Standing Out in Cuba

Yusimi Rodriguez

Is voting a right or a duty? photo: Caridad

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.

Raul Castro voting. photo:

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.

19 thoughts on “Standing Out in Cuba

  • May 28, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Ok, Julio, I understand. But there’s one thing I don’t get it right… for example, when you say:

    “I think the US government if it wanted could send all the illegal immigrants in this country back to their homes but they do not. If you wonder why. I will say because we need them.”

    We who?

  • May 20, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Luis I do not usually check on post after they have been retired I was looking into the Michael Moore post by Dmitri and saw you comment.

    Let me be clear with regards to this issue.

    I think the US government if it wanted could send all the illegal immigrants in this country back to their homes but they do not. If you wonder why. I will say because we need them. So in my opinion there should be a way to legalized all these people. Their problem I think is because by doing so they will be promoting illegal immigration.

    Luis you should not generalized “you still have the guts to propagandize those yankees as ‘tolerant to non American born’”
    I have many “yankees” friends and none of them are xenophobic. I do recognize that there are some out there that are but I will say they are a minority.

  • May 12, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    “I mentioned before I think we (US) can find better ways than war to solve problems but sometimes unfortunately war is inevitable.”

    Julio, are you for real? Suddenly your writing style changed, and you speak as an (US)American in this bit…

  • May 12, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    No Julio. I’m talking about xenophobia.

    Do you support the draconian immigration measures in Arizona? Do you think it’s easy for a Latin-American to legally emigrate to the US if he(r) isn’t benefited by the Cuban Adjustment Act? Did you hear the story about Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, a Guatemalan bum in New York who – while defending a woman from a male aggressor – was stabbed and died on the street as dozens of people passed by and did nothing? And you still have the guts to propagandize those yankees as ‘tolerant to non American born’!?


    ‘The “free Education” is another source for controlling Cubans to behave the way they like them to behave.’

    Do you think it’s a bad thing (a Mafia-like extortion, as you said) to have good public education and universal health care?

  • May 12, 2010 at 3:59 am

    “I am amazed by Americans tolerance of non American born.”

    Great, you should tell immigrants in Arizona the news.

  • May 11, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    These exchange of I give you a job or education you like to have in exchange for support equates to me to a sort of Mafia behavior on the part of the Cuban regime.
    They will be a little more believable if they did not make the jobs and the education conditional on support to them.

  • May 11, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    The “free Education” is another source for controlling Cubans to behave the way they like them to behave.
    As I was explaining is like the old carrot and stick. It is very humiliating to be treated the way they do treat people.

    Those that are critical of the regime like for example Yoani Sanchez are denied exit permits.

    So that is just but one example of the many mechanism they use to get people to seem to agree with them or at least not try opposing them openly.

  • May 11, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    The root of the fear for Cubans of not voting is as Yusimi described it masterfully and also as Erasmo explained.
    Both concur into this.
    If you do not go to vote in Cuba there could be consequences to you personally.
    Since mainly the regime is the only employer. You may loose the job you have for someone that is seem to be more supportive of the regime. It has nothing to do with the international situation.
    For Cubans the international situation is reduce to the few minutes the listen to from their news broadcast on TV. Where everything on capitalist countries is portrait as evil and decaying etc while what they have is socialistic Eden.

  • May 11, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    George I do live in the US and I had no fear or have feel any compulsion to place a flag to look more patriotic even more so because I am a non native American. I am amazed by Americans tolerance of non American born.

    I can understand the pressured by others factor you talk about and there is a possibility of some of that happening over there too. It is a combination of many different mechanism that make it really distasteful to me because it makes people support things they do not really feel like supporting. This forced dishonesty explains many things in Cuban society.
    I mentioned before I think we (US) can find better ways than war to solve problems but sometimes unfortunately war is inevitable. The Obama administration is an example of trying all diplomatic means possible first.
    Voting for Cubans means they agree with the status quo.
    An stagnant regime that crushes oppositions into submission. Where any critical voice is silence and to dissent is to isolate yourself.

  • May 11, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Julio, what I am actually trying to get at is the root of this fear. I will give you an example, in the U.S. immediately after September 11, everyone started hanging the stars and stripes outside their houses. Many did this out of patriotism, but many others did so out of fear of being seen to be unpatriotic. Similarly, for some time afterwards, to even question U.S. policy was enough to be labeled on the side of the terrorists. It is no different in Cuba, except that in the U.S., the military and economic power of the country is such that for much of the time, U.S. citizens are shielded from thinking about the outside world. It takes a dramatic event like the twin towers for them to feal the consequences of imperialism, whereas in Cuba, those consequences are impossible to avoid. As I said, the fear must be overcome, and perhaps having the courage not to vote, if you don’t want to, is the way to do this. But at the same time one has to understand the roots of the fear.

