Cuba, Democracy, and the Multiparty Political System
Issue #70, October 2004
"If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all."
— Thomas Jefferson, 1789
In May 2002 and again in October 2003, President Bush said he would consider ending the embargo of Cuba if the Cuban government would move toward democracy by conducting multiparty elections, among other political conditions he requires. Eight previous US presidents had said essentially the same thing. He obviously means United States type "democracy," which is our mass media code word for unlimited, unregulated capitalism. His administration is presently seeking to impose US style democracies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti, and is beginning a campaign aimed at countries in the Third World toward implanting multiparty systems. This campaign evidently envisions possible military intervention to achieve its goal, since it said in April 2003 that the war in Iraq should be an example to Cuba.
The US destabilization campaign in Cuba did not begin recently. During the past two years the US Agency for International Development funnelled more than fifty million dollars through so-called "nongovernmental" organizations mostly based in South Florida to promote a "transition to democracy" in Cuba. With this and untold sums through NED, CIA, Republican and Democratic Party Institutes and other agencies and organizations, our president has been trying to overthrow the Cuban people's government, in a manner similar to what the Nixon administration achieved in Chile in the early 1970s and the many other regime changes accomplished by US in Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World during the past 50 years.
US Political System
We call our present political system "interest based politics." If a person wants to help bring about change as an activist, he must work through an interest group on a specific issue predetermined by the system, such as gun control, abortion rights, health care, environment, to name a few. He can also provide his vote, money and support to broadly based communities based on business, worker, or other professional status, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, ethnicity or national origin. Our laws long ago denoted our preferred business enterprise form as the "corporation," which is a legal device to encourage accumulation of capital without personal responsibility. Initially it was conceived of as a public institution, but it became private. Our courts then defined these devices "persons," which fiction allows those who control them to compete indirectly with real persons in seeking to influence political decisions.
The purpose of a political system is to permit an appropriate degree of social change within an appropriate degree of stability. One outcome of choosing special interest over value based politics is that progressive change in and within the system becomes impossible. People's values are ignored while their special interest or status becomes the focal point. Another significant outcome is the disconnection (absence of accountability) between constituents and their so-called representatives. In this situation participation in elections becomes of questionable value. Structural political development slows and eventually halts while economic development becomes more rapid, benefiting the few at the expense of the many.
We seek to justify our political system by calling it "pluralist." In this type of system, where advertising in the mass media is crucial, capital accumulation helps produce political power, and political power helps produce capital formation, benefiting those who control economic production. The people's role diminishes and eventually disappears. Issue and interest groups and status communities compete against each other for limited public funds and beneficial governmental treatment such as tax breaks or affirmative action or other "equal rights." The outcome depends to a great deal on who funds the political campaigns and the mass media. Meanwhile the continuous competition between interest-status groups emphasizes our differences and produces a politics of dissension rather than community.
Our government was originally structured so that it would not interfere with our private pursuits. This turned our nation away from collective action toward a culture of individualism, where pursuit of self interest by individuals is thought to maximize the common good. Other than extending the vote to the property-less, racial minorities and women, the main change which has occurred in our two centuries as a republic-empire has been the centralization of the public funding and political power at the national level, a product of the economies of big business and the needs of capital, especially as regards the expansion of our commercial interests abroad. Contrary to the original concept of federalism, the important societal decisions which affect our lives are now made on Wall Street and in Washington D.C., not coincidentally the places where terrorists struck on September 11, 2001.
In international matters, most of our national representatives apparently believe that appealing to our baser instincts, such as fear, hatred and an irrational "us vs. them" attitude, keeps them in office. In the 42 years since President Eisenhower warned that the greatest danger we face is our own military-industrial complex, they have funded with our tax dollars the greatest military-industrial-intelligence-weaponry-war-coercion apparatus ever known to man, which is used to help our businesses make profits in foreign countries even where it involves exploiting people and their resources, empowering oppressors, changing regimes and destroying international efforts at peacekeeping and development. Their narrow "our nation only" perspective benefits their sponsors and ignores the obvious facts that it's not in our interest to have our family members stationed, injured and killed in faraway places, or to be attacked by suicidal terrorists at home, or to give up our privacy and liberties for security, and that we have a common interest as members of our world community which they are destroying.
