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Elections in Cuba involve nomination of municipal candidates by voters in nomination assemblies, nomination of provincial and national candidates by candidacy commissions, voting by secret ballot, and recall elections. Cuba is a one-party state with the Communist Party of Cuba as the "leading force of society and of the state" under the national constitution, although elections are non-partisan.
Cuba's political system has been condemned by human rights groupsopposition groups, as well as foreign Western governments . Elections in Cuba have been characterized as not democratic by some western academics, though others, including the Cuban government, contend that the system is democratic.
Fidel Castro was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) from 1961 until 2011, and was in power first as Prime Minister and then as President, from 1959 until 2008. Castro's brother Raúl Castro was designated Fidel's successor at the 5th Communist Party congress in October 1997. Fidel Castro officially retired on 19 April 2011, leaving his brother as the sole candidate for First Secretary.
According to the constitution, Cuba is a socialist republic where all members or representative bodies of state power are elected and subject to recall and the masses control the activity of the state agencies, the deputies, delegates and officials. Elections in Cuba have two phases:
- election of delegates to the Municipal Assembly, and
- election of deputies to the Provincial and National Assemblies.
Candidates for municipal assemblies are nominated on an individual basis at local levels by the local population at nomination assemblies. Candidates for provincial assemblies and the National Assembly are nominated by the municipal assemblies from lists compiled by national, provincial and municipal candidacy commissions. Suggestions for nominations are made at all levels mainly by mass organizations, trade unions, people's councils, and student federations. The final list of candidates for the National Assembly, one for each district, is drawn up by the National Candidacy Commission; however, voters can, in theory, veto a candidate, because if a candidate were fail to gain 50% of the vote, a new candidate would have to be chosen.
Anyone older than 16 other than those mentally incapacitated, imprisoned, or deprived of their political rights can vote and be nominated to these posts. No political parties (including the Communist Party of Cuba) are permitted to campaign. Instead, voters can consult candidates' biographies and photographs posted on public locations. All elections take place by secret ballot. Suffrage is afforded to Cuban citizens resident for two years on the island who are aged over sixteen years and who have not been found guilty of a criminal offense.
The election of municipal assembly delegates involves nomination by voters in nomination assemblies, compilation of posting of candidate biographies, voting by secret ballot, and recall. Municipal assemblies are elected every two and a half years. Municipal elections are officially non-partisan.
Nomination assemblies are held about a month before the election in areas within the electoral districts. During regular elections, from 70% to over 90% of the electorate attend the nomination assemblies. Municipal candidates must be at least 16 years old.
In elections held on 21 October 2007, turnout was reported to be 8.1 million voters, approximately 95% of the population eligible to vote, which was less than the last such election on April 17, 2005, where voter turnout was 97%. Elections were then held in 2010 and 2013.
Municipal candidacy commissions submit nominations for provincial delegates to provincial candidacy commissions. The provincial candidacy commissions produce the final list of provincial assembly candidates.
Cuba's national legislature, the National Assembly of People's Power, has 609 members who sit for five-year terms. Members of the National Assembly represent multiple-member constituencies (2 to 5 members per district), with one Deputy for each 20,000 inhabitants.
Candidates for the National Assembly are chosen by candidacy commissions chaired by local trade union officials and composed of elected representatives of "mass organisations" representing workers, youth, women, students and farmers. The municipal candidacy commissions produce slates of recommended candidates for each electoral district, mainly submit nominations for candidates that are also municipal delegates, and first submit their nominations to their municipal assembly who may approve or replace nominations. The final list of candidates for the National Assembly, one for each district, is drawn up by the National Candidacy Commission, taking into account criteria such as candidates’ popularity, merit, patriotism, ethical values and “revolutionary history.” At least half of the National Assembly candidates selected must have been previously elected as delegates to these assemblies.
The provincial and municipal candidacy commissions submit nominations to the National Candidacy Commission.
Although there is only one candidate per seat, candidates must, in theory, obtain the support of 50% of voters to be elected.
If a candidate were to fails to gain 50% of the vote, a new candidate would have to be chosen. However, this has never occurred.
Elections to the National Assembly were held on 24 February 2008. According to the Cuban Ministry of External Affairs, at the October 2002 elections to the Candidacy Commissions which preceded the January 2003 National Assembly elections, "32,585 candidates were nominated for the 14,949 seats up for election in October 2001 at grassroots assemblies in which 81.7% of the voters participated." So far no candidate for the National Assembly has ever failed to gain 50% of the vote, because the candidates put forward by the candidacy commissions usually receive at least 84% support.
