“This is the root and salt of freedom: the municipality. It cools down and exercises character, it gets people used to studying public affairs and to participate in them and to the everyday use of authority, where individual level-headedness is assessed and people are saved from themselves.” -Jose Marti
HAVANA TIMES – On November 26th, tributes on the first anniversary of Fidel Castro’s death and voting (a more exact term than “elections) at a local level of the so-called People’s Power, coincided in Cuba.
Going through the articles written when the Cuban dictator passed away, I found a column published in Proceso by essay writer Rafael Hernandez, in which the laudatory assessment of Fidel’s legacy was accompanied by references to possible reforms of the Cuban political system.
Questioning the multi-party alternative, Hernandez opted for improving the quality of the electoral process, overcoming closed nominations and negative votes, defending greater transparency, accountability and systematization of how representative institutions operate. He centered his call for democratic change around strengthening civic participation within existing institutions, especially within the People’s Power party.
These aren’t new calls for change. They are the backbone of the set of reforms that, with greater or lesser levels of quality and opening, a group of intellectuals who are identified with the current system in Cuba (because of their militancy, ideology and/or institutional affiliation) have been putting forward for thirty years now. Between 1990 and 1996, researchers at the American Studies Center offered solid and concrete proposals to reform local governments and public participation within the framework of the People’s Power party.
Later, new generations of Cuban academics wrote analyses and essays about these same issues. They all recognized a shortfall in how the system of Representatives, Popular Councils, Municipal Assemblies… worked, while emphasizing direct participation, quality representation and better management of local public services; drafting a consensus about a possible and loyal reform process of local Cuban government that would take place at a gradual pace and to some degree, based on institutional laws and agents recognized by the system.
Two great absences, which are directly linked to the socialization and political control processes which affect the structure and work of the island’s intellectual circle, can be seen in these analyses.
First of all, their zero consideration of the specific gravity centers that real power have (party bureaucracy, political police) in the performance and limits of public participation on the island.
Secondly, is the invisibility of activists and opposition agendas. In such a way that whoever wants to read a document arising from this (already plentiful) production, will find many critiques of local bureaucrats, the provincial government’s excessive regulations, the absence of municipal financial powers, civic apathy… but it will not find, except for in some exceptions, substantial references to the Communist Party’s bodies’ interference in the nomination process and organization of elections, as well as violations of the Electoral Law by State Security agents. In these studies, the abundance of terms such as “civic participation” and “socialist democracy”, with a well-defined normative nature, contrast with the limited presence of data and the even greater absence of opinions about the real reach of democracy under a Lenin-style single-party system. They deal with legitimate reformist aspirations that however, ignore the system’s structure, treating them as partial deviations.
On the other hand, government officials (such as Ricardo Alarcon, former president of the National Assembly of People’s Power or Armando Hart Davalos, the former Minister of Culture) have stressed the exceptional character of the island’s system of government; following an alleged Mambise and Rousseaunian mold before the system of political centralization and stagnation that Lenin and Stalin developed in Soviet Russia as of 1918.
Within this other set of references that are directly conceived by the government (which are less sophisticated and critical than those put forward by reformist intellectuals), the participation of the repressed and discredited dissidents in local elections was even encouraged, as a way to prove their real popular support. Assuming that it was the opposition’s lack of a practical and ideological tie with ordinary Cubans’ problems and perspectives and not the official ban on dissident groups that was the obstacle that stopped a band of opposition politicians, not even a tiny one, from appearing and standing against the government. And of course, believing the Cuban praxis to be the best democracy there is.
Well, with what happened at the recent elections for local People’s Power representatives, the ideas of intellectual reformism and the bureaucracy’s rhetorical games went right out of the window. The unprecedented nomination of dozens of opposition candidates (with profiles that go from being well-trained professionals to community activists) was blocked with a campaign that came from the highest ranks of State and Party and was put into practice by policemen and grass-roots mass organizations.
You can soundly debate to what extent public communication errors, police infiltration and a lack of coordination in the opposition influenced the local election results. However, accounts (even videos) of coercive practices and vote-buying as well as slander against non-official candidates, were well-known and enough.
In Cuba, all of the national electoral laws have been violated, to an unprecedented degree, which ban any propaganda for or against any candidate or for impeding nominating yourself or someone else, and this has caused great damage to whatever was left of the so-called People’s Power legitimacy according to ordinary citizens. In the recent local elections, the government has violated its own institutions; bureaucrats kidnapped citizens; local level public democracy was subjugated to the Party’s dictatorship.
