Three April '05 Letters
Elections in Cuba
by Glen Roberts
April 29 from Havana
To compare to American elections, scroll down to - As you certainly know
Island-wide Cuban municipal elections just came to
the end of their third round. Not campaigns. Elections. While Americans
stay trapped in their two-party rut because they're still "free"
of the run-offs most countries are "free" to have, over 8 million
Cubans secretly voted April 17 on 15,112 separate contests; then 1,075,275
went back to the "urns" April 24 to settle 1173 races in which
no candidate had gotten over 50% of the vote; and finally 551 voters in
one district of Cueto, a small town in the hills north of Santiago, voted
for the third time yesterday (April 28) to decide whether Heriberto Ramirez
or Jose Antonio Velasquez would be their delegate. In other years, run-offs
have gone more rounds in more places. Cuban election rules stipulate as
many run-offs as it takes.
And that's neither the beginning nor the end of it. Municipal Assembly candidates who ran in this election were first selected in small neighborhood meetings by people who know them, simply by speaking up, i.e., "I think Jorge should be our candidate," and reaching agreement by a show of hands. There was no campaigning. The chosen candidates were equally publicized through 8 1/2 X 11 resumes bearing mug shots, printed at state expense and posted in designated places where anyone in their municipalities could read them. When the newly elected Municipal Assemblies meet, the members will complete the electoral process by choosing municipal officers, the equivalent of a mayor for instance, from among themselves.
Cuba has municipal elections every 2 ½ years. They
have provincial and national elections every 5 years. Almost everyone
votes, partly, for sure, because it's so easy. On April 17, for instance,
when voters presented their carnets at election tables near their homes,
their names were almost certainly found on the voter lists, because Cubans
are so habitually registered where they live. But it was prominently explained
in Granma (the Communist Party newspaper) the day before that a voter
not listed could be listed on the spot, when he came to vote, if other
definitely legitimate voters (other than candidates and officials) vouched
for his legitimacy. If he had no carnet, he could go to the carnet office,
which was open on election day, with whatever evidence they require, get
one, and use it to vote that day. If he had just turned 16 and didn't
have a carnet yet, his valid student ID was accepted, and he was registered
on the spot on the strength of it. A sick person could send a friend (other
than a candidate or official) to vote for him, or he could arrange to
vote from his home or hospital bed. Forgetful persons were reminded by
CDR leaders who came by their doors to tell them it was election day.
The next day's announcement that over 97% voted on April 17 was undoubtedly
This all sounds and really is impressive, but democracy is made for rigging, and virtually all elections are eye-wash. American elections, obviously, are brazenly rigged well in advance mainly by news management. You know this, of course, but I'm going to remind you how it works here just to show how the American and Cuban democracies compare.
As you certainly know, the rigging of American elections doesn't usually happen on election day, either. The voters apparently vote as they wish. But most of them (and that's all it takes in a democracy) wish what they've been trained to wish. Starting long before election day, after entrenched insiders decide which candidates are to be taken seriously, the embedded media stage a very long-running, very predictable but very slick and expensive multi-media show of irrelevantly trivial and personal but effectively relentless and pervasive propaganda - a daily, hourly, up-to-the-minute smoke cloud - that goes on for months, if not years. Pre-presidential election "reporting" (brainwashing) in America used to go on for only about a year, but, ever since the media were badly scared by their own loss of control when they tried (every minute every hour every day for only a year) and failed to convince Americans that Bill Clinton's sex life was grounds for impeachment, it's been a 2-year frame-up. For at least a year, though, not the candidates but the much more reliable media, speaking like matching oracles from within the smoke, tell Americans every single thing they reportedly think from beginning to end, when the voters do nothing but fulfill their assigned destinies.
By election day, they've been literally hypnotized. A relentlessly induced paralysis of their individual and collective will stymies any urge to vote outside the box. The American media, the mercenary bards of the rich, the slickest propaganda machine ever anywhere, write, direct, produce, and stage elections which always end with their type of people still in power, with hardly a word ever spoken about what type of people they are, because the actual, mainly business purposes of politics in America are too shallow or too shameful to reveal. Most of the world follows the American plan, often with American help (whether they want it or not).
Cuban elections are different in some ways and they're also a lot like American elections. They're just as apparently democratic (municipal elections seem even more democratic), and they're just as certainly though invisibly rigged. Because Cuban media are so lousy in their own way, I had a hard time learning the following, so appreciate it. I'm telling you here, not to comfort or alarm you and not to be "even handed" but just to be honest (which is much rarer and much less widely understood than mere impartiality) what really happens.
