Brushing away the cobwebs of bourgeois democracy

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013

Cuba and its neighbours: democracy in motion,

Arnold August, Zed Books 2013, £16.99

In Cuba and its neighbours: democracy in motion, Canadian journalist Arnold August demolishes the bourgeois propaganda that socialist Cuba is somehow ‘undemocratic’ by examining the very idea of what we mean by democracy.

The first part of this comparative study, ‘Cobwebs around democracy’, is an analysis of the US system. August exposes the deceptive character of the US two-party system as a cover for what he describes as an ‘oligarchic’ state but we would call imperialist. Using Barack Obama as a case study, he shows how a cautious ‘benefit of the doubt’ attitude towards Obama by Latin America faded in the face of a military coup in Honduras, perpetrated with US backing. August points out that ‘a new face’ changed nothing in US relations with Cuba: ‘His role, based on the illusion created regarding the two-party system, was to change tactics because they had failed to reach the same goal of regime change.’

August argues that Obama recreates the chimera of the American Dream at home, while promoting war abroad. The two-party system ‘constitutes the lifeline of maintaining the status quo and averting a crisis in the US political system.’ August shows that this system excludes up to half the voting age population, including convicted felons – the majority black – and those without official papers, such as many Latino immigrants. Thus large numbers of the most oppressed sections in US society are disenfranchised.

In contrast, August shows how the participatory democracies of Bolivia, Ecuador and particularly Venezuela are transforming the lives of the poor. In his examination of the Bolivarian Revolution’s transition towards ‘21st century socialism’, August describes the ‘missions’, inspired by Cuba, that bring social change into the barrios, incorporating ‘Venezuelans into a growing, parallel, state-sponsored economy that competes with the traditional private sector and ultimately seeks to supplant it’. He shows how the country’s constitution was drafted by the people themselves, and writes: ‘This participatory experience contrasts significantly with how the US constitution came into being: exclusivity based on the protection of the unlimited accumulation of private property.’ He does not brush aside the challenges of attempting to develop such an explicitly socialist democracy when capitalist relations are still the dominant mode of economic activity, but says because of the development of popular power, ‘The elections are…a vehicle that drives the Revolution, and the grassroots are the fuel. Participatory democracy is a daily way of life for a growing number of people.’

August shows how in both Bolivia and Ecuador a similar, although less developed, process has taken place. Bolivia’s Movement towards Socialism (MAS) mobilised more than 80% of the population, including campesinos and indigenous groups, for the 2005 elections; its constituent assembly represented a significant move towards developing participatory democracy in the country. Led by Evo Morales, the new government enabled one million Bolivians to escape poverty in six years. Morales’ election signified an end to the ‘apartheid that had marginalised the majority of the indigenous population since the Spanish conquest’. However, as August says, ‘the future of Bolivia’s fledgling participatory democracy depends on the capacity of MAS and its leadership to resist pressures and interference from the right-wing, tied to US interests’. He points out, too, that such democracy is not static but constantly evolving.

In Ecuador too, August shows, there has also been successful movement for the rights of the most oppressed sections of society, including the enshrining of indigenous peoples’ rights and the stipulation that the natural resources of the country are the patrimony of the people.

August rounds up part one by analysing the progressive Latin American alliances of ALBA and CELAC and their key role in opposing US imperialism by building co-operation amongst member countriesagainst ‘US centrism’ and its attempts to impose its own limited concept of democracy on the continent.


The bulk of the book deals with the democratic system in socialist Cuba. As well as a detailed explanation of how the electoral process itself functions at municipal, provincial and national level, with all Cubans automatically registered to vote at the age of 16, what is most valuable is his exploration of how the state functions between and alongside the formal electoral process. August shows how since the Revolution the system has been through a consistent process of renewal: he describes the rectification campaign of the 1980s against bureaucracy and corruption which renewed the relationship between the people and the state, and looks at the changes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Particularly interesting are the local gatherings in 2007 that followed a key speech by then Vice President Raul Castro, in which he detailed economic and social concerns of the people and welcomed everyone to ‘the daily battle’ – to discuss ‘difficulties, successes, strong and weak points in the revolutionary process’ in their workplaces and educational centres, which were then presented to local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. It was this process of popular power through national debate that led, for example, to the distribution of uncultivated land rent-free to individuals to increase food production and lower prices.

The Congress of the Cuban Communist Party took on board the proposals of these national debates, leading to a final drawing up of 313 guidelines. The measures addressed every area of life and are described in detail in the book. The fact that this revolutionary renewal was possible is because, as August says, ‘there is…a dialectic bond between the leadership and the people. A continual, reciprocal, bottom-up and top-down process takes place.’ August praises this creative and flexible process, although warns that the outcome of the changes is yet to be determined.

August writes as an academic rather than as a socialist, and there are places in the book where one could take issue with him. But overall, Cuba and its neighbours provides meticulously-researched ammunition for all those fighting in defence of a socialist system of participatory, working class democracy and exposes the bourgeois democracy defended by the United States as a sham.

Nazia Mukti


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