Díaz-Canel’s discourse before the General Assembly of the United Nations was not necessarily the appropriate place to for it, but the Cuban Revolution should give much more emphasis to explaining its alternative structures of popular democracy. About ten years ago, I asked Jorge Lezcano, then administrative assistant to the President of the National Assembly of Popular Power and author of a book and several pamphlets on the Cuban system of popular democracy, why there was not more emphasis in Cuba on explaining the Cuban political system, as he himself was doing in his book and pamphlets. He responded that it was because of sensitivity to the charge of exporting the Revolution; Cuba did not want to appear to be trying to disseminate its particular political system. The Cuban approach is: you have your system, we have ours; we should accept this difference and treat each other with mutual respect.
However, what I have in mind here is not trying to persuade others to adopt the Cuban system. Rather, I am proposing a fuller explanation of what the Cuban political system is, in response to the distortions and misinformation that proliferate. If the world were to understand the Cuban political system, it would recognize its essentially democratic character, and it would be able to discern that Cuba is a threat only in the sense that its example is so powerful and compelling that it might inspire others to follow it in some form. But Cuba should hardly be sanctioned for that.
I have observed a tendency when Cubans converse with persons of other nations. The international visitor, not well informed about Cuban reality and influenced by the distortions that abound in the world, raises questions or makes declarations to the effect that Cuba violates human rights. Often times, Cubans respond by referring to its excellent health and educational systems, and by directly or indirectly making the case that Cuba has a comprehensive and ample view of human rights, such that its approach includes the social and economic rights. Thus, the Cuban argument runs, Cuba has a strong record in the protection of human rights, which can be seen when the issue of human rights is amply and fully understood.
This response is entirely true, but it is ineffective in persuading. The reason is that for the international visitor, human rights may or may not include social and economic rights. For the most part, when folks from the countries of the North are inquiring about human rights, they are talking about political and civil rights, such as the right to vote, to freedom of expression, to freedom of association, and to freedom of the press. Influenced by the distortions, they often believe that Cuba systematically violates these rights. When international visitors raise this question, and Cubans begin talking about the excellent health system, visitors tend to think that Cubans are changing the subject, which appears to be an implicit recognition that Cuba does indeed violate political and civil rights. When Obama was in Cuba, he reacted to Cubans talking about the health system in response to questions concerning human rights, observing, “I have great respect and admiration for the Cuban health system. But strength in one area does not compensate for shortcomings in another.”
The defenders of Cuba should be constantly explaining the Cuban system of popular democracy. They should repeatedly affirm that political power in Cuba is not concentrated in the executive branch, but in the National Assembly of Popular Power. The concentrated power of the National Assembly, established by the Cuban Constitution of 1976, is evident in the constitutional and legal authority that it possesses. It elects the President and the other members of Council of State and Ministers, which is the executive branch. In addition, it enacts laws; it names highest members of the judicial branch; and it has the authority to revise the Constitution. In concentrating power in the legislative branch, the Cuban Constitution of 1976 is like the constitutions of the thirteen colonies of 1776. Those constitutions, reformed or written during the popular revolution of 1774-1775, concentrated power in the legislatures, which were elected in voting districts not extensive in size.
The Cuban concentration of power in the legislature, however, is unlike the system instituted by the U.S. Constitution of 1789, which established a balance of powers among the branches of government. The U.S. principle of balance of powers reflected the interests of the 1780s counterrevolution forged by the American educated and landholding elite, which was reacting to the popular revolution of the 1770s. The structure of a balance of powers makes difficult any effective and decisive action that reflects the political will of the majority, which indeed was the intention of Madison, Hamilton, and other leaders of the Federalist Party (see blog posts in the category American Revolution).
In Cuba, therefore, power is concentrated in the National Assembly, including the authority to elect the President of the Council of State to a five-year term. But who are the deputies that form the National Assembly? They are elected by the delegates of the 169 municipal assemblies, on the basis of recommendations made to them by candidacy commissions in each of the 169 municipalities. These commissions are constituted by representatives of the mass organizations of workers, peasants, students, and women in each municipality.
So our question now becomes, how are the members of the 169 municipal assemblies elected? Again, parallels with the smallness and locality of the American colonies of 1774 and 1775 are striking. The delegates of the 169 municipal assemblies in Cuba are elected by the people, in voting districts of 1000 to 1500 voters, in elections with two or three candidates, all of whom are nominated by the people in a series of popular nomination assemblies. No political parties nominate candidates. The candidates do not conduct political campaigns, and thus there is no campaign financing. In cycles of two and one-half years for municipal elections and five years for elections to the National Assembly, Cuban voter participation since 1976 in the various stages of the process has ranged from 85% to 95%.
So here we have the essential structures of the Cuban political system. The deputies of the National Assembly have full authority to elect and remove the members of the executive branch, to make and repeal laws, to name and dismiss court justices, and to amend the Constitution. They have been sent to such a position of concentrated political power by the elected delegates of the people, who themselves became municipal delegates without the financial support of wealthy donors or associations that represent elite interests. Both delegates and deputies arrive to political power without a financial, political, or moral debt or obligation to anyone, other than the people.
The Cuban political system was forged by the Revolution in the period of 1959 to 1976, with full consciousness of the limitations of representative democracy, which were clearly in evidence during the neocolonial republic of 1902 to 1958. During that neocolonial period, politicians promised to defend the people, but when they arrived to power, they represented the economic and political interests of the national elite as well as those of the United States, while pretending to defend the interests of the people and the nation. With consciousness of the limitations of this structure, Cubans during the 1960s and 1970s forged a political structure that places political power is in the hands of delegates and deputies of the people, freely elected by the people in local nomination assemblies and voting districts, without the distorting influence of campaign promises and campaign financing.
Therefore, the defenders of Cuba, when presenting arguments against the U.S. blockade of Cuba, have no reason to avoid talking about the Cuban political system. Once we understand the basic structures of the Cuban political system, we can see that a reasonable case could be made that Cuba has developed an advanced system of democracy that is more democratic than the structures of representative democracy. Apart from what position one might take in such a debate in political philosophy, the imposition of a blockade on Cuba, on the grounds that it does not have a democratic political system, can be seen to be lacking in any reasonable justification. We may or may not agree with the structures of the Cuban political system, but it cannot be reasonably denied that Cuba has developed a form of democracy. In criticizing the U.S. blockade of Cuba, explanation of the basic structures of the Cuban political system ought to be integral to the critique.
Moreover, in a historic movement in which the world-system is confronting a crisis of political delegitimation, the example of Cuba’s political system ought to stimulate international dialogue on the characteristics of democratic political structures. The Cuban system is the result of a number of particular historical, political, economic, and cultural factors, and its features cannot be replicated unreflectively elsewhere. However, it has many insights to teach the world concerning the development of processes of popular participation and of structures that put power in the hands of delegates of the people. Cuba has the duty to engage in dialogue with the peoples of the earth concerning the meaning of democracy, drawing upon its concept of democracy forged through its revolution, which does not constitute the same thing as “exporting the revolution.”