Cuba's Elections: Q&A
Razones de Cuba | Wednesday, 23 August 2017 | Click here for original article
Dr. José Luis Toledo, president of the National Assembly of People’s Power Commission on Constitutional and Judicial Affairs, and professor at the University of Havana, speaks to Razones de Cuba about Cuba’s electoral system, with 2017-2018 general elections approaching.
What are the basic elements of the Cuban state's organisational/institutional system?
The first element that characterises the system of institutional organisation is that it is a very young institutional organisation, in operation for only 41 years. If it is compared with any other system anywhere in the world, it is very new, put into place in 1976. In addition to being a very young system, it has no references anywhere in the world; ours is a sui generis system. We, the nation and the Cuban people, have created it in a sovereign act on our own. This implies that we learn from our correct decisions and from our errors.
Another element that distinguishes us is the principle of unity. Not the unity viewed as a slogan or a mobilising element, but unity as a substantive, essential element to maintain our independence and sovereignty.
Another principle is its conformation based on bodies associated in the exercise of power. We do not have stand-alone bodies, all are collegial bodies, and the essential, fundamental elements of decision making within the state's organisation are based on what is decided by the Council of State, on what is decided by the National Assembly of People's Power, or what is decided by the Council of Ministers, which are the associated bodies of (state) power.
Another element which distinguishes us is the existence of a single party, which has a series of unique characteristics - a party that is not electoral, that does not nominate electoral candidates, but is the state's and society's leadership body.
What is the foundation upon which the institutional organisation of the Cuban state is based?
The history of the nation. The principle of unity is going to define the entire process: unity for Cubans is a strategic survival element. Every time we Cubans have been divided, the nation has lost its most valuable interests.
Thus, the expression of our unity is going to be our party. Our party is going to be the foundation, the base that is going to establish the unity of Cubans in the struggle. That is why it is said, with good reason, that it is the party of all Cubans, even those who are not members. And it is the party which has as its forerunner the one founded by Martí, amidst the struggle for unity.
We Cubans learned from this, so that in 1959, when the Revolution triumphed, the first thing done by the government of that era, to carry out the Moncada program, was to resurrect the Constitution of 1940, which Batista had trampled with the coup d'etat of March 10.
A series of changes to this 1940 Constitution were needed, because there was no legislative body to take charge of implementing laws, to put them into practice.
So it was established that the existing expanded council of ministers would assume an executive-administrative role and the legislative role. A new norm was created, taking as its foundation the postulates of the 1940 Constitution, which was called the Fundamental Law, and remained in effect from February of 1959 until February of 1976.
Why did so many years transpire before the establishment of a new constitution?
These were times during which the Revolution was obliged to focus on consolidating power. I will quickly cite: Girón (the Bay of Pigs), Operation Mongoose, the struggle against bandits in mountainous areas, etc. These were times to defend ourselves from enemies and to strengthen revolutionary power, and this explains a bit the provisional period of the Cuban state.
When the state reached the 1970s and the Revolution was consolidated, this is when a period was initiated that was called the Cuban state's institutionalisation period, and the first thing done was the creation of a joint party-government commission, advised by a group of the country's recognised jurists, which took on the task of drafting a constitution for the Republic.
This draft constitution was subjected to a broad process of popular consultation. It was a process in which the entire Cuban people participated. Therefore, unlike other countries which establish a constituent assembly to create a constitution, in our case, the entire people were the constituent assembly. All of the people had the opportunity to hold the proposed draft constitution in their hands, to study it, to express their opinions about it.
And these are elements that not only strengthen the democratic nature of the 1976 Constitution - which is in effect today - but also make it more democratically advanced than the Constitution of 1940.
In your opinion, what elements distinguish the 1976 Constitution from that of 1940?
I recognise that from the normative point of view, the Constitution of 1940 is a great constitution, and in its time, precisely because of the revolutionaries' struggle, reflected the people's main concerns and hopes.
But from the point of view of democracy, considering the drafting of the constitutional text, the 1976 one was more democratic than that of 1940, because in 1940, it was done by representatives in a constituent assembly, who were, moreover, proposed by political parties of the era.
These constituent representatives, therefore, responded to specific interests of a political nature, and this Constituent Assembly, held precisely in the Capitolio's chamber of representatives, was the only body to have access to the proposed draft, to discuss it, offer opinions, and approve it.
