Cuba Elects its Newest National Assembly
For many who are used to hearing that Cuba is a dangerous communist dictatorship, it may be surprising to know that on March 11, 2018 over 85% of Cubans participated in elections for their newest National Assembly. Yes, Cuba has elections and a parliament! Nevertheless, it looks very different from the electoral system we have in Canada, and also different than the one in the United States: Cuba has municipal, provincial, and national levels of government. Cubans nominate the candidates for the municipal government at local meetings. Members of the Municipal Assemblies can be nominated to the provincial or national level; other candidates are nominated by mass organizations. One does not have to be a member of the Communist Party of Cuba to be a candidate – indeed there are no parties in Cuba’s elections, only individual candidates.
While at first the system may seem confusing, if you try to break down each step of the electoral system in Canada or the United States, you will quickly see that they too are complex and different as well. We will delve more into outlining Cuba’s electoral process in this article, but first let’s talk about the results of the March 2018 National Assembly vote.
For example, let’s look at the high voter participation in Cuba. The Cuban National Electoral Commission (CEN) reports that the final turnout was 85.65% of eligible voters in Cuba. Canada, on the other hand, was very excited to announce that 66.1% of eligible voters turned out for the 2015 federal elections. This seems low for a country like Canada, where ruling class politicians often brag about our “democratic values”, but the paltry 66.1% turnout was Canada’s highest turn out in the last two decades!
Alina Balseiro Gutiérrez, the President of Cuba's National Electoral Commission, explained to Prensa Latina news agency that Cuba’s new parliament will be: 53.22% women representatives, 13.22% of representatives are under 35 years old, and 40.17% of representatives are under 50 years old. Pretty surprising when the mainstream media in Canada and the United States continuously show Raul Castro as the only politician in Cuba. Additionally, the fact that Cuba’s National Assembly is 53.22% women means Cuba now ranks second in the world for the highest participation of women in parliament (Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world).
On the other hand, Canada’s parliament is 27% women, ranking at 59th place in the world. The United States – the so-called leader of democracy (who said they would bring freedom to women in Afghanistan, etc.) – sits at 19.4% women in their national House of Representatives, putting them in 100th place in the world.
As I mentioned in my article last month in Fire This Time, on February 28, 2018 the New York Times published the article, "Goodbye Castros, Hello Communist Party." The article rails against Cuba's so-called authoritarian government, however it was widely criticized on Twitter for the photo it used of Cuba's parliament, which demonstrates its diversity in terms of age, gender, and race. A few tweeted side-by-side photos with American and Canadian elected officials to remind people of the deep contradiction of the New York Times critiquing Cuba’s electoral system, while both the U.S. and Canada’s so-called democratic institutions do not reflect the diversity of society.
What is the Electoral Process for Cuba’s National Assembly?
Below is a basic explanation of how Cubans elect representatives to their National Assembly of People’s Power. Of course, this is a very basic outline, if you are interested in further details I recommend the book Cuba and its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion (Fernwood, 2014) by Montreal-based researcher and author, Arnold August.
The Cuban government has three main elected levels: municipal, provincial, and national. The full electoral process takes place every 5 years, and there is also a municipal process which takes place every 2.5 years.
1. Elections begin at the municipal level, with residents in each constituency (a small riding within a municipality) nominating between 2 and 8 candidates at public meetings held several weeks before the municipal election. All residents are welcome to this meeting to debate, discuss, and vote. Out of the 2-8 candidates each constituency will elect a delegate to their Municipal Assembly.
2. Once the Municipal Assembly representatives have been elected they choose their own President and Vice President, who will generally work full-time for the Municipal Assemblies, other elected members are expected to carry out their duties as voluntary work after their regular work hours.
3. The elected Municipal Assembly representatives can be nominated to both the Provincial and National Assemblies, there they are known as “de base” (of the base) representatives as they were elected directly from the constituency meetings at the community level.
4. For the Provincial and National Assemblies there are also members who will be “directo” (direct) representatives, as they are proposed directly by the mass organizations. Six Cuban mass organizations: The Central Cuban Workers (CTC); the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR); the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC); the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP); the University Students’ Federation (FEU); and the Intermediate Level Students Federation (FEEM) are permitted to propose “directo” representatives through what is called the nomination commission.