Right of legislative proposals
Article 88(h) of the Cuban constitution, adopted in 1976, provides for citizen proposals of law, prerequisite that the proposal be made by at least 10,000 citizens who are eligible to vote. In 2002 supporters of a movement known as the Varela Project submitted a citizen proposal of law with 11,000 signatures calling for a national referendum on political and economic reforms.
The Cuban National Assembly Constitution and Legal Affairs Committee tabled the Varela Project citizens' initiative and responded with a counter initiative, the petition for which collected 8.1 million signatures, to request that Cuba's National Assembly amend the constitution to state "Socialism and the revolutionary political and social system...are irrevocable; and Cuba will never again return to capitalism." At the same time, millions of Cubans took to the street in support of the government. The BBC reported that some citizens had felt pressured to sign the government petition.
The national legislature meets twice a year for a week, to pass unanimously all the bills proposed by the executive branch. In between the sessions, the Council of State and the NAPP's commissions perform its legislative duties.
The Communist Party of Cuba is the official state party, but various other political parties have been active in the country since their existence was legalised in 1992. Nevertheless, they, along with the Communist Party of Cuba, are prohibited from campaigning in elections or public political speech. The most important of these are the Christian Democratic Party of Cuba, the Cuban Democratic Socialist Current, the Democratic Social-Revolutionary Party of Cuba, the Democratic Solidarity Party, and the Social Democratic Co-ordination of Cuba. Members of all of those political groups are free to put themselves forward at open and public candidate selection ("Town Hall") meetings and, if they command a simple majority of those present, will be entered onto the ballot paper and have their election materials posted.
Poster urging citizens to vote
Fidel Castro made many statements affirming that Cuba is a democracy or has democratic features. In 1960, Castro made a speech to the General Assembly referring to Cuba in relation to other Latin American nations, “We are speaking of democracy. If Government is of people and democratic, people can be consulted, as we are doing here. What is more an example of pure democracy than meetings such as this one. If they cannot call such meetings they are not democracies.” Castro continued “Those who want to see people’s democracy let them come here and see this. We can speak to America and the world because we speak in names of a whole nation.” In this 1960 speech, Castro also criticized many Latin American liberal democracies, describing them as a “Pretense of democracy”, as, he claimed, they did not allow such gatherings.
In 2006, President of Cuba's National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, stated: "At some moment, US rhetoric changed to talk of democracy ... For me, the starting point is the recognition that democracy should begin with Pericles's definition – that society is for the benefit of the majority – and should not be imposed from outside."
Cuba justifies the existence of only one political party by arguing that the PCC “is not a political party in the traditional sense… it is not an electoral party; it does not decide on the formation or composition of the government. It is not only forbidden to nominate candidates but also to be involved in any other stage of the electoral process… The PCC’s role is one of guidance, supervision and of guarantor of participatory democracy.”
The Cuban government describes the full Cuban electoral process as a form of democracy. The Cuban Ministry of External Affairs describes the candidate-selection process as deriving from “direct nomination of candidates for delegates to the municipal assemblies by the voters themselves at public assemblies,” and points out that at the elections to the municipal assemblies, voters do have a choice of candidates. The ban on election campaigning is presented as “The absence of million–dollar election campaigns where resorting to insults, slander and manipulation are the norm.”
U.S. State Department: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: "Candidates for provincial and national office must be approved in advance by mass organizations controlled by the government. In practice a small group of leaders, under the direction of the president, selected the members of the highest policy-making bodies of the CP, the Politburo, and the Central Committee."
"In 2003 there were national elections in which 609 candidates were approved to compete for the 609 seats in the National Assembly. The CP was the only political party allowed to participate in the elections. A small minority of candidates did not belong formally to the CP but were chosen through the same government-controlled selection process. The government saturated the media and used government ministries, CP entities, and mass organizations to urge voters to cast a “unified vote” where marking one box automatically selected all candidates on the ballot form.
During the year there were elections for nearly 15 thousand local representatives to the municipal assemblies. After the first run-off election, the government reported that 96.6 percent of the electorate had voted. While the law allows citizens not to vote, CDRs often pressured neighborhood residents to cast ballots. According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, the government blacklisted those who did not vote. Although not a formal requirement, in practice CP membership was a prerequisite for high-level official positions and professional advancement."
