Note: Today’s commentary is a supplement to my regular twice-weekly commentaries. It was inspired by the UN General Assembly debate on the U.S. blockade of Cuba.
By a vote of 184-2 (with three abstentions), the General Assembly of the United Nations has voted in favor of the resolution: “The need to put an end to the economic, commercial, and financial blockade imposed by the United States of America on Cuba.”
Immediately before the vote, the representatives of the United States and the European Union expressed the view that the government of Cuba violates human rights, especially political and civil rights and the rights of freemen of speech and assembly.
It as a common charge against Cuba, but it is false. In fact, Cuba has developed an alternative political system, with structures different from those of representative democracy. It could be said that the Cuban system, which I call “people’s democracy,” more fully protects the political and civil rights of the people, because it promotes an informed consensus among the people, keeps elite and foreign interests at bay, and allows for a more meaningful form of citizen participation.
In Cuba, there are elections, held without the participation of political parties. Neighborhood nomination assemblies are conducted, which result in two or more candidates appearing on ballots in 12,515 small voting districts across the nation. The candidates do not conduct electoral campaigns as in the representative democracies, so they have no need for campaign financing. In secret voting, the people, with a voter participation rate ranging from eighty-five to ninety-five percent, elect the delegates of the 169 municipal assemblies of the nation. These 169 municipal assemblies elect the 602 deputies of the National Assembly of People’s Power to five-year terms. The National Assembly of People’s Power is the highest authority in the nation. It elects the head of state to five-year terms, and it enacts legislation.
The Cuban Communist Party is the only major political party, a situation that exists for historic reasons. At the time of the triumph of the revolution, the traditional political parties were completely discredited, because of their association with corruption during the neocolonial republic. Three revolutionary organizations had popular support: the July 26 Movement, led by Fidel; the Cuban Communist Party, which had played an important role since the 1920s in the popular struggle; and the March 13 Revolutionary Directory, which initially was organized as a student organization. The leadership of the July 26 Movement, by far the strongest of the three, decided to unify the three into a single party, which ultimately became a new Cuban Communist Party. In this context, a situation of two competing parties would emerge only if a split were to occur in the CCP, or if a new party could gain support among the people.
The Communist Party is not an electoral party. It does not participate in the electoral process. It does not nominate candidates for elected office. It does not name the heads of the executive branch of the government. It does not enact legislation. It is prohibited from these activities by the Constitution. The role of the Party is to educate and guide the people. If the Party wants to propose policies, it has to submit its proposal to the National Assembly of People’s Power.
Since the early 1960s, the people of Cuba have been organized in mass organizations of workers, farmers, women, students, and neighborhoods, which is parallel to and integrated with the above-explained structures of people’s power. The mass organizations have very high membership rates, with 85% to 99% of their respective sectors. The members elect their leaders, and leaders at the highest levels have prominent roles in public debate. The Constitution mandates the participation of the mass organizations in the processes of people’s power: the National Confederation of Workers supervises the elections; the mass organizations form candidacy commissions that make recommendations in the elections by the municipal assemblies for delegates to the National Assembly, and in the National Assembly’s subsequent election of the executive branch; and representatives of the mass organizations serve on the legislative committees of the National Assembly of People’s Power.
For decades the members of the mass organizations met regularly, where they discussed issues of concern. Indeed, it was this practice of the people meeting and speaking that led the nation’s leaders to awareness in the first years of this century that there was a growing dissatisfaction among the people with the material standing of living, that many believed it was taking too long to recover from the hardships imposed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc, and that the people themselves believed that the situation could be improved by expanding possibilities for small-scale entrepreneurship, as some were doing in a quasi-legal form. Taking seriously the concerns of the people, the leadership began conversations among themselves and they developed extended popular consultations, which culminated in a new social and economic model, now in the process of being implemented. The highest priority of the new model is to elevate the standard of living among people.
When the people meet in their mass organizations, could this not be considered an assembly? When they express their concerns, are they not freely speaking? Could not this entire process be described as the people exercising their rights of freedom of assembly and speech?