5. The nomination commission collects the names of thousands of proposals for both “de base” and “directo” candidates. They work through redundancies and look at the make up of proposed candidates gender, age, race, education, and employment are all considered, they are also looking to have approximately 50% of candidates be “de base” and 50% “directo”. In 2018, the commission then proposed 605 candidates for the National Assembly’s 605 seats.
6. These candidates are sent to the Municipal Assemblies for approval. Each municipality will vote on their candidates, for example in March – the municipality of Mariel in Artemisa province had two candidates, while the municipality of Santiago de Cuba (in the province of the same name) had 26 candidates.
7. These candidates are then sent to the population for ratification in a secret national ballot. Each candidate must receive 50%+1 of the votes cast. Cuban voters receive ballots with the names for the municipality in which they live. They can either vote for the entire slate proposed by the nomination commission (called the united vote), or “yes” for only the candidates they agree with. Of course, they also have the right to submit a blank ballot, a spoiled ballot, or the right not to show up on voting day at all.
Going back to the results of March 2018, of the votes cast 80.44% were for the slate or united vote, and 19.56% chose to select individual candidates. From the totals published in Granma Newspaper, most candidates received between 80-90% of the votes. Even prominent politicians such as First Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel and Cuban President, Raul Castro, must go through this process. Diaz-Canel ran in Santa Clara, receiving 92,85% of the vote, Castro ran in Segundo Frente winning 98.77% of the vote. Of the newly elected National Assembly members, 47.44% are “de base” representatives.
Who participates in the Cuban elections? Article 132 of the Cuban Constitution (ratified in 1992) states, “All Cubans over 16 years of age, men and women alike, have the right to vote except those who: a) are mentally disabled and have been declared so by court; b) have committed a crime and because of this have lost the right to vote.”
Who can be nominated as a candidate? Article 133 of the Cuban constitution states, “All Cuban citizens, men and women alike, who have full political rights can be elected. If the election is for deputies to the National Assembly of People’s Power they must be more than 18 years old.”
Cuba’s elections are truly a community affair. The ballot boxes are guarded by young children who are members of the pioneers (like Girl Guides and Boy Scouts in Canada & U.S.). Interestingly, ballots are counted publicly, at the end of the day’s polling. Anyone interested in watching the vote count is free to do so, including national and foreign media, diplomats, tourists, etc. The reason for giving the mass organizations so much power within the nomination commission is to work towards stronger participation from groups who were traditionally excluded or marginalized: workers, women, Afro-Cubans and young people.
Cuba’s Elections Face Media Criticism
The New Yorker Magazine recently published an article titled, "As Castro Prepares to Leave Office, Trump’s Cuba Policy Is a Road to Nowhere", written by journalist and author, Jon Lee Anderson. He writes, "Cuba still lacks some of the basic civil liberties that Americans take for granted, such as a free press and free elections. However, compared with many countries in the Western Hemisphere, most of which espouse some variant of democracy and a free-market economy, Cuba is a secure society with some enviable social indicators. Its murder rates are among the region’s lowest; its infant-mortality rates are lower than those in the United States; and its citizens are guaranteed state-subsidized education and free health care. Yet, while the Trump Administration has tangled with some Latin American nations, Cuba is the only one under sweeping U.S. trade sanctions."
While I disagree with Anderson about Cuba’s elections not being “free elections,” I believe his points about Cuba having achieved many important gains under the revolution are correct. He also points out the hypocrisy of U.S. President Trump continuing the unjust blockade against Cuba and increasing his anti-Cuba rhetoric, while ignoring obvious anti-democratic maneuverings by the ruling classes in Honduras, El Salvador, and Columbia.
Another slander often lobbed at Cuba is that people are “forced” by the military or police to vote. When you hear this lie, it is useful to remember that the National Electoral Commission (CEN) is the one that declared voter turnout was 85.65%, so logically they are saying not everyone participated. Secondly, right-wing groups who say Cubans are forced to vote, say that Cubans who are against the government should submit blank ballots. Nonetheless, in this recent election, 94.42% of the ballots cast were declared valid. CEN even publishes the data about that other (less than 6%) ballots. They noted that 4.32% of ballots cast nationally were blank and 1.26% were spoiled. These elections are not secretive, the results are counted publicly, published widely, and demonstrate that Cuba’s elections are popular and broadly supported.
