Iván García, 27 February 2019 — Ten minutes before 7:00 am on Sunday, February 24, the president of Electoral College Number 3 of District 68 hurried his meager breakfast of bread with mortadella and a cup of a beverage that was brewed from a mixture of coffee and ground peas.
He already had the ballots in order and the pencils were ready for the voters in the four cubicles. On the walls of the premises, located in a garage, were photos of Fidel Castro and several posters in favor of a Yes vote on the revised constitution.
Two “pioneers” — Cuban schoolchildren — commented on the Barcelona-Sevilla soccer game the day before when the president asked them to stand on either side of the small plastic urn of Prussian blue.
In the first hour of voting turnout was very light. Some retirees who, early in the morning, go out to buy the bread granted by the rationing book, took advantage and voted expeditiously.
“It’s that people like to sleep in, in the morning,” said a woman seated at the school table. The procedure was fast. They wrote down your identity card number, compared your data with the voter registration and then gave you a ballot.
The deficiencies in three of the four voting places visited were palpable. At the number two school in constituency 68 of the Lawton-Vista Alegre people’s council, the day before the vote, voters’ lists had not yet been posted. In three of them, instead of pens, they had put pencils, making it very easy to manipulate the vote.
In all the polls, propaganda in favor of a Yes vote was blatantly on display. The number one electoral college in District 68, where I had to vote, they did not even knock on my door to give me the summons used to call people to vote. They threw mine and my neighbor’s under the door. My name did not appear on the rolls, nor did that of my wife and daughter, eligible to vote. Where the voter’s name was supposed to be placed, they showed an address and an apartment number.
That Sunday, Daniel and his brother took out a bottle of rum and started drinking while playing dominoes with two friends from the neighborhood and listening to reggaeton. “A neighbor who worked at the polling station went through the corridor where we live and jokingly told us, ’when are you going to vote, then get drunk and forget them?’ You know, nobody wants to be marked [for not showing up]. We made a stop and went to vote.”
The domino players say they voted Yes. Do they agree with the text of the new Constitution? Daniel responds: “I have not read it. Everything is pure procedure. If you vote No, they win. If you vote yes, it’s the same.”
It may be true. But automatically a segment of Cubans continues to act like zombies. Luisa, a clerk in a state cafeteria, says she does not approve of the government’s management and is able to overwhelm you for a couple of hours with complaints about market shortages and deficiencies in public services.
But when she votes, she always checks the box that favors the regime. Why? “Hey, the dissidents do not give me a means to vote NO. If I am fired from my job the Embassy of the United States will not grant me asylum as a political refugee. This is the country that I have to live in. And if you do not look like you support the government, you are looking for a problem,” Luisa explains.
Fear always knocks on the door before civic citizenship. The reasons are understood. We Cubans reside in a nation of command and order. The good and bad that can happen to you in life depends to a great degree on your support for the autocracy. Sixty years later, that behavior works as a conditioned reflex.
In spite of everything, the fear has been overcome. In the referendum to approve the 1976 Constitution, 97.7% of Cubans ratified that legal document and attendance was 98%. Forty years later, in the imitation of elections to choose the deputies to the National Assembly, held in 2018, between 23 and 24% of citizens abstained, left the ballots blank or annulled them with rude words and slogans of “Down with Fidel.”
According to reports from observers and alternative media, in the majority of the polls visited, the number of abstentions exceeded the NO vote, while the Yes won comfortably.
Carlos, a sociologist, affirms that “in every election, votes against government proposals increase, but for various reasons, including fear, people feel more comfortable staying at home than going to vote and having to voteno or leave the ballot blank. Abstention can be justified in innumerable ways. I’m sick, I had a family problem, or a lie. But still many Cubans think that in the polling stations there are video cameras and voting NO or putting anti-government slogans can bring you problems.”
Although the ballot boxes are watched over by the young pioneers, in the vicinity of the polling stations the presence of State Security agents dressed in civilian clothes is visible. “Operations are mounted in all elections, with the participation of the police, DTI and Security. In areas where known dissidents live, surveillance is greater. If they are going to audit the vote count they are alert in case of any provocation,” says a former intelligence officer.
These operatives Olympianly transgress their own legal norms implemented by the regime. Dozens of opponents, such as José Díaz Silva, were assaulted or prevented from voting. Yoani Sánchez, director of 14ymedio, chronicled the tension she experienced in an electoral college when she demanded her rights. In the end, at the cry of Viva la Revolución, he had to endure the usual act of repudiation.
This fear of what can happen when acting voluntarily or against the interests of the government is always present among Cubans. That is why people prefer to see things from the stands or record from a distance with their mobile phones the protests and beatings of the political police to peaceful opponents.
In this referendum the victory was pre-ordained in favor of the Yes. After three o’clock in the afternoon of Monday, February 25, Alina Balseiro, president of the National Electoral Commission, appeared in a press conference informing that the new Constitution of the Republic of Cuba it was approved with 86.85% of the votes cast, according to preliminary data. Of the 9,298,277 citizens with the right to suffrage, 7,848,343 (84.4%) went to the polls to answer the question Do you ratify the new Constitution of the Republic?
Accepted as valid were 7,522,569 votes were, of which 6,816,169 voters voted Yes (86.85%) and 706,400 voted No (9.0%). 127,100 ballots were canceled and 198,674 were left blank.
In an article published in, the independent journalist Reinaldo Escobar commented: “The preliminary results of the referendum on the new Constitution confirm what was expected: that the new Constitution was going to be approved by the majority and that the process was going to make clear the increase in citizen dissent by putting a number to that group that rejects the administration of the authorities.
“More than two and a half million voters all over the country have distanced themselves from the new Constitution, between No, null, and blank votes, in addition to abstentions. Many have thus found themselves on the path to distancing themselves from the ruling political and economic system on the island.”
In Cuba, without international observers, reliable automatic voting machines, indelible ink, not to mention the excessive propaganda in favor of the regime, even inside the polling places, the official data usually awakens distrust among the opponents, independent journalists, exiles and analysts who follow Cuba.
Fear, for now, remains an involuntary ally of the olive-green autocracy.