By Sandy Marks, June 25, 2018 | The election of Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez as the new President of the Council of Ministers and of the State of Cuba in April, signifying the transition of national leadership to a new generation, captured international attention and sparked new interest in the Cuban electoral process. This interest comes at a time of increasing discontent with mainstream political parties and their candidates in the U.S., leading some to wonder, What does democracy mean in the U.S. and what does democracy mean in Cuba?
In Cuba, democracy means that if you are 16 years old or older, and you are a citizen or resident for the past two years, you can vote. On average, over 90% of voting-age Cubans do vote. That compares with 54.7% of the U.S. voting age population who voted in the 2016 U.S. elections. In the U.S. voters must register in advance, often a month or more, and there is growing controversy over new laws posing greater obstacles to voter registration, especially to minorities and the poor. In Cuba voters are automatically registered and if a voter goes to the polls and finds they are not on the voting list for their district, they can be added immediately in order to vote. In Cuba, voting is voluntary and not required by law.
On March 11 of this year, Cubans elected the 605 members of their national legislature, which is known as the National Assembly of People’s Power, as well as Provincial Assemblies. Women comprise 48% of the National Assembly, the second highest proportion in any legislature in the world. This body of Deputies makes up the highest organ of state power, which represents the people and is the only body with legislative power in Cuba.
From its ranks on April 18, the members of the National Assembly elected a Council of State — an executive committee composed of the President, the First Vice-President, five other Vice-Presidents, a Secretary and 23 other members to handle affairs when the National Assembly is in recess. This means Cuba is a nation of “Participatory Democracy.”
The President of the United States is chosen by the Electoral College, which in 2016, allowed the selection of Donald Trump despite his receiving 2,864,974 fewer votes than his opponent. No significant challenge to the Electoral College process has developed in the U.S. despite consistent survey results across the nation showing 70% of the voting population would prefer to replace the Electoral College with election of the president by direct popular vote. Two presidents within the past 20 years came to office without winning the popular vote.
How does a Cuban become one of the 605 members of the National Assembly of People’s Power? Elections began last fall with 27,221 candidates selected by nominating assemblies in local areas. From these candidates, 168 municipal assemblies were elected, involving 78% of the electorate. These municipal assemblies, assuring representation from all regions of the nation, appoint about half of the candidates for the National Assembly.
The other half of National Assembly candidates are nominated directly by major mass organizations throughout Cuba such as the Federation of Cuban Women (which has about 4,000,000 members out of Cuba’s population of 11,000,000), the Federation of University Students, the National Association of Small Farmers and others.
A candidate must receive at least 50% of the vote to become a delegate to the National Assembly. Candidates in Cuba run on their own merits and their own records of service and experience. This is unlike many nations where most candidates run on a slate put forth by one party or another, chosen by the party. While the Cuban Communist Party is the leading force in the nation, the Party does not nominate, promote nor endorse candidates, and many candidates are not party members.
Candidates air their views at local “meet the candidates” gatherings and other neighborhood public forums. Printed sheets describing each candidate’s background and views are produced and posted in various public venues. The government provides the funding for these activities, making campaign financing a state expense and allowing all to participate, with none having an advantage due to financial means. Campaign financing by social, financial or political organizations is not allowed, nor is defamatory campaigning. This is opposed to the current system in the United States where private money fuels the campaigns and the allegiances, and most of the campaigning is defamatory.
The accessibility of the Cuban process stands in bold relief to the expense of national elections in the U.S. The 2016 U.S. presidential election cost over $2.38 billion. The average seat in the U.S. House of Representatives cost its winner almost $1.7 million in the 2012 elections, according to MSNBC, while the average U.S. Senate seat required its winning candidate to garner $10.5 million in campaign contributions in order to prevail that year – up from an average of $6.5 million per seat just four years earlier. U.S. campaign costs have been rising since, spurred on by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which held that the government may not limit how much money corporations can spend on campaign ads or other political activity denouncing individual candidates.
Increasingly so, elections in the U.S. mean money, lots of it, and it does not end with the announcement of election returns. According to The Atlantic, annual corporate expenditure on lobbying – at least the part they report on – amounts to $1.18 billion in the House of Representatives and $860 million in the Senate, with 95 of the top 100 lobbying organizations by expenditure, representing business.
To Cubans, democracy is a participatory process involving the vast majority of the population from a broad cross section of society in the selection of candidates and their election to democratic bodies throughout their nation – a process of “people’s power” which neither involves nor requires partisan party politics or massive campaign contributions.
To most of the population of the U.S., elections has come to mean a process limited to contention between two political parties which are each increasingly under the sway of, and answerable only to, the financial power of the largest contributors, to the exclusion of the majority of others in society. Disheartened U.S. citizens looking to their own Constitution for remedy to this situation may be surprised to discover the word “democracy” appears nowhere in the document.