Cuba: The Making of the Cuban Elections (Part II)
María López Vigil
* In the context of expiatory sacrifices in the ritual
traditions of Israel, the community's enormous interest in the sin of its individuals is also noted. The sinner was a danger for the community and his/her personal rupture with God brought negative consequences for the community. That explains why, in Lev. 16, Aaron performs four expiatory rites for his errors, three for the community and one for
* According to Elíade (1981), a sacrifice done specifically to increase the harvest proposes to repeat the creative act that gave the grain life. The cosmogonic myth implies a violent
ritual death and the victim's mangled body coincides with the body of the primordial mythical being that gave the grain life by issuing forth ritually from its body.
When this new electoral system began to be designed three years ago, no one imagined what it could mean or the risky political moment in which it would first be put to the test. No one in Cuba measured the size of the challenge.
It all started with the "call" convoking the IV Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba. That document of March 15, 1990 before the current crisis even existed expressed a willingness to promote political and economic changes in the country, creatively and self critically. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans, both party militants and not, debated the text which, among other things, laid out the need to perfect the system of government, which in Cuba is called Popular Power. That system had been functioning since 1976 and was considered "formalist and insufficient."
Among the 800,000 suggestions that came out of that debate many of them regrettably shelved due to the crisis and also to bureaucracy was that the country's leaders be elected in a direct and secret vote by all the people.
At that time the population only voted directly and not secretly for their district delegate, who formed part of the Municipal Assembly. That was as far as the direct vote went.
The Municipal Assemblies then elected the members of the Provincial Assembly, who elected the National Assembly, who elected the Council of State and the President. The suggestion was to make this system more democratic, with direct election of the Provincial and National Assembly members as well.
The electoral law was duly reformed to include the new procedures, but, by that time, most Cubans were more concerned about the growing economic crisis, shortages and lines. They did not sufficiently appreciate the value of this important change. The excessive centralization of the Cuban system isolated the authorities from the grassroots, who, at best, knew only the person they had elected in their district. That centralization also meant that the elected delegates had little real power or maneuvering room in a municipality with a controlled budget and almost no autonomy. Direct election of all the authorities could kick off a process of greater participation and control from the base and would help overcome the democratic deficit.
The "special period" was in full swing by the time the elections began to be organized. Many Cubans thought it superfluous to spend time, resources and efforts on them. But, after some delays, the date for the election of the district delegates to the Municipal Assemblies was set for December 20, 1992, and February 24, 1993, was picked for electing provincial and national authorities.
Cuba vs. MiamiOrganizational problems of a political nature and the economic crisis affected the December elections. There was a high level of participation, but it was not as high as in previous years. In Havana, abstention may have been as much as 20%. This caused alarm among the authorities and the popular organizations. The alert signs were increased when the Miami radios, stimulated by the "apathy," took the February elections seriously and began a campaign promoting first abstention and later annulling the vote.
Fidel Castro proposed as a Municipal Assembly candidate by a district in Santiago de Cuba decided to campaign in the name of the rest of the candidates and in his own inimitable exhausting style: throughout the country, day and night. All of the conditions were now set for the election to be a plebiscite.
Fidel carried two messages in his campaign. One, that everyone should vote. Another, more complex, that everyone should vote "united." "It isn't a slogan," he said, over and over; "it's a strategy." Although it never stopped being a slogan.
Cuba's electoral systemThe people choose in Cuba, but not among candidates from different parties. Neighbors in each electoral district the basic cell of Popular Power, made up of a few blocks of a neighborhood or rural sector and including a few hundred people meet every five years to propose their own candidates, justifying each proposal in public. From those candidates always more than two one is then chosen, by direct and public vote, to be that district's delegate in the Municipal Assemblies of Popular Power.
From that pool of thousands of people chosen in districts all over the country also comes nearly half of the 1,190 delegates for 14 Provincial Assemblies and of the 589 Representatives to the National Assembly. The other half is directly chosen by the Candidates' Commission, which is made up of a representative of each of the country's popular organizations (women, neighborhood committees, peasants, workers, students) and chaired by the representative from the Workers' Central. This commission is also responsible for selecting the quota of final candidates for both assemblies from among the directly elected district delegates.
The commission's selection criteria are based on merit, capacity and representativity, and its members make thousands of consultations of all types with their own popular organizations and with the party, trying to include qualified candidates who were left out of the neighborhood elections. Once the commission has the appropriate number of candidates in each category (those it directly chooses and those it selects from the pool of Municipal Assembly delegates), it draws up the lists for the Provincial Assemblies and the National Assembly. They are closed lists: the same number of names as positions to fill.