The reality is that our Congress has ceded its legislative responsibilities to the executive, whose primary constitutional function was to enforce the laws, not enact them. With the two so-called parties being approximately equal in electoral power, and with no alternative value parties posing the threat of change, the executive veto has not been used in recent years because it is superfluous. Nothing outside the mainstream is debated in Congress and nothing significant becomes law unless proposed or desired by the executive. Our Congress has become in essence some kind of advisory board, whose occasional suggestions are considered by, but do not bind, an imperial presidency. The important national decisions like the Iraq war are made in private by our power elite (business-corporate, military and political), who then use the media and the president and congresspersons — selected rather than elected — to obtain public acquiescence.
The liberal multiparty system, which poses as democracy but in fact is a system of oligarchy and empire, is sometimes referred to as the "end of history" for political development. This is clearly true for the US national version, where structural political progress has become impossible. The culture of individualism has separated us from each other, binding us together not by our values but by enmeshing us in a net of commercial relations. Our mass consumer society has become an overpowering depoliticizing force.
Idea of the Vanguard Party
Political systems develop differently in different nations, depending on factors such as history, size, population, culture, geography, natural resources, wealth, class, power, foreign domination, liberation and popular choice. There's no reason to suppose that a system developed in a huge, expanding, commercial empire is appropriate for a small, adjacent island nation seeking to enter the world market while retaining its autonomy. Nor is there reason to believe that definitions of rights in one nation are valid for another.
For Cubans, the last century was a long struggle for independence and national dignity. They experienced the multiparty system under US tutelage during the first part of the century, when Cuba was a virtual US plantation -- by the 1950s over 75% of the economic production property was owned or otherwise controlled by US businesses and the majority of Cubans were very poor, illiterate, and had no access to education, healthcare or other benefits of civilization. They have learned from bitter experience that their autonomy and welfare depend entirely on their national unity, whereas political division makes them vulnerable to manipulation and economic domination by US businesses and their former rulers who now live in US as part of its Cuban-American community. They have therefore forged a political system that preserves their sovereignty and independence, with institutions that seek real democracy by participatory consensus rather than class domination.
José Marti, father of Cuba's independence movement, lived in New York City and Tampa for several years in the late 19th century so that he could learn about the US version of democracy. Seeing and understanding the inherent tendency of the two party system toward empire and oligarchy, he argued that Cuba's hope for self-determination required one unified party to withstand economic domination from the "giant in seven league boots." The political institutions Cubans have developed over the last 44 years derive from Marti's thought and what has worked for them in pursuing their long delayed nation-building project.
Social movements originally arise from people with similar values who group together for power. They grow and acquire political power when they build alliances with other groups by linking their members' interests to broader, more universal values. Following the 1956 insurrection, the 26th of July movement first allied with peasants in the Sierra Maestra, then with small farmers and other groups in eastern and central Cuba, then with the unions (Partido Comunista de Cuba), then the working class, then urban leagues, students and teachers' federations, professional and other groups. In the 1960s through 1980s there was a diminishment of the previous class structure of Cuban society and growing of equality among people. While most of the ownership class stayed to participate in the revolution as equals, many left to live in capitalist countries. As the revolution became institutionalized it was under universal values of equality, social justice, socialist democracy and national autonomy, which were becoming the goals of the new nation. Cubans call this process cubania (which can be translated as "Cuban-ness"), which started in the late 19th century.
The Cuban idea of party (which still uses the old name PCC adopted in the 1963 formal alliance) has lost its shallow meaning as an electorally competing vehicle for special interests and status groups, acquiring instead a deeper meaning in which the values are moral as well as material, are realized collectively as well as individually, and progressive development (human as well as economic) is seen as depending on the extent of individual commitment to the societal goals established democratically.
