Notes on an Incomplete Comparison

Dayrom Gil Pradas

HAVANA TIMES — Graham Sowa posted an article in Havana Times titled Elections in the US and Cuba that left me with an uncomfortable feeling. It wasn’t exactly because of what he said, but because of what he didn’t say. One would expect that if someone engages in the task of comparing two things, they would attempt to present equivalent data on the two sides.

As Sowa had no intention of doing this, and since he also concludes his essay with a nihilist statement about how it’s the same everywhere, I think it’s fair to devote a few paragraphs to sum up his argument and to explain the omitted data.

Sowa departs from a material fact, which I will return to later, when he says: “Last week I received my official ballot to vote in the United States 2012 general elections. It is one page, front and back. There are 34 different races I need to vote in, from president to county commissioner.”

Firstly, there’s a basic problem. Sowa is comparing the US general elections with those in Cuban municipalities. That allows him to bypass certain aspects of the Cuban elections that only appear at higher levels (in the provinces and nationally). This is why I will extend the comparison to all positions that are contested as elective offices.

I must say I was very surprised by the fact that US citizens can express their choices in 34 races, though it’s true that while Sowa can make his decision for president, that office is actually elected by the Electoral College. Nevertheless, in the end people vote for candidates who have specific mandates once elected.

As everyone knows, the Cuban president isn’t elected by the citizens. Nor do they elect the vice president, the head of government (which by law is the same as the president), or the presidents of the municipal or provincial assemblies, which would be the counterparts to mayors and governors.

Nor do we vote for the comisario of the municipality (the police chief). Unlike the United States, there are no distinct elected positions that vary from city to city, from province to province, from municipality to municipality. And never, not at any level, do we vote for any office of the judicial branch, not even for assistant or “lay judges.”

Everything is amazingly simple and democratically poor. There are only three positions that come up for a vote in Cuba: neighborhood delegates, municipal assembly delegates and National Assembly deputies.

Sowa continues by complaining about nominations to some offices in the United States: “Deciding who to vote for in 17 of those races will not take much thought, since they are uncontested […] This is usually because one of the two parties has such broad support no one even bothers running in opposition.”

Votando en Cuba. photo/archive:sierramaestra.cu

Of the three Cuban offices that come up for elections, two (i.e. 66.67 percent) have only one candidate. This is because, by law, each area candidature commission presents a list to the respective municipal assembly, which reduces this to one candidate per race. Citizens then are left only with voting for or against these lone candidates.

Sowa points out: “From what I learned in the debate, the differences between the candidates are clear. Both need to do something about the fact that our country has a profound debt and massive spending requirements. President Obama would like to collect more money from rich people in the form of taxes. Governor Romney believes his plan to lower the tax rate will create more jobs, and from the income that is generated by those jobs, the tax revenue will increase. Of course there are more nuances to each candidate’s plan than this, but these were the brightest highlights of the discursive exchange.”

The Cuban electoral system prohibits these debates, thus it is impossible see the differences between the candidates in Cuba. In other words, in the only elective race with several candidates (the contest for the neighborhood delegate), one votes based on the candidate’s past record in the form of an autobiographical list of positions they have held.

Needless to say, it’s impossible to know what they think about a certain issue or what their plans are if elected.

If we want to know about a candidate for the presidency, then it’s better we take things slower. A National Candidature Commission also prepares a list with the candidates in each race; this includes the president, the first vice president and the other members of the Council of State, (supposedly the broader body of the executive branch).

This candidate list only has to be approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Incidentally, this candidate list is secret: neither the deputies to the National Assembly nor the public know who’s on it until the time of voting.

Nor does it take much imagination to figure out that Raul Castro will be the candidate for president in the next election. Everyone also knows that the Central Committee, whose first secretary is also Raul Castro, will adopt this decision without discussion and that the deputies to the National Assembly will undoubtedly mark him on their ballots.

But Sowa sees something good in the Cuban system, commenting: “There are no commercials on TV or fliers mailed to ones home. At least the Cubans are not wasting billions of dollars on their elections. In the United States our apathy comes with a price tag.”