At no moment were the people consulted, although all the debates were broadcast over the radio, but the people had no decision-making authority in the Constitution of 1940. But that of 1976 was submitted to popular consultation. More than 70,000 opinions were collected from the entire population and this led to the modification of almost 60 articles in the draft.
And then later, this new version of the draft constitution was submitted to a popular referendum. That is to say, all Cubans, eligible to exercise the vote, went to the polls and via a free, secret, direct vote recorded their position on the constitution. Some 98% of the electorate went to the polls, and of these, 97.7% approved the constitution. On February 24, 1976, compañero Raúl proclaimed the Constitution of the Republic in effect.
How was the state organised following the adoption of the 1976 Constitution?
First, it established that the supreme body of state power would be the National Assembly of People’s Power. And one element that would distinguish the Constitution of 1976 is that it left behind the pre-established positions of the tripartite separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial); and says that there is only one power in Cuba, it is the power exercised by the people, who will exercise it directly, or through the assemblies of People’s Power and the bodies that derive from it.
What are the characteristics of the National Assembly of People’s Power?
It is a unicameral body, it only has the chamber of deputies, and it is a non-permanent body.
It is a body in which all members are accountable and in addition, all are removable from their positions. There is an established law called the Law of Withdrawal from People’s Power Positions, which establishes the procedure to be followed to remove any of the members of the National Assembly.
In addition, its members are not professionals in their positions. If you go to the labor department and request the nomenclature of positions and salaries of the deputies of the National Assembly of People’s Power, you will be told: that does not exist. Because in the National Assembly, of the eight deputies who have professional positions, our salaries are those of our previous jobs. There is no position with a pre-established salary, and that element characterises not only the National Assembly, but also the other provincial and municipal assemblies of the country.
The country has two types of elections, general and partial, and the Municipal Assemblies are chosen through the partial elections.
In the country, every two and a half years there are partial elections in which the Municipal Assemblies are elected.
I always say that the Municipal Assembly is the central axis of Cuban revolutionary democracy, so it is a serious mistake not to work every day to strengthen the Municipal Assembly and the role of the delegate. Today, the enemy of the Revolution focuses all his aspirations on weakening the Municipal Assembly to take control of it, or at least for his representatives to gain access to it. Thus strengthening the Municipal Assembly and the figure of the delegate is a strategic role in the defense of the Revolution.
One question that many people ask is how delegates are elected if there are no parties in Cuba that nominate candidates?
The people directly nominate (candidates) in their electoral districts. Elections are convened, electoral commissions are created, we attend meetings, and we, as we freely and spontaneously decide, propose who our (nominee) delegates should be, by a show of hands. And in each district no less than two, or more than eight, people must be nominated.
No one here has gone to an election and been presented a ballot paper and told, these are the Party members for whom you have to vote, nor is anyone nominated for being a Party member, this element can perhaps be invoked as a reflection of leadership, fitting conduct, good performance, of a vocation for public service, but not because the condition of Party member is established as a requirement to enter public office in our laws.
In your opinion, what are the mechanisms for the control and transparency of elections in the partial process?
There are two ways to control the decision of an electoral process and to change it: either the electoral register is altered and includes people who do not exist, or the decision changes in the ballot box through the deposited ballots.
A characteristic of our electoral roll is its ease of access. All women have their children in hospitals, when that baby is born, a civil registry official arrives and will ask for the child’s personal data, and fill out a form. Later the mother goes to the identity records office and is given the minor identity card of her child and when that child reaches the age of 16, he is automatically registered on the electoral roll; there is no need to do any paperwork or pay any tax; he is already automatically an elector of the country.
The second step is that electoral authorities deliver the electoral roll to leaders in the CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) to verify in their blocks if those are the people who live there, so there is the opportunity to identify who lives there, who moved, who died etc.
But if that were not enough, that electoral roll is then put in public places, as well as the biographies of the candidates, and we can all check them. This is the transparency and popular control over voter registration.
The other way, is to control the voting. Who takes care of our ballot boxes? Our elections take place very calmly, on Sundays so that people go to vote, and the polls are taken care of by our pioneers. (Elementary school children) But I always say more, we all take care of the ballot boxes, because when a son, nephew, or grandson is taking care of the box, the family spends the day checking on him to see that he is behaving well, etc. So the polling station is taken care of by everyone.
How are the votes counted? The count is public and members of the electoral commissions of the territory, representatives of political and mass organisations, candidates and other citizens who so wish can be present. The ballot box is opened, all the ballot papers are laid out, they are counted and the result is given immediately. So there cannot be any greater transparency. And if that were not enough, the national electoral commission, once the electoral processes have concluded, conducts random audits of polling stations.
