August 14, 2011

Democracy in Cuba

A woman votes in a Cuban election.

Reprinted from Green-Left Weekly

Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-98 Elections
By Arnold August
Editorial Jose Marti, Havana Cuba, 1999. 410 pp.
Canada Distribution and Publishing

Book review

Ever wanted an accurate description of Cuba's socialist democracy? Or to know how the Cuban People's Power structures work?

Tracing democracy in Cuba from the struggle against Spanish and US colonialism to the present, August Arnold breathes clarity into a discussion distorted by the US propaganda offensive. This book is significant and should be on every revolutionary's bookshelf.

While most other Spanish colonies were rising up in the 1880s, the Cuban Creole elite, fearing the 40% slave population, kept the Spanish, and their military might, onside. Hence, the 1868 First War of Independence failed due to the division in its leadership.

August chronicles the 1895 Second War of Independence, under the principled leadership of Jose Marti, which challenged the inherent conservatism of the Creole elite. However, on the eve of a Cuban victory in 1898, the US entered the war and brought elections under military rule.

The US forced the infamous Platt Amendment on the newly elected Cuban parliament by only one vote, in June 1901. The amendment gave the US the right to intervene "for the preservation of Cuban independence and the maintenance of a stable government adequately protecting life, property and individual liberty".

From 1901 to 1952 Cuba was subjected to farcical US-backed elections in which politicians bribed, beat and rigged their way into parliament. US investment dominated the economy. By 1926 the majority of the sugar crop was produced by US mills. Twenty-two per cent of all land and 90% of all electrical power were in the hands of the US.

The Cuban masses did not take US subjugation lying down. As August explains, the most nerve-racking period for US was the 1933 uprising. The Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) was a significant political force. A strike wave was followed by a military takeover led by Fulgencio Batista.

Strikes continued in the 1940s and '50s, and both Liberal and Conservative governments lost credibility and the ability to hold back change. In 1952 Batista's behind the scenes role ended; he took power and a period of open dictatorship ensued.

In 1953 a group of revolutionaries attacked the Moncada Barracks and the July 26 Movement was born. Fidel Castro, arrested, gave the famous "History will absolve me" speech in the courtroom and inspired the nation to fight its neo-colonial oppressors.

Democracy in Cuba explains the democratic structures of the Cuban Revolution as evolving during the struggle against Batista. In the liberated areas in the countryside (1954-59), the revolutionaries adopted new laws and introduced the first Workers and Peasant Congresses. Illiteracy in these areas was eradicated and agrarian reform initiated.

Mass participation

After the victory in January 1959, revolutionary militias were formed, the workers and peasants learning military skills. Revolutionary tribunals delivered justice to Batista cronies and army officials. The gradual transfer of economic power into the hands of the people included land reform: holdings were restricted to 1000 hectares, with a few exceptions. Between August and October 1960, 41% of land was expropriated, 95% of industry was nationalised, 98% of construction, 95% of transport, 75% of retail and 100% of wholesale trade.

Castro said at the time ,"To the people whose desperate paths through life have been paved with the bricks of betrayals and false promises, we were not going to say: 'We will eventually give you what you need', but rather, 'Here, have it, fight for it with all your might so that liberty and happiness may be yours'."

Between January and September 1959, about 1500 decrees and laws were enacted. Urban rent was reduced 30-50%; telephone and electricity rates were reduced. Canecutters' wages were increased 15%. The unemployed received jobs, and discrimination against blacks was outlawed.

August explains that masses of ordinary Cubans were involved and leading the revolution; this was made clear in the mass assemblies the provisional government held.

The first, on January 17, attended by more than 1 million Cubans, called on the people to defend the revolution and to decide what to do with Batista's agents.

The next, on January 22, examined the prospect of elections. More than 1 million Cubans attended and booed down the elections proposal. August explains, "In the minds of the people, elections were associated with the neo-colonial regime's multi-party system or the even more fraudulent elections under the open dictatorship, the last of which took place in 1958".

The First Havana Declaration, of September 2, 1960, was discussed at another mass assembly. "The National General Assembly of the People of Cuba expresses its conviction that democracy cannot consist only in an electoral vote, which is almost always fictitious and handled by big landlords and professional politicians, but in the rights of citizens to decide, as this Assembly of the People is now doing, their own destiny."

At this meeting another proposal for elections was put to the people. People spontaneously chanted for over seven minutes against the holding of elections. More than 1 million people voted to approve the Havana Declaration.

Local governments were reorganised, representatives of the mass organisations being elected to local bodies. The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), created in September 1960, in the wake of sabotage and US threats, organised and mobilised the people. In 1972 CDRs included 70% of the Cuban population.

The book cites the 1970 failure to meet the target 10 million ton sugar harvest as the catalyst for further institutionalising the revolution.

The Cuban assessment was that workers' decision-making at the local level had been increasingly reduced to a symbolic level. It was acknowledged that the party had placed too much emphasis on the day-to-day running of the state and economic enterprises to the detriment of its role as a moral and political authority.

August documents the 1970s revamping of mass organisations and a clarification of the PCC's role. In many administrative positions workers began to replace PCC cadre.

