and the Politburo
The limits of democracy in a one-party state...
I missed the Pope’s trip to Cuba. However, there were nearly 3,000 other foreign journalists there and for five days this past January the historic event dominated the international media and captured the attention of the world. The visit was high drama full of clichéd symbolism. Here were two old men in the twilight of their careers. The Last Marxist versus the Polish Pope who helped bring down communism in Eastern Europe.
For his part John Paul performed pretty much the way the Cuban Government hoped he would. He blasted the US economic embargo as ‘unjust and ethically unacceptable’ and denounced ‘capitalist neo-liberalism’ as subordinating human development to ‘blind market forces’. He also attacked the ‘idols of consumer society’ which he said were spreading ‘a dangerous crisis of identity in Cuba’ – all causes dear to Fidel’s heart. But at the same time he picked away at the repressive facade of the Cuban state, calling for religious freedom, respect for civil and political rights and a greater role for the Catholic Church in Cuban society. Like human-rights activists inside the country, the Pope’s message was one of reconciliation and dialogue with other voices and other points of view.
In urging an opening-up of political structures the Pope touched on the most contentious and sensitive of all issues – democracy and political freedom. Is Cuba a democracy? Like most questions tinged with ideology the response depends on where you stand.
Many older Cubans are adamantly pro-Castro. They experienced directly the overt racism and widespread poverty of the pre-revolutionary era, a period of nominal democracy. And they understand concretely how their lives have improved. Time and time again I meet older Cubans, simple peasants or workers, who tell me proudly how their daughter is studying to be a doctor or their son to be a bio-chemist. They point out that no country in the world is a pure democracy and that multi-party elections every four years are no guarantee that a government will meet the needs of all its citizens. They’re right of course. Cuba had scores of political parties in the decades leading up to the Batista dictatorship but the country was a democracy in name only. No-one could claim it was a government that represented the majority of Cubans.
So what about the model of socialist democracy that operates in the country today? There is no question that it is very different from the standard American or British models. On the plus side the political system is based on popular participation and citizens can have a meaningful say in matters that affect their lives on a daily basis. And within its own parameters, it appears to work. As one unbending supporter of the Revolution told me: ‘I’m not saying we have not made mistakes, we don’t have a perfect model either. But I prefer the errors of the Revolution to the virtues of capitalism.’
But the system is also tightly regulated, closely monitored and highly controlled.
The Communist Party of Cuba (CPC) is the only legal political party and it permeates all aspects of life – every workplace and every co-operative has a cadre of Party members. Most of the positions of power and responsibility in all the so-called ‘mass organizations’ (the Young Communists, the Federation of Cuban Women, the Cuban Workers Central, the National Association of Small Farmers) are dominated by Party loyalists. As the CPC programme says: ‘The political organization of our society is based on the principles of Marxism-Leninism... and the CPC is the directing force of this system and of all society.’
At the bottom are the neighbourhood-level Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs). These are organized on a block-by-block basis and are voluntary. The CDRs act as legitimate channels for community problems but they also function as useful posts for Party militants to keep track of their neighbours’ business and to intimidate dissenters. As one Cuban exile said: ‘You know the local CDR can search your house at will; you have to account for your guests, the smells that come from your kitchen, your clothes, everything.’ *
Next are the assemblies of Poder Popular (People’s Power), local legislatures created in 1976. And at the top is the National Assembly to which delegates were elected by direct ballot for the first time in 1993. You don’t have to be a Party member to run for either of these bodies and there are elected members who aren’t. But they are a minority. Since what Cubans refer to as the ‘triumph-of-the-Revolution’, it’s been assumed that Party members are the most socially conscious and most dedicated revolutionaries. For anyone with ambitions Party membership is pretty much obligatory.
The National Assembly is dominated by CPC members and the major players in the country’s two top governing bodies, the Consejo de Ministros (Council of Ministers) and the Consejo de Estado (Council of State) are also members of the CP Central Committee or the Buro Politico (Politburo). Fidel Castro is indisputably in command of both Party and state political structures. He is President of the Councils of Ministers and State and First Secretary of the Communist Party and Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
The end result of this close interweaving of Party and politics is a diminished democracy which lives up to Fidel’s famous dictum: ‘Inside the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing.’ Dissent and critical debate are allowed, but only to the extent that they support the over-arching goals of the Revolution. Going beyond those limits is not tolerated. Over the years many of the regime’s vocal critics (and even some of its supporters) have voted with their feet rather than put up with unacceptable restrictions on their civil and political liberties. As for those Cubans who remain, they simply accept the need for compliance and get on with their lives.
