Cuba’s Elections & Participatory Democracy

HAVANA TIMES, May 16 – In his periodic online newsletter analyst Pedro Campos —who has made several concrete proposals for making the Cuban political-economic system more worker friendly and to advance socialism— took advantage of the recent local elections to put forth what he considers needed changes.

From Bourgeois Democracy to Socialist Participatory Democracy

By Pedro Campos

Havana Balconies. Photo: Caridad

“Cuba is a socialist state of the workers, independent and sovereign, organized with all and for the good of all, as a unitary and democratic republic for the enjoyment of political freedom, social justice, individual and collective well-being, and human solidarity,” states article one of the Cuban Constitution).

This is the opportune moment [to put forth or recall proposals] given the recently held elections for municipal delegates, which more than anything possessed an only symbolic character since these elected officials lack any substantive power.

One of the elements that should change, before the next elections, is the indirect and representative bourgeois-type character of our current form of democracy.  This is quite distant from the one we need and what would correspond to socialism, where power should be exercised through direct participation, without intermediaries, by the workers and people. This would make a reality the democratic revolutionary republic of the workers [as described in the Constitution].

The main reason for this is very simple: The deep socio-economic changes that are needed by Cuban society to advance toward true socialism do not seem possible if modifications are not also carried out in the electoral law and in some of the articles of the constitution.  Currently these statutes severely limit direct and decisive participation by the people and the workers in the current Cuban political system, making it bureaucratic and top-down.  Moreover, these laws allow the continued centralization of all types of decisions, which incapacitate the workers and people from exercising the leading role that corresponds to them in the politics and economics of socialism.

It is difficult for us to accept that our current political system, with all its democratic advances, fails to surpass the framework of bourgeois democracy given not only its similar form of representation but also its analogous content, since we now know that workers decide nothing in Cuba – which is why we’re in the situation we’re in.

A system based on trusting leaders

We must recognize that up to now the system has been based on almost absolute trust by the people in the leadership, who have almost always made all of the important decisions.  However the situation has changed.

The head of the revolution no longer possesses all of his physical abilities.  Moreover, fifty years of the same government and the same policies have not given the expected results, the people are not the same as a half century ago, the world has changed and the form of “socialism” that is continuing to be attempted here has failed everywhere.  The progress of socialization/democratization, now stagnant, has put the revolution in danger of being reversed.

The leadership that has been in power for more than half a century seems unwilling to assimilate the opinions that the rank-and-file members of the party and the grassroots of society have been expounding since the fall of the “socialist” camp, now almost two decades ago. These warnings have increased and deepened in the last several years, especially since 2005, when Fidel noted the possibility that revolutionaries themselves could destroy the revolution.

We are now approaching five years since that statement.  Nonetheless, the reality is that despite the changes and movements carried out in the government, nothing in essence has affected the centralized-statist concept of the Cuban economy and politics.  The government has not even presented an integral plan to the people for overcoming the situation, despite the thousands of speeches and positions delivered in official discussions, academic institutions, the digital media and even —scantly— in the party’s own press, as well as in proposals by political scientists, philosophers, economists, social scientists in general, street corner socialists and those people from all over the political world of the international left.

The Raul Castro government —afflicted by the multiplicity of cumulative problems, and without solutions within range of the same old binoculars— is relying on solving them by demands for greater discipline and changes in administrators.  The real solution, though, is in changing the obsolete concepts that predominate concerning socialism.

Fear and prejudices hamper change

It seems that among those valuable and respected comrades who are sincerely interested in preserving the revolution and making it advance, there prevails —indistinctly— the fear of changing the old neo-Stalinist way of thinking and past commitments, as well as confusion between the revolution and its leaders and between loyalties to principles and to the people.

These and other prejudices prevent them from making the necessary transformations toward the socialization and democratization of economic and political power. Such change is the sole way of prolonging all of the good in the work they have led.  This is appreciated quite concretely in connection with the transition of agricultural and industrial companies and services to self-management by workers, who themselves will take on the task of eliminating almost the entire strata of bureaucrats who today enjoy their extra-salary privileges.

