What Does Democracy Look Like? Cuba, Its ALBA Allies, and the United States

Arnold AugustCuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion.  NY: Palgrave Macmillan / Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing / London: ZED Books, 2013.  For full information: <www.democracycuba.com>.

Arnold August has written an important book on the developing participatory democracy and people’s empowerment in those ALBA countries that form the bulwark of 21st century socialism and anti-imperialism in Latin America: Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.  Save Cuba, they came to power due to popular anger in reaction to rapacious corporate neoliberalism, which still dominates the US rulers’ agenda here at home.  These ALBA countries set the example of the new world that is possible, being built south of the border.

August relates the rise of participatory democracy in Latin America as lessons for the Occupy movement, whose goal is also to demand people’s participation in the political and economic system here.  Here in the U.S. we are still confronted with the property concentration in the hands of the 1% — the basis for the non-participatory undemocratic system that rules over our heads.

His book not only presents us with probably the most authoritative account of the Cuban electoral system we could find in English.  It also provides a wealth of valuable references to follow firsthand the actual discussions taking place among Cubans on how to further democratize society and fight bureaucracy.  Fernando González, one of the Cuban 5 imprisoned in the U.S., wrote, “The book’s description and analysis of the Cuban democratic and electoral system is excellent.  It is undoubtedly the best that I have seen written on this theme.  There are elements of the democratic functioning of Cuban society that even I myself had not noticed.

Façade of U.S. Democracy

Arnold points out it is not possible for the vast majority of people to participate in a political system that is based on the right to unlimited accumulation of private property.  Writing in the times of the Occupy movement and the Wisconsin protests, he draws the link between these popular movements and the democracy in Cuba and these three ALBA countries — all movements in favor of the poorer majority against the rule of the 1%.

The U.S. asserts its façade of democracy is the model for the world.  Yet, this democracy has always been for the rich elite, as August notes James Madison‘s project: how to keep the appearance of popular government with only a minimum of substance.  The U.S. Constitution, unlike those in these ALBA countries, does not mention the word democracy, nor does it state that sovereignty lies in the hands of the people.  The U.S. two-party system set up by the ruling elite co-opts social movements and maintains dictatorial control of the economic and political system.  In this, Obama had been particularly effective: “trade unionists, some African-American and Latino activists, social activists, progressive academics and intellectuals, and people calling themselves liberals or leftists . . . were ensnared into believing Obama really represents change” (p.29).  Liberals and many on the left, August says, play a key role in promoting the “lesser evil” prejudice.  Moreover, “[m]ost of the servile Western media and political leaders are fully complicit and directly contributes to their illusions about US democracy” (p. 228).

21st Century Socialism and Participatory Democracy in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador

“21st century socialism,” by its very name, is a vague term.  It defines itself in contrast to “the failed, highly centralized model of the Soviet bloc”; yet it has not explained what went wrong there.  Was the Soviet system as a whole deficient or were only aspects of it?  The failure to delve into this is one reason why “21st century socialism” remains ill defined.

We can say 21st century socialism means people’s empowerment, participatory democracy, and opposition to US imperialism.  It demands ending the plunder of natural resources and instead using their benefits to improve the lives of the people.  It is opposed to both neoliberalism and US domination.  Of the four only Cuba can be called socialist, where “the vast majority of people control the main means of production” and maintain “state planning of the overall economy” (p.3).

In Venezuela, Chávez led the struggle to assert the people’s control over oil wealth and implemented the various social missions offering free medical care, literacy, free secondary and tertiary education, communal land titles, human rights for the indigenous, subsidized state supermarkets, the building of 450,000 new homes, land redistribution, social assistance for indigent mothers, reforestation, support for popular culture and arts.

Communal Councils, neighborhood self-governing councils, were established.  Then arose Communes, the regional grouping of councils, with the aim of being self-governing areas or towns.  August does not mention the Empresas de Producción Social, cooperative enterprises controlled directly by local communities.  The communes, along with social movements, are involved in the planning of the national budget and aim at the eventual establishment of a communal parliament.