‘More and more Cubans are now living with two faces,’ my friend Edmundo tells me one day. We are returning from a visit to his sister and his car is misfiring badly because the black market petrol he’d bought had been cut with water. He is complaining about the inefficiency of state controls and the common practice of pilfering on the job. ‘On one hand Cubans accept the situation, they don’t say anything and get on with living the best they can. At another level they are fed up.’
You can hear that kind of cynical comment often but it needs to be placed in context. Even though Edmundo has a brother in Detroit, he has chosen to stay. That is not untypical: every second Cuban seems to have a relative in Miami or New York. But not all exiles are right-wingers, bitterly opposed to the Castro regime. The majority left simply because they were looking for a more secure and prosperous way of life. Those who remain, like Edmundo, would rather put up with the devil they know than the one they don’t – despite the hardships and limited political freedoms.
A poll commissioned by the Miami Herald in 1994 confirmed strong popular support for Fidel Castro’s government: 69 per cent of Cubans think of themselves as revolutionaries, socialists or communists and 58 per cent on balance think the Revolution has more achievements than failures. Even the special rapporteur for Cuba of the UN Human Rights Commission, Carl-Johan Groth, says the regime enjoys ‘a credibility and a margin of confidence in broad sectors of the population far greater than observers have believed’.
That majority backing needs to be recognized by critics, especially those in Washington. Inside Cuba there is no evidence of support for the continuing US trade embargo. Nor is there much support from the international community. Last November in a UN resolution censuring the embargo only Uzbekistan and Israel voted with the US. Even the pro-business US Chamber of Commerce has called the embargo ‘behaviour unworthy of a great nation’.
Continued American belligerence has strengthened President Castro’s grip on the country rather than weakened it. Cubans have always rallied around their leaders in tough times, heeding calls for increased solidarity and vigilance against external threats.
Yes, there have been inexcusable human-rights abuses. But they cannot be discussed outside the context of American hostility. Would any country have been able to nurture an open, tolerant political culture when the world’s mightiest nation 140 kilometres away has been conducting a kind of undeclared war against you for four decades? Intimidation and hostility have been met with intolerance and paranoia.
At the same time the Cuban people are waking up and beginning to look with new eyes at the world around them. The bearded guerrillas are now near retirement and the question of succession hangs in the air. Who will follow Fidel? And what course will the Revolution take next? (see ‘Following Fidel’ above).
On one hand Cubans see the social chaos and economic suffering caused by resurgent capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe. And on the other they look with horror at their Latin American neighbours where neo-liberal economic policies are ravaging the environment and widening the gap between rich and poor. Neither is an example of capitalist development which instills much confidence.
Cuba is on its own in a world where there are no more models. And that is why the island can still remain an example for the rest of us. The creaking edifice of Cuban Communism has shifted dramatically since 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Bloc. And it will continue to shift. More than half of all Cubans have been born since the Revolution. They want to protect the gains of socialism but they are demanding a more open political structure where the rights of the individual are in balance with the rights of society. They are impatient with the all-knowing, rigid paternalism of the old guard.
If the Revolution is to survive it will need to become more flexible and more open to divergent political views in order to achieve a broad democratic consensus.
In the meantime the country’s flirtation with market economics may prove President Castro’s biggest challenge yet. Protecting the country’s social welfare achievements while negotiating the perilous tightrope of globalization will require both a single-minded dedication of purpose and a keen sense of balance.
* ‘Searching for Middle Ground: Cuba’s Chronic Dilemma’ by Holly Ackerman, Peace Magazine, Toronto, Jan/Feb 1997.
A man of great charisma and dazzling intellect, Fidel Castro is now 71 and showing signs of age. Few can imagine Cuba without their comandante en jefe (commander in chief) but a number of newleaders wait in the wings:
Ricardo Alarcón (age 60) Confidante of Castro, President of the National Assembly and former UN Ambassador. Alarcón (right) is a clever, seasoned diplomat and veteran of the revolutionary underground. Touted as the most likely successor.
Carlos Lage (age 46) Vice-president of the Council of State and Minister of the Economy. Former paediatrician, architect of recent economic reforms. Urbane, bright and articulate. Bound to be a front runner.
Raúl Castro (age 66) Minister of the Armed Forces, veteran of the guerrilla struggle. At the apex of power since 1959 though always in his brother’s shadow. A political hard-liner with emotional attachment to old-style Soviet orthodoxies. Age is against him but control of the Army means significant clout in the choice of any new leader.
Roberto Robaina (age 42) Former leader of Communist Youth, now Minister of Foreign Affairs. An astute, able, dedicated socialist with strong ties to the Party and Fidel. Possible member of any collective leadership which may emerge.
SEPP SPIEGL / CAMERA PRESS