic follow-up of all that information, and also with the legislative capacity group, to which we present the document, and then they make recommendations and five more proposals appear, then we come, we review, we collate and we again present it. This is how the documents are built as finished as possible. But I reiterate that all the people’s approaches have been taken into account in this process.
Current moment, approval of the regulation
ODR: Much progress has been made in the drawing up of the legal regulation and in this, unquestionably, the call to legislate has made a significant contribution. Therefore, we decided not to close it as initially planned, but to leave it open, to continue receiving opinions. The working group continues to work permanently, diligently, to comply with the new deadline provided in the legislative schedule due to the pandemic. We’re working on this. I want to emphasize that this is a task in which many specialties intervene, because not only the jurists are responsible for drawing up the regulation, but also many specialists who approach the subject from their various angles. That is why the presence of representatives from various institutions in the working group has been important. MINAG, due to its governing state function, has acted as a coordinating body, as an organizing body of the working group, but this is an intersectoral process. And it is also important to highlight the role of associations, among which I always highlight that of ANIPLANT, because it has been a forerunner in terms of animal welfare, in managing knowledge and accompanying the ministry, institutions and Cuban society in the approach to this issue, and in a very important role that this regulation will have, which is the educational process, forming values, because without a doubt the legal regulations will have a contraventional order, there will even be some behaviors that are going to have criminal treatment, but if the misconduct is important, it is more important to work on the preventive aspect, on the educational. And the regulation reflects this.
YGR: There are several causes for the postponement of the approval of the decree-law, which was initially scheduled for November. The 2020 scenario was not the same as every year, COVID arrived, but it must also be recognized that the call to legislate has had an important impact on the decision to postpone the approval of the regulation; that is, well, not in November, we are going to wait for people to send us all their criteria, to reinforce their state of opinion, to take it into account, and well, it took us a few more months, but we have more inclusive and finished documents.
The deadline for its approval is already defined, it was defined in the National Assembly, it is February, although we left the call open, and we are making a very great effort to close the process, because, in addition, we also have another very important document in elaboration, which is the regulation, how to apply it, the role that each body of the Central State Administration, each entity, will play once the policy and regulation are approved. We are working on that, so that Cuba has its animal welfare legislation.