Cuba’s Parliament: Unanimity vs. Institutionalism

Fernando Ravsberg*

Cuban deputies applauding during one of parliament’s two annual meetings. (Photo: Raquel Perez)

HAVANA TIMES — President Raul Castro has criticized false unanimity on several occasions, but if there is an entity holding the undisputed record in this regard, it is Cuba’s parliament. This body has managed to legislate for almost four decades without a single deputy ever voting to the contrary.

Made up of 600 men and women from across the country — people of different social classes, from twenty-something to retired grandparents — the representatives within this body are presented with all types of issues pertaining to national life, but curiously they always wind up with everyone in agreement.

This would be a rarity anywhere else in the world but, knowing the tendentious nature of Cubans, here it could be described as a miracle.

The problem is that many people have stopped believing in that unanimity and are suspecting that something’s fishy.

It might be a useful instrument to govern centrally and pass laws by the National Assembly as a mere formality, but if the aim is to institutionalize the country, parliament should be one of the first places to transform.

The deputies are elected by the people and should defend the interests of their constituents. It would help them to turn things around, to stop considering themselves as central government officials in their communities and act like representatives of their people before the central power.

Reports to the parliament by the ministers or from the president receive only the applause of the deputies. But this isn’t a popularity contest; the task is to lead a nation that is in need of critical minds to permanently correct its course.

Legislative passivity in Cuba is such that instead of being a country of laws, it has become a state of “resolutions,” “directives” and “executive orders” issued by government officials – sometimes conflicting with the law and even with the constitution itself.

I never heard of one deputy in parliament ever protesting the unconstitutional ban on Cubans entering hotels or a representative from the eastern provinces discussing the restrictions imposed on their constituents from moving to the capital.

Institutionalization means putting one’s house in order so that everyone can play their role within the powers granted to them by law. The main task of a parliament is to legislate, in addition to exercising control over the executive on behalf of the citizens.

Little of that happens right now, and it will be difficult to transform parliament as long as it is directed in the same way that it has been. In this sense, it’s already being rumored that the coming generational shift could facilitate change within that institution.

The Cuban legislature is not highly regarded by the general population. Photo: Raquel Perez

A different mentality will also be needed within the Communist Party, whose members fill 90 percent of the parliamentary seats. These men and women cannot fully exercise their role as members of the legislature while they’re subject to party discipline.

Democratic centralism gives communists the opportunity to discuss internally, but then forces them to support the majority decision. It therefore becomes practically impossible for a party member in parliament to question a minister coming before that body who is in the leadership of that same party.

No one believes that the deputies hold office to enrich themself, like in other countries; but that doesn’t mean that they enjoy much prestige among Cubans. Few have the hope that “their representative” will solve the problems of their community.

To change this perception, an active parliament is needed, one that looks at reality with a critical eye, remaining vigilant against the central power, not fearing public debate but approaching the national interest as a synthesis of the various local interests represented by the deputies.

The task isn’t easy but it’s essential at a time of transformations that require changing not only the laws but the even the constitution. Many people say the reforms are moving forward too slowly, but the truth is that not even with the slow movement is the parliament able to play catch up.

It may be that the approval of a new immigration law doesn’t depend on that body, but the parliament has delayed in approving the Family Code that regulates the rights of children, the elderly and the LGBT community – despite that body having spent five years “debating” the legislation.

The announcement of the upcoming session of parliament set for July 23 caused me to start thinking about the potential, capabilities and possibilities of deputies at the grassroots. I know some personally, and I know that they’re good, decent, dedicated and intelligent people.

Obviously they are not the problem; the problem lies with the model of government, it mechanisms and a mindset that prevents elected officials from acting like representatives of their communities and properly playing the role required of them in an institutionalized country.

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.


7 thoughts on “Cuba’s Parliament: Unanimity vs. Institutionalism

  • I think this is just petty politics – or ‘politicagem’ to use a Brazilian term.

  • Not that it has ever been a particularly good example of democracy, but the U.S. is travelling even further away from that, and towards an oligarchic, model. Even to gain a place at the the electoral table now requires what, just a few years ago, were unimaginable infusions of money, thus determining that the needs of most citizens, as opposed to multi-national corporations and their directors, will never be addressed, let alone met. (Of course there are exceptions, such as my own state of Vermont which, due to its diminuitiveness, comes closest to the Greek city-state. At least in our state this is a choice.) Hence, in the “choice” betwixt “friendly fascism” (i.e. Obama), and the not-so-friendly flavor (Romney), I won’t even bother to vote for a presidential candidate in November’s election. The “loyal opposition” Republicans of a former era seem more-and-more becoming an endangered species, replaced by Talaban-like reactionary mullahs. The legislative atmosphere, both in many states and in Congress, is becoming more-and-more rancid, like the Roman Senate in the final hundred years before the demise of the Republic, and also like the German Reichstag during the 1920’s and early 1930’s.

  • The American electorate will have a chance this November to render their judgment on whether the US Congress is excessively partisan. But this should not be conflated with the meaningless rubber stamp that is Cuba’s Parliament.

    Even on the politically charged Obamacare legislation, this went through many drafts and compromises and over a full year of debate in both houses of Congress. In the end one Republican Senator did side with the Democrats to overcome a Republican filibuster. Meanwhile 34 Democrats sided with the Republicans in the House and came within 7 votes of defeating the final legislation.

    Then, just last month, a conservative justice sided with his liberal colleagues to uphold Obamacare in the Supreme Court.

    These are the hallmarks of democratic governance, unlike the dictatorship that rules Cuba today.

  • Fernando, I live in the USA. Have you seen the recent votes the past few years out of Washington? It’s almost
    a guarantee that each party will never cross the aisle. Maybe both Cuban and American politician’s can get
    together and discuss this so “we the people can rule”.

  • Parliaments can only work when there is a “loyal opposition” as is found in true parliamentary democracies. The Cuban government needs to stop branding anyone critical of government policy as a traitor or mercenary. Dissenting individuals without the backing of a party or union or other organizational grouping separate from the governing party are vulnerable in this type of environment and real change will never take place.

  • Cuba is a dictatorship. Fidel himself once said “What’s wrong with a dictatorship?”. Once you see Cuba from that perspective, your expectations change regarding the possibility of parliamentary reform. The only solution for Cuba is biological.

  • I’m skeptical the types of parliamentary reforms Fernando talks about can take place without the Communist Party giving up its monopoly on executive and military power. I fear that Cuba’s Parliament will continue to be a meaningless rubber stamp until such time as Cubans are legally allowed to dissent and exercise fundamental freedoms like freedom of speech, expression, media and assembly.

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