On April 25 more than eight million Cubans who are over the age of 16 and who live on the island will have the opportunity to elect or be elected to Municipal Assemblies of Popular Power (similar to city councils).
Held every two and a half years, these elections are characterized as being the most democratic element of Cuba’s vertical political system. Candidates are chosen in local gatherings based on merit, and selection is through votes cast by the residents of their own neighborhood.
In addition to the absence of privilege, the maintaining of an intimate bond between the delegate chosen, their community and its problems is a key ingredient in this electoral process. The rejection of glitzy political campaigning and the provision of real opportunities for the querying, censure and removal of elected officials (through Report-back Assemblies) is also a part of this process.
In Cuba, the grade of professionalism and commitment of the new delegates (as they’re called, owing to their role as community “spokespeople-ombudsmen”) depends on their personal qualities and those of their colleagues who make up the Popular Council, a representative body serving a territorial jurisdiction larger than a city block but smaller than a neighborhood.
There are delegates who exhibit positive examples of true leadership, pugnacity before institutions and determination in everything from patching up waterline leaks in the street, to fighting for a new community bus route, or improving the food selection at the local farmer’s market. In short: they serve to improve their community.
Notwithstanding, there are also those delegates who opportunistically parrot slogans, and those who confuse their popular mandate with military life as they dedicate themselves to merely issuing orders and commands that come from above.
The legitimacy of the role of delegate has been eroded by the centralist practices of the Cuban State (which denies these local representatives any control over resources by concentrating these at higher levels). This breakdown also results from the lack of autonomy of local institutions of the municipal government and community groups and from the intrusive approach of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) in all settings of public life.
It makes no difference that legislation prohibits the Party from interfering in the proceedings of Municipal Assemblies. On occasion, the core of a neighborhood’s CCP —consisting of old-guard devotees who have proven their loyalty to the Revolution— receive “mysterious orders” to encourage the election of a particular candidate.
In other instances, the Party might pressure the Candidacy Commission (made up of members of mass organizations) to undermine some initiative that emerges from the grassroots – with the aging veterans basing themselves on their supposed “ideological trustworthiness.”
Despite this being against the law, their roundabout tack demonstrates there are settings in which the bureaucracy —under the threat of losing its legitimacy— dares not directly impose its instrumental logic to distort popular democracy.
Since my childhood, my family has always volunteered to serve on the neighborhood election board. Since reaching legal age, I’ve personally participated in elections and in the opening and closing of the polls on elections day.
However, on two occasions I learned of attempts to interfere with a popular candidacy, though one of them was fended off through the brave and low-keyed public-spiritedness of the members of the commission itself.
But with the increase in civic apathy, forms of compulsion will most likely be used that range from the convening of the increasingly anemic nomination assemblies to the more blatant forms of interference by the Party apparatus and State agencies of internal order, charged with preventing the participation of rightwing political opposition candidates linked to US interests.
With members of a Liberal Party of the Republic of Cuba (PLRC) now having announced their intention to run 50 candidates in the upcoming elections, the reaction of the political apparatus on the community can be predicted.
If this party’s aim is to affect changes with respect to legislation currently in force, they wouldn’t have made such an announcement. If their objective is to provoke the powers of the State to pounce —thereby whipping up a media scandal— it’s evident they opted for a good strategy.
Should such acts occur (candidacy and coercion), we will be witnessing actions that violate socialist legality, which excludes political parties from the electoral process.
To maintain both forms of partisanship (official and dissident) outside the electoral process and to prevent police interference in the community would be examples of respect for civic will and for the legitimacy of perhaps the only level in the nation where popular participation still plays a leading role (and not mere ornamentation).
This would also be consistent with what National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon and Fidel Castro have expressed in numerous speeches and interviews about how elections in Cuba are held without parties, free of barriers and with total respect for the popular will. Anything else would be a mockery of the “strengthening of institutionalization” declared as a priority by the government of Raul Castro.
We’ll await the outcome.