Unanimity in Cuba: False & Pernicious

Fernando Ravsberg*

The Cuban parliament votes in unison. - photo- trabajadores.cu

HAVANA TIMES, March 5 — This past Monday, people on my block nominated candidates to become delegates (municipal authorities).  They did it in the street, surrounded by flows of excrement spewing from a long-time broken sewer line that the previous delegate never got repaired.

It’s not that he was bad or unconcerned; it’s just that no one pays too much attention to a delegate.  I’m sure they’ll elect someone else in these elections, but continued “voting” won’t stop the sewer from spouting putrid wastewater all around us.

I returned to my house— sidestepping the puddles along the way— and reread an interview with sociologist Aurelio Alonso.  He pointed out that the great challenge Cuba faces is institutionalizing the Revolution, making those institutions work, seeing that each person plays their role and moving the country forward as a united whole.

As a foreign journalist it’s not my role to tell Cubans what political system should govern them, so I’ll limit myself to writing about the institutions in force.  I believe that in this process, the key is the Assembly of People’s Power [the legislature], from the neighborhood level up to the parliament.

Undoubtedly it will be easier to get an effective delegate for my neighborhood than to transform parliament into an independent entity – keeping in mind that in its 35-year history, none of its 600 deputies have ever voted against an official proposal.

Agreeing to disagree

Now, even Raul Castro himself has questioned this type of “unity.”  Last year he insisted, “False unanimity is pernicious.  What is required is the stimulation of debate and healthy disagreement, which is from where the best solutions generally come.”

However, delegates are so accustomed to such “unanimity” that when a member of the Council of State (the parliament’s executive office) obtained “only” 98.5 percent of the votes, it caused such trepidation that the president was obligated to publicly defend this difference.

Evidently the deputies are not “ideological clones,” but they are governed by a concept of “unity” based on not questioning “what comes from above,” from the Council of State or the Politburo of the Communist Party, which are the centers of power.

It’s truly complex because everything is so mingled: The chief executive and the president of parliament belong to the Politburo, the minister to the Central Committee and 90 percent of the deputies are members of the Communist Party.

In another assembly for the nomination of candidates —years ago in the Palatino neighborhood— the Party activists who lived in that area turned out in mass to support one person.  It was necessary to vote three times so that the other candidate, proposed by the rest of the neighborhood residents, could be elected. The most absurd thing was that both candidates belonged to the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).

It’s that rigid activist partisanship forces them to adhere to a strict line when it comes time to vote and support proposals.  This discipline is based on democratic centralism, according to which no one can publicly discuss a position after it has been internally debated and approved.

Representatives of the people…or the Party?

Evidently for the parliament to function, conflicts of loyalties facing the deputies have to be resolved.  In other words…what do they do when Party directives contradict the concrete interests of their voters?

A Cuban political scientist told me that the Communist Party should free the rank and file deputies from its internal discipline and allow them to express themselves and vote according to their own criteria, acting basically as representatives of people.

I don’t know if that would work, but it’s certain that the issues on the agenda would begin to be debated openly in the plenary sessions, laws would cease being approved unanimously and the ministers would be forced to respond to much more difficult questions.

Logically there would be resistance, because to institutionalize the country it’s indispensable that the legislative and the judicial branches have real power, and this would imply all political figures being forced to respond to them.

Many Cubans, even communists, believe there is no alternative.  The “historic generation” is disappearing and with it the notion of “historical legitimacy.”  The strengthening of institutions appears to be the sole option for the current political system to survive.

Up to now only the Communist Party and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) have had real power.  But the people don’t elect the members of the Politburo or the generals of FAR. The parliament is the sole institution whose members have to be endorsed at the polls.

In a 1994 debate, a woman asserted that the sole democratic guarantee was in increasing the power of parliament.  Her reasoning was crushing: “If a deputy fails to serve me, I won’t vote for them.  But if a Party leader fails me…what do I do?”

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

One thought on “Unanimity in Cuba: False & Pernicious

  • Fernando Ravsberg’s article brings up an interesting, and very relevant, question. How would a socialist transformationary party in a country like mine, the US, propose to the people to constitute the legislature in a future socialist republic?

    When I said that this is very relevant, I didn’t mean “very relevant” solely for the people of Cuba or the US. The problem, or question, of how a democratic socialist republic ought to operate is relevant for every country.

    The program our cooperative movement in the US proposes is 1) retention of the Constitution of 1789, but with a Bill of Transformation making key changes; 2) these changes would include abolition of the old, absurdly un-democratic Senate; 3) replacing it with a proportional representation National Council, the function of which would be to generate and constantly revise a National Plan; 4) retention of the House of Representatives based on geographic districts; 5) retention of the Presidency; etc.

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