Letter from Havana, January 28, 2003

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Tue Jan 28 22:02:03 MST 2003


LETTER FROM HAVANA
by Walter Lippmann
January 28, 2003

Dear Friends -

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Cuban
independence apostle Jose Marti. His life and work
are celebrated by Cubans all over the island. This
week an international conference about the relevance
of Marti's ideas for today's world is underway here in
Havana. This morning, as I was coming to the end of
my morning walk, I stopped to witness the site of the
thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of school
children who came out to the Plaza of the Revolution
to mark the occasion. They presented flowers, music,
costumed skits and more. Last night twenty thousand
people, mostly students, participated in a torchlight
parade led by Raul Castro. A centerpiece of this
event was the unveiling of a new statue to Marti.

Fortunately for all who participated, the cold snap we
have been experiencing here has lifted as of last night
and so the only challenge for the school children was
the brisk wind across the plaza. I didn't stay for the
speeches and presentations, which will surely be
shown on Cuban television this evening. You can
view Cuban TV news at www.cubasi.cu website.

With this my fifth visit to Cuba since November 1999
drawing to a close, this is likely to be my last one in
the "Letters From Havana" series during this trip.

We've had extreme cold here Havana, colder in
fact, that anyone I know has been able to recall in
ages. Julia Garcia, the 72-year old retired nurse
with whom I've stayed on every visit, says this is
the coldest time she can ever recall, and she has
been in colder climates, but outside the island.

While the weather has been cold, political activity in
the island, and in the broader international arena in
which Cuba participates, has been extremely active:
Opposing the imminent prospect of a US invasion of
Iraq, supporting the Bolivarian process being led by
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, participating in
the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre Brazil, and
more.

I'm going to try to give you a sense some of what I
was fortunate to have observed it during the week
of January 19-26, 2003. It was hectic indeed.

Coming from the United States where we are more
used to the old Farenheit measurement system it
wasn't easy for me to figure out just HOW cold as
the normal resources I use, like Yahoo and the
Weather Channel are speak int of temperatures
like 56 degrees low and 74% high, which is way
off what it really is. EFE, the Spanish agency is
reporting 3.9 degrees Centigrade (39 degrees
Farenheit) which sounds a lot more like what it
feels like here. Very brisk winds and some rain
hasn't helped, though these have been more of
an intermittent problem. I'm hopeful the chill is
gone now.

Last Sunday we saw the final round of voting in
the island's provincial and national assembly
elections. These were uncontested votes where
everyone who was a candidate got elected. (The
only way someone could NOT be elected was if
they'd received less than 50% of the votes cast
and that would surely have been reported.)

(Contested elections had preceded these back
in the fall and many were eliminated in that round.)

Voting in Cuba has to be the easiest system which
exists in the world, though voting is NOT mandatory.

You don't have to register and if you didn't vote last
time, you're still registered for this round. Citizens are
automatically on the rolls based on their residence.
Voting stations (similar to the precinct system in the
US) are everywhere. On a long walk across the city,
I saw dozens of such stations. sometimes more than
one in a location.

One interesting thing I learned was that, since
individuals are registered to vote by the address
at which they live, and their ID card information is
given on the list of registered voters, you can see
how old someone is because the first six digits on
a Cuban national identity card is your birthdate.
(I was curious about the age of a neighbor, and
was able to see that on the list of voters.)

The furthest one that I observed was a block and
a half away from someone. Provisions are made
for Cubans working abroad in diplomatic or else
medical activities. Even if you're away from your
home polling station, I found absentee polling
stations at the large municipal bus depot near
my home here. Each polling station featured a
small staff of local election volunteers, and a
group of children from the Young Pioneers who
were present to guard the ballot boxes and to
individually salute each citizen after they voted.

