The Myth of Cuban Dictatorship

Charles McKelvey
Professor of Sociology
Presbyterian College
Clinton, South Carolina
as published in Global Times, July/August, 1998

I have been to Cuba four times since 1993. Last summer, I was there for ten weeks, and my activities included in-depth interviews of university professors and leaders in the Popular Councils concerning the political process in Cuba. In addition, I talked to many different people that I met informally, sometimes through families with which I was connected and other times with people I met as I traveled about Havana by myself. I do not consider myself an expert on Cuba. I would describe myself as someone who is knowledgeable about Third World national liberation movements and is in the process of learning about the Cuban case. My general impression is that the revolutionary government enjoys a high degree of legitimacy among the people. Occasionally, I came across someone who was alienated from the system. There disaffection was not rooted in the political system but in the economic hardships that have emerged during the "special period." The great majority seemed to support the system and seemed very well informed about the structures of the world economy and the challenges that Cuba faces. Many defended the system with great enthusiasm and strong conviction. I had expected none of this prior to my first trip, recalling my visit to Tanzania in 1982, by which time many had come to view "ujamaa socialism" as a faded dream, at least according to my impressions during my brief visit. But to my surprise, I found much support for the revolutionary project in Cuba. I could not help but contrast this to the United States, where there is widespread cynicism in regard to political and other institutions.

The Cuban political system is based on a foundation of local elections. Each urban neighborhood and rural village and area is organized into a "circumscription," consisting generally of 1000 to 1500 voters. The circumscription meets regularly to discuss neighborhood or village problems. Each three years, the circumscription conducts elections, in which from two to eight candidates compete. The nominees are not nominated by the Communist Party or any other organizations. The nominations are made by anyone in attendance at the meetings, which generally have a participation rate of 85% to 95%. Those nominated are candidates for office without party affiliation. They do not conduct campaigns as such. A one page biography of all the candidates is widely-distributed. The nominees are generally known by the voters, since the circumscription is generally not larger than 1500 voters. If no candidate receives 50% of the votes, a run-off election is held. Those elected serve as delegates to the Popular Councils, which are intermediary structures between the circumscription and the Municipal Assembly. Those elected also serve simultaneously as delegates to the Municipal Assembly. The delegates serve in the Popular Councils and the Municipal Assemblies on a voluntary basis without pay, above and beyond their regular employment.

The Municipal Assemblies elect the chief executives of the Municipality, who have supervision over the various ministries, such as health and education, within the Municipality. The Municipal Assemblies also elect an electoral commission, which develops a slate of candidates for the Provincial Assembly for ratification by the voters in the province. The Provincial Assemblies have responsibilities in the Province which parallel those of the Municipal Assembly in the Municipality, including electing an electoral commission which develops a slate of candidates for the National Assembly for ratification by the voters in the nation. The National Assembly is the legislative branch, and as such it makes the laws. It also elects the President of the Council of State, who appoints a cabinet and makes a government. The President of the Council of State is Fidel Castro, a position to which he has been re-elected since, I believe, 1975, when the Constitution was established.

The role of the Communist Party in the political process is very different from what I had previously thought. The Cuban Communist Party is not an electoral party. It does not nominate or support candidates for office. Nor does it make laws or select the head of state. These roles are played by the national assembly, which is elected by the people, and for which membership in the Communist Party is not required. Most members of the national, provincial, and municipal assemblies are members of the Communist Party, but many are not, and those delegates and deputies who are party members are not selected by the party but by the people in the electoral process. The party is not open to anyone to join. About fifteen percent of adults are party members. Members are selected by the party in a thorough process that includes interviews with co-workers and neighbors. Those selected are considered model citizens. They are selected because they are viewed as strong supporters of the revolution; as hard and productive workers; as people who are well-liked and respected by their co-workers and neighbors; as people who have taken leadership roles in the various mass organizations of women, students, workers, and farmers; as people who take seriously their responsibilities as spouses and parents and family members; and as people who have "moral" lives, such as avoiding excessive use of alcohol or extramarital relations that are considered scandalous. The party is viewed as the vanguard of the revolution. It makes recommendations concerning the future development of the revolution, and it criticizes tendencies it considers counterrevolutionary. It has enormous influence in Cuba, but its authority is moral, not legal. The party does not make laws or elect the president. These tasks are carried out by the National Assembly, which is elected by the people.

