Les Schaffer schaffer at
Fri Jan 19 08:05:55 MST 2001

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Les Schaffer <schaffer at> ]

by Charles McKelvey

Since 1959, Cuba has sought to develop a revolutionary alternative to
the multi-party system practiced in the democracies of the core
nations in the world economy.  The Cuban rejection of the multi-party
system in the revolutionary epoch is deeply rooted in Cuban history.
In the 19th century, Cuban revolutionaries attributed the failure of
the Ten Years War (1868-78) to divisions among Cubans, which they
sought to overcome during the 1880s and 1890s by forging a single
political party, the Cuban Revolutionary Party.  By the 1890s, the
Cuban Revolutionary Party attained a unity of consciousness and goals
and was able to attain its military objectives, making U.S. military
intervention necessary for the preservation of core control.  During
the era of the neo-colonial republic, Cubans had a two-party system,
and they found that this system promoted the interests of U.S. capital
and the national elite, and it frustrated popular interests.  In
addition, they found that the U.S.-imposed two-party system in Cuba
tended to foster corruption among Cuban politicians.

Those of us from core democracies often tend to universalize the
multiple-party system, that is, we tend to assume that it is a system
that should be applied everywhere, if there is to be democracy.  In
universalizing our form of democracy, we overlook the fact that the
multi-party system emerged in a particular social and historical
context.  For example, many aspects of the political theory and
practice of the United States emerged during the class conflicts of
the last 30 years of the 18th century.  The replacement of the
Articles of Confederation with the Constitution of 1789 with its
concentration of power in the federal government and its system of
checks and balance represented efforts by the large landholders and
the emerging commercial bourgeoisie to constrain popular democratic
movements constituted by small farmers, artisans, and workers.  And
the formation of political associations, along with conceptions of
freedoms of association, assembly, speech and press, emerged in the
context of that intense social conflict between the elite class and
the popular movement.

The early political history of the United States illustrates how
political concepts and customs emerge in a particular historical and
social context.  Concepts that emerge in one historical and political
context are not necessarily applicable to another.  Often political
actors borrow concepts developed in other social contexts and adapt
them to their own social reality.  This is an entirely legitimate
activity and is integral to human social development in a modern
multicultural world.  But powerful nations do not have the right to
impose the concepts of democracy that they have developed in their
particular socio-historical contexts on other nations, particularly
when this imposition is accompanied by a general lack of understanding
of these other historical and social contexts.  The struggle against
such imposition is an integral part of the struggle against
neo-colonial domination.

With the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, a fulfillment of the
Cuban historic quest for national liberation mandated a critical
examination of all the institutions of the neo-colonial republic, with
the goal of discerning how these institutions could be restructured to
facilitate the construction of a more just and democratic society.  In
agriculture, for example, the logic of national liberation mandated an
agrarian reform program in the face of highly unequal patterns of land
distribution characterized by high levels of foreign ownership.  And
it mandated revolutionary transformations in other areas as well, such
as education and health.  In regard to political structures, given
that the structures of the core democracies were developed in an
historical and social context distinct from that of Cuba, and given
that the imposition of these political structures was an integral part
of the neo-colonial process, one would certainly expect that the logic
of national liberation would likewise mandate a search for alternative
political structures.

With the triumph of the revolution of 1959, the traditional political
parties found themselves totally discredited in the public
consciousness.  The period of 1959 to 1961 represented a period in
which the revolutionary government sought to act decisively in support
of the interests of the majority in a variety of areas.  In regard to
political structures, the government and the people deliberately
rejected two-party elections, seeking to empower people and channel
expressions of popular will through such mechanisms as mass assemblies
and mass organizations of workers, small farmers, women and students
as well as Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

In 1970, there began a process of the institutionalization of the
revolution.  Structures of popular power were institutionalized
through the 1976 Constitution, which established elections of an
alternative form than those found in core democracies.  In the
development of these alternative structures, great care was taken to
develop a system of selecting delegates and deputies who are truly
representative of the Cuban people and to develop a process that was
not divisive or demeaning to the nation.  The political system
developed in Cuba is based on a foundation of local elections.  Urban
neighborhoods and rural areas are organized into voting districts,
each consisting generally of 1000 to 1500 voters.  The voting district
meets regularly to discuss neighborhood or village problems.  Every
three years, the voting district conducts elections, in which from two
to eight candidates compete.  The nominees are not nominated by the
Communist Party or any other organization.  The nominations are made
by anyone in attendance at the meetings, which generally have a
participation rate of 85% to 95%.  Those nominated are candidates for
office without party affiliation.  A one-page biography of all the
candidates is widely distributed.  The nominees are generally known by
the voters, since the voting district is generally not larger than
1500 voters.  If no candidate receives 50% of the votes, a run-off
election is held.  Those elected serve simultaneously as delegates to
the Popular Council and the Municipal Assembly.  .

