By Tom Crumpacker
Last May our President said in Miami that the purpose of his policy towards Cuba is to bring democracy to the Cuban people. He said he would consider ending the embargo and our other attempts to isolate Cuba if Cubans would hold free and fair elections with multiparty candidates and comply with several other political conditions he requires.
His interest in fair elections and democracy for Cubans is commendable, but if he is also interested in these benefits for Americans, it might be useful for him to compare how the differing political systems functioned in the recent elections. (November 5, 2002, U.S. House of Representatives and January 19, 2003, Cuba National Assembly.)
In both countries, voting is by secret ballot, voluntary, and open to all adult citizens. In U.S. we have two so-called political parties, both funded primarily by increasingly centralized and powerful commercial enterprise. No longer value based, they function primarily as fundraisers and accounting firms for the candidates, who are elected on the basis of their celebrity, incumbency and financial backingwhich allows them access to the mass media (funded by the same business enterprise) conditioned on their thinking and talking within the ever narrowing mainstream. The formation of alternative, value-based parties is prevented by excluding them from the mass media and public debates.
For Cubans the last century was a long struggle for nationhood and national dignity. They had extensive experience with the multiparty system under U.S. tutelage in the first part of the century, when they were a virtual U.S. plantation (by the 1950s over 75 percent of Cuban economic production property was owned or controlled by U.S. commercial interests). They have learned from bitter experience that their continued liberation depends entirely on their national unity, whereas political division makes them vulnerable to manipulation and economic domination by U.S. businesses and their former rulers who now live in the U.S. as part of the Cuban-American community.
They have therefore forged a non-partisan political system which preserves their sovereignty and independence with institutions which seek to achieve democracy by participatory consensus rather than class warfare. Electoral parties in our sense are not involved in Cuban politics. The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) is not involved in elections, rather its an organization of activists (about 15 percent of adults are members) which has the constitutional mandate to promote social consciousness and the long-term revolutionary goals for the whole nation.
The Cuban constitution was approved in 1976 by 97 percent of voters out of more than 90 percent eligible, amended significantly in 1992 by more than two-thirds of an elected National Assembly as required, and made irrevocable by a vote of eight million eligible (more than four-fifths of the adult population) in June, 2002.
The U.S. House is supposedly our democratic legislative body with elections every two yearsoriginally intended to ensure that our 435 representatives (career politicians) would be responsive to the people who elect them. Their public media-driven campaigns of self-promotion have become incredibly expensive and lengthy, if not continuous. Because the primary factors involved in their decision-making are personalobtaining and retaining their offices (their careers bring them power and wealth)the American people have discovered that they are in reality representing the powerful private interests which fund them rather than their constituents, and that voting for major party candidates does not remedy the situation.
In last Novembers U.S. House elections, over 90 percent of the seats were uncontested or not seriously contested and overall about 39 percent of those eligible voted, producing another landslide for incumbents. The so-called parties had in the state legislatures in previous years gerrymandered the U.S. congressional districts to make most of the seats virtual lifetime appointments, thereby promoting responsiveness to private rather than public interests.
Our members of Congress have become experts in obtaining and retaining their seats by avoiding clear-cut votes on fundamental or controversial issues and disguising their real positions regarding these matters. As a result these issues never get finally decided and we dont move on. For example instead of declarations of war (for which we could hold them accountable) we get vague resolutions. What and when questions are brought up for voting or decision, and how these are framed, are matters determined by a very few powerful men called party leaders.
We keep getting the same issues reargued year after year with no final decision, like income tax change, campaign finance, abortion rights, gun control, social security, Medicare coverage for medicine, Cuba embargo, etc., and we often find that members have voted neither way or both ways on various aspects of these complex matters so that we cant determine where they really stand. Our Congress has become essentially unresponsive and dysfunctional, which serves only the interests of the businesses which fund it.
The Cuban National Assembly, which deals with legislative and constitutional matters, has 601 members who serve for five years. Up to 50 percent are chosen from previously elected municipal delegates (elected locally for two-year terms) and the rest are chosen by national candidate commissions from which PCC is excluded. It is a process which takes many months and involves consultations with and groups representing millions of people, such as the trade unions, the womens federation, the small farmers unions, the student federations, the teachers and professional, health care and other mass organizations. The idea is to obtain a slate of national representatives who are a mirror of the nation. All seats in the Assembly must be contested (usually there are several candidates) and to be elected a candidate must receive at least 50 percent of the vote.
There is no campaigning in Cuba, the candidates do not promote themselves and money is not a factor in elections. Their biographies, including photos, education, work experience and other matters are posted conspicuously throughout their permanent, unchanging residential districts for months before the elections and details are supplied by the election commissions. They usually serve only one term, most of them have previously been elected by constituents who know them personally or by reputation as to truly represent the people and their common interest. They are not career politiciansthey have other jobs, they must have frequent meetings with constituents (called accountability sessions) and they are subject to recall at all times. Where expert information is necessary, it is supplied by special commission and proposed legislation (such as the recent imposition of an income tax) is voted on, up or down, in order of presentation. The peoples representatives make all the legislative decisions, and once the decisions are made, they move on to new matters.
In the elections held January 19, 2003 over 93 percent of eligible Cubans voted, electing a National Assembly which truly and accountably represents their common interest.
CounterPunch, January 20, 2003