Cuba: Five Reasons Why the People Rule
by Isaac Saney
Cuba is almost invariably portrayed as a totalitarian regime, a veritable 'gulag' guided and controlled by one man: Fidel Castro. However, this position cannot be sustained once the reality of Cuba is assessed on its own merits. Extensive democratic popular participation in decision-making is at the centre of the Cuban model of governance.
The official organs of government in Cuba are the municipal, provincial and national assemblies of the Poder Popular (People’s Power) structures. The National Assembly is the sole body with legislative authority, with delegates — as in the provincial and municipal assemblies — directly elected by the Cuban electorate. The National Assembly chooses from amongst its members the Council of State, which is accountable to the National Assembly and carries out its duties and responsibilities, such as the passage and implementation of decrees, when the Assembly is not in session.
The Council’s decisions and decrees must be ratified at subsequent sittings of the National Assembly. The Council of State also determines the composition of the Council of Ministers, and both bodies together constitute the executive arm and cabinet of the government. The President of the Council of State serves as head of both the government and state.
In surveying the Cuban electoral system several striking points emerge:
1. The system responds to the people’s demands
First, Cubans are not preoccupied with a mere mechanical implementation of a rigid, unchanging model. Contrary to dominant misconceptions, the Cuban political system is not a static entity. Cubans are involved in an intense learning process whose hallmark has been experimentation and willingness to correct mistakes and missteps by periodic renovation of their democratic project. Thus, the system responds to popular demands for adjustment.
Thus, in 1992, the Constitution and electoral laws were modified to require the direct popular election of all members of the national and provincial assemblies. Previously, only the municipal assemblies were directly elected, with the make-up of the provincial assemblies determined by a vote of municipal delegates and, in turn, the National Assembly composition established by provincial representatives. Also, the creation of the popular councils in the early 1990s was directly aimed at increasing the power of local government and reducing the impact of bureaucracy.
2. The Communist Party takes no part
Second, the function of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) is significantly circumscribed, as it does not operate as an electoral party. It is proscribed by law from playing any role in the nomination of candidates. At the municipal level, the nominations occur at street meetings, where it is the constituents who directly participate in and control the selection. Each municipality is divided into several circumscriptions, or districts, comprised of a few hundred people. Each circumscription nominates candidates and elects a delegate who serves in the local municipal assembly. There is a high degree of popular participation in the selection of candidates, marked by active and uncorked citizen interaction and involvement.
The elections at the municipal level are competitive and the casting of ballots is secret. By law, there must be at least two candidates and a maximum of eight. For example, in the 2002 municipal elections there were14,946 circumscriptions, with 13,563 municipality delegates elected out of a total of 32,585 candidates If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, then a run-off election is held between the two who obtained the most votes. Consequently, in order to complete the 2002 local government elections, a second round was held in 1,383 constituencies. At the provincial and national levels, candidacy commissions select and sift through thousands of people. The commissions are comprised of representatives from the various mass and grassroots organizations and are presided over by workers’ representatives chosen by the unions. The PCC is prohibited from participation in the work of the commissions.
Thus, it is the norm for ordinary working people to be both nominated and elected. The commissions’ recommendations are then presented to the municipal assemblies for final approval. For example, on December 1, 2002, in preparation for the 2003 national elections, the municipal assemblies approved 1,199 candidates for the provincial assemblies and 609 for the National Assembly. Thus, it is the Cuban citizenry that both selects and elects its representatives. By law, up to 50 percent of National Assembly deputies can be municipal assembly delegates. In the 1998–2003 National Assembly, 46.3 percent of the delegates were from the municipal assemblies. The other members of the National Assembly are persons from every sphere of Cuban society: the arts, sports, science, religion etc. The selection process ensures a broad representation of society.
Each member of the National Assembly, including Fidel Castro, is directly elected and must receive more than 50 percent of the vote in her or his constituency. In Cuban municipal, provincial and national elections, the turnout is very high, usually in the ninetieth percentile. The vote is by secret ballot. Also, although a single national delegate list is put to the electorate, not all candidates receive the same number of votes as Cubans exercise their discretion in a very serious, deliberate and definite fashion. There is no formal campaigning, which curtails the role of money in Cuban elections. Instead, a month before the election, a biography of each candidate is displayed in various public places, where they can be perused at the convenience of the entire electorate.