Electoral parties are not involved in Cuban politics. PCC, whose decisions are debated and made openly and democratically by delegates chosen democratically, does not participate directly in the election of public officials. It's not similar or analogous to our idea of party, which is electoral. Rather, it's a broad, value based social movement, which frequently (and at least every five years) conducts national discussions and debates about goals, directions and changes in political and economic institutions. The Cuban revolution led by PCC derives its authority from the Cuban Constitution, which was and is established by the Cuban people democratically. PCC is an organization of activists (about 15% of Cuban adults are members) which has the constitutional mandate to organize and orient the revolution, promote social consciousness, and bring about in practice the long-term socialist and democratic goals of the whole nation as established in the constitution. This constitution was developed locally in the early 1970s, approved in 1976 by more than 95 per cent of eligible voters, amended significantly in 1992 by more than two-thirds of an elected National Assembly as required, and made irrevocable by a vote of more than eight million (more than 90 per cent of the adult population) in June 2002.
Although collective action by representation implies otherwise, increasing work specialization world-wide has resulted in a situation where only a small percentage of the people in each nation spend a substantial amount of their time and effort on political matters. Most people, say around 90 per cent, are willing to let the "experts" (career politicians and their handlers and sponsors) make the societal decisions for them. Most of the involved ten per cent or so are also doing it for career or compensation reasons. In US such activists work through special interest or status groups and associate electorally with the two-pronged "Republocrat" Party. Cubans do not believe that progress toward true democracy can be made in such manner. In the 1992 overhaul of the Cuban Constitution, the PCC became the movement-vanguard party of the whole nation rather than a working class party. Cuban activists work through the PCC.
The Cuban Constitution conceives of the vanguard party as made up of those political activists who have sufficient commitment — Cubans call it conciencia — to the goals of their revolution to devote substantial time and effort to the task of constructing true socialism and democracy. These two concepts are thought of as being essentially the same, in the sense that one cannot exist without the other. Socialism as the collective ownership-control of large scale production can be looked at as a condition of true democracy, and democracy as the process where people have real participation can be looked at as a condition of true socialism. This type of the two sided political-economy coin, viewable from two perspectives, is called socialist democracy. Their hope and vision for their future is that most adults will eventually become party members, having or acquiring the conciencia to devote themselves to the cause and make the personal sacrifices required. At that time the nation will be approaching its constitutionally envisioned goal of a socialist democracy.
The authority of the Cuban revolution, government, is looked on as the place where problems are solved, not something to be feared or limited. The public interest is conceived broadly, and the "private-public" distinction is blurred compared to nations which promote private interests rather than the common good. Those who don't want to participate in the revolution don't have to, are not penalized in any way, and are free to leave. But under present circumstances, the Cuban revolution, in order to continue, must be defended from outside interference in the form of isolation, economic war, terrorist attacks and possible military invasion. Hence their concept "Within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing." Party members at party meetings express themselves freely, so long as their ideas are within or promote the revolutionary goals. All Cubans can and do express themselves with complete freedom within or without the goals of the revolution. But using foreign money or other foreign help to destroy the revolution is proscribed. When the majority of citizens are making personal sacrifice to try to articulate the expressed collective will, they sometimes do not look kindly on the few who seek to undo their work, which unfortunately is often mistaken by foreigners as governmental intrusion on personal rights.
Since the "rectification" period of the 1980s, the Cuban political system has been developing towards decentralization of power, encouraging more participation — called "people power." The jurisdiction of local OPP's (Organs of People's Power) is much broader than our local councils. They deal with issues such as planning, budgets, construction, housing, health, education, environment, elections, social services, economic enterprise, and almost all matters of public concern except national defence. Because of their broad authority they have substantial participation, not only by local PCC's and other organizations but also individual advocacy. At all levels, the "nongovernmental" organizations, many of which are encouraged by the government, are significant participants in decision-making. All local and provincial elections must be contested, usually there are several candidates.
