By Barry Sheppard
In early August, my companion Caroline Lund and I visited Cuba as part of the Eighth US-Cuba Friendshipment, organized by Pastors for Peace. As with all Friendshipments, this one openly defied Washington's blockade of the revolutionary island. Almost 455 tons of medicines, books, computer equipment, ambulances, bookmobiles and other humanitarian aid were collected across the US, taken over the Mexican border and shipped from Tampico to Cuba.
Unlike previous Friendshipments, this one was not hassled very much by the US authorities. About 150 of the "caravanistas" -- so called because the material donated was collected by caravans of buses and cars that met at the Mexican border, and then drove across Mexico to Tampico -- also went on for a 10-day visit packed with activities.
One of these was the first US-Cuba Friendship Conference, which was addressed by top leaders of the Cuban government and Communist Party (CP). All the activities gave us a much better picture of Cuban realities than we had before. One of those who addressed the Conference was Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly of People's Power. He spoke on democracy in Cuba.
First, let me say that we were free to go anywhere and talk to whoever we wished. People critical of the government seemed to have no fear of explaining their views to us. We were also able to talk to rank and file members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), the People's Power (PP) assemblies and the CP in various regions of Havana and two towns outside Havana, Santa Cruz del Norte and Jaruco.
One of the things the CDRs do now is to organize the block to help neighbors in need. For example, if someone is hurt and needs blood, the CDR will organize people to donate blood. In Santa Cruz del Norte, there is a local hospital that has only one old ambulance, which is used to transport more serious cases to the modern hospital in Havana. If the ambulance breaks down, the local hospital can contact the CDRs to find a car that can substitute. Another function of the CDRs is to organize the nominations for the elections to the local PP assemblies. The assemblies are the institutions of government, from the local level up to the national. I visited one of the local PP headquarters in one region of Havana (Havana is divided into regions, each of which elects its own PP assembly). This region was divided in turn into 22 electoral districts, each comprising about foursquare blocks, and including about eight CDRs. Each district elects one representative to the regional PP.
Each CDR calls a meeting of the citizens on its block to discuss and make nominations for the election to the local PP. These are discussed among the CDRs in the district, and eventually the final list of candidates is drawn up. There must be at least two candidates and fewer than eight nominated. The elections are by direct and secret ballot of the citizens in the district. The CP doesn't nominate candidates. Candidates are nominated and elected by their neighbors. Anyone who is over 16 years old can stand.
The style of the elections is quite different from those in the US or Australia, where big money dominates. A short biography of each candidate is posted in public places in the district. This, and discussions among the citizens, are the only "campaigning" done, so the candidates don't have to raise any money to campaign. The PP elects a small body, made up of a president and a vice-president and some other posts, which is paid for working full time as the day-by-day government of the region. Each continues to receive the wages they were getting in their jobs before they were elected, and their jobs are held open for them for when they leave the PP. They are elected for a term of two and a half years.
Another feature of the electoral system is that his or her electors may recall everyone elected at any level of government at any time. This happens fairly often, from what we were told. In one region of Havana, every president was recalled since 1976, except the present one.
In addition to the 22 elected members of the PP I visited, there are nine other members appointed by the mass organizations, one each for the CP, the Federation of Cuban Women, the CDRs, the trade unions and so on. The PP tends to work by consensus. I was able to see how this regional PP works. First of all, it is the local government, concerned about things like improving housing and replacing the water system, which is old and crumbling. It also takes up various social problems. There was an interesting chart on the wall listing all kinds of things the PP was concerned with, including the number of single mothers who need additional help beyond child-care, which the PP finds ways to provide.
Delegates to the municipal PPs or the regions in Havana must report to general assemblies of the citizens of their districts at least twice a year, although they may be convened at any time by the delegate or by the electors.
Cuba is also divided into provinces, and each has its own provincial PP. Nominations for the provincial PPs and for the National Assembly of People's Power, the highest state body, are made by electoral commissions made up of representatives of the Central Council of Trade Unions (which presides over the commission), the CDRs, the Federation of Cuban Women, the National Association of Small Farmers, the Federation of University Students and the Federation of Students in Intermediate Education.
These nominees are then taken back to the municipal PPs for their consideration and approval. The population then elects the delegates to the provisional PPs and the National Assembly in a secret ballot. To be elected, a nominee must receive 50% plus 1 of the votes. Vote counting for elections to all levels of the government is done publicly at the district level with all that want to observing.
Another aspect of Cuban democracy is the full national discussion held on many topics in the PPs and mass organizations.
This system has far more direct democracy and citizen input than the most "democratic" of the capitalist countries. It is also unlike the system that was in effect in the former Soviet Union and the other Stalinist countries. As already noted, the Cuban CP is not an electoral formation, and anyone can be elected to the government whether they are in the CP or not. At the same time, it is clear that the CP wields power through its moral and political authority. Unlike the Soviet and other CPs, the Cuban CP is not a nest of corruption and bureaucracy, something to join to get ahead. Those CPs were "communist" in name only, and had long ago lost their revolutionary outlook.
The Cuban CP came about through the fusion of three groups that supported the revolution. The first was the July 26th Movement, the principle force that overthrew the US puppet dictator in 1959 and led the workers and peasants to take political power. Another was the Student Directorate, which had fought underground against the dictatorship. The third was the old pro-Moscow Popular Socialist Party, which supported the revolution after its triumph.
While the Cuban CP has gone through periods where it acted more Stalinist-like than in other times, it never became the vehicle of a ruling, privileged bureaucracy. For example, to become a member of the CP, his or her fellow workers must approve a candidate by majority vote. These same workers can remove a member from the CP if there is evidence of corruption or other bad behavior.
Today, all people who are vanguard fighters for the socialist revolution, and against its major enemy in Washington, are in the CP. Those described by the US establishment as "human rights fighters" are not people who want to see Cuba's socialist democracy developed and deepened. Rather, they want the revolution and the political power of the workers and farmers overthrown, and the control of US capitalists and their government re-established. In the present situation, any political party formed by such "dissidents" would necessarily be a party of counter-revolution, and be funded and controlled by the US. That would not bring more democracy to Cuba, but more foreign domination by big capital.