It’s not necessary to organize votes of loyalty to the revolutionary process.  At this point in the “game” —faced with the serious problems of corruption and bureaucracy, and with the depth reached by the systemic crisis and the lack of dialogue in the heart of the revolutionary camp— it is clear that the revolution today is not served by flattery, triumphalism or brown nosing, but with concrete proposals for solutions.  In paraphrasing Jose Marti (substituting the word “freedom” for “revolution”: “Only those serve the revolution worthily who, at the risk of being taken by enemy, preserve it without trembling from those who jeopardize it with their errors.”

The French historian and critic Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) saw the centralization of power (Louis XIV, “L’État, c’est moi” – “I am the state”) as the factor responsible for the extreme political instability of France, as he drew from Montesquieu’s “balance of powers” (in The Spirit of the Laws, 1748).  After that time, many of the modern bourgeoisies learned the lesson, and when they assumed all power at the expense of the feudal nobility, they always looked for some balancing or adjustment mechanism, which contributed to social democracy in the 20th century.

Unfortunately, the underestimation and scorn for the values of the previous political culture by the Stalinist line —which predominated in the socialist movement of the 20th century and had so much influence in our revolutionary process— led many leaders of “real socialism” to underrate those concrete political aspects.  Cubans revolutionaries were no exception.

Savage capitalism is not the answer

We were asked to put our trust in them (given our “ignorance”) and to wait (as we have done for decades) for those who do in fact “know” and who have led us to the point of stagnation in which we find ourselves today.  However, it’s no longer possible to hide all the defects of “socialism of the 21st century” that continue to be cultivated here.  We don’t want to end up with savage capitalism of the countries of “old socialism.”

We are experiencing a change of epochs, concepts, generations, technologies, communications, armaments and interests.  This is a time in which “partyocracy,” sectarianism and hegemonic practices are in crisis in the face of the growth and thrust of the diversity of organizations of civil society for people’s self-government, which is more cultured and freer, increasingly conscious and capable of self-administration.  Cuban society is not an exception thanks precisely to the Cultural Revolution that we have experienced.

To continue with the current electoral procedures, super-controlled from above, would serve only to attempt to eternalize a certain group of figures in power —whose values as people I am not questioning— who defend the statist bureaucratic system that has now demonstrated its failure here and everywhere, and violate all senses of the democratic, popular, socialist and Marti-like spirit of our constitution.

The majority of Cubans want socialism, not the continuation of state monopoly capitalism, which is in fact only masking “state socialism.”  Nor do we wish to return to the period prior to 1959. Socialism is the socialization of the appropriation of property and surplus product, as well as the full democratization of political life.  It has nothing to do with concentration of economic and political power in a bureaucratic apparatus that decides everything.

Manichaean immobilism, just like imperialism and its attendants, recognizes only two options: failed “state socialism” or the return to a semi-colonial past dependent on the US, disguised as democratic transition toward capitalist restoration.  Notwithstanding, it’s necessary to give the opportunity to people who stand up for true socialism, the authentic one, the sole form of reaching the utopia described by Jose Marti: “With all and for the good of all.”

Participatory is more than only voting

In the official propaganda for the recent elections of neighborhood delegates of Popular Power, government officials and journalists described the Cuban electoral system as “participatory.” If being participatory refers only to the fact that people turn out to vote, then undoubtedly it was.

However, what gives a democratic system a participatory character is not the fact that people show up to vote en masse, but rather that they participate actively in all the types of decisions that affect their lives; though we all know that citizens of Cuba neither directly choose the leaders of the country, the provinces or the municipalities; nor do they decide anything directly having to do with politics or the economy.  No law —except for the 1976 Constitution and its modification in 2002— has been subjected to popular referendum.

The district level, which should be the most important, is only a minimum component of the body of the government’s political system.  However, in accordance with current laws, these past elections were only to choose “delegates” —with no power whatsoever— to the municipal assembly (city council) whose leaders can only “negotiate” the solutions to problems of the citizens of their municipality, since the ministries hold the actual power (while the municipalities administer small budgets predetermined from above).