Regardless of what one thinks of the financing of campaigns in the US, all that money comes from donations, [albeit heavily from wealthy individuals and now from corporate “Super PACs,” in the wake of two recent court decisions]. In Cuba, all spending — big or small — that is done on elections comes from the national budget (actually, the government always tries to disassociate itself from this by assigning a public company to sponsor each electoral area, and in this way these entities bear the costs).

Moreover, I don’t know where Sowa gets the idea that there are no ads on television. True, there aren’t any for individual candidates, but there are lots of them urging people to turn out to vote. Those ads convert electoral participation into a “revolutionary task” that must be fulfilled. And when it comes time for voting for provincial delegates and deputies, these ads explicitly say: “Vote for all of them.”

For example, in my municipality we had a “right” to two deputies. But when Election Day came, people could have thought that those two names on the ballot were two candidates for a single position and not two candidates for two positions.

Election advertising urging a uniform vote. Photo: cubadebate.cu

Confused with the idea of an election, one of the candidates would end up not being elected. With the publicity on TV, the government saves itself from countless voting repetitions.

That ads state: Remember: “Vote for All of Them” by marking the large circle that’s highlighted at the bottom of the ballot. (In other municipalities with more deputies, the “danger” is even greater).

Sowa says “But even if there is little discussion of policy change at the local level in Cuba, at least they can honestly say they have contested elections. Remember that on half of my United States ballot, I don’t have more than one choice.”

Here, I didn’t understand. In Cuba there is only one election for office out of three races; the other two, by law, involve voting for a single candidate for one office. Even in the United States (taking the case of Sowa’s hometown of Grapevine, Texas), there are actual elections for 17 offices for 34 races, with the other 17 having sole candidates because no one else wanted to run, not because the law prohibits it.

As to whether the elections are free and democratic in the United States, that’s a different issue.

It’s time to go back to the significant event that I mentioned at the beginning of this writing, when he talks about him having received a ballot for the general elections in his country. Even though he is studying medicine in Cuba, Sowa can participate in the US elections. For this, all he had to do was register on the electoral roll at the US Interests Section office in Havana.

My name is also recorded on the “Register of Cuban Citizens” of the Cuban Embassy here where I live [Brazil], but I won’t be able to vote in the Cuban elections – neither I nor the 2 to 4 million Cubans living outside Cuba, which in the most conservative of estimates represents 20 percent of the potential electorate.

In a world where most countries recognize the political and social rights of emigrants, to the point that in the French National Assembly seats are reserved for French nationals living abroad, the Cuban government excludes a fifth of the nation.

Let’s forget the comparison and focus on the actual situation in Cuba: One sole office is directly up for vote out of only three races, there is no power at the local or municipal levels, a National Assembly is in session only ten days a year; and while the system calls itself parliamentary, the individual holding the position of head of state and government has all the power, in addition to their being the first secretary of the party, which is — according to the constitution — “the highest leading force of society,” although sovereignty — also according to the constitution — “lies in the people.”

Given this jumble of contradictions, half-truths, elected officials without power, power without elections, an incomplete electorate and participatory “democracy” in which no one participates, hasn’t the time come to make a fresh start and return sovereignty to the people so that they can decide what kind of electoral system they want?

 


10 thoughts on “The Upcoming Cuban Elections

  • Dayrom,

    I agree with Hubert. This is the best concise, and complete, explanation of the Cuban system I’ve read. I’m glad I can say I played some small part in it coming to be produced 🙂 Well done Dayrom.

    -Graham

  • @Luis

    Not all members of the parliament participate on the commissions, and as long as deputees must work in their jobs the rest of the year, only deputees working as proffesional politicians can effectively participate in the commissions’s work.
    If you are more interested in the topic, can write me at: gilpradas@gmail.com.

    PS: I live in São Paulo

  • Dayrom,

    Al Jazeera just had a short news item about Cuba’s election. It interviewed one of the municipal candidates. She was a nurse who was nominated for the position by her neighbourhood. She did not seek it. She said she accepted as it followed on from her occupation as a nurse, looking after people. Anyone who saw that program would have no reservations about the Cuban electoral system.