The objective of circumscribing formal campaigning is avoid the development of professional politicking in which money and backroom deals become the driving force of the political system. Elections in Cuba are free of the commercial advertising that dominates and has come to denote the political system in capitalist countries. Professional politicking and politicians are viewed as symbolic of the corrupt past and marginalization of the citizenry that characterized pre-revolutionary Cuba. Consequently, the sons and daughters of workers and peasants comprise virtually all the delegates of the national, provincial and municipal assemblies.
3. The delegates are answerable to their constituents
Third, a rare closeness exists between the elected municipal delegates and the people they serve. Each delegate must live in the electoral district (usually comprising a maximum of two thousand people). Each municipal assembly meets four times a year and elects from its membership a president, vice president and a secretary. These are the only full-time, paid positions in Cuban local government; all other members of the municipal assemblies are unpaid and continue in the jobs they had before they were elected. Delegates have a high degree of familiarity with their constituency and are constantly on call. Every six months, there is a formal accountability session at which complaints, suggestions and other community interests (planteamientos) are raised with the delegates.
The delegate must then attempt to resolve the matter or provide an explanation at the following accountability session. In short, the delegate must account for her or his work carried out since the previous session. Each planteamiento is carefully recorded, and approximately 70 percent are resolved. These planteamiento sessions have resulted in local issues being taken to the national level where they are examined and discussed, thus ensuring popular input into government policy. If constituents are dissatisfied with the performance of their representative, then she or he can be recalled or voted out in the next round of elections. In the 2002, for instance, municipal elections, only 47.87 percent were re-elected.
4. Consensus and unity rather than contest and division is the basis of the system
Fourth, the Cuban system eschews the adversarial approach that dominates the western political processes. In the work and meetings of the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly, the goal of achieving unity and consensus is central. The unanimous votes that occur are not indicative of a rubberstamp mentality but a consensus that is arrived at through extensive and intensive discussion, dialog and debate that precedes the final vote in the National Assembly: the end-point of a long, conscientious and sometimes arduous process.
The National Assembly has ten permanent commissions. At the end of 2002, for example, it met from December 16th to 20th to discuss more than forty topics, including the fishing industry, the environment, the restructuring of the sugar sector, the production of medicine and links between Cuba and the European Union, particularly Cuba’s decision to apply to join the Cotonou Agreement, an economic accord between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific states.
5. Civil society is engaged in the process
Fifth, the Cuba political system is augmented by a very active and vibrant civil society. A critical aspect of the Cuban political system is the integration of a variety of mass organizations into political activity. No new policy or legislation can be adopted or contemplated until the appropriate organization or association representing the sector of society that would be directly affected has been consulted. These organizations have very specific functions and responsibilities. In addition to the Communist Party, the Young Communist League and the Confederation of Cuban Workers, there are the Cuban Federation of Women, the Committees to Defend the Revolution, the National Association of Small Farmers and the Federation of University Students.
The mass organizations are supplemented by numerous professional and other associations that represent the specific interests of other sectors, including for example, lawyers, economists, journalists, writers and artists, the physically challenged and stamp collectors. In short, As Ricardo Aaron, president of Cuba's National Assembly underscores, 'these associations and organizations embrace practically the entire universe of activities, interests and problems of all Cubans.' Mass organizations, unlike the Communist Party, are granted through Article 88 (c) of the Constitution the right to propose legislation in the areas that fall under their jurisdiction.
Hence, these organizations have a dynamic existence, and Cuba is replete with almost daily assemblies, meetings and gatherings of various organizations to discuss and examine particular issues, in conjunction with the participation of government officials. This daily engagement of the citizenry with government is the essence of the Cuban political process.
Isaac Saney is an academic and author of the book "Revolution in Motion," a major analysis of the Cuban Revolution.