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.”
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.
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?