>From what I learned, the only people who cannot
vote here are incarcerated inmates. Once released
Cubans can vote again. This is also quite different
from the United States where many ex-convicts
are denied the right to vote. You'll recall, for an
example, that there were tens of thousands of
ex-felons in Florida who were striken from the
voting rolls whose votes could have changed
the outcome of the 2000 election campaign,
and therefore US political history.

(On the other hand, there does not seem to be a
system for absentee voting by mail here, such as
the one I used in Los Angeles to make sure my
vote was counted before leaving for this trip in
early November.)

I compare this with my personal experience in the
Silverlake area of Los Angeles where I normally
use my car to travel the half-mile to my polling
station. Further, as of the previous election, my
polling station was moved from the location that
it had been at for years, a local church. Alas, the
new location is much more difficult because it's on
the other side of a heavily-travelled thoroughfare
(Sunset Boulevard) and where parking (an issue
of extreme importance in Los Angeles) is far, far
more difficult.

The Cuban government and the mass organizations
which support the revolutionary process here made
a gigantic get-out-the-vote drive here, with posters,
TV and newspaper coverage and election meetings.
There were few places where you didn't see the
slogan "Un vote unido nos fortalece" ("A united
vote makes us stronger".) 609 National Assembly
delegates and some 1200 Provincial Assembly
delegates were being chosen during this election.

All the coverage I saw showed people saying they
were voting to express their support for their home-
land, their revolution and socialism. I never saw,
and don't imagine they would have shown, anyone
on Cuban TV who would say "I support the revolution
but only plan to vote for some of the candidates" for
whatever reason they might have given. Voting is not
mandatory in Cuba, as it is in many other Latin
American countries.

Televised election coverage was given all day long.
After he voted in Santiago de Cuba, from where he's
a candidate for the National Assembly, Fidel Castro
stopped and spoke at some length to reporters. His
comments were, it seemed, aimed at getting each
and every one of the possible voters out to participate
in the process. Fidel is always campaigning. Raul, on
the other hand, also a delegate from Santiago, voted
here in Los Angeles. Carlos Lage spoke to a few
reporters after he voted as well. Most of those who
were interviewed were ordinary people exercising a
civic, patriotic, socialist and revolutionary sense of
responsibility, from what I saw on television.

Thus it's all the more interesting that the final tally,
as reported in Granma, in a giant banner headline:
91.35% voted for the recommended candidates slate.

Far smaller (in type sizes) than this were the figures:
96.4% as the percentage of registered voters who
actually went to the polls. Blank and spoiled was
3.86% of the vote.

8,313,770 million registered voters
8,115,215, voted (97.6%)
69,863 spoiled
243,431 blank

Therefore, 300,000+ people voted blank or spoiled.
This is less than 4% of the total, but it's still quite
significant that the government publicly reports.
this result, which reflects dissatisfaction of one or
another kind. You can speculate as to what this
represents politically, but not very specifically.

You can look at the front page of Cuba's Granma for
the final edition calling for a massive voter turnout:
http://www.granma.cubaweb.cu/2003/01/19/plana.jpg

The initial results reporting over 8 million voters here:
http://www.granma.cubaweb.cu/2003/01/20/plana.jpg

Front page of Granma with final election results:
http://www.granma.cubaweb.cu/2003/01/21/plana.jpg

The reports of the preliminary election totals are given here:
http://www.granma.cubaweb.cu/secciones/mesa/mesa42.htm

It's important to recognize that while these elections don't
represent an ideological contest (beyond one between
supporting the revolution on the one hand) and a kind of
negativity or apathy reflected in blank, spoiled ballots) on
the other, it's clear that a gradation of views was expressed
among those who support the process.

Some of the dissidents were reported in the foreign media
to have called for a boycott of the election, but few abstained.
Others said the figures were inflated, and promised to stand
outside to observe such stuff. Interestingly, none of those who
told the foreign media they would do that, were subseqently
reported to have in fact done that. I suppose they simply sat
at home and sulked.


Walter Lippmann, Moderator
CubaNews list at Yahoo
www.walterlippmann.com

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