Since 1996, official European Union policy towards Cuba has stated an objective "to encourage a process of transition to a pluralist democracy via constructive engagement with the Cuban Government." This goal is shared by all member states. The E.U. describes the Cuban decision-making process thus: "Elections for the National Assembly, where only candidates approved by the local authorities can partake, take place every five years. When the National Assembly, which meets twice-yearly, is not in session the 31-member Council of State wields legislative power. The Council of Ministers, through its 9-member executive committee, exercises executive and administrative power. Although the Constitution provides for independent judiciary, it explicitly subordinates it to the National Assembly and to the Council of State. Involvement in decision-making and implementation through non-political actors has been institutionalised through national organisations, linked to the Communist Party, representing farmers, youth groups, students, women, industrial workers, etc."
Organization of American States
Cuba was suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS) from 1962 to 2009. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organ of the OAS, reported in 1997: “It should also be noted that the major criterion for preparing this report has been the lack of free elections in accordance with internationally accepted standards, thereby violating the right to political participation set forth in Article XX of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which states textually that: Every person having legal capacity is entitled to participate in the government of his country, directly or through his representatives, and to take part in popular elections, which shall be by secret ballot, and shall be honest, periodic and free.”
"The nomination of candidates for election to the Municipal Assemblies is done by nominating assemblies, in which all voters are entitled to propose candidates. In practice, however, these district assemblies are usually organized by the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution or the Communist Party, which makes the selection of an opponent of the regime most unlikely.
In 1999, the U.S.-government funded organization Freedom House initiated “the Cuban Democracy Project”. The project was set up to support and encourage Cuban independent journalists, human rights activists, independent political parties, trade unions, and other organizations. Freedom House is solely responsible for the objectives and planning of the project and for its administration. Freedom House has also given Cuba the lowest rating in its: “Freedom in the World 2005” report for political rights, and the lowest rating in its “electoral democracy” category.
The Freedom House 2005 report states: “Cubans cannot change their government through democratic means. Fidel Castro dominates the political system, having transformed the country into a one-party state with the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) controlling all governmental entities from the national to the local level. Castro is responsible for every appointment and controls every lever of power in Cuba in his various roles as president of the Council of Ministers, chairman of the Council of State, commander in chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), and first secretary of the PCC. In October 2002, some eight million Cubans voted in tightly controlled municipal elections. On January 19, 2003, an election was held for the Cuban National Assembly, with just 609 candidates - all supported by the regime - vying for 609 seats. All political organizing outside the PCC is illegal. Political dissent, spoken or written, is a punishable offense, and those so punished frequently receive years of imprisonment for seemingly minor infractions.”
In 2002 former U.S. President Jimmy Carter spoke in Havana with support from Human Rights Watch and representing the Carter Center. Whilst calling for democratic change, Carter also stressed that he was not using a U.S. definition of “democracy.” he explained that “the term is embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba signed in 1948. It is based on some simple premises: all citizens are born with the right to choose their own leaders, to define their own destiny, to speak freely, to organize political parties, trade unions and non-governmental groups, and to have fair and open trials.”
The 2006 report from Human Rights Watch states: “Cuba remains a Latin American anomaly: an undemocratic government that represses nearly all forms of political dissent. President Fidel Castro, now in his forty-seventh year in power, shows no willingness to consider even minor reforms. Instead, his government continues to enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions, long- and short-term detentions, mob harassment, police warnings, surveillance, house arrests, travel restrictions, and politically-motivated dismissals from employment. The end result is that Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.”
Human Rights defenders in Cuba from Human Rights First states: “Cuba remains the only country in the Western Hemisphere to reject democracy and effectively outlaw peaceful advocacy for human rights and democratic reforms. Independent civil society in Cuba – including human rights defenders, democracy activists, and independent journalists and scholars – are the targets of constant persecution. The universally-recognized rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly are systematically violated by the State and victims have virtually no means of redress within the judicial system.”
