Democracy, Cuban-Style. (Storm over Cuba)
Wald, Karen, Canadian Dimension
Many jokes made the rounds in Cuba during Pope John Paul II's historic visit to that country, but perhaps none more to the point than this one:
Fidel Castro and the Pope were walking along Havana's famous seaside drive, the Malecon, when a gust of wind blew the Pope's mitre off his head and into the water. Fidel immediately leaped over the wall and into the water -- where, to everyone's amazement, he found himself walking on top of the waves. Taking this in stride, Fidel glided across the water, picked up the mitre, climbed back out, and handed the headpiece back to the Pope. And they continued on their stroll. The next day, prominent headlines on the Cuban daily newspaper Granma proclaimed: "Fidel Performs Revolutionary Feat; Walks on Water to Retrieve Pope's Mitre!" The Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano considered this an equally big event, but its version said: "Pope Performs Miracle; Enables Fidel to Walk on Water!" The Miami papers, of course, had their own spin. Their headlines blared: "Proven Beyond Doubt -- Fidel Cannot Swim!"
The Media Cover Cuba
Media coverage of Cuba in the United States, and in many other countries (depending, often, on their political and trade relations with Cuba and relative dependence on or independence of the U.S.) usually contains at least a grain of truth. However, what grows out of that seed, how it's interpreted, or twisted, often results in reporting that bears very little resemblance to what goes on in that country. Unfortunately the spin most U.S. and like-minded media put on their Cuba reporting cannot be viewed as lightly as the Pope joke. By omission and commission, intentional and unintentional, out of directives from editors, publishers and producers, or out of unconscious biases on the parts of the journalists themselves, sometimes due merely to ignorance, what gets reported about Cuba abroad is often far from accurate, misleading and, in the worst cases, intentionally false.
As a result of Washington's constant insistence, one of the "must" stories for foreign journalists reporting on Cuba is "human rights." They are not referring to the basic, elementary rights to food, housing, clothing, health care, education, jobs and culture -- the so-called "social and economic rights" embodied in articles 22 through 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the outstanding features of the Cuban Revolution is its efforts to guarantee these rights, in large measure successfully up until the demise of its Eastern European trading partnerships. In fact, even today Cubans are the envy of most of the developing world -- and considerable pockets of the industrialized world -- for the extent to which they still enjoy the benefit of a government that considers food, education and health care to be essential human rights.
Human Rights in Cuba
But most of the U.S. media and its imitators in other countries are not thinking about these social and economic rights when discussing "human rights." They exclude these, and focus instead upon the individual civil and political liberties (and these as strictly delineated by U.S. definitions).
Rights are not absolute in any society. In the United States there are classic Supreme Court decisions and statements by jurists to remind us of this. "Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose," and "Freedom of speech does not give you the right to yell 'fire!' in a crowded theatre," are two of the more famous expressions of such accepted limits. Several times in the last two decades, the Supreme Court ruled that the health rights of a child must supercede the religious beliefs of its parents. In other words, most agree that society has the right to place limitations upon individual rights when these come into conflict with the rights of others or the rights of society as a whole.
All governments place such limitations -- the difference is primarily which values each considers most important to protect. The U.S. government tends to favour the individual (at least in theory) and private property; it places civil and political liberties like those in the Bill of Rights above all other rights. Cuba tends to favour the collectivity and to consider social and economic values -- not even considered "rights" in the U.S. -- to be of the highest priority.
There is also a serious debate in the world as to what constitutes a "political prisoner." What some label "prisoners of conscience" others call "counter-revolutionary prisoners." The U.S. media often state that many men and women in prison in Cuba are "dissidents," that they are simply people who "oppose the official line." But those journalists omit an important question: What is the official line? In Cuba, the "official line" is that food, health care, housing, education, employment and culture are fundamental human rights to be protected at all costs. Cubans often find it puzzling that the foreign press insists on the "right" of certain individuals to attempt to rake these away.
Most Cuban citizens, and not just Fidel Castro and members of the "government," say that they fought and sacrificed -- and tens of thousands died - to achieve a system that would guarantee these rights. In other parts of the world, they point out, millions of people who do not have these rights live on the streets and die of hunger or of preventable and curable diseases. Why should they let a small, individualistic, self-serving minority try to take away the rights for which they struggled so hard to gain? Few of these arguments see their way into the U.S. media, where the Cuban side of the debate is seldom aired.
On the contrary, the media perpetuates blatantly false images of these opponents of Cuba's revolutionary process by calling them "librarians, human-rights activists, reporters, trade-union activists" and similar classifications that tend to win the sympathies of liberals, progressives and average citizens of other countries who do not realize that these counter-revolutionary activists are none of the above, and therefore reach the conclusion that the Cuban government is a repressive dictatorship.
