Arnold August, Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion (London: Zed Books, 2013) pb 288pp. ISBN: 9781848138667
Reviewed by David Grantham
'It is my intention through this book', author Arnold August writes, 'to provide readers with some tools for following the future situation independently, without the blinders of preconceived notions' (p. 232). For August, the future situation is a rejuvenated Cuban Revolution, and the preconceived notions involve the supposed superiority of United States democracy, which has jaded, even blinded, its citizens against alternative versions of democracy. August aims to remove those blinders through a systemic, comparative analysis of political practices carried out in Cuba and other surrounding countries. However, comparing governing strategies is no novel idea. Where August sets himself apart is in reimagining the practice of democracy. In so doing, August redefines Cuban politics as a form of democracy. Part political science, part history, Democracy in Motion is an intimate unveiling of Cuba's political process designed to explore the island nation's 'approach to democracy' (p. xiii).
August states up front the need for 'clarity and discussion' concerning Cuba's political system and the idea of participation (p. xv). First, if public participation is a precondition of democracy, evidence suggests Cuba is another form of democracy. Historical records, along with August's first-hand accounts of government procedure and personal interviews, all point to Cuba's astonishing legacy of public participation, and thus democracy. Indeed, most readers will be perplexed, if not shocked by the extent of democracy in Cuba and some surrounding neighbours. August aims 'to accompany the reader through a variety of countries experiences in order to extrapolate and characterize certain features of participatory democracy' (p. 4).
The main thrust of the publication hinges on the comparison between U.S. and Cuban 'participatory process' - democracy of private property versus a democracy of the collective (p. 12). August contends that contrasting economic and social principles separate a Cuban model based on 'values of collectivity and social consciousness' from a United States model, which stands for the 'unlimited accumulation of private property as the foundation of capitalism' (p. 4). He suggests that frequent elections in the United States give the illusion of unfettered participation, but, in reality, wealthy, private property elites determine the outcome. On the other hand, in Cuba, the inclusive and ever evolving participatory process allows for true collective input without elective representation. The author concedes to the existence of corruption and inefficiencies, but claims that despite 'all the shortcomings in the system there is a continual striving to make it more effective, so that sovereignty is truly vested in the hands of the people' (p. 190).
August divides his treatise into three major parts. The first part titled 'Clearing the Cobwebs Around Democracy' does just that by rethinking the parameters defining democracy and, through the process, challenges the superiority of the United States model (p. 1). August saves his sharpest rebukes of the U.S. system for this section. From the beginning, the 'unlimited accumulation of private property' has been the foundation for the U.S. political system, August argues, distinguishing itself from 'the Cuban Revolution's social project, which is rooted in socialism adopted for the economic and social well-being of the vast majority of people' (p. 16). To prove his point, August retraces the beginnings of U.S. democracy, contending that the emphasis on property rights actually limited rather than expanded political participation. Individual property rights and expanding capitalism laced with racism 'made for a lethal cocktail consisting of an extremely limited participation' (p. …