In a nutshell, just as in America (outside Florida and maybe Ohio), it isn't the voting process but the voter's attitude that is adjusted. In Cuba, where propaganda equally as pervasive as in America but much more philosophically relevant and respectable comes close to embedding every last Cuban, the results of even the radically democratic municipal elections are PARTLY ensured by deeply planted, either intelligently or inertly accepted presumptions about who precisely or what type of person (just as precisely) should be elected. Results of provincial and national elections are also influenced by the electoral process itself and by the shape of government.
An entirely honest, highly educated friend in Cienfuegos,
actually a revolutionary heroine, disturbed by my cynicism, told me of
a housekeeper with a 6th grade education who won her Municipal Assembly
seat away from a longtime incumbent who was a lawyer, and I'm sure it
happened, because she said so and because the radically democratic municipal
elections allow such things to happen. But every ordinary Cuban I ask
(like every ordinary American) assures me that he or she is not ever going
to be a candidate because he or she isn't the type, and I've read lots
of the candidates' resumes posted at official places. Obviously, the candidates
are almost all the Cuban version of establishment types, whose neighbors
figure, "If Jorge wants to do it, let Jorge do it." Or, more
likely, "Let Jorge keep doing it." Candidates' resumes emphasize
their Communist Party or Juventud or mass organization membership and
their long-term insiders' records, which all the voters in their small
areas already know, anyway.
Reelection is common. In this election, the papers
have reported over 50% reelected, and reporters, with whose diamond-hard
tendency to be cheerleaders I struggled for a couple of hours in La Union
de Periodistas on 11th Street in Vedado, eventually admitted that a hard
core establishment, even at the municipal level, is likely to hold office
for up to 20 years (or more). Yes, they're elected and the votes aren't
miscounted and there's no intimidation. But it's indicative that Fidel
has himself been re-elected as a rep by the voters in the same part of
Santiago since forever, so he could be reelected to a higher legislative
branch, so he could be reelected to the Council of State, so he could
be constantly reelected president.
You know how it works (from your own American experience,
so don't get smug). It's like every really effective professional or grassroots
organization you and I have ever been in where there was a tacit consensus
that the same persons would always be the secretary and treasurer, and
the same 3 to 5 people would always be the leaders. I'm not necessarily
knocking it. There are good reasons why that's the way it at least sometimes
and maybe usually should be. Any honest organizational leader knows how
and why it works. It works the same way in Cuba, except that in an extremely
sub-organized, Cuba-size organization, with all due disrespect for the
hysterical (that's objective) Miami claims that Fidel pulls all the strings,
I'd guess there are three to five dozen entrenched top leaders, three to five hundred
entrenched national leaders, and, counting all sub-subdivisions, maybe
three to five thousand leaders over-all, of at least an entrenched type,
To ensure this, each level of government above municipal
in Cuba used to be elected by the next lower level - by the government
itself. If ordinary Cubans couldn't be counted on to always select the
right reps or reps with the right stuff, the reps they selected could
be, because at least most of them would have the right stuff. And at each
higher level, the elect just naturally became more and more exclusive.
Now, besides electing Municipal Assemblies, all Cubans vote for the Provincial
and National Assemblies, too, but the candidates for the higher bodies
are selected in conference by the reps of various popular organizations,
who are of course popularly approved but who are inevitably mostly hardcore
insiders. The 31 member Council of State, whose president (Fidel) is the
president of Cuba, and whose membership is largely de facto fixed, is
also ceremonially elected, actually largely just reappointed, by the National
The description of the just completed elections at
the top of this article only applies to municipal assembly members, of
whom only the few tacitly fixed members have desks and actually run things.
Most assemblymen, like American school board members, only meet two or
three times a month and either rubber stamp or get in the way or provide
constructive guidance. Being team player types, they're not likely to
get in the way. But most important governmental agents and agencies aren't municipal, anyway. All the police, for instance, are national, and even the
man who fixed the elevator in the building where I was renting a room
in Havana told me he was in the elevator repair crew of a national building
maintenance division. So municipal elections don't give voters any control
over law enforcement or elevator repair.
That Cuban elections are eye-wash (in my perhaps not
last analysis - I'll go back for another and another look) isn't even
notable, because virtually all elections are eye-wash. What's notable
is that they have elections, since most Americans think they don't, and
that it seems to be the government's intent to make elections more relevant
as time goes by.