The Cuban National Assembly deals with legislative and constitutional matters, has 609 members who serve for five years. Up to 50 per cent are chosen from previously elected provincial and municipal delegates (elected locally for 2½ year terms) and the rest are chosen by national candidate commissions (from which PCC is excluded) in a process which takes many months and involves consultations with the major organizations representing millions of people, such as the trade unions, the women's federation, the small farmers unions, the student and teacher federations, and professional, health care and other associations. The idea is to obtain a slate of national representatives who are a "mirror of the nation." To be elected, a candidate must receive at least 50 per cent of the vote.
There is no campaigning in Cuba, the candidates do not promote themselves and money is not a factor their election or decision making. 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 on request by the election commissions. They usually serve only one term, and most of them have previously been elected by constituents who know them personally or by reputation as to truly represent the common interest. They are not career politicians, 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 or workers' parliaments rather than lobbyists, and proposed legislation (such as the recent imposition of an income tax on some) is voted on, up or down, in order of presentation. The peoples' representatives make the decisions, and once made, they move on to new decisions. In the elections held January 2003 over 93 per cent of eligible Cubans voted valid ballots, electing a National Assembly which truly represents their common interest, without the intervention of electoral parties.
In the Cuban view, freedom is the participation in power by the people rather than people trying to carve out limits on the exercise of power by oligarchs. This may seem strange to those of us who live in a large, segregated, class-structured, multi-cultural commercial empire operating by competition and conflict. But it makes sense in a small nation which can function by cooperation and consensus because of relative integration and equality among people and a strong sense of community based on good education of all and public control of mass media. Rather than the end of history, such approach might point political thinking in a new direction, toward the idea of selective decentralization of economic and political units into smaller, more cohesive communities where real representative democracy could function. This, after all, is what was intended by those who originally structured our government.
Democracy as the possibility of the people making collective decisions for their common good is something that cannot be taught or imposed from the outside. The enormous popularity of the Cuban revolution in the face of outside interference and economic isolation suggests that the vanguard movement with a non-partisan people power electoral system may be the best way to ensure that economic development in the Third World will benefit all the people more or less equally, rather than exacerbating class, power and other social differences. It promotes social justice, national cohesion and local cooperation rather than class stratification and dissension.
Small island nations do not exist in a vacuum, rather they depend economically on what happens elsewhere. Where poverty, health, housing, illiteracy, class and outside interference are the major problems, pursuit of only self interest minimizes rather than maximizes the common good, especially where foreign owned enterprises acquire not only the major benefit of economic production but also control over the domestic politics. In such situation, collectivism over individualism can sometimes be the intelligent choice for the people, so long as it involves true participation or representation. In a society such as Cuba's where the large scale economic production property is part of the common wealth (not just state-owned but more and more in medium and small cooperatives) the people naturally become more involved and concerned with their common interest because it, rather than individual accumulation, is what serves their self interest.
Overall, the dependent, neo-liberal capitalist road to development has not been a resounding success for most people in the Third World (also for many in the so-called "developed" nations). In the 40 years since the Alliance for Progress, many Latin Americans have been wondering when the progress will come. In Cuba the people are making their own progress, and will continue to if allowed to without outside interference.
The multiparty political system can destroy real democracy in the name of pluralism. Where electoral parties are not based on differing fundamental values, they unnecessarily interfere in the direct relationship between the constituent and his supposed representative. They are conducive to class and special interest manipulation (especially with money) and therefore both cause and result from commercial oligarchy. Cubans learned this in the first part of the 20th century. They are not again going to submit voluntarily to outside commercial exploitation. Our impoverished political institutions are not what they need or desire.
Tom Crumpacker is a retired lawyer, political activist, and essay writer living in Austin and Havana. He practiced law in Colorado for 35 years, mostly trials and appeals, and worked on several US political campaigns. He has a BA from Yale, an LL.B from Michigan, and an MA in Latin American Studies from Georgetown.