    You wrote, “people [in the US] vote for candidates who have specific mandates once elected.” Like here in Canada, they vote for politicians who CLAIM they have mandates but don’t service them once in office. They can get away with it because opposition candidates do the same.

    The mandate they really service is their career – getting elected. Once elected, it turns – not to addressing the issues they campaigned on but on getting re-elected. Without exaggeration, this is how the system actually works – more so now than ever before. Compare that to the Cuban nurse candidate.

    You wrote, “the Cuban president isn’t elected by the citizens. Nor do they elect the vice president, the head of government (which by law is the same as the president), or the presidents of the municipal or provincial assemblies, which would be the counterparts to mayors and governors.”

    Guess what? We don’t in Canada either. We don’t vote for our prime minister leaders – that’s not how parliamentary systems work. The party that forms the government determines who the prime minister is. All cabinet members -including the equivalent of a vice-president is determined by the party.

    The parliamentary system is reproduced at our provincial government level, so “governors” – provincial prime ministers – also come from the party. Municipal level politics varies from area to area. In Toronto we elect our mayors but its hardly a democratic procedure. Our current highly unpopular mayor got in with a minority of people voting for him due to a split vote. We don’t have proportional representation.

    We also don’t vote for judges or police chiefs. You are concerned there is no variation “from city to city, from province to province, from municipality to municipality”, writing that ” everything is amazingly simple and democratically poor.”

    I don’t see the confrontational system used in my country and the US as somehow being ‘rich’, unless it refers to the money you need to get elected. I am offered ‘choices’ that are never lived up to no matter who gets elected and that are totally artificial. Candidates feel they have to represent a ‘difference’ from other candidates. That is the game played. What their values really are or what people really want, get lost in the effort to getting elected.

    You offer an example that warrants looking at. “President Obama would like to collect more money from rich people in the form of taxes. Governor Romney believes his plan to lower the tax rate will create more jobs, and from the income that is generated by those jobs, the tax revenue will increase.”

    That’s what it looks like, this is what the reality is. Both candidates primarily support the rich – they have to in order to get elected. Neither will disappoint who they represent. If Obama is elected, he MAY make a token stab at taxing the rich more – very little more – but he knows he doesn’t have to in order for his party to get elected the next time around.

    You may see this as “the brightest highlights of the discursive exchange” between them, but that’s all it is – an exchange, a ‘show’, what Americans are good at, with no possibility for real change.

    You think that debates will make it possible to “see the differences between the candidates in Cuba.” Debates are win-lose games. They test style, looks and grammar, nothing else. Debaters are handed talking points. They have no values of their own.

    You write, “it’s impossible to know what [candidates] think about a certain issue or what their plans are if elected.”

    Isn’t that what the Cuban system addresses when it asks for candidate biographies? Deeds speak a hell of a lot louder than words.

    You write, “Regardless of what one thinks of the financing of campaigns in the US, all that money comes from donations, [albeit heavily from wealthy individuals and now from corporate “Super PACs,” in the wake of two recent court decisions].”

    Why is money paid to candidates from private interests better than coming from government? Some countries like Australia fund elections to a certain degree in order to ensure that not only people pandering to rich donors are given a chance.

    You equate public service ads – urging citizens to vote – with ads for individual candidates. The former is for the common good, the latter for personal promotion.

    You write, “In a world where most countries recognize the political and social rights of emigrants, to the point that in the French National Assembly seats are reserved for French nationals living abroad, the Cuban government excludes a fifth of the nation.”

    Seats in the French National Assembly are only reserved for French nationals living in official French territories – the so-called ‘Dom-Toms’, not ones living in the US, for example.

    If Cuba was not under a state of siege, driven in part by Cuban expats hostile to the Cuban government, the situation would be different. No other country in the world is in this situation so your comparison is not valid to what takes place in the rest of the world.

    You write ” given this jumble of contradictions, half-truths, elected officials without power, power without elections, an incomplete electorate and participatory “democracy” in which no one participates, hasn’t the time come to make a fresh start and return sovereignty to the people so that they can decide what kind of electoral system they want?”

