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Where elections are truly free

By Scott Scheffer
Havana, Cuba

A delegation of North American, European and Canadian activists organized by Reverend Lucius Walker and the Pastors for Peace visited Cuba at the end of July. Our trip's objective, like the seven previous U.S./Cuba Friendshipment Caravans, was to break the U.S. blockade on Cuba.

During our eight-day stay, we broke into groups and traveled to different provinces. We visited neighborhoods organized by Committees in Defense of the Revolution, hospitals, organic farms, schools and workplaces. We also visited people in their homes.

The final three days were spent attending the first U.S./Cuba Solidarity Conference, along with a delegation from the Venceremos Brigade. The conference was addressed by leaders of the Cuban government and the Cuban Communist Party.

Of particular importance was a speech by Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the National Assembly. He described how workers' democracy under socialism is the backbone of the Cuban revolution and how it has helped them survive the 39-year U.S. blockade.

Alarcon explained the relationship of the Cuban population to the government, how elections to the government take place, and how the masses influence the life of the country. His talk reinforced much of what I had learned in conversations with Cuban people.

What makes Cuba's elected
officials different?

In a capitalist democracy, especially in the United States, when a candidate wins an election, the people's involvement in the political process usually ends. The elected officials then vote on issues in any way they see fit. And almost without exception they act in the interests of big business, whose giant, well-funded electoral machines help put them in office in the first place.

In Cuba it is completely different. The entire population is organized on the basis of neighborhoods. Every neighborhood nominates from two to five candidates for the Municipal Assembly and the Provincial Assembly. Together these two bodies make up the National Assembly of People's Power, which appoints all the ministers and the president of the country.

The nominations from the neighborhoods are submitted to the local election commission. If they are approved, the commission writes a biography for each candidate and posts it with a photograph in public places so that a general election can take place.

What really makes Cuba different, however, is that a candidate can't spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to buy a victory, like in the United States. In fact, it is illegal to spend any money on an election.

Candidates are elected by people who know them from their jobs and neighborhoods. Most elected positions are actually unpaid, and the officials have to keep working at their regular jobs. The relatively few paid officials receive a pay equivalent to what they got on their regular job, and when their term is finished they return to that job.

As Alarcon explained this, I remembered a visit to a Municipal Council in a neighborhood of Havana called Reparte Electrico. After a talk by the municipal president, the equivalent of a mayor, one of the delegates from the U.S. asked if any privileges came with the job. The speaker said he had been given a car, but that it was understood that officials who have cars must stop and pick up passengers each morning and evening to help alleviate the transportation problems.

It is hard to imagine any U.S. mayor giving people a lift to work, but the speaker said that if a Cuban official receives a privilege like a car and doesn't use it for the benefit of the neighborhood, he or she will develop a bad reputation.

Voters can, and do, remove officials

That's important, because in Cuba every neighborhood is empowered to end the mandate of any official. And sometimes they do. Cuba has the most effective system of recall in the world; officials can be removed by their constituents as easily as they can be voted in. During a visit to the province of Pinar Del Rio, I heard about a municipality where only one mayor has finished a complete term since 1976.

By law, Cuban officials must spend a good deal of their time reporting back to the neighborhood or workplace that nominated them to assure the people that they are doing a good job. These principles provide for a relationship between the Cuban people and their government that is unmatched in any bourgeois country.

President Alarcon explained that "In a socialist society, a revolutionary society like ours, the electoral system is nothing more than a reflex of a much wider participatory system."

This participation by the highly politicized Cuban masses guarantees that the Cuban population not only shares prosperity, but shoulders equally the hardships. For example, it was explained to me by a young Communist Party member that neighborhoods in bad need of repair may be populated by physicists or medical doctors, as well as bus drivers and waiters. The same goes for neighborhoods that are in great condition.

Alarcon referred to a recent study by an international body called the "Economic Commission for Latin America." This study credits Cuba with lessening the social costs that came with the economic reforms of the early 1990s. The reforms were enacted after much of Cuba's trade revenue was lost due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist countries. This development, combined with the effects of the U.S. blockade, caused terrible economic hardship for Cuba.

The report compared this period-which Cuba calls the "Special Period"-with the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s on Latin America. The study's writers, who aren't socialists, admit that Cuba has survived the hardship through guaranteed employment and income, as well as equal distribution of the impact on Cuban workers.

According to Alarcon, it was the wide discussions in every neighborhood and workplace preceding the reforms that helped determine how they would be carried out. In other words, workers' power became a weapon with which the Cuban people survived the "Special Period" and defended their revolution.

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