The Popular Councils were developed during the early 1990s.
Consisting of municipal delegates and representatives of mass
organizations, the Popular Councils function at a level between the
voting district and the municipality.  They play a very important role
in helping to find solutions for various practical problems.

The elected delegates to the Municipal Assembly participate in the
process of developing a list of candidates for the provincial and
national assemblies.  This is a complex process.  There are national
and provincial candidacy commissions, composed of representatives of
the mass organizations.  The candidacy commissions receive proposals
for pre-candidates to the national and provincial assemblies from mass
organizations at the national, provincial and municipal levels.  After
further consultations with the mass organizations, the candidacy
commissions present a list of pre-candidates to the municipal
assemblies.  If no one raises an objection, the precandidate is
accepted as a candidate.  If someone raises an objection, a vote is
held by a show of hands, and if there is more than 50%, the
pre-candidate is accepted as a candidate.  Once the full list of
candidates is developed, the general assembly has a secret vote, in
which each delegate can affirm or deny each candidate.  Those with
more than 50% of the votes are presented as candidates to the people
for the general election.  They are candidates from the particular
municipality for the provincial and national assemblies.  No more than
50% of the candidates for provincial and national assemblies can be
delegates in the municipal assembly.  This is to enable the
identification of people who are not well known but who are devoted
specialists in their fields and have important contributions to make.
International observers have commented on the high moral and
intellectual qualities of the candidates, as well as the modest social
roots of many of them.  The subsequent "campaigns" for provincial and
national assemblies are very different from the political campaigns of
core democracies.  They enable the candidates and people to meet one
another, and they also have an educational function in regard to the
Cuban political process.  The description of these campaigns found in
Arnold August's Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-98 Elections reveals
their modesty and their majesty.

The national, provincial and municipal assemblies all make laws
appropriate for their levels of jurisdiction.  They constitute the
legislative branch of the government.  The legislative assemblies have
supervision over the various ministries, such as health and education,
in their level of jurisdiction.  The responsibilities of the
assemblies include the election of administrators of the state at the
appropriate level.  These state administrators are salaried
professionals who work on a full time basis.  They administer the
various ministries of the state in their jurisdiction, and they are
accountable to the assembly.  At the national level, this selection of
state administrators takes the form of selecting the President of the
Council of State and the other 31 members of the Council of State.
This is done through a process in which the National Candidacy
Commission receives proposals from the deputies of the National
Assembly, and from these proposals it submits a list for presentation
to the assembly, each deputy having the option of voting yes or no for
each candidate.  To be accepted in the Council of State, the candidate
must receive more than 50% of the votes.  The Council of States
functions as the executive branch of the national government.  Fidel
Castro is the President of the Council of State, a position to which
he has been re-elected several times.  Fidel also is Secretary of the
Communist Party of Cuba (elected through a system of indirect
representation which parallels the electoral process of the state) and
Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (a position that
he has historically held, even prior to the triumph of the
revolution).  These positions parallel those held by the President of
the United States, in that the President of the United States also is
the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and is the de facto head of
his political party (the Democratic or Republican Party) during his
term of office.  Fidel's longevity in these positions is unique, but
that is more explained by the national and international dynamics
unique to Cuban history and contemporary reality, rather than to a
lack of democratic processes.

Except for those elected to serve as officers of the assemblies, the
delegates and deputies work on a voluntary basis, without pay, above
and beyond their regular employment.  Although the assemblies per se
meet only a couple of times per year, the work is ongoing in the form
of committees and meeting with constituents.  Since these
responsibilities, particularly at the lower levels, include meeting
with the people, the delegates tend to spend many hours per week
meeting with groups and individuals and trying to respond to their
needs.  Many delegates do not seek re-election because the work is so
time consuming.  Fidel has said of the delegates, "They are
practically the slaves of the people."

The role of the Communist Party in the political process is very
different from what is generally thought in the United States.  The
Cuban Communist Party is not an electoral party.  It does not nominate
or support candidates for office.  Nor does it make laws or select the
head of state.  These latter two roles are played by the assemblies,
which are elected by the people, and for which membership in the
Communist Party is not required.  Most members of the national,
provincial, and municipal assemblies are members of the Communist
Party, but many are not, and those delegates and deputies who are
party members are not selected by the party but by the people in the
electoral process.