The outgoing Municipal Assemblies review the list for the Provincial Assemblies. And the Provincial ones, the list for the National. They may reject either specific names or the whole list, but they do not propose alternatives. The lists go back to the Candidates' Commission, which makes up new ones, or replaces rejected individual candidates with new names, as the case may be. This selection/review process continues until there are no more rejections.
It is a peculiar system, whose first step is "Greek style" democracy," in which all citizens meet in open assemblies to elect one of their own, and whose second step is largely controlled by the organized population and the party itself. As with any system, it opens some possibilities and closes others.
Once the lists are fully approved, they are submitted to direct and secret vote by the population. This final phase is the newest and most democratic part of the process: the people have the last word.
Any citizen, party member or not, and even one openly opposed to the revolution, can, with the support of neighbors, be a delegate in the Municipal Assembly. It is almost impossible, however, for an opposition delegate to reach higher positions provincial or national because of the filter of the Candidates' Commission.
In December's Municipal Assembly elections, not a single member of the 20 opposition parties that claim to have the support of the people was proposed in any of the country's 13,000 electoral districts. Do they not have the support they claim? Or did they or their neighbors just lack the audacity to take advantage of the opening the system offered them?
United vote: "They're All Worthy"The national and provincial ballots for February 24 elections allowed the voters to choose one, two, more, all or none of the respective candidates. Only those who won more than 50% of the votes were elected. Those who did not would later be substituted by other names, chosen the same way as the first time, that would once again be submitted to direct vote.
This aspect of the new electoral law gave a broad margin of choice. "If you find a candidate who you know is not qualified, you don't vote for him or her," one voter told me. "If you just don't know some of the candidates, you might vote for them anyway, trusting in the neighbors or the Commission that put their names on the list." This was the opinion of the majority of Cubans; give a "punishment vote" to those functionaries who were known to be inefficient.
In Fidel Castro's intense 17 day campaign, he asked Cubans to set aside this right and choose the "united vote": put a single mark in the place on the ballot that indicates acceptance of the entire list. There were two reasons for this personal battle. One was to give a sign of unity to the domestic discontents and to the outside world. He also insisted that some qualified, but not sufficiently known candidates, could end up not getting elected, and the country would lose their leadership.
Since it was the debut of the new procedures, the elections were also a test of them. The possibility existed that the selection/election process could become never ending.
The fact, as Fidel had mentioned, that some of the candidates were not well known reflected massive organizational and communications weaknesses; the identity and history of candidates was not sufficiently distributed. The candidates also did not or did not want to mingle with the voters. Some feared falling into the demagogic style of "electoral democracies"; others, either due to bureaucratic routine or idealism, claimed that if a structure is objectively or procedurally just, the individual subjective conscience will understand it, accept it...and follow it.
Fidel Castro's campaign turned the elections into yet another test: acceptance or rejection of his personal strategy. His campaign had a decisive effect on the final results: "If he had not gotten so involved, forget it!" was the opinion of many. Of every 100 voters, 99 went to the polls. Of every 100 who voted, 93 placed a valid vote, did not annul it. And of every 100 valid votes, 95 followed Fidel's "strategy" of casting a united vote. In Havana, where shortages are more severe and have a higher political cost, there was greater variation: 85 of every 100 votes placed was valid and 90 of every 100 valid votes was a united vote.
All candidates were elected with more than 88% of the votes, and 80% of the existing National Assembly representatives were re elected. Of those 589 representatives, 274 had been elected at the base, the rest selected directly by the Candidates' Commission. There are 134 women and 455 men. The average age is 43 and 38% are under 30. Of those elected by the base, 93% are party militants. Critics of the system will say they were elected because they are party members; those who know Cuban society from the inside swear that it was because of their qualifications.
No Blank CheckThe new Assembly then elected the 31 members of the Council of State and the Council president, Fidel Castro, who is President of the Republic. Former foreign minister Ricardo Alarcón was chosen to head the Assembly. He has pledged to break with the formalism of previous parliaments, which functioned more as a meeting of celebrities than as a forum of legislators who have to account to the voters.
"The vote was not a blank check for the revolution or for its leaders. The representatives have fewer resources than ever and more responsibility than ever, and now we will be making demands of them," said a doctor who opposed the united vote but in the end chose it..."for Fidel," he says.
Thus, the Cuban revolution (in the midst of the "most complex crisis of its history," according to official documents), socialism (in a universal crisis of form and content), and Fidel Castro himself (incessantly questioned in the propaganda that controls the world) passed their hardest exam with flying colors. For all the objections that one can make of the system, what happened demands not only to be reported, but to be analyzed.