October 11 , 2007

Municipal elections in Cuba

René Gómez Manzano.

Elections for delegates of the municipal assemblies of People's Power have begun in Cuba. These elections are of considerable importance for two reasons: they determine who these local authorities will be and it serves as the first step towards re-electing provincial assemblies and the National Assembly of People's Power. The replacement of provincial and national representatives takes place soon after the Municipal Assemblies are constituted. a

By lawb, municipalities are divided into constituencies which are required to elect one delegate to their assembly. Individual areas meet to propose their candidates from up to eight subdivided constituencies within each municipality. Participants can put forward their suggestion and explain briefly their reasons, or they can express their opinions in favour or against a candidate proposed by others. The delegates are chosen by "direct and public" voting in which each area chooses its candidate by majority. However, in exceptional cases, when a constituency is not subdivided into areas and there is only one nomination assembly, two candidates may be presented. The person who holds this position plays a primary role in the municipal and district electoral commissions.

Communist propaganda never tires of praising the alleged virtues of this system by extolling its non-party character and stressing that the nomination process is done by the people and not by a political party.

In reality, this system for all its 'virtues' offers extremely limited opportunities for opposition candidates, though some believe it should still be explored as an option. However, I do not believe that any change can be achieved in this way given the current conditions. I am convinced that in a country without freedom nothing can be free. However, a more detailed analysis of the whole issue is needed to explain why I think that this is so.

Cuban people tend to perceive all types of public meetings organized by the government as device that the regime uses to manipulate its subjects. In certain ways this makes complete sense. Since Castro and the Cuban Communist Party came to power almost fifty years ago, they have used only one language to "communicate" with its opponents: force, by means of firing squads, dirty prisons, expulsions, acts of repudiation, etc. As a result, those who openly disagree with the ruling regime, abstain from participating in public meetings. The consequence of this is that meetings are only attended by the silent majority who support the regime out of fear, a small number of neutral citizens and by the absolute minority who still show their support to the regime. Furthermore, it is no secret that these meetings, like all meetings that are held in Cuba, are attended by militant communists, by leaders of mass organizations and by informers of the political police. It is hard expect that this type of public would be willing to vote for an independent candidate.

Under these circumstances, who would propose a well known opponent, for instance a former prisoner of conscience as a candidate? Would such a person be ready to face the inevitable reprisals of the police state? Even if we imagine an exceptional and courageous citizen like this appears and that the formal nomination takes place. What then? The representatives of Castro-ism will undoubtedly use this brave person's "right to freedom of expression" against the proposed candidate and the person who was brave enough to suggest such a person.

Even so, if the voting were to take place, it would be done very publicly, by a simple raising of hands. We cannot presume that our fellow citizens, who have been threatened by a ruthless totalitarian regime for half a century, would express in their vote openly for an opposition candidate. Furthermore, to achieve the nomination of an independent candidate, the dissenting voters would have to represent a majority - not 30% or even 40%, in one of the nomination areas. It would only be after this process that an opposition candidate might appear on ballot-papers of the constituency in question. However, this is still only just the beginning of this extremely hypothetical scenario.

The various election commissions play an essential on their different levels within these elections. According to law, these commissions have, apart from other powers, the right to dictate complementary rules to the amended 1992 Elections Act, to establish the number and the limits of the municipal constituencies and nomination areas, to organize and control the assemblies which propose the candidates, they have the right to deal with and to resolve any complaints that may appear, and they can also annul the elections in one or more constituencies of a municipality. c Therefore, given the wide array of the commissions' powers, which help them administer and control the whole process of municipal elections, could be used to throw out such an electoral result. Lastly, we have to remember that these election commissions are part of a pyramidal structure: the members of the National Commission are appointed by the State Council d and the commissions on the lower levels are always designated by the commission next above. e

Despite all of this, some people may still believe that if there really is a majority that opposes the regime, nothing can stop the electors from voting in favour of a dissenting candidate. In a purely abstract sense this is true, but we also need to consider the existing laws governing elections and campaigning. It has been expressly stipulated that in making their decision, voters shall only consider the personal virtues of the candidates, their prestige and their ability to serve the nation. The constituency commissions are responsible for the distribution of photos and biographies of the candidates and with their display on walls and public places. f The National Election Commission stipulates ethical principles and norms which govern the electoral process, and that provides for the rules which have to be obeyed in the campaign. g The propaganda may only consist in distributing biographies and photos of the candidates, h which therefore gives state-back candidates an overwhelming advantage.