Cuba's supporters argue that the Cuban system is more democratic than that used in multi-party democracies. The Cuba Solidarity Campaign, a group based in the United Kingdom, says: “Electoral candidates are not chosen by small committees of political parties… Instead the candidates are nominated individually by grass-roots organisations and by individual electors… The successful candidate is chosen by secret ballot. The Electoral Law of 1992 stipulates that delegates to the municipal and provincial assemblies and the 601 deputies to the National Assembly are all elected by popular suffrage using a secret ballot… Unlike the case in other states, which invariably criticize Cuba for being ‘undemocratic’, voter turn-out in Cuba is high. In April 2005, 97.7% of electors came out to vote for their deputies to the municipal assemblies.”
Critics argue that whatever the merits of the system for electing the National Assembly, that body is itself a facade for the reality of PCC rule in Cuba. The Assembly meets only twice a year for a few days which is the basis of these beliefs. The 31-member Council of State, in theory elected by the Assembly but hypothetically in practice appointed by the PCC, wields effective state power, and the PCC Politburo is assumed to be the ultimate political authority. Although the Assembly has eight standing committees, they do not exercise any effective authority over legislation. During its biannual plenums, the Assembly is said to play a passive role as audience for various government speakers. Once the Council of State's legislative proposals have been presented, they are summarily ratified by unanimous or near unanimous vote of the Assembly.
Many other notable political figures have commented on Cuba and democracy. At a conference held by the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba called “Towards democracy in Cuba”, former Czech leader Václav Havel stated, “democracy and prosperity in Cuba depend on the support for Cuban dissidents, the better the chances for a future peaceful transition of the Cuban society to democracy.” Havel has also described Cuba as “the biggest prison on earth”. In 2006 Peruvian Presidential candidate and Bolivarian Ollanta Humala stated that “Obviously, according to our standards Cuba does not qualify as a democracy,” but added that Peru “is democratic, we have democratized poverty”.
Political writers and academics
Groups or individuals that describe Cuba is a “democracy” or claim that there is some level of democracy in the political system generally focus on community participation at local municipal level. For example, Cuban Teresita Jorge writes that democracy in Cuba “takes place from the grassroots up in the selection of those who will represent the people at all the levels of government“. Similarly, Political scientists Haroldo Dilla Alfonso and Gerardo González Núñez study what they describe as Cuba's “community power and grassroots democracy”. They write that “this participatory system contained an interesting combination of direct democracy and the use of representation as granted by election. In general, it attempted to provide citizens with the ability to choose the local leadership, express claims, oversee and evaluate local policy and its results, and become involved in projects of community benefit.” The pair concluded that “we ought to consider Municipal Assemblies as a remarkable step forward in building democracy”.
American political scientist Peter Roman's work on the subject led him to believe that Cuba's “grassroots democracy” goes beyond the power to vote freely for one of several candidates representing both pro or anti-socialist positions. He argues that at the “people level” democracy exists in Cuba today and that this democracy has been strengthened during the 1990s by conscious decisions made at the top. Roman also writes that the historical origins of contemporary Cuban democracy are the ideas of the centrality of unity and consensus, and the rejection of a distinction between political and civil society. Thus, unanimous votes in representative bodies do not represent, as critics charge, imposition by the PCC, but rather legitimate consensus worked out in lengthy discussion at several levels. British political professor Steve Ludlum wrote in his paper “Participation is key to Cuba’s democracy” that “Two models of democracy competed for support in nineteenth century Europe. The one we know is based on indirect representation by professional politicians controlled by party factions. The other model, associated with Rousseau’s concept of the ‘general will’ and made famous by the Paris Commune of 1870”. Ludlum likens Cuba's local participation to the latter model.
William M. LeoGrande, in a paper written for the Cuba Transition Project at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, wrote of the 1992 election law: "unprecedented openness in debate, not just among party members, but also among the entire populace, so as to foster greater participation and build 'the necessary consensus' for the government's policy response...Eventually, some three million people participated in the pre-Congress discussions", but "When the new electoral law was finalized… it dashed any hopes for a significant opening to alternative voices. The ban on campaigning was retained, and the nomination of provincial and national assembly candidates was entrusted to Candidacy Commissions. Through an elaborate process of consultation… the Candidacy Commissions… produced slates of nominees with just one candidate per seat. Voters only had the choice of voting yes or no. Thus, the election process at the provincial and national levels avoided the possibility of even implicit policy differences among candidates.”
In a detailed study of the 1997-1998 elections, it was argued that there were multiple candidates in the open nomination assemblies held for the nomination of these candidates for these seats.
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