Everyone knows that the national, provincial and municipal budgets are approved in the National Assembly at the request of the ministries, and that no relationship exists between the taxes that are paid in each municipality and the budgets they are allocated.

It is also known that those district delegates that we have just chosen do not possess any power to decide anything in this authoritarian system; all decisive power resides in the centralized state apparatus which concentrates the entire national income and decides on the allocation plan for each company in each municipality.

Meanwhile, all resources are controlled by the ministries, whose designated heads —who are elected by no one— name their provincial and municipal delegates and the directors of companies, who in turn select from their closest collaborators and department managers. Everything is top-down; it is a party-ruled clientele system ripe for corruption, given the absence of transparency or control by the base and the non-existence of rotating offices or term limits.

Top-down decision making

The recently elected delegates are simple messengers of complaints and suggestions that go up, and decisions that come down.  They are voted into office based only on their biography and a photo posted in a public place.  There is no previous exchange between the candidates and the citizens to allow people to assess the capacity and political quality of their future representatives.

This factor, together with the delegate’s lack of power, transforms elections at this level into a procedure of mere symbolic value more than anything else. Those who participate do so for many reasons, among them “to demonstrate support for the revolutionary process,” while they do, because people want more revolution, more socialism and they do not wish to return to the shameful past.

But it would be wrong to interpret the massive turn out in these elections as support for the status quo.  Rather, this has to do with support for continuity, for the positive change that Raul promised in several of his speeches.  People came out en masse to the polls because they still have hope that we will escape stagnation, that we will advance toward socialism and because they don’t want to give the enemy a sign that could be misinterpreted.  Many went to vote for those reasons, knowing that we voted for delegates who can do nothing for their people in our neighborhoods.

It is also known that this system is not direct, but representative, just like all bourgeois political systems.  Therefore the “representatives” elect those who make up the municipal, provincial and nation assemblies.  They are the ones who choose the true decision makers.  Decisions are made by those “representatives,” not directly by bodies of workers and community residents, not by the people. They are, therefore, indirect elections in a representative system.

Making the system even more indirect, proposals for candidates for provincial delegates, national deputies and for leadership responsibilities at any level are passed through “candidate commissions” whose members have been previously designated from above.  This guarantees greater control prior to the nominations, with no participation whatsoever by the electorate, who must vote for candidates they didn’t propose, who they generally don’t know (or know only by reference), for candidates who often don’t reside in their municipality, and with whom these voters have never had any exchange and do not know what the candidate thinks or what plans they have to solve the community’s problems.

Parliament only endorses decree-laws

In Cuba, everyone knows that the decree-laws dictated by the Council of State are endorsed by the National Assembly of Popular Power in their biannual meetings, which last just a few days. These are then implemented and applied for months.  It is the Council of State that approves all important appointments to the government, which are almost always proposed by the president and elected by that same council or by the politburo of the PCC, which has been headed by the same comrades who have directed the country since 1959.

For democracy to be participatory, the citizens should actively participate not only in voting for their representatives, but also in proposing them as candidates, as well as participating in the decisions that affect them and in voting on laws. But in fact, no voter in Cuba at the grassroots level proposes anyone, save the district delegate – who has no power.  Nor do they vote on any of the laws that affect their lives.  All of those decisions are made well up the chain of command, as has already been explained.

At most there have been a few laws that have been discussed at the base, without horizontal exchange or press coverage, and without guarantees that the proposals from below will be kept in mind by the higher ups.  Such disregard occurred with the Social Security Law was approved by the National Assembly (including the extension of the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and women) contrary to the opinion of many specialists and most likely the majority of the people.

Sovereignty, which according to the Constitution (Article 3) resides in the people, is in practice exercised by a small group of party officials by virtue of Article 5, which contradicts Article 3 by recognizing the centralized Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) as the state’s highest leading body – above the people themselves.  This is used to justify the dominant role exercised at all levels by the senior party leaders.

The country’s political leadership —as well-respected and loved as they may be by the majority— enjoys the self-recycling of their power, since it is guaranteed in advance by virtue of all of these control mechanisms.

