Democracy in Cuba

On the occasion (June 29, '99) of a Brecht Forum book party for "Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-1998 Elections," the author, Canadian Arnold August, remarked that there is no other story that is more censored than this. In the period leading up to the elections, AP filed 69 stories from Cuba, but only 2 dealt with the elections. But AP chose not even to distribute them. CNN was no better. They have a state-of-the-art website that includes a section on elections worldwide. There was no mention of Cuba. To confirm this press blackout for myself, I accessed Lexis-Nexis with the keywords "Cuba" and "elections". Of the 562 items returned, this June 2, 1998 Financial Times was typical:

An agreement between the EU and US over sanctions on CUBA, announced with great fanfare two weeks ago, is in serious jeopardy in Congress. Unless the House and Senate amend the Helms-Burton law, designed to discourage foreign investment in Cuba, the EU-US deal will come unstuck...

Greg Mastel, an economic and foreign policy analyst with the Washington-based Economic Strategy Institute, said it will be increasingly difficult for the administration to work with Congress as the autumn mid-term ELECTIONS approach, but there could be "a window of opportunity" early next year. "It's possible to get things done in Congress which Mr Helms opposes; it happens all the time," he said. "But it isn't easy, particularly on issues like this, where he is willing to fight." ===

But nothing about the Cubans participating in their own elections. This is the goal of August's book, to show the Cuban electoral process in action. He is the first non-Cuban to be allowed to monitor and write about this process. As such, his book is an important weapon in the defense of Cuba's sovereignty. It will allow her friends to answer the lies of the Toricelli and Helms-Burton act supporters. Their justification for economic blockade is the lack of "democracy". August's book refutes this lie.

August defines democracy in the same sense as Ellen Meiksins Wood does in "Democracy Against Capitalism": rule by the majority where the common people exercise power. He adds that this is also the same definition that can be found in Webster's Dictionary.

The first stirrings for democracy in Cuba date back to October 10, 1868 when the fight for independence from Spain began. In this struggle for power, slaves became part of the fight for the first time as political and social emancipation were intertwined. At Guaymaro, in the eastern part of the island, a group of 15 delegates drafted the first democratic constitution.

Meanwhile the United States had its own ideas about the particular forms democracy should take in Cuba. In the first "humanitarian intervention" in its history, US imperialism intervened in Cuba in order to thwart the ambitions of the sickly Spanish empire. Its goal was to bring Cuba and its rich resources under its own control using the excuse of Spanish depravity.

In order to safeguard its economic interests, a "two-party" system proved useful. Enlisting the support of the Cuban upper class, two electoral parties were imposed on the Cuban people based on "reform" and "stability." They traded places periodically when one or the other became too unpopular. The mafia, as depicted in the great movie "Godfather Part 2," was another important financial base for the two parties.

This system persisted from 1895 to 1959 when Fidel Castro decided that the essence of democracy was not being respected. He struggled to empower ordinary workers and farmers, who would provide the new social base of the revolution. After nearly sixty years of a "multi-party" system, the Cuban people were not anxious to set up a carbon copy of what they had just overthrown. They voted with their bodies and their guns.

Within the parameters of the socialist revolution, there were important measures to institutionalize democracy including elections. The 1974 electoral laws were primarily responsible for giving shape to the voting procedures that August writes about. In particular, August examined the operations of municipal elections in the period from June 1997 to February, 1998.

For the Cubans the term municipality has a somewhat definition than we use in the US, where New York City is considered a municipality. Havana, Cuba's largest city, is not a municipality. Instead, it is considered a province and contains 15 municipalities within its borders. August's book is a study of the elections in one such municipality in Havana, and in particular, one of the 104 wards contained therein. This ward, number 12, is about 8 square blocks and is home to 1,291 citizens. They are entitled to one municipal delegate.