Tens of thousands of worker co-ops and communal councils are developing a solidarity economy parallel to the existing capitalist one.  The social missions, community councils, and communes attempt to bypass the central government and put power in the hands of the people, creating a situation of dual power.  The Venezuelan state plays a central role assisting the grassroots movement, showing there is no contradiction between empowering both the grassroots movements and the central state.

August notes the defects of the Venezuelan system: corruption, incompetence, and government bureaucracy worse in Venezuela than Cuba.  Some elected Chavista officials act as obstacles to popular participation.  And in Venezuela, as in Ecuador and Bolivia, capitalist relations of production still dominate the economy, the main obstacle to grassroots democracy remaining the power of the capitalist class, backed up by the rulers of the US.

In Bolivia, the 2005 victory of Evo Morales’ party, MAS (Movement Towards Socialism), put an end to the old two-party system.  MAS arose from a grassroots movement of the victims of 500 years of apartheid and exclusion.  In 2006, a Constitutional Assembly, composed of mostly indigenous peoples, began writing a new constitution.  Approved in 2009 by 61% of voters, it called for the socializing and democratizing of the economy and enshrined the concept of Pachamama (Mother Earth).

Evo’s government has improved health care and education, vastly raised the minimum wage, and reduced poverty by 20%.  As in Venezuela and Ecuador, the US responded by attempting to overthrow the government: through separatist movements (2008, 2009), assassination attempts, interfering in the highway project through indigenous territory (2011).  In both Bolivia and Ecuador, the US has manipulated some indigenous groups and leaders into opposing the progressive governments.  Evo’s government resolved the highway issue by setting up an indigenous commission, based on the indigenous communities, having the mandate to decide on the construction of the highway.  In the end, 45 of the 46 communities agreed to building the highway.

In Ecuador, Rafael Correa was elected president in 2007, and it too set out to write a new popular constitution.  This was approved by 64% of the voters in 2009, largely from the active indigenous communities.  This constitution emphasized plurinationalism and environmental protection while insisting that the country’s natural resources are the property of the state.  Correa renounced Ecuador’s foreign debt, used its oil wealth to significantly increase spending on education, health care, assistance to mothers and small farmers, and raised the minimum wage 40%.  As in Venezuela and Bolivia, in 2010 the US attempted to overthrow Correa.

These three ALBA countries have achieved different levels of participatory democracy; all have taken the income of their natural resources out of the control of international corporations and used it to improve the lives of their people.

The Struggle for National Liberation and Participatory Democracy in Cuba

The bulk of August’s book focuses on the history of the liberation struggle for participatory democracy in Cuba.  Fidel and Raul Castro and others began the struggle to renew the 1868-98 Wars of Independence.  They fought for the ideals of Jose Martí, highlighting the continuity of the Cuban revolution, from Varela to Céspedes to Martí to Fidel.  The 1959 revolutionary victory culminated the Cuban national liberation struggle begun in the mid-1800s, a struggle interrupted by U.S. intervention.  Upon victory, they instituted the Moncada Program (outlined in Fidel Castro’s History Will Absolve Me), a key element being the turning over of the latifundias to the peasants, heralding one of the most radical land reforms in modern history.

August challenges the view about the supposed authoritarian state and lack of democracy in Cuba.  He notes a series of giant steps taken towards placing political and economic power in the hands of the Cuban people, such as the land reform.  This reform led to the US blockade of Cuba, described in U.S. documents at the time as designed “to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of the government.” While this plan to destroy Cuba failed, the blockade still stands as a serious obstacle to any country seeking to take Cuba’s path.

After redistributing lands to poor peasants, Cuba’s democracy advanced when neighborhood committees, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), formed to combat counter-revolutionary violence and terrorism.  The CDRs became local organs of self-government.  Another step was the forming of the Revolutionary National Militias, arming the whole people.

In 1961 came the Literacy Campaign, mobilizing the nation to teach and involve the illiterate population in a life-changing way.  In the mid-1970s democracy deepened with the national legislature, called the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP), and the new Constitution being instituted as a joint project of the representatives of the mass organizations, the Communist Party (CP), and constitutional experts.  This discussion was taken to the country’s workplaces, schools, countryside for debate, in which over 6 million participated.