This type of political system is far from being participatory and democratic, as demanded for socialism.  Propaganda that tries to pass it off as such, without recognizing the limitations of current Cuban democracy, only contributes to the static maintenance of what everybody knows must be and needs to be changed, and what has been demanded by masses of people at the base.

Prestige is on the line

The prestige of the leadership, which up to now has headed the revolution, would be better preserved if transformations were carried out in their lifetime that guaranteed the advance of socialism in Cuba without their presence – an advance that they themselves have not been able to accomplish over a half century.

The need to fully democratize our political system and our elections has become inevitable; this would allow all citizens to actively participate in proposals for elective positions at all levels.  All positions, from the president of the Republic to the municipal presidents of Popular Power, must be elected by direct and secret ballot.  Candidates must meet and speak with the voters before being elected.  People must know about their ideas and their plans.  Likewise, before making such changes, the current non-partisan character of the elections must be accentuated; this must be more explicit, because we all know that if we leave them as they are the level of procedural obstruction will rise even higher.

No political party, including the PCC, must act above the law or the system.  Only the people must be those who decide everything, directly and democratically.  In addition, though presently this does not exist, there must be freedom of the press and freedom of assembly and association.

Such freedoms should not be used to take any particular party to government, because world history has demonstrated that parties in power, regardless of their hue, one-sidedly give privilege to those forces and figures they represent, even when they try to hide them in populist economic and political discourse.

Likewise, the absence of popular participation in decision making and in actions previously discussed has become untenable.  To prevent clientelism, nepotism, opportunism, corruption, authoritarianism, bureaucracy and all similar disorders within a hegemonic system, it will be necessary to establish the rotation of offices and positions, term limits, immediate repeal, the absence of privilege and the elimination of meritocracy.

It is not credibly socialist to continue with a “democratic” system in which people are not the main subjects who make the decisions that affect their lives.  This must begin with workplaces and continue with all important laws.  These issues must be discussed, receiving amendments that people propose, making them known horizontally so that everyone discusses them. Subsequently, these would be subject to voting in referendums, especially those relating to all levels of participatory budgets, which would determine how the surplus that the state collects is distributed.

These changes are necessary in Cuba for the future of our socialism.  Similarly, they are necessary for the strengthening of socialist currents throughout all of the Americas, whose peoples —as has been demonstrated— do not wish to follow the Cuban experience, which is now being reexamined by us ourselves.

To continue insisting that the nearby presence of imperialism and its blockade explain why people are not granted their rights (because “these could be taken advantage of”) is to permanently deny the Cuban people their freedom that was won over a century and half of struggle.  This position fails to realize that imperialism will remain in existence for who knows how long.  In addition, to maintain that position is to ignore the anti-imperialist and libertarian character of the Cuban people, as well as to exaggerate the weak balance of forces of the annexationist opposition.

There still exist those who confuse form and content when they hear democracy spoken of; they relate this only to the bourgeois system of government due to their misunderstanding of democracy as having only certain forms.  Socialism will have to make the form and content of democracy coincide.

The direct election of all leaders at all levels, from candidates who are proposed from the grassroots, and discussion and voting by referendum on all important laws would indeed convert our form of democracy into a participatory and direct one, as corresponds to socialism. This would also distinguish us from indirect representative bourgeois democracy.

One thought on “Cuba’s Elections & Participatory Democracy

  • Tks, Pedro. As usual, u are brilliant. U state: “The real solution, though, is in changing the obsolete concepts that predominate concerning socialism.” Nothing could be more true. The essential concept must be addressed. I’m not convinced however that u’ve addressed it.

    What’s the main “obsolete concept” that needs changing? Here’s where ur reasoning seems to lose focus.

    U call for “self-management” by the workers , but u do not call for “direct ownership” by the workers. This is clinging to the old Marxian concept.

    If Cuba should become a modern socialist cooperative republic, and the workers should achieve direct ownership of enterprise through cooperative corporate structures on the well-proven Mondragon model , “self-management” would be automatic.

    The non-voting, non-controlling share of ownership held by the socialist state would not compromise this self-management, and the state would get ample revenue from an invigorated economy.

    Best wishes.

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