HAVANA TIMES, May 10 – Who said that voting in Cuban elections is obligatory? Our government hasn’t passed any law that forces anyone to cast their ballot at the polls. In our country, no one goes to jail for failing to vote.
So why was the mother of my colleague Erasmo frightened over the simple fact that her son didn’t show up at the polls to vote? Sometimes people are unjustifiably afraid.
In the district of an acquaintance of mine, a second round was necessary in the elections last Sunday because the previous balloting had ended in a tie. Voters turned out early to vote, as people had been encouraged to do on television. By noon everyone in the district had voted…except for her.
At that hour she was at the beauty shop getting her hair done, though she had until six in the evening to vote. About that time a comrade who administers the elections had headed out looking for her and ran her down. He was upset because she hadn’t showed up to vote and that the people at the polls were waiting for her —the last person— to show up. “They’re human beings and they want to go home and relax,” he chided.
The woman responded that if she wanted, she could even sit down in front of the polls at a quarter till six and wait exactly until there was just one minute to go before exercising her right. “Because the right to vote is precisely that: a right. Or is it that we’re not in a democratic country where you can vote for whomever you want?” she asked.
The comrade’s verbatim response was, “You ask your mother if you have to vote or not,” delivered in a threatening tone and indicating that she had better show up.
That happened the day following my visit to a friend of mine who lives in the eastern Havana suburb of Alamar. He told me that his brother had visited him the previous Sunday, the day of the first round of the local elections, asking if he was going to vote. My friend has lived with his wife for more than for two years, but his name still appears in the election rolls of the district where he lived with his parents. He told hs brother that it didn’t make sense for him go to vote since he wasn’t familiar with any of the candidates, nor that, as for his former neighborhood, he only went there from time to time on visits.
Who really cares?
However, the fact is that nobody cares who you vote for; what’s important is that you show up and that your name appears in the statistics as someone who voted “FOR MERIT AND CAPACITY” as someone who supports the Revolution. This is because the simple act of casting a vote is interpreted as your support for the Cuban electoral system, not a choice between two or more parties; there’s only one party from which to choose.
Who will wind up being my friend’s district delegate in the end will be of little difference in his community, but not in the political and economic life of the country. To vote or not to vote: there lies the dilemma, because not voting is the sole form of opposing the power structure during the elections; it’s a way of demonstrating disagreement with the mechanism.
“So, is voting a right or a duty?” my friend asked his brother, whose immediate answer was, “It is a right and a duty of all revolutionaries.” In other words, if you don’t vote that means you’re not a revolutionary. Can anything else be deduced?
My friend finally assured his brother that he would vote. This was what the brother was waiting to hear so that he could leave the house with peace of mind. Yet before doing so, he recommended: “Go early, so you don’t stand out.
Can not exercising a right be held against you?
Is it possible to distinguish oneself by not exercising a right? Would I stand out if I didn’t exercise my right to accept the products allocated to me in my ration book?
My friend finally did not end up voting; the acquaintance in the first anecdote did. And me? At this point you must be wondering whether I did or didn’t vote in the elections. The answer is yes, I did.
I felt that while my vote wouldn’t change anything at the national level it would at least mean a difference in my district? Did I vote because the previous delegate didn’t perform their duties well? No. I voted simply because I was afraid. I still haven’t gathered the courage that Erasmo has.
“Don’t stand out” is a phrase I’ve heard almost since I was old enough to think. “Don’t stand out,” people say; don’t stray from the flock, from the comfortable anonymity of the mass. I have somewhat of an idea of the consequences of “being pointed out,” though I’ve never taken it to the extreme.
Five years ago I made an innocent slip. I asked why the youths who tried to hijack a boat in 2003 were brought before a firing squad though they hadn’t killed anyone. I contrasted this to the fact that there were other people in our jails who had indeed murdered but hadn’t received the death penalty. I posed this question to the person in charge of my journalism class who had mentioned the second fact.
Apparently it was worse than having uttered a string of cuss words. My classmates took the expedient position: they argued that this was done because the homeland was in danger and, in passing, questioned my revolutionary principles and values, asking whose side I was on.
I felt proud when I recounted the incident to the people closest to me. For someone like me —almost always dominated by fear and caution— that little question was a small act of courage; it was a slight questioning of power.
My friends and relatives looked at me as if I were stupid. What had made me do such a thing? But in the end, the incident had no greater repercussions, at least not that year.
The following year I was fired from my job over a matter that had nothing to do with the question I had raised. However, during a conversation with the workplace’s director, I learned that that the obscure incident of a year earlier —far from having fallen into oblivion— had contributed its small grain of sand to my expulsion.
So was the fear of Erasmo’s mother justified? Very much so.
Is it obligatory to vote in my country? It’s not necessary, the fear we feel is much more effective than any law.
Did my colleague do well in not turning out to vote? I don’t know, but I admire him.