The 1980s Rectification campaign was another mass campaign among the population to combat bureaucracy and corruption, which often go hand in hand.  August rightly states that “[p]articipatory democracy is the main potential combatant against bureaucratic practices and dishonest or corrupt bureaucrats” (p. 121).

In 1994 ANPP and the trade unions, Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC), organized Workers’ Parliaments, where hundreds of thousands of workers voiced views and made proposals on tackling the dire economic situation brought about by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the tightening of the U.S. economic blockade.  These Workers’ Parliaments arose when the ANPP deputies couldn’t agree on measures to confront the crisis and called for discussions in all work centers and organizations.  This is in stark contrast to here, where working people were excluded from the decision-making in confronting the 2008 economic meltdown.

The 2011-12 Cuban Communist Party Congress

August’s chapter on the 2011-2012 Communist Party Congress and the proposed changes arising from it is worth the book itself.  Not only does he explain why these changes came about, but he also illuminates the nationwide participatory process that led up to the Congress.

The process began with the speeches against corruption by Fidel and Raul Castro in 2005 and 2007.  These led to nationwide grassroots meetings to discuss correcting what was going wrong with the country.  In 2007 over 5.1 million people took part in these workplace, school, and neighborhood meetings.  These set the groundwork for the CP Congress.  Here the CP draft guidelines were again discussed nationwide in 163,000 meetings involving 8.9 million participants.

The people called for decentralizing the administration and the economy, de-bureaucratizing society, more local input to state economic plans, improving health services, maintaining the ration book (providing about half of the people’s food requirements at highly subsidized prices), allowing the buying and selling of homes and cars, more self-employment (390,000 people as of June 2012), more rural and urban cooperatives, and distributing unused land rent-free to individuals for farming.

At the CP Congress, Raul Castro called for eliminating inflated payrolls at state enterprises, reducing them by 500,000 positions.  This ran into opposition not only by bureaucrats, but by working people concerned about the effect on their livelihood.  As a result the policy is to be carried out very gradually so as to not adversely affect people, as part of “the long-standing democratic political culture of participation and mutual exchange between the base and the leadership” (p. 129).

Another recent mass discussion concerned raising retirement age from 60 to 65 for men, from 55 to 60 for women.  Workers’ assemblies convened to discuss it, with 94% of the workforce participating, 3,086,000 workers.  August reviews the process by which the leadership’s draft bill was taken to the people and discussed and modified by them before it became law — a far cry from how changes to social security are enacted here in the US.

This “updating of Cuban’s economic model is not a rejection of socialism.  On the contrary, it is another experiment to safeguard socialism” (p. 144).  Raul Castro spoke at the recent CP Congress of the error of building Cuban socialism in “the excessively centralized model characterizing our economy” and sought “to move in an orderly fashion, with discipline and the participation of all the workers, toward a decentralized system.”  As he had said previously, the Cubans “do not intend to copy from anyone again, that brought enough problems for us. . . .”

August has a good section (p. 137-141) on the “dissident” bloggers from the “left” and the right, both inside and outside Cuba, who write for Cuba Encuentro (partially funded by NED) and Havana Times (which actually ran articles supporting rightist Henrique Capriles of Venezuela and opposing “dictatorial” Chávez, repeating standard US propaganda).  The book is also an excellent source of references: e.g., <cubamoneyproject.org>, tracking US funding of Cuban “dissidents”; and <lanic.utexas.edu/la/cb/cuba/castro.html> containing the speeches of Fidel Castro.

