A turning point for a “single-party popular democracy”?
Ordinarily, elections in one-party political systems do not generate much interest outside the country in which they take place. In Cuba, the process that started last September and will conclude on April 19 undoubtedly represents the most important election since 1979 — the year the first popular vote took place, almost two decades after the Cuban Revolution succeeded in 1959. For the first time in nearly 60 years, someone from outside the Castro family will lead the country and serve as the primary guardian of the revolution. Although the change at the top of the Cuban regime may not constitute a radical change in the political system, the symbolic significance of a post-Castro era cannot be overstated.
In Cuba, as in the rest of the world, voting is a learned behavior. The older generations, which have been practicing this activity since 1979, take the “democratic” nature of this process very seriously — even when the outside world might raise an eyebrow at the use of the term “democratic.” Younger Cubans are unlikely to brag about or even discuss the democratic values of their country, unless they appear in the lyrics of a rap song in the U.S. or a reggaeton hit in Havana. Scholars of voting behavior tell us that this is because electoral politics might be lost on some of the younger and more apathetic segments of the population.
When one considers the particulars of the Cuban political system, it is not difficult to imagine an uninspired electorate. In Cuba elections are a single party, multi-pronged process that starts with the election of municipal representatives and concludes with the selection of the president. Last September, voters selected their local representatives and candidates from among their neighbors, union members and other professional organizations. In March, voters elected 605 members of the National Assembly of People’s Power, who will go on to pick the country’s next president on April 19. At each step along the way, the highly centralized and bureaucratic power structure certified, approved, and thus, limited the choices that the voters would have. Because the state controls which names appear on the ballot, the process limits transformation at the top levels of government. Stability is assured because there can be no “further revolution” at the ballot box when the opposition is denied participation.
Voter behavior and political intent
The recent election in Cuba demonstrated some level of voter fatigue, if not apathy, within “the most perfect democracy in the world.” While high voter turnout can be viewed as evidence of the legitimacy of a state, authoritarian regimes often manipulate election results for this purpose.
According to the preliminary figures for voter turnout during the March 11 parliamentary elections, 82.9 percent of voters went to the polls. While this is a high index of participation compared to the U.S. (where 61.4 percent of registered voters voted during the 2016 presidential elections), this is also the lowest number since the first Popular Power elections in 1976.
A careful analysis of the results in Cuba suggests that although some change is taking place in the electorate, Cuban voters are either not ready or unable to demand a complete overhaul of the system. Because only 1.26 percent of the ballots were cancelled or invalidated, the Cuban state can claim victory over the overt “counterrevolutionary” forces that had called to protest the electoral process, such as the Cuba Decide campaign. In spite of this, the results did indicate significant shifts in the Cuban electorate, including the unusually high 17.1 percent abstention rate. In addition, among those who did vote, 20 percent rejected the highly suggested party line of a “united vote.” In other words, 33.7 percent of the Cuban voters did not “fulfill their patriotic duty as instructed.” This result is almost as shocking as the fact that the government reported this fact in an open and transparent way.
The question that remains moving forward is what the 33.7 percent were expressing and whether the new Cuban government will figure that out. The new government has an obligation, if not a need, to ensure that different segments of Cuban society are advancing in the same direction. Of course, even if the new government can determine what the 33.7 percent were trying to express, addressing those concerns will present a significant challenge to a post-Castro Cuban government — whether they decide to respond to them or simply suppress them through a more authoritarian approach.
This electoral cycle in Cuba is undeniably important and historic. With the forthcoming presidential vote and assured change in leadership, the larger picture is also unique, and might signal a historic break: a younger population seems less interested in politics while seeking a place in a changing economy; Venezuela, a key ally, is in shambles; the U.S. is renewing hostility by reversing the opening of diplomatic relations during the Obama administration; and, no less importantly, an emergent political class is experimenting with (and, some would add, savoring) timid forms of economic liberalization.
Ironically, at a time in Cuban history when a democratic opening seems to be presenting itself, the U.S. government is relegated to the sidelines through its foreign policy toward Cuba. As we prevent trade with Cuba and limit our contact with the country, the Cubans are filling the void by returning to traditional trade relations and influence from China and Russia. The goodwill created by the diplomatic opening during the previous administration is virtually gone, along with American influence on the island and American support for emerging free-enterprise entrepreneurs. The real tragedy is that a moment in time when collaboration seemed viable is now lost.
If history is a guide, the first vice president of the council of state and the council of ministers, Miguel Díaz-Canel, will be selected as the nation’s president on April 19. The affable 57-year-old engineer from Santa Clara served as minister of education in 2009 and has deep roots in the Partido Comunista de Cuba. He is seen as a vehicle for a transition without a rupture. In a recent speech, he stated: “I don’t conceive of any ruptures in our country; I believe we have to have continuity.” While this statement might generate uneasiness among those who are seeking change, in the coming years a new form of politics should be seen in Cuba.
Díaz-Canel has already demonstrated the political skill necessary to govern in changing times. When subtle suggestions were made that he might not be as rigid a revolutionary as the Castro brothers, a leaked recording expressing his contempt for counterrevolutionaries emerged. While these recordings seemed to satisfy the military and others, those who want a more open society remain certain that he will be a reformer. Díaz-Canel is emerging as a Cuban everyman and savior simultaneously, representing hope to those who want change and stability to those who fear it.
With the passing of the so-called “historic generation,” a new form of political engagement will certainly develop. Without the political currency of the Cuban Revolution and under pressure from a population with increasing access to small business ventures and the internet, Cuba may be ripe for change. One thing is certain: given the current state of U.S. foreign policy, the United States will most likely be relegated to the role of observer rather than that of participant and partner, something both countries may eventually regret.
Luis Duno-Gottberg is a Baker Institute Rice Faculty Scholar an associate professor of Caribbean and film studies at Rice University. Greg Thielemann is an adjunct associate professor at Rice University.