Yet any journalist visiting Cuba can easily ascertain that "trade-union activists" not only represent no real union, but often are nor even working; that the "librarians" have no connection with public libraries, but are individual opponents of the Revolution who have started "lending" or renting out books from their homes (likely at the instigation of the U.S. Interests Section, which supplies them with many of these books). To maintain their facade, these "private book-lenders" at first claimed to be "non-political," that they only wanted to make available a variety of literature Cubans are hungry to read. But when asked why they didn't just donate the books to the public libraries that exist in every province and municipality of Cuba, they replied that Cuban libraries wouldn't permit these books. Well, if they weren't political, why nor?
Similarly, the so-called "human-rights activists" never protested the most flagrant abuses of human rights throughout the last century, from Vietnam to Chile, from the death squads in El Salvador to the massacres of priests and Indians in Guatemala, from the dirty war in Argentina that murdered and "disappearanced" young leftists and stole their children, to the contra war in Nicaragua. Their concerns were very narrow: the return of bourgeois individualist civil liberties to opponents of the Cuban government. No wonder they received so little sympathy or support from the majority of Cuban citizens.
The U.S. government, in its imperial arrogance, has never been a strong advocate of sovereignty and self-determination for others. But even many who would advocate such national rights have been blinded by the corporate media's complicity in giving us the impression that Fidel is an "unelected" leader, a dictator, and in this they are often aped by much of the liberal media, as well. No U.S. media ever acknowledge that the Cuban people might consider what Fidel is doing, in favour of whom, and to whose benefit, to be more important than the length of time he has been governing. Thanks to media deceptiveness in reporting, most people are unaware that Fidel Castro is, in fact, re-elected periodically. They accept the conventional wisdom that freedom, democracy and elections do not exist in Cuba. Because this false impression is spread so widely throughout the media, it is worth looking at carefully.
Elections in Cuba
While the White House, Congress and a dutiful media call for "electoral democracy" in Cuba, Cubans shake their heads and ask, "What do you mean by 'free elections'? What kind of 'democracy' do you want us to have? Like Kuwait's, where the people have no say in their government, and where women aren't allowed to participate at all? Like the bloody, repressive Pinochet dictatorship the U.S. helped install and maintain in Chile, where a ruthless general can 'step down' to occupy a lifetime seat in the Senate, leaving his military machine in full power to make sure things still go their way? Like in Miami, world seat of electoral fraud?"
When I mentioned the idea of a multi-parry system to one Cuban old-timer, he responded, "Before 1959 we had dozens of parties -- and no real freedom or democracy. They were all demagogues interested only in lining their own pockets."
U.S. journalists regularly bemoan the lack of "free elections" and "democracy" in Cuba, seldom giving the Cubans the opportunity to explain why they feel their elections are freer, their system of government more democratic. Their claim is based in part on the fact that their governmental system is much more participatory, and that it doesn't cost anything to be a candidate in their system -- a valid argument that at least deserves to be heard and debated.
Because of the imminent visit of Pope John Paul II, correspondents from hundreds of newspapers, magazines, radio and T.V. networks and wire services from all over the world were present and reported on the country's January 11, 1998 elections in which 98 per cent of Cuba's eligible voters cast ballots. No one disputed these electoral figures, and no one charged ballot-box stuffing or the kind of shenanigans -- thousands of votes from deceased voters, among them -- that have caused such havoc in Miami (forcing a recall of the elected mayor on one occasion, numerous recounts and a highly questionable presidential election). The only complaint voiced by the U.S. regarding these and previous Cuban elections is the form in which candidates are chosen for the highest offices (let's look at that more closely in a moment).
Coverage of the electoral system usually chooses to ignore the content of the electoral process. The fact is that all local, district and provincial delegates are chosen by standard electoral models used the world over. There must be two or more candidates, whom anyone can nominate at open public meetings. People can even nominate themselves. There is universal suffrage for those 16 and older, with no racial, gender, religious, or political discrimination. There is a secret ballot. And finally, the winner must win by at least 51 per cent of the vote or else a run-off is held.
Moreover, unlike certain countries whose "democracy" the United States praises -- like El Salvador, where the absence of a punched voting card could be a death warrant for the poor peasant stopped by one of the regime's soldiers on a lonely country road -- voting in Cuba is nor obligatory, although there is heavy social pressure to do so. Local block committees do a big door-to-door "get our the vote" campaign, and apparently Cubans feel they have something to vote for, because, unlike in the U.S. -- where turnouts have at times been as little as 25 to 30 per cent of the eligible voters -- nearly everyone votes.
