What about claims that Cuba is NOT a democracy?

It will come as no surprise to readers that some international organizations, do not see Cuba as democracy. Following is a rebuttal of a typical criticism of the Cuban electoral based on an excerpt (in italics) from a report on human rights in Cuba by a commission of the Organization of American States (OAS). The section entitled "Elections for the National Assembly of People's Power and the Provincial Assemblies" begins:

The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man establishes the right to vote and to participate in government at Article XX, in the following terms.
Article XX. Every person having legal capacity is entitled to participate in the government of his country, directly or through his representatives, and to take part in popular elections, which shall be by secret ballot, and shall be honest, periodic and free.

38. Political rights, as considered by the Declaration, have two clearly distinguishable aspects: the right to directly exercise power, i.e., to participate in government; and the right to elect those who are to exercise it, i.e., the right to vote. This presupposes a broad conception of representative democracy, based on popular sovereignty, in which the functions by which power is exercised are performed by persons chosen in free and fair elections. (continued)

This is the case in Cuba. In addition to having the right to vote, every Cuban of voting age has an equal opportunity -- regardless of socioeconomic condition or political connections -- to nominate a candidate of their choice and to run for public office. Candidates for public office are not nominated by political parties or well-heeled politicos, but only by the people themselves or their democratically elected representatives at the grassroots level. And it costs nothing to run even for highest public office in Cuba.

39. It is a doctrine of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the exercise of the right to political participation implies "the right to organize political parties and political associations, which through free debate and ideological struggle can improve social and economic conditions and rules out the monopoly of power by a single political party." (continued)

In practice, this right to organize political parties in the Americas, more often than not, seems to have resulted in money-based electoral systems that are decidedly biased against the improvement of the social and economic conditions of the vast majority.

In addition, the Commission has considered that "Governments have the obligation, in respect of political rights and the right to political participation, to allow and guarantee the organization of all political parties and other associations, unless they are constituted for the purpose of violating fundamental human rights; free and open debate of the main issues relating to socioeconomic development; the holding of general elections that are free and with the guarantees required to ensure that the outcome represents the popular will." (continued)

It might be argued that any pro-capitalist party is "constituted for the purpose of violating fundamental human rights." Capitalism, after all, seeks to limit the expression of the democratic will of people in economic matters. Under capitalism, most economic resources are not controlled democratically for the benefit of all, as under a socialist constitution, but by a small class of land and business owners for their own personal benefit. This seems to be the view of the Cuban Revolutionaries.

40. On January 11, 1998, elections were held in Cuba to choose 601 members of the National Assembly of People's Power, and 1,192 delegates to the Provincial Assemblies. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Cuba, in his latest report, has analyzed the procedures and characteristics of these elections:
One of the main features of the elections was that the two single lists contained one candidate for each seat. Although voters could vote for individual candidates, the authorities announced publicly that this was not recommended and that it would be best to exercise the "combined vote," by voting for all the candidates as a bloc. (continued)

Here, the authors are referring to the so-called united vote a vote for "all the above" candidates. To explain: The democratically elected Municipal Assemblies nominate one candidate for each seat in the Provincial and National Assemblies. Candidates can be accepted or rejected by voters in a secret ballot. If a candidate is rejected by the majority, the Municipal Assembly must put forth another one and hold another election soon afterwards. Strangely, this key aspect of vote -- the option of rejecting any or all candidates -- is mentioned nowhere in the OAS report! By means of this (perhaps strategic) omission, the authors attempt to dismiss the whole Cuban electoral system as some kind of sham.

Even from Cuban dissident sources themselves, we have from an article arguing that the protest vote should not be counted in the voter-turnout (???), one dissident wrote (April 2000):

[A] method favored by some dissidents is to vote with blanks or to void their ballots as they vote. That choice is the way they express their rejection of a system... 

On a massive campaign to get Cubans to register a protest vote in the 1998 national elections, Arnold August (p. 359-60) writes:

During the [1998] elections themselves, the U.S., through its Radio Marti, broadcast hours of appeals calling on the people to boycott the urns [ballot boxes] or to deposit blank or spoiled ballots. . . . Every indication was that the U.S. had indeed been expecting a big breakthrough in the protest vote.

More recently (AP, January 2003), prominent Cuban dissident, Marta Beatriz Roque, speaking on behalf of yet another "umbrella group" called on fellow dissidents to monitor the vote and said that "opponents [of the Revolution] could also protest the elections in one of three ways: by not voting, by annulling their ballot, or by depositing the ballot blank." 

While these opponents of the Revolution, both on and off the island, may be frustrated with the Cuban electoral system, even they seem to see the protest vote (a blank or spoiled ballot) as a legitimate avenue of protest. Was this then a deliberate omission from the report? It would seem so.