Candidates were nominated in a public gathering, usually consisting of 500 people. Any citizen has the right to nominate any other. Personal integrity and the respect of the community are decisive factors in selecting a candidate. Once candidates are selected, photos and biographies are posted in public areas. Candidates need no money to run, nor for that matter is it allowed. A typical biography for the ward being surveyed:

"The biography of Jesús Pastor Garcia Brigos tells the voters that he was born in Havana in 1961 from a working-class background, and that as a husband and father to two girls he works as a researcher with the Institute Of Philosophy at the CITMA (Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment) after having completed his doctorate in Philosophy. He is a member of the Comité de Defensa de la Revolución, the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, Civil Defense and the Territorial Militia. His biography reveals him as a person active since 1969, first in the youth movement in the late 1960s to later on being secretary of his union local at the place of work in the 1980s, as well as carrying out voluntary work such as contributing to build the Pan American Olympic site. In addition to being elected as delegate to the Municipal Assembly of Plaza de la Revolución since 1986, as well having been elected in the past to the Provincial Assembly of Ciudad de la Habana, most of his current work has been dedicated to writing and speaking nationally and internationally on the development and improvement of democracy in Cuba and especially the two distinct themes of governing and the electoral process."

(Now why can't we get decent candidates like this in the United States?)

On October 19, 1998 voting by secret ballot yielded 515 municipal delegates. The national assembly is also fully democratic but nominations are carried out by mass organizations and citizens committees. 1.6 million people were consulted by the citizens committee and 60,000 were put forward on the first electoral list. Cuba uses computers to allow review of the candidates and their records, including Fidel Castro himself who received 98% of the vote in the last election. Another sign of the popularity of socialism, despite the hardships imposed by imperialism, is that no more than 10 percent of the ballots were spoiled, a protest that anti-Communist groups urged.

During the discussion period, I challenged August with a tough question even though I am a partisan of the Cuban revolution. I hoped that a forthright answer would help me in my solidarity work. I wondered if the most important elections in Cuba were not the ones he was reporting on, but the ones that took place at Communist Party conventions. After decisions are made at the convention, isn't it the responsibility of the Communists under the strictures of democratic centralism to promote the party line in mass organizations?

His reply yielded some interesting information about the direction that Cuba had taken toward "openness" prior to "glasnost". In the 1980s, long before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban leadership had become concerned about problems of bureaucracy that might threaten the roots of socialism itself. In order to root these problems out, they made a decision to shift as much decision-making power as possible to the masses themselves, many of whom are not Communist Party members. This led to the adoption of electoral reforms in 1992-93 and, more importantly, calls by the Cuban leadership for more popular participation:

The crisis which broke out in eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. only served to further highlight the significance of the changes already being brought about in Cuba based on its own experience. After having carried out changes to rectify problems in the economy and political process, another move was initiated for the 'perfeccionamiento' of, amongst other things, the political process. Once again not only was it the party which catalyzed the sentiment of the people to deal with this issue, but it was this organization and its leadership which was most adamant in insisting that the people vent their feelings and opinions so that the party can deal with the problems adequately. Gail Reed, in her book on the fourth party congress, provides an account of how the call of the party for the congress was distributed massively amongst the people for discussion, but was almost immediately followed by an abrupt halt. This did not take place because issues were raised which may have irked the party and the leadership, as the prevailing prejudices would have it. On the contrary, the party was disappointed that not enough open, frank, pluralistic debates and discussions were taking place. The party was not interested in discussion for the sake of formality. And so the call and the procedure was re-issued by the party declaring that "...the limits of discussion cannot be fixed beforehand... Our Party should understand that the call’s discussion has a dual purpose: on the one hand, it is a real consultation, where people can express different views; and on the other hand, it is a process of political clarification.... What is needed is a dialogue, a confrontation of ideas, where the most convincing, best argued and defended, win out."

Arnold August's book is available from and is strongly recommended for activists and scholars who view the Cuban revolution as one of the continuing great legacies of socialism in the 20th century and a model for the one that is approaching.

Louis Proyect