Most importantly, August gives us a flavor of the nature of the discussions and debates now alive in Cuba.  Of all this, we in the US know next to nothing.  To take only a few examples: Olga Fernández Ríos, writing on socialist renewal and the CP Congress, calls on the people to empower themselves as protagonists to put forward their own policy projects.  This is needed to establish a permanent participation of the people in national decision-making.  The CP Congress’s proposed changes needs “transparency of public management, permanent evaluation and legitimization by the people” (p. 130).  Permanent popular participation is the key to struggle against bureaucracy and corruption.  A Juventud Rebelde journalist writes of “infernal institutionalized machinery that, in order to justify bloated payrolls, has invented a period [of time] to spend on time-consuming and cumbersome paperwork to bring suffering — I imagine with a certain morbid delight — to the common citizen.  The worker’s wasted workdays could otherwise be productive and fruitful.”  A director of a Cuban research institute states that “it is necessary to change the civic culture.  The citizens must be more proactive and conscious of their role in society.”  Another writes a key issue is the “participation and effective political control by People’s Power over the bureaucracy” (p. 132).

Citizens’ participation depends on the press to be fully informed.  Fortunately the Cuban press, unlike the US press, is not in the hands of a corporate elite.  However, it suffers from other problems and must be transformed to renew the socialist system.  Journalists face difficulty accessing information from functionaries, who put obstacles in their way.  Some journalists simply repeat what officials tell them and so misinform the public.  The CP Political Bureau recently declared that journalists must “exclusively” decide what information of state organizations should be public knowledge.  Yet, August notes, bureaucrats and managers remain as arrogant as ever.  As a result the grassroots do not have the information that should be public.  This undermines popular participation and control.  The restraints on freedom of the press partially originate from bureaucrats and corrupt officials.  If greater popular control is to succeed, “it will result in a direct confrontation with their privileged position” (p. 137).

Cuba’s Electoral System

Chapter 7 is a description of Cuba’s electoral system and may be the best one available in English.  The Communist Party is not involved in nominating or electing candidates.  Unlike in the other 20th century Communist countries — and unlike in the US itself — in Cuba citizens themselves propose candidates in municipal, provincial, and national elections.  Likewise, the Cuban CP members (800,000 members, 10% of the adult population), in contrast to political party members here or in the Soviet bloc, are chosen by their peers in their workplaces or educational institutions, based on their reputation as model workers.

Unlike in the US, neighbors directly nominate Municipal Assembly candidates among themselves in neighborhoods meetings.  Municipal Assembly delegates are elected from the nominees based on secret ballot.  Almost all those elected are unpaid, working as people’s representatives after work hours.

Municipal Assembly delegates comprise up to 50% of the deputies to the Provincial and National Assemblies of People’s Power (ANPP).  The other 50% are nominated, not in back rooms by party big wigs as in our country, by the six mass organizations: the trade unions (CTC), Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), Federation of University Students (FEU), Federation of Pre-University Students (FEEM), and the CDRs.  Clearly this system is vastly more open and democratic than in the US.

ANPP delegates, elected to 5-year terms, are not paid.  The ANPP delegates then choose their president, vice-president, and Council of State (who work full-time, with pay).  Half the ANPP deputies sit on permanent working government commissions.

The voting age is 16 or older, with no restrictions on the right to vote, which disenfranchise millions in the US.  In 2008, 43% of the national People’s Power deputies were women, 6% aged 18-30, 19% Black (who are 10% of the population), and 16% mestizo (25% of the population).

In the early 1990s, People’s Councils were established to encourage more popular participation.  “The potential for further democratization of Cuban society at the grassroots,” August states, “lies in the CPs [people’s councils]” (p.221).

“Cuba is a laboratory . . . of a new socialism and democracy” (p. 231).  As the Cubans say, they have no guidebook for building socialism, especially that in a Third World country.  Every move forward can only be based on trial and error, and since the U.S. rulers remain on watch 24/7 for the chance to seize upon any error to overthrow it, Cuba must proceed cautiously.

An underlying conclusion of August’s book is that, no matter how democratic the structures in any of the ALBA countries, it is only actual popular involvement that guarantees a living participatory democracy.  Most importantly, his book shows A New World Is Possible and it is being built in these ALBA countries.  It is based on putting people’s needs over those of corporations and on deepening popular participation where people shape their own lives, rather than simply remaining alienated spectators.  This we still need to fight to create here.

Stansfield Smith, a long-time anti-war and solidarity activist, belongs to the Chicago Committee to Free the Cuban 5.

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