Revolutionary Cuba's elections and capitalist Australia's

In April and May, Cubans went to the polls in local government elections across the island. These were elections with a difference. Imagine if neighbours got together in open meetings in your street to nominate, by show of hands, between two and eight candidates for each electoral district. That’s what happened in each of Cuba’s 169 municipalities.

In Australia, you have to be at least 18 years old to vote and be elected, and if you’re eligible but fail to vote you’ll be fined $50. In socialist Cuba voting is voluntary, and all citizens aged 16 years and over have to right to nominate and be elected. Voter registration is automatic, so there’s no way the electoral rolls can be manipulated as happened in Florida in 2004 when the names of dead people were added and those of living African Americans and Latinos deleted. The US Supreme Court upheld the fraud, which cost Al Gore, who had won the popular vote, the US presidency.

In Australia’s capitalist pseudo-democracy, elections are dominated by the two main pro-capitalist political parties. Labor and the Coalition parties take turns running the government on behalf of their real masters, the corporate rich, while pretending to govern “in the interests of all Australians”. It is taken for granted by most people that capitalist politicians lie to win votes and are out of touch with the lives of ordinary working people, thanks to their high salaries and other perks.

Such material privileges for capitalist politicians are justified by the need to attract the “most talented” individuals to public office. But such privileges really serve to buy loyalty to the capitalist system. The capitalist class, a tiny minority of society, own not only most of society’s productive wealth, they also own and control the enormously influential mass media, which shapes public opinion according to their class interests.

Australia’s electoral system is rigged in favour of protecting the interests of the very rich, and behind the democratic facade lies the social dictatorship of the big corporations. So accustomed are we to this state of affairs that the corporate dictatorship dressed up as “democracy” goes unnoticed — like the emperor’s new clothes — or at least unchallenged, by most people most of the time. But when there is a deep crisis of capitalist rule, the limits of capitalist “democracy” will be revealed in all their brutal clarity.

In April 2002, for example, the democratically elected leftist government of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was overthrown in a US-backed military coup. It took a revolutionary insurrection of the poor and the ranks of the armed forces, who rebelled against their pro-capitalist generals, to restore Chavez to the presidency. Here we see the connection between revolution and democracy — only a popular revolution that overthrows capitalist rule, replacing it with a working people’s government, can bring into being a true democracy, if by democracy is meant the political rule of the common people rather than the corporate rich.

Working peoples’ government

Such a revolutionary working people’s government was established in Cuba, a Caribbean island just 150 kilometres from the US, in July 1959, following the revolutionary overthrow of the US-backed Batista military dictatorship in January 1959. In August-October 1960, the revolutionary government mobilised workers to take over the big capitalist-owned enterprises, which became the property of Cuba’s working people. With the country’s productive wealth in the hands of the working people, it could be directed towards meeting their needs in health care, education, housing and employment.

Today, Cuba is still a relatively underdeveloped country with a per capita GDP about one-tenth that of Australia. Yet thanks to Cuba’s centrally planned economy directed to meeting the needs of working people, the United Nations Children’s Fund has declared Cuba to be the only Latin American country to have eliminated severe childhood malnutrition. Health care and education are free. A Cuban baby born today is more likely to live to see its first birthday than a baby born in the far richer US.

In socialist Cuba, the mass media is not owned by media moguls and is entirely free from commercial advertising. Since electoral advertising is banned, money has no influence in Cuban elections. In place of electoral advertising, candidates’ biographies are posted on community noticeboards by impartial electoral commissions and the candidates address neighbourhood meetings of constituents so that the voters can get to know them better. Because the smallest constituencies, the electoral districts, consist of only a few hundred people — a rural township or a few city blocks — the delegates are usually well known to their electors, often on a personal basis. In Australia, how many of us even know the names of “our” local councillors and state and federal MPs?

Accountability

Another difference is that, with few exceptions, Cuba’s municipal assembly delegates keep their regular jobs and carry out their duties as delegates on a voluntary basis in their own time. Delegates are required by law to set aside time during the week to meet with residents and hear their complaints and suggestions. Delegates also hold periodic accountability meetings with their constituents where they must account for their actions (or inaction) and take direction from the voters. Cubans have the right to recall and replace their municipal delegates at any time by gathering the signatures of the required number of electors and presenting them to electoral commission officials. This is another way in which Cuba’s elected representatives can be held accountable.

On April 25, Cubans voted by secret ballot to elect 15,093 delegates to Cuba’s municipal assemblies of poder popular (People’s Power) from among the more than 45,000 candidates nominated directly by the country’s citizens. Each candidate had to receive more than 50% of the valid votes to be elected. In 14% of constituencies, no candidate received a majority of votes in the first round, so a second round of voting took place on May 2 among the two candidates in each electoral district who had received the highest proportion of votes. In three constituencies the second round was tied, necessitating a third round in which a winner finally emerged.

In the partial municipal elections just concluded, half the municipal delegates were up for re-election. In two and a half years the other half will face the voters, coinciding with elections to the provincial and national assemblies of People’s Power held every five years. Those who imagine that Cuba is a police state may be surprised to learn that the ballot boxes are guarded by schoolchildren, not police or soldiers. All Cuban citizens have the right to observe the counting of ballots.

The whole process is so transparent, and the participation of Cuba’s working people so massive and enthusiastic, that even the Cuban Revolution’s enemies do not usually bother to claim that Cuba’s elections are fraudulent. In fact, they are probably the cleanest elections anywhere on the planet. While voting is not compulsory in Cuba, the participation rate is very high, typically around 95% of eligible voters. In this year’s elections the overall participation rate was 95.9% in the first round.

Those opposed to Cuba’s socialist democracy say that Cubans are coerced into voting, and that this explains the high participation rates. It is said that Cubans who do not vote are sacked from their jobs or denied the rationed goods available to all Cuban households at subsidised prices. These are simply lies. It is true, however, that Cubans may be encouraged by their family, friends, neighbours and workmates to vote. Voting is considered a civic duty by the supporters of the Revolution. The proportion of voters who don’t support the revolution, or who see no reason to vote for any of the candidates on the ballot paper, can be inferred by the numbers of blank and spoiled ballots. On April 30, the president of Cuba’s National Electoral Commission announced that 91.1% of first-round votes were valid, 4.6% were blank and 4.3% were spoiled.

In a May 20 commentary on the Cuban elections published by the Centre for Research on Globalisation website, Canadian academic and author Arnold August, who studies the Cuban electoral system, noted that some invalid votes are due to mistakes, rather than deliberate expressions of dissent. “I have directly observed on many occasions ... the public counting of the votes by the electoral board members in the polling stations after the voting ended ... Quite a few ballots are spoiled by misplaced enthusiasm. For example, I have seen a ballot in a Plaza de la Revolucion polling station where a voter wrote-in Raul Castro. This was immediately declared by the electoral board to be a spoiled ballot because Raul Castro was not a candidate in that constituency.”

[This is part one of a two part article.]