- Created: Thursday, 19 April 2018 14:14
- Written by Will Harney
Cuba’s 60-year-old revolutionary democracy is at a historic milestone as it prepares to elect a leader on 19 April who will be part of a new generation taking over from those who originally took part in the 1959 revolution. For the people of socialist Cuba, the careful process of electing a new President and Vice President began back in September with nominations for the 168 Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power. These basic components of Cuba’s participatory democratic system are composed, not of career politicians, but of ordinary Cubans who are put forward by their neighbours and communities. On this broad base the parliament is built, in a political system rooted in a long revolutionary tradition and designed above all to empower the working class. Cubans’ choice of new leadership will be crucial in meeting the challenges that lie ahead. Will Harney reports.
A democracy of the working Class
To see Cuba’s system in the proper light, we must remember how our own system of government was born through class struggle. The political systems of capitalist countries in Europe and the US were established through their own revolutions, in which the bourgeoisie – the capitalist class – overthrew the old feudal aristocracies and created the ‘liberal democracy’ model of government. Although originally restricted to the propertied classes, hence emphasising property rights and the rule of law to ensure a stable market economy, these systems have extended rights and political representation to broader sections of society, typically under immense popular pressure from below (as with the Great Reform Act of 1832 or Representation of the People Act of 1918). Nonetheless, liberal democracies such as the US and UK are characterised by steadily declining political engagement and a growing distrust of politicians, the media and other elites, especially among low-income citizens. Cuba’s model, built after the overthrow of capitalism on the island, is an attempt to build a workers’ democracy, and its unique character reflects this.
The international media often describes Cuba as a ‘One-Party state’. This is a distortion; although the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) plays a special role in Cuban society, there are other political parties in Cuba. For example, the Christian Democratic Party of Cuba, the Cuban Socialist Democratic Current and the Democratic Social-Revolutionary Party of Cuba. Since the Constitutional reform of 1992 other parties besides the PCC have had the legal right to exist in the country. However, the constitution also stipulates that no political party – including the PCC – is permitted to campaign or publicise itself in elections, nor endorse candidates for election. Candidates are elected on an individual basis without formal party involvement.
So what is the purpose of a political party that cannot run candidates for election? The answer is that the PCC is not like the political parties of Britain or the US. Although membership of the PCC is not compulsory, the Cuban constitution recognises that the Communist Party is the ‘organised vanguard of the Cuban nation, is the highest leading force of society and of the state, which organises and guides the common effort toward the goals of the construction of socialism and the progress toward a communist society’. Formed through the merger of several revolutionary movements in 1961, the modern PCC is not simply a vehicle for electoral politics but a mass organisation which provides political leadership and direction for the whole of society.
A number of other key features, the purpose of which can be traced back to Karl Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune, mark out Cuba’s revolutionary system from those of capitalist countries. Firstly, very few of the positions in the Municipal, Provincial or National Assemblies are paid positions – most politicians in Cuba receive no salary and carry on with their regular job. Those in leadership positions receive the same salary as that of their previous job. (Compare this to Britain, where an MP’s basic salary is £76,011, before expenses). This is to ensure that there is no special political class, so that delegates are just like the working people they are elected to serve. Secondly, all members of the Assemblies must report back to all of their electors in public meetings every six months (this sometimes requires more than ten public meetings in the space of a few weeks). They are also subject to the Right of Recall, a procedure for removing any elected official from their position at any time (for example, in 1989, 114 delegates were recalled and only 45% of delegates were re-elected overall). In this way they are directly answerable to the vast majority of working people.
How does a general election work in Cuba?
Normally the new parliament would have been installed already, on 24 February; however, the nominations process taking place from September to October for the Municipal Assembly elections was delayed in some provinces by the disruption of Hurricane Irma. The new parliament will be officially installed on 19 April.