    As soon as it’s time for it to happen in your country, and my country, and in the US, then it will be time for Cuba to have a perfect electoral system. Let’s service utopian values in our own country before criticising others , eh?

  • Note: ‘Moses’ comment contains inflammatory terms – “supercow”, “cockamamie schemes”, “despot”, “mental masturbation” that I won’t respond to in kind in order to keep the emotional level to a manageable level. It pays to note, however, what it represents.

    Addressing point by point:

    Re: “During the 47 years that Fidel was ‘President’ of Cuba, did any proposal he presented before the National Assembly ever receive anything less than a unanimous YES vote?””

    Cuba has a one-party system. The President, like the Canadian Prime Minister, is head of the party. Party discipline in Canada insures members of parliament will always vote the same as their leader on important issues. You seem to think the whole world should have the same type of a rather peculiar government, from my perspective, that exists in your country.

    I presume you placed ‘President’ in quotes as it’s not the same as yours in structure so it’s not surprising you find another structure “just a little bit odd”. The title’s the same, the system is different than yours.

    Re: “Cuba can dress up their system and call it democratic…”

    I recently came across a review for a new film, intended to be a comedy about American elections. It was too close to home for reviewers to find funny. One review contained, “The American political system is held in wide contempt, as a nest of corruption and self-interest. Tens of millions understand that public officeholders from both major parties, from the White House and Congress on down, are thoroughly indifferent and hostile to their needs and interests. A recent Gallup survey found that only 10 percent of the population, one in ten, approves of the job the US Congress is doing, which matches the lowest figure the polling firm has ever recorded in nearly four decades. Eighty-three percent disapprove.”

    Yet the US dresses up their system and calls it democratic despite all evidence to the contrary.

    Re: “There was nothing democratic about [a number of schemes characterised as failed] that [the Cuban government] imposed upon the Cuban people.”

    The point here defies logic. Only successful schemes are democratic whilst failed ones are imposed on people? What then are we to make of the massive ongoing economic disaster that the US government was directly responsible for by removing key financial regulations?

    Re: “Americans endured Reagan and Bush and their ridiculous ‘trickle-down’ economic policies but we have ourselves to blame. We voted directly for these guys and the majority rules.”

    Americans voted for an ex-movie star, and the son of a wealthy New England dynasty who was sold as a Texas cowboy man of the people. The film reviewer wrote, “the scope for satire and ridicule of American political life is almost limitless.”

    If we assume Americans get who they vote for, it’s a damning comment on the state of their intelligence. I give them more credit than that, feeling their biggest failing is not being able to come to terms with the kind of propaganda we are witnessing here with ‘Moses’.

    Re: “Cubans have suffered for more than 53 years under the Castros.”

    And suffering for the same 53 plus years under the economic blockade your government is responsible for? Your concern over Cuban suffering is rather hypocritical under the circumstances.

    Re: Neither one of [the Castros] has ever been popularly elected nor could they be.”

    Considering the ‘talent’ displayed by the “popularly elected” US presidents that have held office in the time the Castros have led Cuba, it doesn’t say much for elections in your country. Starting with a president that brought the world to the edge of nuclear oblivion, followed by several responsible for the Vietnam debacle, continuing to one responsible for the WMD deceit – and that’s only the highlights – it makes the Castros look like gods.

    Re: “Cuban elections … insulting the real democracies of the world.”

    And the “real democracies” are? Venezuela is the most obvious and it’s not insulted. The US is the least obvious – on the evidence at hand, it’s not even a ‘reasonable facsimile’ – and it’s insulted? I see.

  • You apparently misread this line of mine: “I have come to the conclusion that an electoral system and a democratic process are two different things.”

    ‘Choice’ is even another thing.

    And, after reading this article, proposed a simple (and obvious) correction on the Cuban law that would improve its political system and its legitimacy before the world.

    Ah! I even forgot to mention that Cuba has indeed evolved on the question of the sovereignty of its people in the past few years. The Cuban government has promoted debates and questioned Cuban citizens. I don’t know exactly what the Cuban people generally asked for, but the results, like it or not, are coming: economic reforms and finally the so-awaited immigration reform.

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