Sunday, 9 March 2008

Democracy in Cuba - Thomas Swann

Democracy Cuban Style

At a conference on democracy in Cuba, the former Presidents of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, wrote in a joint statement that 'freedom, democracy, and prosperity in Cuba depend on the support for Cuban dissidents, the better the chances for a future peaceful transition of the Cuban society to democracy.' In response to Václav Havel, Arpád Goncz and Lech Walesa's comments, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said that 'what you have in Cuba is a very specific model of revolution. In the grassroots in Cuba, there are constant elections that take place.' Similarly, political scientists have taken sides on the issue with opinions of the democratic system ranging from descriptions of a dictatorship in which elections are a sham, to a proper democracy characterised by its reliance on popular participation. What is clear in the midst of this debate is that in Cuba there exists a political system which is so radically different to those which dominate most of the world, that many find it hard to understand and articulate.

The democratic process in Cuba takes place in three stages over a period of several months. The culmination of the latest round is due to take place on Sunday the 24th of February with the election of the Council of State. This is the highest governing body in the country and is headed by the president and is composed of ministers elected by the National Assembly of People's Power. While it is probably unfair to compare the Cuban system with the British form of liberal democracy, the Council of State could be seen as somewhat similar to the cabinet, with the difference that its members are elected as opposed to appointed. The National Assembly occupies a similar position as the parliament does in Britain. There are, however, significant differences between the Cuban system and the one we may be more familiar with. The best place to begin in attempting to get a grasp of the distinctions and the workings of Cuban democracy is at the bottom.

On the 1st of September last year, the first stage of the process began, Asamblea de Rendicion de cuantas para elegin al delegado, the nominations of candidates for the Municipal Assembly. This activity is organised on a local community level, with districts of no more than a few streets putting forward individuals who will stand in an election for the local administrative bodies. Meetings of between 30 and 100 citizens vote openly on who among them they consider best able to represent their interests in the Municipal Assemblies. As Maria Esther Reus, Minister of Justice and President of the National Electoral Commission, explained in Granma International, the weekly foreign language paper, 'Those nomination meetings are a key moment in the island's electoral process. Because, it is just in this period when active participations in general elections is made material, in addition to ensuring a broad scenario for the political exercise of the population.'

When I visited Cuba in September, I attended one of the nomination meetings in the town of Guayabal, around thirty kilometers West of the capital Havana. The town was split into three areas, each comprising no more than a few streets. At 8:00 in the evening, people started to congregate around the one house in the street which had working lights; there had been a power cut since the early afternoon. After an introductory speech was heard and the national anthem played the nominations began. By this point the power even to this one house had failed and the street was lit with a car's headlamps. About fifty people were assembled. The process was brief but effective with two citizens being nominated. Members of the assembled community simply shouted out the names of those they wanted to nominate. The named individuals then stepped forward before the small crowd. A vote of hands ratified the selection and the paperwork was completed, finalising the process. One of the nominated candidates, Raul Estevez Garcia, was interviewed by two Italian journalists. He thought he had been nominated because of the effort he had put into channeling the local community's needs and complaints during the most recent hurricane strike on the island. He seemed almost embarrassed to have been selected as a candidate for election, an honour individuals cannot refuse.

'More than 50,600 assemblies will take place.' Reus added. 'After the last is held, the aspirants' biographies will be made public, the sole electoral propaganda allowed by law.' A general election by secret ballot then decides who from among those nominated by the local assemblies take seats in the 315 Municipal Assemblies. There are around 15000 delegates elected into these positions. These assemblies then select from amongst their ranks candidates for both the Provincial Assemblies and the National Assembly of People's Power. In the second of these, the National Assembly, there are 614 seats to be taken up by members selected through the process described above as well as from other blocs which include representatives of the Federation of University Students, the Women's organisation, and the Cuban Trade Union Congress.

A slate of candidates for the National Assembly is drawn up which registers the nominations made by the Municipal Assemblies and the various other groups involved. This slate contains one nomination for every seat and so it is not the case that voters are asked to choose between competing candidates as they are at the municipal level. Rather, they are asked to ratify the recommendations of elected representatives. In this sense, it would be better to describe this stage of the process as a referendum given that the electorate votes to either accept or reject the slate presented. Voters can either decide on candidates individually or opt for a 'united vote' where the whole slate is judged as a whole. This stage of the democratic process took place on the 20th of January.

Granma International reported that '8,231,365 Cubans cast their ballots, the equivalent of 96.89% of registered eligible voters. 7,839,358 ballots cast (95.24%) were valid, and 7,125,752 of these (91%) responded to the appeal for a "united vote" for all candidates nominated for the National Assembly. Blank ballots cast totaled 3.73% (306,791) and spoiled ballots, 1.04% (85,216).'