  • May 11, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Julio, I did not say the fears were not real, please read again what I wrote and you will see that I am totally against people being pressured to vote out of fear. But I am trying to address this issue taking into account the international dialectic. The main difference between you and me Julio, is that you do not seem to recognise the international situation and its effects. You have discovered that living at the heart of the empire gives you a higher standard of living than living in opposition or on the preriphery. But you do not question how that comes about. If the U.S. is not at war, perhaps you would like to question why 54% of your taxes go to funding the U.S. military. Why U.S. military spending accounts for 47% of the world’s total military spending when the U.S. only accounts for 21% of the world’s GDP. Perhaps you would like to try, as some U.S. citizens do, not paying your military taxes, and then see what the consequences are.

  • May 11, 2010 at 3:11 am

    You have not live in Cuba and is hard to explain I think she did a good job explaining it. You do have to experience it. The pressure you to vote and they can be very persuasive since they are the main employer for every cuban mainly.
    They have ways to make your life miserable if you do not do as they wished. The fears that Yusimi and Erasmos’s Mother talked is real. Because we have seen what happen to others.
    And again the war and the soldiers and fight you mentioned is the regime at war against the Cubans that do not like the status quo. That will like change things and the system does not let them. It is very frustrating to live in such a place.

  • May 10, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    I also question whether not voting is really the best way to achieve revolutionary change. I am not saying I know any other way. But I do think this is something that people should think about. The worst kind of revolution is one that is born from crisis. In such cases a revolution is necessary, but how much better to have a revolution that is born from collective mastery. There are many such revolutions in the history of science, from the discovery of infinitesimal calculus to the internet. How much better would it be if the leadership and people make the necessary changes together as one than for the changes to come from a crisis of division between the leadership and the people. Contradictions are necessary for change, but they need not envolve animosity nor lack of understanding of each others position.

    Teacher: Very good. What are your thoughts when facing an opponent ?
    Lee: There is no opponent.
    Teacher: And why is that ?
    Lee: Because the word “I” does not exist.

  • May 10, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    If Cuba is to survive the onslaught of imperialism, then its population must resist consicously of their own volition, and not simply because they fear the reaction of their peers. Cubans must have the courage to change what needs to be changed, whilst at the same time the consciousness to act in a way that takes them forward in a united way and not backwards or into the arms of the beast. To be honest, it takes all the skills of a T’ai Ji master to struggle in such a way. I trully believe Cubans are on their way to aquiring such skills. By all means, if you don’t want to vote, don’t. But always remain conscious of the dialectic with imperialism until such time as collectively we can transcend it. It is imperialism that creates the fear, but it is our collective difficulties in transmuting it that perpetuates it.

  • May 10, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Yusimi, this is a good article, but as I wrote in response to Erasmo, the biggest question is what is the root of this fear. There is a phrase that I read from a Granma journalist once that I think is very apt. He said “We are trying to build democracy in the trenches”. When you are in the trenches there is a very real danger that causes fear. How that translates into social conditions between the soldiers is a different matter. One of the greatest paths to victory is to demonstrate that you are not afraid. That is why greater freedom from fear in Cuba is very positive for the Revolution. But at the same time the threat from imperialism is very real. The imperialist system (and I say system rather than individuals) has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to militarily attack those who stand in its way. It would have done so in Cuba if it were not for the Missile Crisis of 1962. And military might is only one of the many ways that the system devours others.

  • May 10, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    If you don’t feel it’s right to be pressured to show up in the ballot, you still have the option to vote blank or to null your vote.

  • May 10, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Think of it this way the more people that do not vote then those who fear will not be you it will be those in power because then they really get the message that the fear they have been using to control people for 50 years is gone. So it will be they turn to fear, fear losing their power. The power they took away from the people.

  • May 10, 2010 at 12:47 pm


    Well done!
    If you have the courage to write what you write I do not see any reason why you should not have the valor to stop voting for a system that does not satisfied you. You see. They have not gotten the message. I mean those high up have forgotten they are there for us not for them.

    Nor that I think they will ever look down to us. It’s been too many years they had such opportunity and they never did. So always think this way.
    Not voting is your right too. And it is the only way we have to tell them we don’t like what they created.

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