Propaganda in America is that a one party system isn't democracy even if 97% do vote. But that's pure propaganda with no basis in logic. Other much more logical propaganda holds that America's two-party system isn't democratic. Cuban propaganda says something else, and what it says is convincing. Collectively, Cuba remembers well how multi-party democracy worked before 1959. There were two basic problems with it. First, competitive campaigns cost money and that opened the door to outside influence, obviously U.S. influence, to achieve U.S. ends. Second, the winning party represented its own constituents (including U.S. businesses), while other Cubans were unrepresented. With modern Cuba's one-party elections that cost almost nothing, rich outsiders (hopefully) have no influence (which is what really gripes the U.S.), and the single Communist Party represents everyone.
Propaganda in America is that it's wrong to always
have the same president. Tell that to Martha Stewart or the Teamsters
or the San Diego Teachers' Committee on Central America. The logical purpose
of an election is to put the best person into the president's spot and
to keep the leader honest. Cubans think they have always had the best
and most honest president in the world (and I agree).
Anyway, thanks to the decisions of the concentrated
Cuban power of the past, Cuba is one place where the the trend has been
and is to gradually decentralize power. Fidel doesn't run Cuba anymore.
He never did, but he hasn't run Cuba even to the extent that he did for
a long time. Several dozen people have already taken his working place.
Or several hundred, or several thousand, depending on what governmental
gestalt you're looking at - or more, since about 25% of Cubans are in
the Party or the Juventud, and the Communist Party runs Cuba, and the
Juventud carries out much of the Cuban state's most important work. Fidel
never expected everyone to replace him. But he expected all the people
capable of it to jointly carry out the country's mission when they learned
how, and that's what has happened.
If I've gone off the readers' screen, don't blame me.
Blame the American mass media for never telling you anything - for always
treating Cuba like a mysterious place behind an iron curtain that can
only be pierced by Barbara Walters every other year. Baloney. Lots of
people freely go to Cuba and go all over Cuba. The Lonely Planet Cuba
travel guide, which you can buy at any big bookstore (or borrow from a
neighbor who has secretly visited Cuba) contains 100 times more information
than mainstream American media ever hint exists. The internet is full
of information, though you have to recognize and discount everything from
Miami. And there is (or will be) a book list on my website at iammyownreporter.com.
But right now, get this straight. Fidel isn't running
Cuba. He's old. He's having trouble standing up. But Cuban plumbing works
and the water is purified. The overcrowded busses run. The streets are
cleaned and the garbage is picked up. The offices and stores are open.
The schools and hospitals and farms and factories and breweries are producing.
The lousy newspapers come out. Someone is building lots of houses and
repairing lots more. Thousands of people are supervising millions of people
doing their jobs and apparently doing them better and better. Even if
the elections are eye-wash, the Council of State and the entrenched leaders
of the many assemblies and working departments and popular organizations
and labor unions and neighborhood watch units (all of which are part of
the government) are doing their jobs - running Cuba. Fidel and Che and
the other survivors of the Granma and the Santiago and Havana street fighting
of the 50's rigged it to happen. In all his earliest speeches, Fidel always
- ALWAYS - told the crowd they were making the decisions; he was only
speaking and acting as they wanted him to. It was eyewash then, but it
was self fulfilling eyewash and now it's largely true and getting truer;
and the future is still being rigged to make it truer and hopefully better.
As a symbol, as the father and backbone of the revolution,
Fidel won't easily be replaced. But everybody in Cuba is educated now
(as one El Rapido counter girl who didn't seem the willingly brainy type
told me as if a bit overwhelmed by it all, "educadiiiiisimo!"),
and Cuba's extreme organization and multiple organization and sub-organization
provides a lot of political experience. Fidel is a one-in-a-thousand person.
But there are 11 thousand one-in-a-thousand Cubans, including at least
several thousand one-in-a-thousand well-educated adults between 35 and,
say, 55. Every intellectual I have ever endlessly talked to in Cuba consciously
or unconsciously imitates Fidel. Cuba's tacitly rigged elections and pervasive
propaganda have filled the government and the universities and the artists
and writers societies and the labor unions and the CDR's and etc. with
Maybe the next Fidel will finally lead Cuba to a communist
future so ideal (not led at all but guided by a blueprint, administrated
by an administrative structure, and carried out by everyone) that there'll
be no more need for eye-wash. I'm sure hardly anybody understood that
sentence. I'll explain it later.
formerly of San Diego and
Morro Bay, California, now
(in Apr. '05) a homeless traveler;
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