All in this together: Cuba’s Participatory Democracy
Through Cuba’s mass organisations and Organs of Popular Power the country’s citizens have multiple opportunities to participate in the government of their country
Lauren Collins has been studying popular participation in Cuba as part of her PhD studies. In this report for CubaSí she explains the electoral process in Cuba and argues that through the country’s mass organisations and Organs of Popular Power the country’s citizens have multiple opportunities to participate in the government of their country.
The Western powers, chief amongst them the United States government, tout themselves as defenders of freedom and democracy, and spend millions of dollars trying to convince us of this. They spend billions more on wars, covert operations, and propaganda, which, they would have us believe, will bring these freedoms to other nations.
Liberal democracy, whose defining political characteristic is ‘free and fair’ elections between rival parties, is, they tell us, the pinnacle of human socio-political organisation.
It follows, therefore, that Cuba, with its single party, is a pariah, their elections a sham, and their leaders incompetent dictators. Its people are to be pitied, mocked, insulted, attacked, and, most especially, targeted by millions of dollars of ‘aid’ to help them make a transition to the one true democratic form.
Little wonder then, that in the global north, there is precious little written about Cuba’s political system, the way it is structured, its processes and its institutions, because it is seen as the last stubborn vestige of the Soviet system, an anachronism, and, therefore, simply not worthy of study. Cuba’s political system is, however, complex and vibrant. In this article I will sketch out its most salient features.
Cuba’s political system has three main pillars; the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), the Organs of Popular Power (OPP), and the mass organisations. These institutions work closely together, and to understand the character of participatory democracy in Cuba, it is necessary to understand each and the way they interrelate.
The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) traces its ideological roots to the Cuban Revolutionary Party founded by Cuba’s national hero, José Martí, in exile in New York in 1882. Its purpose was to free Cuba from Spanish rule by uniting into a single party all those who wanted Cuban self-determination. Following the 1959 Revolution which swept out the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s progressive forces began a process of uniting into a single party, which finally came to fruition six years later when the PCC was formed in 1965.
Today one in six of Cuba’s eleven million people are Party members. To become a member of Cuba’s Communist Party, a person must be first nominated by fellow workers or neighbours and then voted in by their local branch.
A year has to be served as a ‘candidate member’ before becoming a full member as this brings with it responsibilities and duties, especially within the local community. To be a member of the PCC is seen as an honour in Cuba, and members are generally respected as honest and committed revolutionaries.
The mass organisations
Cuba’s principal mass organisations are the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC), the trade unions - Cuba Workers Federation (CTC), and the Association of Small Farmers (ANAP). All are involved in organising meetings for mass policy debate, implementing new legislation and evaluating policy outcomes. Almost everyone in Cuba belongs to one or more of these organisations, and all have grassroots, local branches and higher structures at the Municipal, Provincial and National levels. They are the means by which Cubans can engage, and participate, in the political life of the country. All mass organisations have the right to initiate and be consulted on new legislation.
The Organs of Popular Power
Since the early years of Revolution there have been several experiments and pilot schemes in local government in order to gain experience and develop the capacity of local people. Cuba’s system of local, provincial and national government was enshrined in its first Constitution of 1976. This created 169 Municipal Assemblies, 14 Provincial Assemblies, and a National Assembly.
At the heart of this system is the locally elected Delegate. Each Municipal area is divided into ‘wards’ which nominate and elect their Delegate. This is done by dividing each ward into smaller nomination areas - between 2 and 8 per ward depending on the population density - where neighbours meet to nominate, from amongst themselves, who they want as their Delegate. Any person who is nominated is free to accept or decline nomination. If several people are nominated, the meeting decides who will be their nominee by a show of hands. In this way, the ward ends up with between 2 and 8 candidates. These people will then be on the ballot paper on election day, and all the people in the ward vote by secret ballot to choose the ward’s Delegate to the Municipal Assembly. To be elected, the candidate must receive at least 50 per cent plus 1 of the votes cast. If this doesn’t happen, run-off elections are held. Turn-out in the 2013 elections was 94 per cent, with 4.63 per cent of papers blank and 1.2 per cent spoiled ballots.
The thing to note about this method is that the Communist Party is not an electoral party. It is not permitted to nominate or stand candidates, and it is barred from involvement in the entire electoral process. Candidates are chosen by the people, from amongst the people. The CDR has the responsibility of keeping the electoral role, verifying and correcting errors, arranging nomination meetings, setting up the polling stations, getting the vote out, and counting the votes and reporting the results.
The role of the Municipal Delegate
Once elected, office is held for a period of two and a half years, but if they do not perform to the satisfaction of their electors, they can be recalled, removed from office, and another Delegate nominated and elected in their place before the next election. Delegates are also required to meet with their electors at least once every six months for ‘accountability sessions’, where they are required to take up issues and problems raised by electors and seek solutions.