The fact that this goes hand-in-hand with the growing increase in the number of blank votes and abstentions, election after election; that only three candidates were put forward in previous elections and now there are dozens; that the Communist Party has turned to the “bourgeois” practice of gerrymandering are all signs of a much deeper issue.
Even without mass protests on its streets, the government knows that its legitimacy and achievements are dwindling; falling behind their allies. The Cuban government isn’t offering its people prosperity like the Chinese government, it isn’t restoring a wounded national pride like the Russian government is, it isn’t allowing limited political pluralism like the Iranian system is. It hasn’t managed to form a technocracy, a middle class or a bourgeoisie with enough financial, social and cultural means so as to ensure that the system of government is reproduced once power is handed over to a new government in 2018. It has held onto power, stopping social growth and ties (with repression bordering on paranoia) in the crucial areas of intellectual thought, journalism, art, community activism, political opposition… but it hasn’t managed to wipe these out. What it has managed to put on the brink of being wiped out with its paralysis and institutional handling, however, is its minimum level of legal rationale that every system needs to be able to reform itself. Now they are only left with the arguments of the past (Fidel, the Revolution) or the external enemy (Trump) as the driving force of a process that needs to look towards the future and in on itself.
With the planned and gross violation of the 2017 local elections, Raul Castro is refuting the mantra of reinforcing Cuban institutions which has been the heart of his discourse. His agenda has been that of an autocratic State which stops a (very closed-off) democracy at a local level, to then violate it to its very core. Standing on the other side, with their participation in the elections, the harassed dissidence show that – as well as their own mistakes – they are opting for the legal, peaceful and democratic route to pluralize power and to make the government dynamic again.
Appealing to ordinary Cubans and their everyday problems – far-removed from the government’s political “offers” -, opposition activists have honored current Socialist Law in force today a lot more than its formal defenders, the Government. From now on, in spite of what some people might believe to be a defeat today, it would be well worth the while that activists no matter what their affiliations and, quite simply, every unhappy citizen, continue to fight for spaces for autonomy and self-government in their respective communities, unlike the dictates of the single-party.
Last but not least, as we all know the handling of the “opening” mirage has been a inherent part of the Cuban government’s political agenda, it’s urgent that reformist intellectuals “get moving”, as we Cubans say. With a discourse that systematically regards the government who wants to make reforms and at the same time nods at its counterparts in the global academic market, it will have less and less to say if it insists on defending the supposed “People’s Power” democracy (except to captive audiences) under the government’s current agenda. At least it will be like this while they continue to refuse to consider it a space of debate for plural projects and participants. And in the meantime, this authoritarianism systematically corrupts and violates the last traces of popular sovereignty, still pretending behind elegant essays and constrained debates.
Last minute addendum:
If we understand politics as a matter of actors and concrete results, in these local votes in Cuba there were no clear winners. The opposition, severely repressed, illegally blocked and with its own tactical errors, failed to get any of its dozens of candidates on the neighborhood ballots. The government, with the least participation since the beginning of the Popular Power, had to violate its own Law, putting at the last minute more than 400,000 new voters on the rolls and delaying and minimizing the information of the results. Many people, with indifference, pressure or conformity, endorsed (still) the process massively with their presence at the polls.
References (in Spanish):
(1) “El legado del patriarca” en http://www.proceso.com.mx/465256/legado-del-patriarca
(2) El vicepresidente Miguel Díaz Canel, en un video filtrado de su reunión con dirigentes y cuadros políticos, habló claramente de la iniciativa opositora y la decisión oficial de frenarla https://youtu.be/zNaw_Hj9f88
(3) A este respecto, la mirada de jóvenes periodistas e intelectuales residentes en la isla y defensores de un socialismo renovado y democrático, son hoy mucho más diáfanas y certeras que las repetidas fórmulas del reformismo intelectual. Sobre las primeras ver https://eltoque.com/blog/yo-me-abstengo, https://eltoque.com/blog/tengo-derecho-decir, https://eltoque.com/blog/por-que-ire-votary https://espaciodeelaine.wordpress.com/2017/08/30/a-los-candidatos-de-2018-con-amor-de-2010/