These elected delegates in turn appoint an electoral commission made up of individuals selected by civic, social, trade-union, women's, student and political organizations. The job of the electoral commission is to carry out a massive grassroots selection process to come up with a slate of candidates for the higher offices of the National Assembly, which will represent the broadest cross-section of the Cuban population.
Cuban electors are then asked to vote to accept or reject -- individually or collectively -- the slate of candidates presented by their elected delegates and the broad-based commission they appoint. If the system functions correctly, those on the ballot will actually represent all sectors. Can it be said that in every U.S. election, the two (rarely is it more than this) candidates for any given post truly represent the wishes of the electorate?
There is another important aspect of Cuban elections: Cubans don't have to vote, but they do; each Cuban citizen, going into the voting booth, can vote for all, none, or whichever of those proposed candidates he or she believes would be a good national representative for all of the people -- or for a particular constituency. There is no marking on the ballots that could indicate how a particular person voted. Persons can choose not to vote at all, or to enter the voting booth and cast blank ballots. And this, in fact, is what the tiny internal opposition and the massive voice of the Miami Cubans have called for consistently: election boycotts -- using the no-risk method of casting blank or defaced ballots.
Not every candidate on the slate receives the same number of votes, an indication that Cuban voters are both aware of their voting rights and exercise them to vote only for those they feel will represent them adequately. Any candidate not receiving at least 50 per cent of the votes is not elected; the electoral commission must approve a new candidate, and a new election must be held.
The fact that a very high percentage of the candidates received more than 80 to 90 per cent of the votes in all recent elections is, I believe, a reflection of the diligent work the Electoral Commission does in preparing an acceptable slate. In this year's elections, the Electoral Commission analyzed over 60,000 proposals, discussing them with over a million voters, individually and through their civic, social, political and trade-union organizations, in order to come up with the final, non-partisan slate that the public was asked to accept or reject.
It is not unique to Cuba to have non-partisan elections for certain key governmental posts. In fact, in the U.S. some officials like judges are selected through non-party elections. Why? Because it is believed judges should be selected for their ability and impartiality, and not for their party affiliations. Judges also need to act separately from partisan considerations in the fair and balanced interests of all the people. Well, why shouldn't Cubans be allowed to decide that the highest officers of their land -- deputies of the National Assembly, and those the deputies subsequently appoint as members of the governing Council of State -- also be chosen in this non-partisan (non-politicking) manner? Does it make their system less democratic?
No one contends that Cuba's electoral system is perfect -- least of all the Cubans on the island. They have been adapting and improving it since 1976, when they first set it up. And they are not doing a bad job. It took the U.S. almost a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Convention to allow Black men to vote, and well over a hundred years before women of any colour were given the same right.
There's "Free" and Then There's "Free"
To those who charge that Cuba's elections are not "free," many Cubans reply with a grin, "The U.S. system isn't 'free,' either -- it's very expensive." It is estimated that to become a senator costs millions of dollars, while $100 million is the price tag to become president. When Americans tell their children that, under the U.S. system, any child can become president, they are perpetuating a myth,. one which clearly applies differently to little girls than it does to little boys, not to mention Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, or any other hyphenated-American. Neither does this myth apply to white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant little boys, unless they are born into or accumulate in their lifetimes a great deal of wealth.
In Cuba, the candidates for national office are pre-selected by the electoral commission, but money -- economic class -- has nothing to do with who gets elected, and the poorest citizens not only can aspire to become high officials -- they do. The result is that Cuba's parliament is much more likely to act in the interests of all sectors, including the poorest sectors, while the U.S. Congress is more likely to vote in the interests of those who fill its coffers.
What does the U.S. media have to say about all this? It's not part of the discussion. Most media report, inaccurately, that "there are no free [sic] elections," or, worse, mendaciously report that there are no elections in Cuba at all. This leaves their readers and viewers without the information necessary to make up their own minds about which is the better system. And it enables hostile administrations in Washington to sell a gullible public on any harsh measures they choose to enact against Cuba, from economic blockade to armed intervention, as the "pursuit of democracy."
Karen Lee Wald is a California teacher and writer, who has worked to break the information blockade and counter disinformation concerning Cuba for over 30 years.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Democracy, Cuban-Style. (Storm over Cuba). Contributors: Wald, Karen - Author. Magazine title: Canadian Dimension. Volume: 37. Issue: 4 Publication date: July-August 2003. Page number: 21+. © 2009 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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