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Tuesday, June 27, 2006


It's already against the law to burn an American flag...in Cuba!

With a debate going on in the U.S. Congress over amending the Constitution to ban flag-burning, all of a sudden I'm seeing in numerous places this statement: "Right now, Cuba, China, and Iran are the only other countries to ban flag desecration." This is the kind of meme that simply gets copied from website to website without any actual verification. Indeed, you can tell how valid it is by just looking at the Think Progress cite just cited, whose link goes to the Congressional Record which also includes Iraq and Haiti (with "life imprisonment at forced labor"!) in the list. Wikipedia cites several other countries, including Hong Kong and Ireland [and in the comments, a reader adds India to the list]. So the rapidly spreading assertion that "Cuba, China, and Iran are the only other countries to ban flag desecration" is just flat-out incorrect.

Since I have a special interest in Cuba, though, I decided to investigate the laws in that country, just to see what the truth was. The Congressional Record says "As Senator Feingold noted, penalties range from one year of imprisonment in Cuba..." Is that true? Not exactly. This page purports to be the complete and current legal code of Cuba, and I don't see any reason to believe it isn't. Here is one section, in the original Spanish and then in translation:

ARTÍCULO 203. El que ultraje o con otros actos muestre desprecio a la bandera, el himno o al escudo nacionales, incurre en sanción de privación de libertad de tres meses a un año o multa de cien a trescientas cuotas.

ARTICLE 203. Anyone that outrages or with other acts shows scorn to the national flag, the anthem or to the national crest, incurs sanction of deprivation of freedom from three months to one year or fines from hundred to three hundred cuotas.
So for starters, we see that Feingold's claim that the penalty in Cuba is "one year of imprisonment" is the maximum penalty; the minimum is a simple fine.

But there's more, as we find out two articles later:

ARTÍCULO 205. El que arranque, destruya o en cualquier forma ultraje la bandera, insignias u otro símbolo oficial de un Estado extranjero, expuesto públicamente por una representación acreditada de ese Estado, incurre en sanción de privación de libertad de uno a tres meses o multa hasta cien cuotas.

ARTICLE 205. Anyone that tears down, destroys or in any form insults the flag, national insignia or another official symbol of a foreign State, exhibited publicly by an accredited representation of this State, incurs sanction of deprivation of freedom from one to three months or fines up to a hundred cuotas.
The sentence is lighter (no surprise, really), but it is, in fact, illegal to burn the U.S. flag (or any other) in Cuba. Interestingly enough, Wikipedia says the same is true in Denmark, where it is illegal to desecrate the flag of other countries, but not the Danish flag.

Should I renounce the Cuban law? Hardly. I don't know the history of the legislation, nor whether it has ever been applied. But, in the context of a small country 90 miles away from the most powerful country in the world, whose stated policy (and one which very much exists in deed as well as word) is "regime change" in the small country, I would guess that flag desecration is very much in the classic category of shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater, with overtones of treason. The context of such a law (or Constitutional Amendment) in the United States is completely different.

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