To be sure, the freedoms of speech and assembly have a different look in the representative democracies of the North, where mass demonstrations are organized, and the people take to the streets and shout slogans. But the representative democracies of the North have much lower levels of organization among workers, farmers, students, and women; and therefore, they do not have the institutionalized processes of meeting and speaking that exist in Cuba, where there is a sustained outlet for the expression of the concerns of the majority of the people, which can be channeled toward constructive change, as illustrated with respect to the new social and economic model.
The two different approaches to freedom of speech and assembly are rooted in different histories. In the North, the emphasis was on ensuring the rights of the people against the threats of the arbitrary and authoritarian use of power by the state, and the taking of control of the political processes by the elite. In Cuba, when the people took control of the state in the 1960s, it made more sense to organize the possibilities for speech and assembly as a structure of cooperation between the state and the people, protecting both from the destabilizing interferences of a national elite that emigrated and formed a subservient alliance with the international elite.
Which approach to freedom of speech and assembly is better? The organization of mass demonstrations and the shouting of slogans, which may or may not be expressions of the will of the people? Or the institutionalization of sustained assembly and debate among the majority? Having observed and participated in both, I believe that the sustained practice of meeting and discussion is better, because it enables the people to deepen their understanding of their concerns, and it has far greater possibility for influencing the direction of the nation, as the Cuban adoption of the new social and economic shows.
Could the people, you might ask, express opposition to the system? The popular consultation with respect to the Cuban Constitution of 2019 is instructive in this regard. Some 133,680 meetings were held in neighborhoods and places of work and study, with a participation rate of approximately three-quarters of the population. The people actively expressed themselves with respect to a variety of themes, and when they disagreed with each other, they conducted themselves in a non-confrontational and respectful manner.
Particularly interesting was the opinion of some 400 persons that one article ought to be removed or changed, namely, the article proclaiming that Cuba is a socialist, democratic, and sovereign nation. These 400 people represented a very small fraction of the seven million people that participated in the consultation, who made 1,706,872 commentaries, including 783,174 proposed changes. The opinion of the 400 was dutifully reported by the chair of the constitutional commission in its televised report to the people. He noted that 400 was not many, but he wanted the people to know of the opinion of these “comrades;” but then he caught himself, saying these “persons.” So apparently the sanction imposed was that these 400 persons, who remained anonymous, were no longer considered comrades by the chair of the constitutional commission, who nonetheless acknowledged their right to express their opinion and to have their opinion recorded and reported to the nation. However, if any of these unnamed 400 persons also happened to have committed acts of sabotage in the paid service of a foreign power; or if, in their paid service to a foreign power, they had infiltrated an assembly to disseminate a false image of its purpose on social media; then they could well have had legal problems, which perhaps would enable them to become famous as defenders of human rights.
The 400 persons opposed to the language affirming socialism was far smaller than the 192,347 citizens who opposed the language that would have constitutionally sanctioned gay marriage, a proposal that was supported by the leadership, as a result of the influence among them of organizations of civil society dedicated to the theme. However, it seemed that the people were opposed to legally sanctioning gay marriage. With deference to the will of the people, the leadership changed the language to a more neutral expression, called for a full public debate on the question in preparation for a new family law, and promised that no new law on marriage would be emitted by the National Assembly of People’s Power without the support of the majority of the people. The Cuban leadership apparently believes that democracy cannot be imposed.
Thus, the Cuban political process is structurally different from the representative democracies. Who has the right to say that the Cuban political process violates the political rights of the people? Indeed, it could be said that, having removed political parties and campaign financing from the process, the Cuban political structure is more democratic. It could be said that the Cuban political process is better than representative democracy, given the political stability of the former and the confusion and division in the latter. At a minimum, it ought to be said that Cuba has developed a political system with a different approach to democracy and to political rights, as Cuba has a right to do as a sovereign nation.
The distorted presentation of Cuba as a supposed violator of political and civil rights is not a consequence of naïve ignorance. It is politically motivated. The transnational corporations that indirectly control the political processes of the major core powers have an interest in maintaining economic and financial penetration of the vast peripheral and semi-peripheral zones of the world-economy. From their vantage point, Cuba is a dangerous example. Not only does it audaciously insist on its right to sovereign control of its economy and its natural resources, but it also has developed an alternative political process that functions to ensure that the state is controlled by the delegates of the people. If the peoples of the North were to know of this example, they might get the idea that “power to the people” is not an impossible dream.
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