The delegate is thus elected, the essential figure that we must all assist, and strengthen so that his administration is increasingly efficient with the help of all the people.
And that delegate joins the Municipal Assembly, which will chose from among its members a president, vice president, and appoint a secretary, and so the municipal assembly is formed.
Having explained all these elements, could you say a little about the general elections?
Every five years there are general elections, that is, the term of the National Assembly, which is the legislature, is five years. And they are called general because in them all levels of political representation of the country are elected: the municipal, provincial, and national assemblies.
And how are the provincial and national candidates chosen?
First, the Candidature Commission will be created, which is composed of the social and mass organisations of our society, presided by the Cuban Workers’ Federation.
This is how the nominations are collected for those who will be delegates to the provincial assembly and deputies to the National Assembly. Up to 50% of the members of the National Assembly will be delegates to the Municipal Assemblies and the rest will come from the core of these (mass) organisations, which in their plenums have the power to nominate people to assume these positions. That is, the plenum of the (Workers’) Federation meets, and by right has the power to propose candidates for deputies and candidates for delegates to the Provincial Assembly, and so do the CDRs (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution), ANAP (Association of Small Farmers), FEU (Federation of University Students), etc.
With all the nominations made, the Candidature Commission starts a consultation process: they go to the work places of these people, to their places of residence, and they collect opinions about the person who has been nominated. Finally, they attend the plenary session of the Municipal Assembly and state, ‘we in this municipality, propose that so-and-so be candidates for deputies…, and that so-and-so be candidates for provincial delegates’, etc.., and the Municipal Assembly decides through a free and open vote.
The candidates to the Provincial Assembly and deputies are approved in the Municipal Assembly, for that reason I called it the central axis, and this is not a rhetorical exercise.
Where do the nominations for the country’s deputies come from? From the Municipal Assembly. So the Municipal Assembly is the centre from which the formation of the superior state bodies is derived.
So then, with the nominations established, a similar process will be conducted in terms of candidacy, the formation of electoral publicity, the formation of electoral rolls, and then the people choose.
Once elected as a deputy, the person is given a certificate of election that is validated before the National Candidature Commission, to take up the position.
After this, the Candidature Commission summons each deputy individually; they are given a list featuring all the elected deputies and a form. Then they are told to propose who should be the members of the Council of State. And one sits with the list and says, ‘I propose for President of the Council of State and Ministers, so-and-so’, up to 31 people who make up the Council of State.
I said earlier that the National Assembly is not a permanent body, so it will need a body that represents the national and international interests of the state, during the time in which the Assembly is not in session.
Next, the Candidature Commission, with all these proposals, makes a single proposal, and presents it to the National Assembly. There any deputy has the right to raise his hand and say ‘I do not agree that this compañero be a candidate, and I propose so-and-so in his place’, and explains. And if not, the list of candidates is voted for by show of hands. Once the list of candidates is approved, in a direct and secret vote, the deputies elect the members of the Council of State and who will be the President.
Once the President of the Councils of State and Ministers is elected, he proposes to the Assembly the members of the Council of Ministers, and the assembly appoints them. Here, ministers are not elected in perpetuity, every five years their mandate ends, but they can continue because their re-election is valid.
Earlier you referred to the election of deputies, and from what I understand these people are elected by municipalities so that there is territorial representation in the National Assembly.
Of course, for example, a deputy is elected for every 20,000 inhabitants or fraction greater than ten thousand; this is established by the Electoral Law, guaranteeing that in each municipality there are at least two deputies. This distribution is dependent on the demographic characteristics of the territory.
Today, for example, we have a problem, the National Assembly is very large, at the moment we have 612 deputies and in the future we will have to study how to reduce its number (…) We have to carefully study how to reduce the number of members without sacrificing the representation of the people, to ensure that within the National Assembly there is the scientific eminence, the great sports personality, and also the agricultural worker.
We see electoral campaigns taking place across the world and all the publicity that goes with them. How does this work in Cuba?
The only electoral publicity is a small poster with the person’s photo and a summary of their biography which is displayed in key public places, such as markets, butchers, shops… so that people can familiarise themselves with the candidates.
Here, no one has individual programs, because we work on the basis of unity and a unique political system.
