ppi.009-Charles McKelvey: On Cuban Democracy


Richard Moore

             ppi.009-Charles McKelvey: On Cuban Democracy
                               - - -

                        On Cuban Democracy

                         Charles McKelvey
                      Professor of Sociology
                       Presbyterian College
                      Clinton, South Carolina

                               - - -
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    a public service of CADRE (Citizens for a Democratic Renaissance)

Publisher's note:

This piece by Charles McKelvey was published over cyberjournal on 31
January, but it's important enough that I want to be sure our new
subscribers see it as well.

It is preceded, for contrast, by a posting from Sten Solberg which
expresses the standard, media propaganda-inspired view of Cuba.


Date: Tue, 5 May 1998
Sender: "Sten Solberg" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Re: PPI-025-Thoughts about a better world

On Sun, 3 May 1998 04:30:48 -0700 (PDT), Richard K. Moore wrote:

 >But the most clear example of how a system can be rapidly converted to one
 >that "takes all this into account" is Cuba.  It was not the case that the
 >people of Cuba needed to become "enlightened", nor was it necessary for
 >earth-shaking ideological breakthroughs to occur, it was simply necessary
 >to set up a democratic regime, a regime which was set up structurally so
 >that the will and needs of the people could inform and guide the apparatus
 >of government.

For all what might ail Western democracies, Cuba can never become a
model for improvements. Cuba is a relic of socialist authoritarianism and
the persecution and social terror that any authoritarianism must rely on.
Some prefer to label Cuba an outright dictatorship. The finer differences
between these two forms of government are indeed, in the case of Cuba,
subtle enough to justify leaving the choice between the two labels to
anyone's personal taste.

Three things are certain, though:

1. The era of authoritarian socialism is at an end.
2. The Cuban system, which was never anywhere near being democratic,
        is dying. Only Cuban party officials might conceivably mourn it.
3. Employing Cuba or any other example of authoritarian socialism in order
        to further justice and other good causes, is doomed to be counter

Time to think. Are we looking for a Strong Man or do we sincerely want
improvements? We must choose.

Sten Solberg


Dear Sten,

I agree with your _principle, that we want real democatic improvements, and
not any kind of "Strong Man", but I think you are believing things about
Cuba that simply aren't true.  I hope you find Mr. McKelvey's essay


Charles McKelvey <•••@••.•••> wrote to wsn:

     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

     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

     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.

Charles McKelvey
Professor of Sociology
Presbyterian College
Clinton, South Carolina


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