Although the authorities say that candidates were chosen by the people and that membership of the Communist Party was not an important factor for election, in reality the system established by the Electoral Law of 1992 does not make it genuinely possible for persons opposed to the Government and not looked on favourably by the authorities to compete freely. (continued)

Dissidents proposing a return to a US-style, money-based, multi-party electoral system will have a hard time getting elected for a number of reasons. (I presume these are the people to whom the authors are referring here.) First, judging by the election results, the Cuban people fully support their own unique form of representative democracy which can be seen to be free of the influence of money and party politics. They may well, therefore, view with suspicion anyone proposing to reintroduce such obviously corrupting influences.

Secondly, in an electoral system like Cuba's in which no candidate is to have an advantage because access to funding or other such advantage unrelated to personal merit, there must be strict controls on all aspects of political campaigning during and between elections. It is impossible to simply "buy air-time" for anything resembling a political campaign outside the tightly controlled, grassroots-based electoral process. There is nothing undemocratic about this -- quite the contrary. It is, I believe, a legitimate response to the corrupting influence that money has often had on the democratic process -- a problem which no other representative democracy seems to have addressed quite so effectively.

The US embargo -- but a part of a long of history US aggression against Cuba -- has not helped matters either. Even members of Cuba's tiny dissident movement concur on this. This was clear from an article by Elizardo Sanchez in the New York Times, April 22, 1997. He wrote:

"The vast majority of us on the island who oppose the Government believe that a dialogue and a relaxation of tensions between the United States and Cuba would better facilitate a transformation [of Cuban society]. Unfortunately, the Helms-Burton Act [the legislative cornerstone of the embargo], which among other things mandates sanctions against foreign companies that do business in Cuba, makes it very difficult for the United States to take part in such a dialogue."

Two years later, they explicitly called for an immediate and unconditional lifting of the embargo. This was clear from the U.S. press coverage of the recent visit to Cuba of Illinois Governor Ryan. On October 26, 1999, The Chicago Tribune reported:

"While Ryan did hear about human-rights violations during the meeting [with prominent Cuban dissidents at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana], it was the pleas for ending the long U.S. embargo against Cuba--what Castro also wants-- that clearly made an impression on the governor. ..."

A frustrated Elizardo Sanchez, perhaps the most prominent dissident in Cuba, was quoted in the same article as saying, "All the bad things here [in Cuba] are blamed on Washington, that there are no jobs, no shoes, no food, no medicines." (He, of course, claims it is the Cuban government's fault.)

In this article, as well, we have confirmation of the deep distrust, even among the dissidents themselves, of the motives the US and its Cuban "government-in-waiting" in Miami:

"'Miami's longtime Cuban exiles base their continued support of the embargo"on their own self-interest,' [Manuel David] Corrio [a prominent Cuban dissident] said. With hopes of regaining large land and property holdings lost to Cuba's revolution, the exiles have 'very clear, obvious economic interests' and are not focused on what is best for the island, he charged."

So, it is not so much that persons opposed to the Government are not looked on favourably by the authorities, as the authors would have it, but more importantly that such persons are not looked on favourably by the Cuban people -- much to the authors' frustration, it would seem.

One of the provisions of the Law is that lists of candidates are drawn up by the Candidature Commissions, made up of representatives of the Cuban Workers' Federation, the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women, the National Small Farmers' Association, the University Students' Federation and the Federation of Secondary School Students. In proposing candidates, the Commissions must seek the views of any institutions, organizations and labour federations that it deems necessary, as well as of delegates to the Municipal Assemblies. These Assemblies can approve or reject one or all of the proposed candidates, in which case the Candidature Commissions must submit others. The nomination of candidates for election to the Municipal Assemblies is done by nominating assemblies, in which all voters are entitled to propose candidates. In practice, however, these district assemblies are usually organized by the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution or the Communist Party, which makes the selection of an opponent of the regime most unlikely. (continued)

Abuses of power by anyone the CDR's, the Communist Party, foreign corporations or whoever are held in check by the use of secret ballots at each level (as mentioned above). It is in no one's interest to put forth an unpopular candidate if he or she is likely to be rejected by voters. The nomination process includes an extensive consultation with community and labour groups expressly to avoid such rejections.