However, we must not confuse electoral publicity with an electoral campaign. As part of this process, the Electoral Commission organises tours of different areas where candidates talk with the people. This is one thing, a campaign, however, is something different involving people plastered with stickers and photos and unpleasant disputes which take place in other countries.
How are the concepts of representation and participation linked in Cuban elections?
Every citizen has the right to elect and be elected. The only circumstances under which a person cannot participate in the electoral process, as established by law, is if they are mentally disabled, don’t meet the age requirements, or are legally incapacitated. As soon as an individual goes out and votes for someone, they are passing their power of representation to that person; so, when that person takes an action, they are representing the entire group of voters who gave them power of representation.
Now, this doesn’t restrict a person from directly participating in decision making. For example: when we drew up the Labour Code, all workers in the country were consulted and had the opportunity comment on what they liked or disliked, and make suggestions.
This is a form of direct participation in the exercise of power, as is participating in elections because you are designating, choosing, the representatives to the country’s representative leadership bodies.
When you elect the municipal assembly you are electing the government of the territory: and that person represents you in the exercise of local government.
Many people ask why there are National Assembly deputies elected in territories where they don’t live?
This stems from a mistake. Deputies do not represent territories. Deputies have national representation, and in the National Assembly the most important issues of general interest to the nation are discussed, not territorial problems.
When the National Assembly meets to approve the state budget for example, it’s not to build a school or repair a local doctor’s office, but they say: so many millions of pesos for public health, so many millions of pesos for education, etc. That’s how it’s distributed. Territorial issues are separate and resolved at a municipal and provincial level.
What we do have to work on is creating more links and interaction between deputies and voters from each constituency, district, and municipality, and in order to do so, the Party leadership has approved and is currently implementing a program called Perfecting People’s Power Bodies.”
Another frequent question regarding elections in Cuba is why don’t we elect the President?
This position is determined by second-order elections, as established in electoral law, in which elected representative bodies vote. When I vote for a deputy to the National Assembly, I am investing them with the sovereign power to make decisions, and one of their faculties as a deputy is to choose who will be President of the Councils of State and Ministers.
We are not sui generis in this regard. How does Spain choose its head of government? The president of the Spanish government isn’t elected by popular vote, but rather the courts decide.
What is more, we don’t have a presidential system, ours is a semi-parliamentary one. Our President doesn’t have the power to make decisions alone; our president doesn’t appoint and dismiss ministers; our President doesn’t grant honorific positions or appoint ambassadors. That is to say, all the major decisions are concentrated in the hands of collegiate bodies, not in a single person.
So, electing a single person as president is redundant if, at the end of the day it is the collegiate body that governs.
Furthermore, to be elected President in Cuba you must go undergo a five-stage electoral process: first you must be nominated and approved in a plenary vote by a social or mass organisation; second, you must be approved in a municipal assembly vote; third, you must be elected via direct and secret vote by voters from your electoral district, if you are not elected at this point you can’t be a deputy; fourth your nomination must be approved by the National Assembly; and fifth: you must be elected by deputies via direct and secret vote.
So, yes there are electoral processes to choose the President; more than adequate in my opinion.
We previously spoke about reducing the number of deputies to the National Assembly, and you commented that studies would be carried out at a later date. What other elements must be considered when approving or modifying the electoral law?
Work is underway to draw up a new electoral law. Other issues to consider are the structure of elections, the presence of a permanent, professional body responsible for managing electoral processes unlike the temporary system we have today. Because, as it currently stands, the electoral commission is appointed on a temporary basis and when elections are over the commission is dissolved. These are issues that will be analysed.
And finally, one of the greatest concerns today is linked to the 2017-2018 electoral process and the continuation of the historic leadership. In your opinion, how important are the upcoming elections?
The important thing about the upcoming elections is that they are general elections. We are going to choose the higher bodies of state power and as such, the comrades who will occupy the leadership of the country for five years, will be elected. This is why I believe they are so important.
I also think they will be marked by an important aspect, and that is, as Raúl has stated, the end of the historic leadership’s term in office. I think this gives (the elections) a special significance, but we have been preparing the stage for this moment, with the wisdom and vision of the historic leadership of the Revolution and Army General (Raúl Castro).
It’s not going to be a traumatic moment because we are all prepared. We revolutionary forces have been politically-ideologically conditioned for the historic moment that will occur in the country, and we are ready for the change.
Therefore, our confidence in the Party, in its leadership, will make it a very important, but also a natural process for the country. And, for me, the key lies in the equanimity that has always characterised the Cuban people.