Delegates receive no remuneration for their work (and no expenses!) and remain in their normal jobs, carrying out the civic duties in their own time. The duties of a Delegate are many and varied and the role is demanding, requiring an understanding of public policy and finance, business and administration, and the ability to negotiate, explain, motivate and lead. And because Delegates are known to almost every one of his or her electors, and lives amongst them, people call on him, or her, at all hours of the day and night with all manner of problems, ranging from broken water pipes to broken hearts. Delegates carry out the inspection and monitoring of services provided by the Municipal administration, and of the factories, shops and businesses in their area.
The Provincial Assemblies
Cuba is divided into 16 Provinces, each with its own Provincial Assembly. These oversee the administration of the Municipalities, and the major enterprises in its territory. They are made up (since 1992) of elected Delegates, up to half of which are elected Municipal Delegates. The elections to these bodies are not competitive. Instead Electoral Commissions, headed by the CTC, and made up of representatives from the mass organisations, and higher and intermediate students, draw up a list of candidates. These candidates have been nominated at hundreds of meetings of the mass organisations and the Popular Councils (see below) throughout the island, a process which takes many months. Like their Municipal counterparts, they receive no pay for their work as Provincial Delegates.
The National Assembly
This is the sole legislative body in Cuba. Its deputies are also made up of to 50 per cent nominated delegates from mass organisations and 50 per cent Municipal delegates. The method of selecting candidates is the same as that for the Provincial Assemblies. The elections take place every five years at the same time as the Provincial Assembly elections. Deputies in the National Assembly are from all walks of life and do not receive any remuneration. Bayamo, in the eastern part of Cuba for example, has as its National Assembly Deputy a street sweeper who is known by everyone in the town.
All assemblies, National, Provincial and Municipal, have Work Commissions. Their role is to research and scrutinise policy areas and feed directly into policy content, and at the National level into drafting legislation. There are around 20,000 people involved in the Work Commissions at any one time including delegates and specialists pertinent to the commission’s field of work in areas such as health, education and production etc.
Work commissions offer an explanation of the unanimity of voting in the National Assembly. Legislation is not placed before the Assembly until wide consultation has been carried out and agreement has been reached. If agreement cannot be reached, legislation is not presented.
The 1992 Constitution saw the incorporation of Popular Councils into the Organs of Popular Power, which, while adding to an already heavy workload, helped the Municipal Delegate work as a part of a team, and so be more supported and effective. Popular Councils are formed from around ten or fifteen wards working together. In addition to the Municipal Delegates from those wards, the Councils include representatives from the mass organisations, and professionals working in the locality (for example health workers, architects, enterprise mangers), although only elected Delegates can vote on Popular Council business. A President and two Vice-Presidents are chosen by vote from amongst the Delegates. These are released from their day jobs to work full-time on their Delegate duties. They receive the same pay as they would for their day jobs and their jobs are held open for them.
The Popular Councils are charged with reaching out and involving local people in identifying problems in the locality and helping to find solutions to them. Since their formation the Popular Councils have been given increasing areas of responsibility, including maintenance of schools, public health, monitoring the economic and social services, housing repairs, urban horticulture, and more recently, engage in participatory planning and the formulation of Strategic Community Plans.
Building on the experiences they had gained from early experiments and pilot schemes in the early years and after having studied and visited governments in other countries, including the United States, Cuba chose to create its own governance system around the election of local delegates and linked it closely to the mass organisations. In this way, the Cuban citizen has multiple opportunities for participating in the governance of their country. It would be a mistake to think that because the opportunities for participation are on people’s doorsteps, that the issues they become involved in are only of local significance. For example, the large scale consultations on major pieces of legislation, such as the latest Labour Code, the enormous changes to the status of women since the Revolution and the giant strides made in attitudes to sexual diversity, are testament to this. These successes were made possible precisely because of the importance attached to popular participation.
A characteristic of the Organs of Popular Power is that locally nominated and elected Delegates are present at the local, Provincial and National levels of government. This links the local with the national structures, and ensures, along with the non-professionalisation of those elected, that the National Assembly is not a body remote from its electors. The fact that elections to the Provincial and National Assemblies are not competitive because the delegates are chosen from those elected to the Municipal bodies does not mean that people do not have an input. Cuban citizens participating in the Electoral Commissions decide who the candidates will be.
The Communist Party is there to support and guide the other institutions, to ensure that they implement legislation, to guard against corruption, and to ascertain people’s needs and concerns. It has a political leadership role, and is charged with keeping the country united.
The competitive nature of liberal democratic election campaigns, where big bucks call the shots, are an anathema to Cubans. Cuba has opted for a system which seeks to keep people as involved as possible with the tasks of finding solutions, balancing need, allocating scarce resources and accommodating difference. Cuba is a country in constant negotiation with itself and its systems of participation facilitate those negotiations.