The final stage, where the National Assembly elects the Council of State is due to take place in a number of days. This will determine Cuba's President, Vice-President, and heads of government ministries. Despite this process, which begins at the local level and culminates at the national, and is characterised throughout by participation and independence from state authority, critics will no doubt continue to denounce Cuba as a one-party state. However, as the above should have made clear, this is a claim that makes little sense in the democratic system that exists there. The Communist Party of Cuba plays no role in selecting candidates, and given that members of the various institutions of People's Power advertise no party affiliations, talk of political parties does not appear to be coherent in the Cuban context.

Brian Pollitt has commented that during the 1990s and beyond, 'despite great hardships and considerable social tensions, the regime was evidently still sustained by a sufficient body of popular support.' This was and is because of the direct participation that is offered to Cubans in the decision making process of their country.

Voices from Cuba

In the current electoral process in Cuba, the government has placed a greater emphasis than ever on involving young people in the democratic system at all levels. The elections in January resulted in an average age of elected deputies falling to 49 and more than 56% of the National Assembly being born after the beginning of the Revolution in 1959. During my recent visit, I took the opportunity to speak to a number of young people about their political involvement and their opinions of the system in Cuba.

At a formal level, the Cuban youth is represented through both the relevant wing of the Communist Party, the Young Communist League (YCL), and the Federation of University Students (FEU). FEU representatives are selected from classroom or 'brigade' level and councils exists at university level and higher, all the way up to the National Assembly. The president of the FEU at the Universidad Hermanos Saiz, described the role the group plays in the university. 'The FEU is part of the directorate of the university. To be able to enjoy our studies, we must be able to follow the administration of the university. There can't be arguments between the staff and the students. To avoid this, the representative of each brigade is a member of the directorate and so has a say in the structure of the university.'

The FEU celebrates its 85th anniversary this December after being founded in the 1920s by Julio Antonio Mella, also a founder of the Communist Party of Cuba. A representative of the FEU from the Universidad de la Habana (University of Havana), Yankiet Echeuarria, outlined the federations motivations. 'The youth should be able to think for themselves without the interference of external systems. Our only commitments are to Julio Antonio Mella, to the Revolution, and to Cuba. We have to reflect the voices of university students in criticising and providing solutions to problems.' Rafael Gómez Castillo, a 3rd year computing sciences student at the University of Havana, spoke of how he 'participates in every activity – political, educational, and social.' Despite this being true of many students, and the existence of the FEU and many organisations like it, the general feeling amongst those of university age in Cuba is one of apathy.

Another student in Havana, a 1st year studying philosophy, painted a far more bleak picture of political engagement among Cuba's youth. It is a picture that isn't a million miles away from the state of democratic participation in contemporary Britain. 'Young people believe in the Revolution but there are some things that are not right. The transport and the prices in the supermarket. Cubans' minds have changed in the last fifteen years. We have seen so many things. Young people, not all, but most, what they want is to go out with their friends and to have fun. They don't want to get involved because it means more responsibility.' Opinions on the causes of this apathy seem to be divided however. The student quoted above blamed it on the poor performance of the bureaucratic civil service, plagued by corruption in recent years. 'There are liars. Not in the government but between the people and the government.' Another student, from the town of Pinar del Rio, where the Univarsidad Hermanos Saiz is situated, talked differently. 'A lot of people blame Fidel for our problems but I don't. I blame the American blockade. Cuba has no choice but to buy things like rice at high prices.'

Whatever the features of Cuban society that have led to such disengagement from politics are, it is clear from Cuba's democratic structure, which permeates the lives of young people in their school, university, and social surroundings, that their direct involvement is by no means barred. The avenues for participation remain open to young people as they do for all sectors of society. Indeed, the change that may result from the democratic system has been a topic of discussion throughout the country. On the 19th of February, Fidel (always referred to by his first name in Cuba), the current President, declared that he would not accept another term as commander in chief. His age and recent illness have caused many to point towards someone younger being elected to the position he has held since the mid 1970s. In a letter printed in the Cuban edition of Granma, Fidel wrote, 'it would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total devotion, that I am not in a physical condition to offer.'

'Fidel is a good man and has good intentions. He's very, very intelligent. I think nothing will happen when he dies. He's not been President for thirteen months.' said the philosophy student from Havana. As for Fidel's brother, currently acting President (a role prescribed for the Vice-President by the Cuban constitution in the event of the President being unable to fulfill his duties), 'we don't know much about Raul. He was head of the army. That is all we know.' Some commentators have suggested Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque as a likely candidate for the presidency, with others tipping current acting Vice-President Carlos Large. It would be inappropriate, however, for outsiders to make such predictions. Ultimately, we will have to wait until Sunday to discover who the National Assembly has selected to lead the country for the next session.

Echeuarria, the FEU representative from Havana, clarified the ideological underpinnings of the Cuban Revolution and the decentralised democratic system of People's Power that rests finally on personal responsibility. 'Action is in man's hand, not in the hand of the divine. The divine is in man's ability to do good.'

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