Democracy: Capitalism vs. Socialism
Under capitalism, we have a certain type of freedom and democracy which is for the wealthy – we call it bourgeois democracy. Why? Because freedom comes with having enough money to make your own decisions. If you are a single mother of two living on welfare, your so-called “freedom”, under capitalism looks significantly different than a single mother of two who is a millionaire.
Our “democracy” is the same. While everyone has the right to vote, participating as a candidate required the ability to fundraise hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of dollars.
The historic leader of the Cuban revolution, Comandante Fidel Castro famously said, "They talk about the failure of socialism, but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America?"
One aspect I have yet to mention about Cuba’s electoral system is campaigning. Think about campaign time under bourgeois democracy – maybe you envision – politicians kissing babies, multicultural photo-ops, and attack ads on TV? Often what we do not think about is how much money you need to be effective in politics in Canada and the United States. In Canada’s 2015 elections, the losing Conservative Party spent $42 million on their election campaign, while the winning Liberal party spent $43 million. In the United States, Hillary Clinton's unsuccessful campaign spent $768 million, while Trump's winning campaign spent $398 million. However, it is estimated that $6.5 billion (yes BILLION!) was spent in 2016 for the presidential and congressional elections combined in the United States. This terrain is not meant for poor and working people, it is a democracy for the wealthy to represent their own interests, not ours.
So how does it work in Cuba? In Cuba candidates are not allowed to spend money on political campaigns. Instead the local CEN commissions collect each candidates’ biography and photo and post them around the community on letter sized posters. There is no special graphic designing or sloganeering. Voters are expected to read the biographies and make their choices. For the national assembly votes, there are usually joint meetings in workplaces and communities for candidates to meet with the voters they are hoping to represent. These meetings should involve all the candidates, and according to Cuban law, should not be about individual politicking/propaganda, but about hearing workers’ concerns.
As mentioned above, most elected members of government are not paid new salaries or extra for their work. They are expected to volunteer their time to their people and community after work hours. There are exceptions to this, depending on the workload each representative is mandated to carry out based on participation in commissions, as well as being deputies at the municipal, provincial, and national levels.
What’s Next for Cuba?
Cuban President Raul Castro, who has been president since 2008, is stepping down from this post in April of this year. This is based on a change made in the law in 2011, which states that senior elected officials are now only able to serve for two consecutive terms. This will help maintain Cuba’s stability in this time of transition between the historic leadership of the Cuban revolution, represented by Fidel and Raúl Castro, to a new revolutionary leadership. The term limit is also because there is a sense amongst Cubans that the future leaders of the revolution will not have the privilege which was given to Fidel, a sort of blank cheque, based on their faith in the incorruptibility of his leadership.
Indeed, national unity has been a huge priority for many Cubans. Often the National Assembly of Cuba has voted unanimously on issues as a show of confidence in the historic leadership of Fidel and Raúl. However, as an untested younger leadership is brought forward chances are good more divisions on the future of Cuban socialism will emerge. Although debate and disagreements have always been a feature of Cuba's ongoing revolutionary process, Cubans have often protected these debates to avoid being misinterpreted by the imperialist bloodhound media, which is always looking to sow and deepen divisions.
On April 19, 2018 Cuba will hold the first meeting of the new National Assembly of People's Power. The 605 representatives will meet for the first time and vote for the new president of the country. It is widely expected that Cuba’s First Vice President, 57-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, will be elected president by the National Assembly. Diaz-Canel was born after the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and represents a new generation of Cubans taking up the leadership of the revolution.
The Associated Press published an article on Cuban election day quoting Cuba’s Second Vice President, 87-year-old, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who told journalists, “We're almost in the future that we've been talking about, a transition, although we have been in transition since January 1 of 1959. Now the change is generational.” The challenges ahead for the next generation of Cuban revolutionaries will be immense, as were the challenges faced by Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and so many other revolutionaries who fought alongside them. Diaz-Canel and the millions of Cubans who participated in the Mach 2018 vote are committing themselves to continuing to build a socialist path forward for Cuba. Despite challenges and difficulties, Cuba is continuing to defend its revolution and push towards new advancements.
Follow Tamara Hansen on Twitter: @THans01
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