Prior traveling to Cuba, I had heard that the Cuban Communist Party is the only political party and that in national elections the voters are simply presented with a slate of candidates, rather than two or more candidates and/or political parties from which to choose. These two observations are correct. But taken by themselves, they given a very misleading impression. They imply that the Cuban Communist Party develops the slate, which in fact it does not do. Since the slate makers are named by those who are elected, the ratification of the slate by the voters is simply the final step in a process that begins with the voters. The reason given for using a slate rather than presenting voters with a choice at this stage was that the development of the slate ensures that all sectors (such as women, workers, farmers, students, representative of important social service agencies in the jurisdiction, etc.) are represented.

As I indicated, Cubans tend to enthusiastically defend their system. They point out that the elected members of the assemblies are not professional politicians who must rely on fund-raising to be elected, as occurs in the United States. Moreover, it avoids excessive conflict among political parties, at the expense of the common good. As my good friend Professor Guzman observed, "it is a system which avoids the absurdities and distortions of bourgeois democracy." They seem to believe in it. I think it makes sense. I also think that the political system in the United States is experiencing a legitimation crisis, so I am not inclined to recommend it to Cubans. It seems to me that they have developed a system carefully designed to ensure that wealthy individuals do not have greater voice than working class individuals, and therefore it is a system that is more advanced in protecting the political rights of citizens.

Although I have not had the experience, I suppose it would be possible to encounter a Cuban who feels alienated and who might say, "The Communist Party controls everything." This is true, because a majority of those elected are members of the Communist Party, and the higher up you go, the more likely it is to be so. Nevertheless, the selection of leadership is based on local elections. The Communist Party occupies a position of authority in the political institutions because the people support it. Our hypothetical alienated person is really expressing a frustration over the widespread support of the people for the Communist Party. The mechanism for the removal of members of the Communist Party from positions of authority in the government is in place, should that desire be the popular sentiment.

It is ironic that while many in the West assume that Cuba is less protective of political rights, in fact they are developing a system that is deliberately designed to ensure that the right of the people to vote does not become manipulated in a process controlled by the wealthy, and it therefore is more protective of political rights. Many in the West make the same kind of false assumption in regard to the issue of freedom of the press. Take the case of newspapers. Many in the West think that the state controls the newspapers. In fact, the state prohibits the private ownership of newspapers. The various newspapers are operated by the various organizations: the Communist Party, the federations of workers associations, the federation of farmers associations, the federation of student associations, etc. In the United States, the newspapers are owned by corporations. In Cuba, those with financial resources to do so are not allowed to form a newspaper. This is a restriction on the right of property ownership, a restriction imposed for the common good, in particular to ensure that the people have a voice and that the wealthy do not have a voice disproportionate to their numbers. By prohibiting private ownership of newspapers, the system ensures that the various newspapers will be under the control of the various mass organizations. So it is a system which pushes the principle of freedom of the press to a more advanced level than what occurs in capitalism, ensuring that all exercise this right equally and avoiding a situation where the wealthy exercise freedom of the press but the workers and farmers possess it only as an abstract right.

So the Cuban revolutionary project has many gains, not only in the area of social and economic rights, but also in the area of political and civil rights. Because of these achievements, the system enjoys wide popular support, in spite of the hardships caused by U.S. opposition and by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Drawing upon the institutions that they have developed over the last forty years, they are responding to the present challenges and are surviving in a post-Cold War world. The strength and vitality of these institutions is worthy of our investigation, for Cuba may represent an important case as we seek to understand how peripheral and semi-peripheral states can overcome the legacy of underdevelopment.

For those of us on the Left, Cuba's achievements represent the fullest attainment of our hopes. The Cuban revolutionary project is deserving of our active and engaged support.