Elections Highlight Need for Political Change in Cuba / Dimas Castellanos

Dimas Castellanos, 24 April 2015 — Elections for delegates to the Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power were held in Cuba on April 19. In light of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States, they highlight the pressing need to expand the reforms to the political arena.

For the first time close to one million voters, 11.70% of the electorate, did not go to the polls. If we add to this the 700,000 voters who cast invalid ballots, the number of abstentions climbs to 1.7 million Cubans. That amounts to more than 20% of the electorate.

In 2003 the number of abstentions and invalid ballots totaled 6.09%. It 2008 it was 7.73%. In 2013 it reached 14.22%, almost double the 2003 total. This year it topped 20%. Such sustained growth is a clear indication of change in Cuban voting patterns that the authorities cannot afford to ignore.

The causes are quite obvious. A profound crisis brought on by an unfeasible economic model — exemplified by low salaries, widespread corruption and a mass exodus from the island — has had an adverse impact. Cubans are aware that delegates lack the basic power to effect change. In spite of the risks inherent in a one-party system — one which holds a monopoly on information, and a lack of fundamental freedoms — they have opted to boycott the polls. Or they cross out, nullify, scribble on or turn their ballots in blank. This includes tens of thousands of voters who cast their ballots at the last moment as a form of protest. We also know that for everyone who dares take such actions, there are others who are gradually losing the fear that has paralyzed them. In response to the argument that it is the people who nominate candidates, one might add that is also the people who boycott elections and invalidate ballots.

Rather than clinging to the past or continuing to make changes “slowly but steadily,” the authorities should take a critical look at these numbers and acknowledge the need to expand the reforms to political arena, beginning with a real electoral law that allows citizens to choose from candidates who offer a range of options. It is a matter of fulfilling the promise made on January 8, 1959 when the leader of the revolution announced that there would be elections “in the shortest period of time possible.” This period dragged on for no less than seventeen years, when in July 1976 the first post-revolution election law was enacted. Plagued with shortcomings, it was repealed in 1992 when Law 72, which governs current elections, was enacted.

This law limits direct elections to delegates for municipal assemblies. From here candidates for the provincial and national assemblies as well as the presidents, vice-presidents, secretary and other members of the Council of State are chosen by the various commissions for candidacies (as stipulated in article 67), which are made up of members of so-called mass organizations (article 68), all of whom are members of the only party allowed under the constitution.

According to the law, delegates elected directly by the people cannot exceed 50% of the total number of candidates. The other half are nominated by the commissions for candidacies, which has the power to choose people not elected by direct vote (articles 77 and 86), a violation of popular sovereignty.

In his famous book, The Social Contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that people joining together to protect and defend their property expresses a general will, making the parties a collective political body. The exercise of this will — an expression of power — is referred to as sovereignty and a people which exercises it is sovereign.

If elections are a manifestation of popular sovereignty, then the Cuban electoral system is a denial of that sovereignty, as demonstrated in the recently held elections. What is needed is a new law that will respond to the interests of the Cuban people rather than simply serve as a means to hold onto power.

During the Tenth Plenary Session of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party it was announced that a new electoral law will govern the 2018 general elections. One might infer that it will set term limits for senior governmental posts and establish a maximum age for those occupying such posts. Such changes, however, are not enough. The new law must be enacted through a popular referendum that itself is the result of consensus, abandoning the practice of simply imposing laws without taking into consideration the interests of the people.

The 1.7 million Cubans who reject the electoral system have a right to choose from other options. Some years ago an opposition figure was nominated in the town of Plaza on two consecutive occasions and the only votes he got were his own and that of his wife. Nevertheless, in the last elections a computer technician, Yuniel López de Arroyo Naranjo, and a lawyer and journalist, Hildebrando Chaviano de Plaza, ran as opposition candidates in preliminary elections and won. In the subsequent municipal elections the former obtained 233 votes and the latter 189.

In other words, voters who abstained or voided their ballots now joined with those who openly voted for the opposition, despite the smear campaigns against the candidates.Given that the nation is a community made up of a diversity of people of equal dignity seeking a common good, one must recognize multi-party democracy as an expression of that diversity. It is, therefore, essential that Cubans’ political liberties be restored so they can begin to play an active necessary role in the destiny of Cuba.

Previously published in Diario de Cuba