Participation is key to Cuba’s democracy

Summer 2005

CSC member Steve Ludlum is a lecturer in Politics who has been in Cuba on a study sabbatical. Here, he describes his experience of attending a nomination meeting for the election of candidates for Cuba’s municipal elections

In February and March printouts of lists of names were plastered all over Cuba, in the windows of shops and offices, on notice boards and walls. They were the electoral registers for every tiny district. The media exhorted Cubans to check that they were registered, to participate in elections proclaimed as the ‘democratic bastion of the revolution’.

The lists were the first indication that Cuba’s electoral cycle was underway again, with elections to the municipal level of Popular Power assemblies, held every two and a half years. Elections are five-yearly for provincial assemblies, and for the national assembly which in turn elects the Council of State (Cabinet in our terms).

The next stage gives a clue to the electoral philosophy in Cuba. Two models of democracy competed for support in nineteenth century Europe. The one we know is based on indirect representation by professional politicians controlled by party factions. The other model, associated with Rousseau’s concept of the ‘general will’ and made famous by the Paris Commune of 1870 and later the young Soviet Union, is based on directly mandated delegates, unpaid, living in the communities they represent, and subject to permanent accountability and recall. This is the model revolutionary Cuba adopted. Party-driven elections are regarded as having failed pre-revolutionary Cuba, remembered above all for appalling corruption, and US occupations and military coups whenever outcomes distressed Cuba’s ruling oligarchy.

The photo shows the candidate adoption stage of the process: street meetings at which the people of a small electoral area meet to nominate and adopt candidates. The Communist Party is not permitted to nominate, nor any other organisation. Meetings are organised by neighbourhood committes, the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. These CDRs are one of Cuba’s mass organisations, others include trade unions and the women’s federation, that are the other constitutionally guaranteed bodies with representative status in the political system.

In the street, the Cuban flag is hoisted, the national coat of arms hung up, and a local electoral commission representative explains and conducts proceedings. People nominate candidates, who must live in the area, and argue their merits.

The meetings are open, and not mere formalities. In many areas of life Cubans are used to nominating and electing all manner of posts from workplace safety reps to judges. In the meeting in the photo, in the No 4 ‘Conrad Benitez’ district in Havana’s old Centro area, four candidates were eventually adopted, in voting accompanied by loud cheers and clapping. Nationally, participation in the meetings was high, 85 per cent this year. Participation makes sense.

Cuba has many problems of material resources, but resources are not allocated by market forces, but by political processes based in the Popular Power assemblies.

Around 33,000 candidates were adopted to compete for 15,000-odd municipal assembly seats. There must always be more than one candidate for each seat, or nominations are re-opened.

Campaigning is low key, confined to displaying candidates’ CVs. Candidates have to get 50 per cent of the popular vote to be elected (a principle that would remove 40 per cent of MPs from the Commons). If none does, elections are rerun. Once elected, the delegates are unpaid and stay in their jobs if they are workers. They are always available to their voters, and have to hold public meetings at least twice a year, to receive formal mandates on all manner of local and policy issues, and to report back on their efforts since the last meeting. If they are ineffective they are subject to recall and new elections are held, and this is routine.

When I asked the presiding officer for permission to photograph this meeting for Cuba Sí, the positive response came, typically, after consultation with the electors. Around the corner, on the beautiful Prado avenue that separates populous, delapidated Centro from the meticulously restored Old Havana with its magnificent hotels, another meeting was spilling out into the busy evening traffic. Passing tourists looked puzzled as Cuba got down to the business of mass participation. And this is indeed where the business begins of demonstrating that another world is possible: in groups of citizens in street meetings, selecting delegates from among their own to govern the state whose sovereignty they defend so fiercely.

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