International media coverage of the Cuban elections has focused on the prospect of who the next President will be. However, to understand people’s power in Cuba it is necessary to start from the ground up. Elections to the Municipal Assemblies are the first stage in the general election. These took place for the current election throughout November-December 2017, with a turnout for the first round of 7.6 million of the total 8.8 million registered voters, or 85.9%. In each electoral district, no fewer than two and no more than eight people are nominated to stand for election to their Municipal Assembly. Candidates are not selected or put forward by any political party; instead, electoral commissions are convened and local meetings held where people decide freely by a show of hands who, from among themselves, will be nominated. Once nominated, the only publicity the candidates will receive is a small poster with their photo and a summary of their biography, displayed in public spaces; they will also have tours of different areas organised by the Electoral Commission so they can meet with voters. There are no big election campaigns or donations, as seen in other countries. Moreover, throughout the Cuban political system there is an emphasis placed on unity in working towards the common revolutionary project of building socialism, hence candidates do not have individual electoral programmes or manifestos.
Once the Municipal Assemblies have been elected, they, along with plenums of the various mass organisations of Cuba which represent different sections of society – for example, the Federation of Cuban Women, the Association of Small Farmers, the Association of University Students, etc – put forward candidates for the National Assembly and the 16 Provincial Assemblies. These candidates are consulted by a Candidature Commission, composed of members of the mass organisations, to determine their suitability for the positions. Once this process of nomination is concluded, the candidates are publicised to the Cuban people and elections are held by secret ballot, with everyone aged 16 or older eligible to vote.
The National Assembly of People’s Power itself, made up of 605 deputies, must be elected first before it chooses a Council of State from among its own members. In the current general election the National Assembly was elected on 11 March 2018 on a turnout of 85.7%, or 7.4 million voters. This body now has 322 female delegates (53.2% of the total) making Cuba the country with the second highest percentage of women representatives, after Rwanda. 59.34% of deputies are white and 40.66% are black or mixed race. 13.22% are under the age of 35; 89.25% of candidates were born after the 1959 revolution. The National Assembly will elect a Council of State, and President, on 16 April.
The President of Cuba is both head of state (President of the Council of State) and head of government (President, or Prime Minister, of the Council of Ministers). The Council of State is made up of representatives of various agencies, government bodies and mass organisations; and the Council of Ministers is made up of the heads of national ministries (for example, Minister of Education, Minister of Public Health etc). These are both permanent bodies with a five-year term that govern Cuba, on behalf of the National Assembly of People’s Power, which is non-permanent and meets twice yearly. Like in other countries such as Spain, the President is not directly elected by the whole electorate. It is the deputies to the National Assembly who choose, from among their own members, 31 deputies who will take up the role of Council of State, including who will be President. Once the Council of State and President have been chosen, the President proposes members of the Council of Ministers to the Assembly, and the Assembly appoints them.
‘No preconceived leader’
Raul Castro in a speech to the 7th PCC Congress in April 2016 asserted the importance of Cuba’s plans for the transition of leadership to a younger generation, a process which will conclude at the Party’s 8th Congress in 2021. Reasserting the importance of practical experience outside of politics for the country’s leadership, he noted that new members of the Political Bureau ‘have accumulated a rich service record from the grassroots… there can be no preconceived leaders, everyone who graduates must work five years at least at the basic level in the specialty which they studied at the university’.
The deputies of the National Assembly have yet to choose their President. Much media attention has been focused on Miguel Diaz-Canel, since 2013 the First Vice President of the Council of State, and the first Cuban born after 1959 to occupy that position. A trained electrical engineer who dresses plainly, Diaz-Canel is relatively unknown outside of Cuba (to the frustration of foreign media agencies), though he is very popular in his locality and recognised for his steady commitment to the PCC. As intended in the plan for a new generation of leaders, Diaz-Canel’s promotion to First Vice Presidency was not because he fits into a narrative of ‘heir apparent’ but reflects his practical experience in his profession, work as a PCC organiser in several provinces and visits to other countries.
Whoever leads will face challenges ahead. Relations between Cuba and the US have become increasingly sour since President Donald Trump rose to power, with bizarre accusations of ‘sonic attacks’ on US diplomats serving as a pretext for their withdrawal from Cuba (FRFI 262). New sanctions were imposed by the US on Cuban businesses in November. Miguel Diaz-Canel has stated that Cuba will not make concessions to its sovereignty for the sake of lifting the US embargo. If indeed elected as President, he is likely to continue Cuba’s tradition of defiance in the face of US imperialism. As Raul Castro put it in his December speech to the outgoing National Assembly, ‘the Cuban Revolution has withstood the onslaught of 11 US administrations of different kinds and here we are and will remain, free, sovereign and independent’.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 263 April/May 2018