In addition to the election propaganda put out by the government press media (the only ones allowed in Cuba), members of the Party and of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, as well as children outside school hours, made house-to-house calls to persuade people to go and vote, although in theory voting is not compulsory. Furthermore, all the voters know about the candidates is what is contained in the biographical notes distributed by the government press, and candidates are not able to present their own electoral platform. (continued)

This is true at the municipal level, but not in the Provincial and National elections that the authors were supposedly observing. At the municipal level, the electoral districts are very small. (In an urban setting, typically an area of about 2 by 4 city blocks.) Candidates must be resident in the district in which they are running. They should, therefore, already be fairly well known to the other residents. At the provincial and national level, however, all candidates meet with voters at their places of work or residence to get acquainted and to answer questions. Again, if voters are unhappy with the electoral system, they can register their protest by rejecting any or all candidates in the secret ballot.

All in all, the electoral process is so tightly controlled that the final phase, i.e. the voting itself, could be dispensed with without the final result being substantially affected.
The results announced by the Government showed a 98.35 per cent voter turnout, with the 601 candidates for the National Assembly and the 1,192 candidates for the Provincial Assemblies being elected. Approximately 5.01 per cent of ballots were blank or spoiled and 94.39 per cent of voters opted for the combined vote. (End of text from the report of the UN Special Rapporteur for Cuba) (continued)

Note that the authors seem to place no significance at all on the blank or spoiled ballots. If they had studied the system in any detail at all, they would have known that this is how protests are registered and that it is possible (as mentioned above) to reject any or all candidates in this way, if the majority so chooses.

Note also that there is no mention or hint of any electoral fraud. Had there been even a whiff of it from any dissident source whatsoever, it would be safe to assume that the authors would have been reported it here.

41. The foregoing text suggests that free debate and pluralist ideological struggle were absent during the Cuban elections, as the only political party allowed in the country is the Communist Party, which keeps other groups from competing in a healthy atmosphere of ideological pluralism. (continued)

The "ideological pluralism" that the authors seem to regard so highly, is often anything but "healthy" for the vast majority elsewhere in Latin America. Again, the Communist Party, by law, can play no direct role in the electoral process. They cannot nominate or endorse any individual candidates.

It may be considered that that limitation [the supposed lack of "free debate and pluralist ideological struggle"] is the result of the action of several factors, especially the requirement of ideological adherence, the requirements that stem from the electoral mechanisms, and the intolerance of the group in power to the forms of political opposition.
42. Intolerance of all forms of political opposition is the main limitation on participation. Article 62 of the Cuban Constitution provides the constitutional basis for this intolerance; this provision has been analyzed many times by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. While it is reasonable to proscribe unconstitutional acts, the text of this article even limits the mere freedom of expression. Discourse critical of the objectives of the socialist state, though not linked to other actions, may be prohibited.
43. In addition, the articles of Chapter VII of the Constitution, on fundamental rights, duties, and guarantees, drastically limit the formal political rights that are necessary in any democratic government, which are enshrined in Article XX of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. Article 53 recognizes freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but only "in accordance with the aims of socialist society." To dispel any doubts, the Article 53 also stipulates the condition that "The law regulates the exercise of these freedoms." The freedom of expression is also limited in Article 39(ch), where it is indicated that artistic freedom exists "so long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution." The Constitution, therefore, lays the legal basis for censorship, since it is the state that can determine whether oral and written forms of expression, and art, are contrary to the revolution. The Constitution also sets forth the legal bases for the state to direct all activities in the areas of art, culture, and the press, all of which is at odds with Article IV of the American Declaration. (continued)

If there is any bias in the Constitution, it is against all of the fundamentally undemocratic aspects of capitalism. In Cuba, after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, it is the Cuban people who now own the economic resources of the country. The socialistic aspects of Cuban society are quite naturally enshrined in the Constitution. Just as there are restrictions on some forms of political activity in most democracies, i.e., on groups "constituted for the purpose of violating fundamental human rights" (to which the authors allude above), so too are there restrictions under Cuban laws to preserve its particular form of socialist democracy.

44. Indeed, political practice has demonstrated that the cards are generally stacked against the opposition. Since 1960, all information media have been in the hands of the state. There are no legal means for openly challenging the policies of the Government and the Party, or for competing, as a group, movement, or party organization, for the right to govern, to replace the Communist Party and its leaders peacefully, and instituting new and different policies. The main criticisms expressed in public against government policies come from the very members of the upper echelons of the Government. Nonetheless, it is impossible to make an open and organized criticism of the Government and Party that makes the highest-level leaders susceptible to assuming responsibility, being held accountable, or being removed. (continued)

This is, among other things, is exactly the purpose of the Cuba electoral system: to make the highest-level leaders susceptible to assuming responsibility, being held accountable, or being removed.

It is impossible to "buy" an election as elsewhere in the Americas. (Is this what the authors really object to?) The Cuban people want to exclude party politics from their electoral system. They want to nominate their own candidates at the grassroots level. They do not want to have to raise millions of dollars just to run for public office. And as indicated by the election results, they are solidly behind their own unique form socialist democracy.

