Direct Democracy? / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Among our leaders there is a practice of submitting for discussion and popular approval certain laws and documents which they consider to be of special importance. The assumption is that, by doing this, they are presenting an example of direct democracy as an expression of popular will, which will grant them greater legitimacy.

In reality this is not the case. Although figures are published indicating approval in the millions, we all know—including the authorities—that real discussion is notable by its absence and that approval is merely a formality, as exemplified by the well-known expression, “Why waste time talking about it if everything has already been decided at the top?” It has been this way for too many years. Laws have also been imposed, from one day to the next, without having been submitted for either discussion or approval by the people. This has led to a lack of civic awareness and citizen responsibility, currently two of our worst ills.

Years ago, when the proposed constitution was being presented, many did not even bother to read it much less analyze and discuss it. It was approved by a majority of the population which, even today, is unaware of its principal provisions, such as those dealing with citizens’ rights and responsibilities. It is really just a formal document—it has not even been reissued—languishing in obscurity and only used by the authorities at propitious moments to further their political interests. When the article that established “eternal socialism” was added, it was hurriedly approved by signature, with tables and lists everywhere, in a few days of hustle and bustle, and was intended to close a breach that had been discovered in the “state monolith.” Many of those who signed did not even think about what they were doing.

In the end, something similar happened with the new Guidelines for the economy. Officially declared “the document most democratically discussed and approved by the majority of the population,” in reality it was formally “analyzed” and “discussed” in situations that had already taken place, and “approved” the way all documents proposed by the authorities are approved—by unanimous consent.

As a result this way to achieving “direct popular approval” does not lead to more democracy nor does it improve what is being proposed. It only increases quantity to the detriment of quality. The constitution of 1940, considered the most important document of the Republic, did not have to be discussed by the entire population nor approved by every Cuban because it attracted the widest citizen participation through responsibly elected “constituent members.” They represented the widest political spectrum of Cuban society at that time and, through real and profound debates, wrote it article by article, balancing the different interests for the good of the nation. This allowed for the creation of a document which, even today, retains its importance and relevance. It might even serve as “temporary constitutional support” in a political transition.

In short, the country has for a very long time had a body — the National Assembly — which, if it concerned itself more with what should be its primary reason for being and met periodically rather than only twice a year, would be responsible for analyzing, discussing, amending and approving or rejecting the laws proposed by the government. To do this it must rely on “elected” deputies who, as officially described, represent their constituents. If this is so, why is it then necessary to go back to consult with them? Various specialists, knowledgeable about the subject in question, could be invited to join the analysis and discussion without excluding anyone for arbitrary political reasons and, through their preparation, could contribute to and enrich the debate. There is no denying that the current deputies do not reflect the current political spectrum of the country, which now has only one color — the government’s. This prevents serious and critical debate.

Unnecessarily prolonging the approval of a proposed law, taking it to the so-called citizen “base,” not only reeks of populism, but also means an unnecessary loss of time. It does not provide the impetus for “updating the model” or the speed demanded by the majority of the population, who are well aware of the speed at which problems are piling up.

October 3 2012