After a May 1970 pilot election project in the province of Matanzas, a new constitution was discussed in the mass organisations and in workplaces. After this consultation, a referendum was held in which 98% of the population voted, 97.7% approving the constitution.

Elections took place across the country in 1976. By the 1980s, one-third of the national economy was under the supervision of local municipal assemblies. Between 1977 and 1983 local industries under such supervision tripled the value of their output.

Mass meetings did not end with the introduction of elections to the Organs of People's Power. Mass workplace meetings took place during the 1986 "rectification" period. During the economic crisis in the '90s, more than 3.5 million Cubans participated in 80,000 assemblies in which 1 million speakers took the floor, raising 500 issues.

Local assemblies

August witnessed the 1997-98 elections in Cuba and gives a detailed account of the process.

The electoral system has a broadly pyramidal structure. Delegates are elected by the people to the municipal (local), provincial (10-15 municipalities) and national assemblies. All delegates are accountable and recallable by the people who elected them.

Most delegates don't receive a wage and continue their original job while working as a delegate. The paid delegates receive an average worker's wage. Hence there are no material privileges in becoming a delegate.

Anyone who is over 16, and neither in prison nor deemed mentally unfit, can vote and become a delegate. All voting is voluntary.

Elections to the local municipal assemblies take place every two and a half years; delegates to the national and provincial assemblies are elected for a five-year term. All delegates to all levels are directly elected; prior to 1992, only municipal delegates were directly elected.

Local assemblies take care of housing, food, health and education and have an important political role: involving the people in day to day running of their system.

The local municipal assemblies are subdivided into constituencies for elections. An average constituency in Havana covers six small blocks. Voting takes place in electoral colleges which are small enough for people to come, register and see who is registered to vote. On average there are 300 people per college.

For nomination meetings for municipal elections, constituencies are divided into smaller areas, with 100 or so people. Nominations come from the floor. Meetings are held where people live, in the street, park or meeting hall. Anyone can turn up, but only registered persons can vote.

At least two people must be nominated. Voters can nominate people not in their nomination area. By law, political motivations have to follow nominations.

The nominees submit a one-page biography, including a description of how they view the role of delegate, which is placed in the electoral colleges for all to see. Most of the people in the constituency know the nominees already, and the biographies stand as a reminder. No money enters the elections, and there's no number-crunching preselection process.

By law, the PCC has no formal role in the electoral process. Contrary to US propaganda, anyone can be elected to the Cuban parliament. People vote for candidates who are known to them, and whom they have listened to and questioned. Candidates are elected on the basis of the role they have played in the community and the work they have done in society.

On election day Cubans show their identity cards at the electoral colleges, and the vote takes place under the eyes of schoolchildren. In October 1997, 97.59% of the population voted. Only 3.98% of ballots were spoiled and 3.23% blank. Only 47.65% of the delegates were re-elected.
Provincial and national elections

Provincial assemblies oversee roads, child-care, education and health. The National Assembly, made up of 601 delegates, meets twice a year and has permanent working bodies which meet daily or weekly. The NA elects the 31 members of the Council of State, which meets during the times the NA is not sitting.

Delegates to the provincial and national assemblies are often national leaders in their fields — from sports to journalism to medicine to politics. They are nominated, not primarily by local meetings, but by meetings of mass organisations and workplaces and neighbourhoods. The process is overseen by candidacy commissions at municipal, provincial and national levels.

The National Candidacy Commission, prior to 1992s, was headed by someone appointed by the PCC. Now, the head of the Cuban Trade Union Federation heads it. The commissions cannot be headed by anyone who is a candidate. Mass organisations, particularly the CDRs, appoint activists to the candidacy commissions.

The commissions are required to consult as many people as possible. In 1997 there were 60,000 nominations from the consultation process. A list of the 300 people most nominated is taken back to the mass organisations, neighbourhoods and workplaces to see what support it gets. When that process is over, the list is taken to the newly elected municipal assembly and voted upon.

The municipal assembly can reject the 300 nomination slate in full or in part and can nominate other people. All pre-candidates must get 50% or more of the vote; if the 50% isn't reached, then the municipal candidacy commission must propose other candidates.

After the vote, the candidates are allocated districts. Electoral districts are proposed by the municipal candidacy commission; not all delegates live in the district they're assigned.

Some of the candidates are well known, but even if that is the case, all must meet with workers and students, and go to workplace and neighbourhood meetings, so people have a chance to meet and question them. Biographies of candidates are placed in the electoral colleges so people can read them at their leisure.

After almost two months of nominees meeting with the people, election day arrives. There are two ballots: one for deputies to the National Assembly and the other for the provincial assembly. In January 1998, 98.5% of the eligible population voted.

Of the 601 delegates elected, 166 were women. One hundred and eighty-nine delegates were between the ages of 18 and 40, 374 were between the ages of 41 and 60, and 38 deputies were older than 60.

August argues that the Cuban workers have political and economic power, and that this is the basis for any real democracy. However, it would have been useful to consider such influences on Cuba's democratic structures as the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution before Stalin consolidated power.

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