45. It is, therefore, a regime that continues to be severely authoritarian and that continues to use methods--control of information and of scientific and cultural pursuit, imprisonment, harassment and forced migration of opponents abroad, etc.--to restrict and indeed eliminate all forms of political opposition. While it is true that the current regime has been subjected to all manner of pressures, both internal and external, authorizing it to take certain exceptional measures for its defense, it is also true that the eradication of any type of opposition is clearly indicative of political intolerance that goes beyond the limits set for a legitimate response by the state to defend itself. In addition, the Commission considers that the methods used have often been unlawful and disproportionate to the magnitude of the presumed infractions committed. (continued)

It is very generous of the Commission to authorize the Cuban people to "take certain exceptional measures for its defense." It seems obvious, however, that they have grossly underestimated the "pressures" facing them. There the small matter of a 40 year siege the longest in history of the world one that includes a military invasion, sabotage, terrorist attacks and a universally condemned, genocidal embargo. Their main adversary, the US government no doubt a dominate force on the Commission-- , has a long history of ruthless aggression the world over. Recent campaigns of genocide in Yugoslavia and Iraq show that this ruthlessness shows no signs of letting up in the near future. The response of the Cuban government to endless US aggression, provocations and threats is really quite measured and reasonable in this context. (The US and Canadian governments, it must be remembered, put thousands, including children, into concentration camps for the "crime" of simply being ethnic Japanese during World War II. The threat then was much less than the dangers faced by Cuba today.)

46. Based on the above, the Commission finds that the Cuban political system, in its normative structure, establishes principles which, if implemented, could adequately safeguard human rights. Nonetheless, the non-existence of the necessary separation of powers means that the activities of Cuban society as a whole are subordinated to the political authorities. This situation is reinforced by the use of subjective terms and concepts in the Constitution that tend to undercut the effective observance of the principles of objectivity and legality, which are essential guarantees against the violation of citizens' rights by the political authorities. (continued)

The authors have been able come to this conclusion only by ignoring a key aspect of the electoral, namely, the secret ballot, which at both the provincial and national levels, allows voters to reject any and all candidates.

47. The Commission considers, as well, that the Cuban political system grants an exclusive and exclusionary preponderance to the Communist Party, which constitutes, in fact, a force above the state itself, and impedes healthy ideological and political-party pluralism, which is one of the foundations of democratic government. (continued)

It is obvious that multi-party politics is no guarantee whatsoever of true democracy.

Consequently, the most important state organs are controlled by members of the Communist Party, who are also decisively involved in the operation of the mechanisms for selecting candidates to occupy elective posts. (continued)

This is simply not the case. Again, candidates are not nominated by any political party, but by the people themselves or their democratically elected representatives at the grassroots level.

All this presupposes ideological adherence that is uncritical and dogmatic, and incompatible with Article XX of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. (continued)

The "ideological adherence" is to one of real democracy where all aspects of both political and economic life are subject to the collective will of people -- unlike any other nation in the world.


48. In the opinion of the Commission, the existence of supreme collegial bodies is a positive trait of the Cuban political system, since it emphasizes negotiation to reach the consensus needed for effective political action. (continued)

This, if the Commission had done its job thoroughly and without prejudice, would have been be the primary conclusion of their report!

In principle, the collegial organs are a good basis for achieving broad citizen participation in national politics. The practice, however, indicates that the main organs of the state and of the Communist Party are controlled by a small group, and that this has been the case from the very beginning of the current Cuban political process. Within this group, special mention should be made of the role played by the Head of State, who is the one who effectively and ultimately exercises power in Cuba. (continued)

Fidel Castro was elected to the National Assembly in 1998 along with 600 other delegates. The National Assembly, in turn, elected him, by secret ballot, to the post of President of the Council of State the Cuban head of state. He is no "dictator" as the authors seem to imply.

This situation has been attained through the exercise of marked intolerance towards all forms of political opposition, which has been eliminated often by the use of unlawful methods, or methods disproportionate to the magnitude of the presumed infractions or threats. (continued)

Again, the Cuban people, a small island nation, are the subject of a 40 siege the longest in world history at the hands of a ruthless superpower bent on crushing their independent spirit. They are morally entitled to fight back.

49. The Commission hopes that conditions are created, internally and internationally, to achieve the effective and authentic participation of Cuban citizens in the political decisions that affect them, in a framework of freedom and pluralism, which is essential for the effective observance of all human rights.

These conditions have been achieved long ago. Cuba, in spite of relentless US aggression over a period of more than 40 years, has managed to build a real democracy something that, in my opinion, has eluded the rest of the Americas for hundreds of years.

Previous | Next

Return

Home