The Cuban Communist Party is not open to anyone to join.  About
fifteen percent of adults are party members.  Members are selected by
the party in a thorough process that includes interviews with
co-workers and neighbors.  Those selected are considered model
citizens.  They are selected because they are viewed as strong
supporters of the revolution; as hard and productive workers; as
people who are well-liked and respected by their co-workers and
neighbors; as people who have taken leadership roles in the various
mass organizations of women, students, workers, and farmers; as people
who take seriously their responsibilities as spouses and parents and
family members; and as people who have "moral" lives, such as avoiding
excessive use of alcohol or extramarital relations that are considered
scandalous.  As with those who are elected to the various assemblies,
membership in the Communist Party is very time consuming, and party
members carry out their responsibilities on a voluntary basis, without
any pay or compensation.  When asked if party members receive any
special privileges, party members often will respond, "Yes, the
privilege of working extra hours serving the people."  Most Cuban
communist party members strike me as a cross between a Catholic
monk/nun and a Boy Scout/Girl Scout leader: serious, disciplined,
highly committed to the cause, and active in helping out in the
community in a variety of small ways.  But they do this in a style
that is very Cuban; e.g., they are serious, but they enjoy life;
disciplined, but not up tight.

The most fundamental role of the Communist Party in Cuba is to act as
the vanguard of the revolution.  It makes recommendations concerning
the future development of the revolution, and it criticizes tendencies
it considers counterrevolutionary.  It has enormous influence in Cuba,
but its authority is moral, not legal.  The party does not make laws
or elect the president.  These tasks are carried out by the National
Assembly, which is elected by the people.

In the United States, it is commonly said that the Cuban Communist
Party is the only political party and that the voters are simply
presented with a slate of candidates in national elections, rather
than two or more candidates and/or political parties from which to
choose.  These two observations are correct.  But taken by themselves,
they give a very misleading impression.  They imply that the Cuban
Communist Party develops the slate, which in fact it does not do.
Non-Cubans tend to reject the Cuban political system on the grounds
that there are not competing candidates at the provincial and national
levels, without being aware of many important aspects of the system.
The voters are presented the candidates after a vigorous and careful
process of selection carried out by candidacy commissions, which are
composed of representatives of the various mass organizations, which
themselves have democratic processes of selection and the
participation of the overwhelming majority of the people.  Moreover,
the elected representatives of the municipal assemblies participate in
the process, and a pre-candidate becomes an official candidate only
through affirmation by the municipal assemblies.  Through this process
delegates and deputies emerge who are very well informed about local,
national and global realities, who are committed to the nation, and
who are very representative of Cuban society in terms of their social
roots.  An honest and open observation of elected representatives in
Cuba and the United States, free of ideological distortions and false
assumptions, would reveal that the Cuban elected representatives are
of much higher quality than their counterparts in the United States.

In his book on the elections of 1997-98, August describes the high
level of mass participation and support for the Cuban revolutionary
process.  During the 1997-98 elections, 36,343 nomination assemblies
were held nationwide, in which 86.5% of the people participated.
August's intimate portraits of some of these assemblies show the care
that is taken to ensure that there is full and open participation by
the people.  In the subsequent voting for delegates (from among
competing candidates) to the municipal assemblies, 97.59% of the
people voted.  Later, in the voting for provincial and national
assemblies, 98.3% of the people voted.  This is the election in which
the ballot provides an option of yes or no for each candidate, and
94.45% voted for all the candidates.

Cubans tend to enthusiastically defend their political system.  They
point out that the elected members of the assemblies are not
professional politicians who must rely on fund-raising to be elected,
as occurs in the United States.  Moreover, the Cuban system, they
argue, avoids excessive conflict among political parties, at the
expense of the common good.  Many Cubans contrast their system with
that in the United States, which they view as a process that is very
divisive and manipulated by the wealthy.  In Cuba today, many people
complain of the economic hardships of the "Special Period," but it is
rare to encounter Cubans who say that they feel that the Cuban
political process is undemocratic.

In the core democracies, sound bites have replaced meaningful public
discourse, levels of political participation are low, and most people
do not believe that elected officials are concerned with the interests
of the majority or the common good.  The core democracies are
experiencing a crisis of legitimation.  Meanwhile, rooted in the
context of its own historic national liberation struggle, Cuba has
sought to develop alternative political structures as part of its
effort to restructure the major institutions in a way that promotes
the interests and rights of ordinary people.  Her powerful neighbor to
the north cynically and arrogantly rejects this effort at alternative
democracy without examining it.  Such cynicism and arrogance can
obscure but cannot change fundamental realities: The fact is that
while the global powers are experiencing a legitimation crisis, the
Cuban political system enjoys high levels of legitimacy among its

As the world system is increasingly characterized by mass poverty,
inequality, meaninglessness, violence and chaos, the Cuban
revolutionary process stands as an important symbol of Third World
dignity and human dignity.  As a living embodiment and affirmation of
the revolutionary ideals of social justice and revolutionary
democracy, revolutionary Cuba is deserving of the active and engaged
support of the progressive sectors in the core democracies.

Note: Charles McKelvey is the founder and director of the Center for
Development Studies, a non-profit corporation that conducts
educational programs that allow non-Cubans to study about and travel
to Cuba.  He also is Professor of Sociology at Presbyterian College in
Clinton, South Carolina.

Content posted May 26, 2000

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