By Osmel Ramírez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES – Local elections were held in Cuba on November 27th, to elect district Representatives. These are the bottom-level leaders of the Cuban political system, the only ones that the Cuban people nominate and vote for directly, choosing between different candidates. Although this process doesn’t escape manipulation and pressure from the political police, of course, thus ensuring that pro-government candidates ultimately end up being elected.
I have experienced this pressure and State Security’s exaggerated actions firsthand, when my neighbors nominated me for the position in previous elections. But the truth I never challenged them for it, regardless of popular interest in nominating me, because winning the election means swearing an oath of allegiance to the system and its leaders. This oath would be inconsistent for me, when I am a critic of this system and find it dysfunctional and not at all democratic.
This year, many voters came up to me, asked me and even encouraged me to accept the nomination, but I told them that I wouldn’t be going to the nomination assembly. I’m sure some of them were testing the waters to see what my position was so they could snitch on me, but I know that others were sincere in their intentions. It seems to have worked because I wasn’t subject to any noticeable checks or pressure.
Traditionally, it’s been easy to impose the Government’s story of going to vote or to the nomination assemblies, because they had complete control of the media, and more people were still connected to the system. Turnout was pretty much 100%, which the Government would then show off to the world as the Cuban people’s unspoken support for the political system.
However, in recent years, this participation trend has been in decline, as a result of so much migration and reliance on foreign countries, with so many failures and discredit of the system and the Government in particular, and a new record in abstention is set every time there’s an election. The drop in turnout was much steeper in this election, with a 68.58% turnout, compared to turnout just two months before when a referendum was held to vote on the controversial Family Act, which saw 5% more Cubans voting.
In my neighborhood, if only around ten people took part in the nomination assembly, it emerged that over a third of voters had yet to vote by the end of the election day, amidst a blackout. This was despite them taking ballots to many people’s homes and the pressure of living in a rural community where everybody knows everybody and there is only one main street that forces people to pass in front of the school, there’s no excuse not to go. This is decisive in an atmosphere of social control.
People were making ironic jokes and mocking the triviality of the elections like never before, even after voting or on their way to the polling station. One person said in the middle of the street: “I’m going to vote YES for blackouts.” Another person said: “we can’t stop supporting Diaz-Canel now after the success of the Reforms Process.” But what really got people laughing was a comment by a neighbor who said: “I wasn’t going to vote but they brought in a packet of chicken after six months of not seeing it anywhere, my representative made my heart soft.”
Nevertheless, it’s a fact that a growing group of the population are now cutting themselves loose from social control, they’ve lost their fear and aren’t taking part, or cast a protest vote. The level of abstentionism has been growing steadily over the past two decades and the leap this year was significant.
In the elections during the time Fidel Castro was at the head of the Government and Party, abstentionism was irrelevant, pretty much zero and always less than 5%. During Raul Castro’s time in power, this went up to 11% and in the 2017 elections, when Miguel Diaz-Canel came into power as President, it stood at 14% already.
After his administration, which has coincided with the harshest period since the Special Period in the ‘90s, the percentage of Cubans who have decided not to vote has taken a signficant leap to 31.5%. This is not only a protest vote against the regime’s failures, that insist on continuity no matter how absurd this is, but it’s also a clear message from the Cuban people: who are demanding democratic and economic change, who are opening their eyes and shaking off the fear of obeying the regime unconditionally; understanding that the system is of no good to us now and isn’t bearable.
Despite all of this, in the National Electoral Council’s report about the results, this body’s director Alina Balseiro said that the elections were “a democratic day”, that “went smoothly, were organized, disciplined and in keeping with the Law, like our people have always done.” She judged that this “demonstrates the people’s support for their representatives and their confidence in the Revolution,” despite a basic analysis telling you otherwise.
These were clearly different elections. But it couldn’t be any other way because we are a different people now. The Revolution or radical socialist system, or whatever you want to call it, is different. The world is different. We want different things and our real chances of doing this are also different today.