Democracy for Cubans and Americans
by Tom Crumpacker
(with comments by Karen Wald [KW])
Last May our President said in Miami that the purpose of his policy towards Cuba is to bring democracy to the Cuban people. He said he would consider ending the embargo and our other attempts to isolate Cuba if Cubans would hold free and fair elections with multiparty candidates and comply with several other political conditions he requires. His interest in fair elections and democracy for Cubans is commendable, but if he is also interested in these benefits for Americans, it might be useful for him to compare how the differing political systems functioned in the recent elections (November 5, 2002, US House of Representatives and January 19, 2003, Cuba National Assembly.)
In both countries, voting is by secret ballot, voluntary, and open to all adult citizens. In US we have two so-called political parties, both funded primarily by increasingly centralized and powerful commercial enterprise. No longer value based, they function primarily as fundraisers and accounting firms for the candidates, who are elected on the basis of their celebrity, incumbency and financial backing - which allows them access to the mass media (funded by the same business enterprise) conditioned on their thinking and talking within the ever narrowing "mainstream." The formation of alternative, value-based parties is prevented by excluding them from the mass media and public debates.
For Cubans the last century was a long struggle for nationhood and national dignity. They had extensive experience with the multiparty system under US tutelage in the first part of the century, when they were a virtual US plantation (by the 1950's over 75% of Cuban economic production property was owned or controlled by US commercial interests). They have learned from bitter experience that their continued liberation depends entirely on their national unity whereas political division makes them vulnerable to manipulation and economic domination by US businesses and their former rulers who now live in US as part of the Cuban-American community. They have therefore forged a non-partisan political system, which preserves their sovereignty and independence with institutions, which seek to achieve democracy by participatory consensus rather than class warfare. Electoral parties in our sense are not involved in Cuban politics. The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) is not involved in elections, rather it's an organization of activists (about 15% of adults are members) which has the constitutional mandate to promote social consciousness and the long-term revolutionary goals for the whole nation. The Cuban constitution was approved in 1976 by 97% of voters out of more than 90% eligible, amended significantly in 1992 by more than 2/3 of an elected National Assembly as required, and made irrevocable by a vote of eight million eligibles (more than 4/5 of the adult population) in June, 2002.
The US House is supposedly our democratic legislative body with elections every two years - originally intended to ensure that our 435 "representatives" (career politicians) would be responsive to the people who elect them. Their public media-driven campaigns of self-promotion have become incredibly expensive and lengthy, if not continuous. Because the primary factors involved in their decision-making are personal – obtaining and retaining their offices (their careers bring them power and wealth) - the American people have discovered that they are in reality representing the powerful private interests which fund them rather than their constituents, and that voting for major party candidates does not remedy the situation.
In last November's US House elections, over 90% of the seats were uncontested or not seriously contested and overall about 39% of those eligible voted, producing another landslide for incumbents. The so-called parties had in the state legislatures in previous years gerrymandered the US congressional districts to make most of the seats virtual lifetime appointments, thereby promoting responsiveness to private rather than public interests. Our members of Congress have become experts in obtaining and retaining their seats by avoiding clear-cut votes on fundamental or controversial issues and disguising their real positions regarding these matters. As a result these issues never get finally decided and we don't move on. For example instead of declarations of war (for which we could hold them accountable) we get vague resolutions. What and when questions are brought up for voting or decision, and how these are framed, are matters determined by a very few powerful men called party "leaders." We keep getting the same issues reargued year after year with no final decision, like income tax change, campaign finance, abortion rights, gun control, social security, Medicare coverage for medicine, Cuba embargo, etc., and we often find that members have voted neither way or both ways on various aspects of these complex matters so that we can't determine where they really stand. Our Congress has become essentially unresponsive and dysfunctional, which serves only the interests of the businesses which fund it.
The Cuban National Assembly deals with legislative and constitutional matters, has 601 members (there are now 609 instead of the previous 601 deputies in the National Assembly. KW) who serve for five years, up to 50% are chosen from previously elected municipal delegates (elected locally for 2 _ year terms) and the rest are chosen by national candidate commissions (from which PCC is excluded) in a process which takes many months and involves consultations with and groups representing millions of people, such as the trade unions, the women's federation, the small farmers unions, the student federations, the teachers and professional, health care and other mass organizations. The idea is to obtain a slate of national representatives who are a "mirror of the nation." All seats in the Assembly must be contested (usually there are several candidates) and to be elected a candidate must receive at least 50% of the vote (this line should be modified. That refers to district and provincial levels of Poder Popular. He might have been referring to the fact, which he previously partially explained, that there are many candidates proposed for each of the seats that finally are presented as the 609 member slate. But once those 609 candidates are selected by the municipal delegates and the electoral commission, there is only one candidate for each seat. That candidate must receive 50% of the votes in order to be elected. If a candidate did not receive 50%, the commission would have to come up with a new candidate that did have enough popular backing. That is one of the reasons the government urges voting for the slate as a whole, while reserving the right of voters to vote one by one for the 609 candidates. Voting for the slate as a whole helps lesser known candidates who were proposed and clearly highly regarded in their own local area, but might be unknown -- and therefore not garner enough votes -- nationally. The reasoning here is that if the municipal assemblies and electoral commission have been done their jobs well, after months of local consultations throughout the country, they will have successfully selected a slate of capable candidates who truly represent a cross section of all sectors of the Cuban population. If people believe the commission is functioning well in this regard, they are urged to check the box indicating approval of the entire slate, even if they don't personally know or have opinions about some of the candidates on the slate. On the other hand, people may have personal opinions that lead them to NOT support some candidate they do know something about, and may not want to vote for that person, so the structure gives voters the option of voting one-by-one for or against each candidate. KW).
There is no campaigning in Cuba, the candidates do not promote themselves and money is not a factor in elections. Their biographies, including photos, education, work experience and other matters are posted conspicuously throughout their permanent, unchanging residential districts for months before the elections and details are supplied by the election commissions. They usually serve only one term [There is a turn-over of at least one third–and maybe more than one-half– in each 5 year election, in sharp contrast to the US Congress which is geared towards reelection of incumbents. KW), most of them have previously been elected by constituents who know them personally or by reputation as to truly represent the people and their common interest. They are not career politicians - they have other jobs, they must have frequent meetings with constituents (called "accountability sessions") and they are subject to recall at all times. Where expert information is necessary, it is supplied by special commission and proposed legislation (such as the recent imposition of an income tax) is voted on, up or down, in order of presentation. The peoples' representatives make all the legislative decisions, and once the decisions are made, they move on to new matters.
In the elections held January 19, 2003 over 93% of eligible Cubans voted, electing a National Assembly which truly and accountably represents their common interest.
Karen Lee Wald is a writer, educator and freelance journalist from California who has been reporting on Cuba since 1969.