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IS CUBA DEMOCRATIC?

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The Cuban revolution began with the struggle for democracy against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Being a country whose economy and political life were dominated by US interests, the revolution was also a struggle for democracy in the sense of winning the right of the Cuban nation to act as a sovereign power and shape its own future.

Out of the revolution there arose a number of mass popular organisations which to this day wield considerable influence in Cuban society. These organisations enable all Cubans to participate in decision-making and to ensure their voices are heard when consultations take place with a view to forming government policy. The right to participate and to be heard is enshrined in the Constitution and Cubans have the opportunity to participate in decision making both in their neighbourhoods and their work places. There are also numerous groups representing particular professions or social or cultural interests which play an active part in the consultative process so characteristic of political life in Cuba, such as the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), pensioners’ and ex-combatants’ associations.

Eighty per cent of Cubans over the age of 14 are members of their local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution – a committee composed of members of about 60 households living in a district or area. CDRs are found in every neighbourhood throughout the country. They are responsible for a variety of aspects of the life of the neighbourhood, from civil defence (necessary in a country 90 miles from a world super-power which, since 1959, has not ceased to act in a hostile manner towards it), collecting waste for recycling and social events to voluntary work and discussing proposals of new laws from central government.

All Cuban workers have the right to join a trade union, although membership of a union is voluntary. However ninety eight per cent of the active population belong to one of the 19 trade unions in Cuba. Cuban law permits workers to freely form trade union organisations and does not require such organisations to register with any state agency in order to function or to acquire legality. Unions are self financed from monthly dues, which are paid by members to their local union official, and they receive no subsidies from the state. Elections of union officers at the workplace are open and competitive. Different political views are found within each of the unions.

All workers, whether members of a union or not, have the right to participate in monthly worker assemblies, discussions and in the shaping of their workplace’s collective bargaining agreement. Union members are active in the development and implementation of policy at the work place. They have a role in the development of the business plan and participate in management meetings.

In a broader context, the trades unions and their central organisation, the Cuban Workers’ Central (CTC) are routinely consulted by central government when new laws are being considered. In 1993, during the economic crisis, nearly 3 million workers in every work place, expressed their views in ‘workers’ parliaments.’ Their ideas formed the basis of government policy on taxation, prices and monetary issues. One view expressed was that workers should not have to pay taxes while experiencing severe economic difficulties, although they considered that social security (National Insurance) contributions should continue. This policy was duly adopted by central government.

In 1995 the unions’ expressed their opposition to sections of the Foreign Investment Law. They objected to the direct hiring of Cuban workers by foreign enterprises as they felt that the workers in question could be disadvantaged by practices of foreign management. Instead they advocated the hiring of labour through a state entity – an employment agency – to ensure full employment rights for workers. This became government policy.

During the reorganisation of the sugar industry in 2002, nearly one million workers participated in assemblies to express their views about redundancy arrangements relating to pay (they would continue to receive their usual salary), opportunities for retraining or further study and seeking alternative employment.

One cannot help but compare the formation of government policy in Cuba with the way governments of other third-world countries are compelled to accept policies prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In such cases consultations with public bodies and the unions are virtually non-existent.

Article 44 of the Constitution guarantees equal economic, political, social, cultural and family rights for men and women. Equal opportunities for women have and continue to be promoted by the NGO, the Cuban Women’s Federation (the FMC), which was formed in 1960 and which has 73,710 local branches throughout the country. Eighty five percent of Cuban women over the age of 14 are members of the FMC. The FMC has close links with a number of ministries and it is through this organisation that women have been able to make their voice heard in their struggle for full equal rights and opportunities. In Cuba today, 44.5% of union members, 64% of lawyers, 49% of judges and 47% of Supreme Court judges are women. 27.6% of deputies in the National Assembly are women – the sixth largest percentage in the world. Current objectives include a more intense development of non-sexist education at all levels of society.

In a similar way, Article 42 of the Constitution states that any form of discrimination because of “race, skin colour, sex, national origin, religious belief and any other form of discrimination harmful to human dignity is proscribed and
sentenced by law.” All public bodies and enterprises are required to comply with the requirement to treat all people with equal respect and consideration.

The system for electing representatives to seats in the municipal and provincial assemblies and to the National Assembly (Cuba’s parliament) is based upon universal adult suffrage for all those aged 16 and over. Nobody is excluded from voting, except convicted criminals and people with mental disabilities.
Municipal elections take place every two and a half years and elections to the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly take place every five years.

Electoral candidates are not chosen by small committees of political parties. Indeed, no political party, including the Communist Party, is permitted to nominate or campaign for any given candidates. Instead the candidates are nominated individually by grass-roots organisations and by individual electors. When a person is nominated, no election campaigning is permitted; instead, his or her biography and other personal attributes are posted in public places. The successful candidate is chosen by secret ballot. The Electoral Law of 1992 stipulates that delegates to the municipal and provincial assemblies and the 601 deputies to the National Assembly are all elected by popular suffrage using a secret ballot. The Head of State and the Council of State are elected from among the deputies.

Once elected, a delegate or deputy has to inform electors about his or her work and, as in other countries, can be contacted by people in the constituency.

Unlike the case in other states, which invariably criticize Cuba for being ‘undemocratic’, voter turn-out in Cuba is high. In April 2005, 97.7% of electors came out to vote for their deputies to the municipal assemblies.

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