Moreover, even if the laws were broken and an electoral campaign was launched, a genuine campaign couldn't possibly happen. The nature of any totalitarian system is that does not permit any form of local authority to challenge its power, no matter how minor it might be. An opposition candidate couldn't promise to fund anything, since the entire budget is under the single party's control. As a delegate for a particular constituency the people above him would be the ones to decide whether anything would be built in his or her district even if they were to win. This doesn't even get into the fact that his opponent under such circumstances might be given a greater amount of state funds to defeat his opponent in an actual election.

To monitor the results of the elections would be quite difficult, too. The existing law explicitly allows the citizens interested to be present during the scrutiny in the electoral schools. i Nevertheless, there is no such stipulation regarding electoral commissions in the constituencies, which are responsible for the final count-up of the ballots always when there is more than one electoral school. j

On top of the general considerations I have mentioned so far, I could add one particular memory of mine from the late eighties, when I was defending Javier Roberto Bahamonde Masot. This dissident focused his anti-establishment activities on an attempt to be proposed as a candidate to the Municipal Assembly of People's Power in his hometown San Miguel del Padrón. Although he was known as an opponent of the regime, I cannot say his name would then be linked with any particular opposition group. He had never been a political prisoner. His neighbours proposed him, yet he was not nominated by his area as he was finally defeated in the public voting. Ultimately, the regime used the penal code against him. Bahamonde Masot was imprisoned for two reasons. First, he was accused of offences regarding illegal associations, gatherings and demonstrations, and second, he was accused of illegal economic activities.

However, let's imagine that unlike this defendant of mine, there is wan an opponent (or perhaps even more of them) who actually succeeded in being proposed as a candidate and elected by his fellow citizens to a municipal assembly of the People's Power. Although this would be an absolutely exceptional situation, since to my knowledge, this has never happened in the previous municipal elections. I think one of my own personal experiences might shed some light on what might happen.

In 1990, before I was excluded from the National Organization of Lawyers, there were elections to the General Assembly, which is the supreme body of this formally autonomous organization. In an open voting, my colleagues from the group specialized in appeals for annulment gave me their votes and I was unanimously elected to be a member of the Assembly for five years. Nevertheless, I stayed there only until 1992 and I could participate at no more than two and a half meetings, because that year, I was subject to an "act of repudiation"- to a kind of verbal lynching - that, as I knew later, had been prepared during a whole week in the seat of the National Board of Lawyers. When I was excluded from the third meeting, an agreement has been reached to dismiss me. Is there anyone who would doubt that the same would probably happen to our hypothetical opponent in the municipal assembly?

Now, let's suppose that this phantasmagoric personality was actually elected. What chances would this person really have to carry out opposition activities? Our candidate would still have to abide by Article 5 of the current Constitution, which defines the Cuban Communist Party as the supreme authority of society and State. The implication being that in his administration activities, our hypothetical independent delegate would have to comply with the philosophy of Cuban single party.

Even if a miracle occurred and the opposition obtained majority in one of the municipal assemblies, the opposition would not be free to choose their president or vice-president, and neither could they propose candidates to Provincial Assemblies or to the National Assembly. These candidates are proposed by the Municipal Candidacy Commission, and these commissions are always formed by the representatives of "mass organizations". k

And finally, let's imagine that under these extremely unfavourable conditions, some opposition organizations made an attempt to nominate independent candidates, and did not succeed (which is more than probable). Obviously, in this case nothing could be done. They entered the game, they accepted its unjust rules defined according to the will of the totalitarian regime, and therefore, they could not really protest against the negative results they would obtain.

The current system of electing representatives to the National Assembly of People's Power and to Provincial Assemblies only dates back to 1992, when the regime brought about a general reform of the Constitution. However, municipal elections follow the same rules that were established when the great charter came into force, that is to say more than thirty years ago. This Machiavellian system simply proved to be the most suitable way for the regime to maintain itself perpetually at power. In the immediate future, we cannot expect the system to change, but while it remains the same and while we are left without freedom to propose our candidates and without other similar rights that are enjoyed by voters in free countries, no democratization is actually possible. And that is why Cuban opposition will go on with their peaceful struggle.

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