By Leni Reeves
I was in Cuba for the Nov. 26 elections there. Of course, you’ve been told all your life that Cuba doesn’t have elections, but it does. In the United States, communist-dictatorship is one word, like rocket-ship or barb-wire. You’ve been brought up to think of Cuba as a dictatorship—the term the United States applies to all governments with policies the U.S. government believes might be bad for business.
The elections in Cuba are almost sure to be news to you. I wanted to see the process and take pictures, so I called a friend who is Presidente del Colegio Clectoral #3, Circunscripción #34 (Polling Place No. 3, Precinct 34), in Pogolotti, Marianao, Havana, Cuba, for the Elección de Delegados(as) a las Asambleas Municipales de Poder Popular, that is, the election of delegates (gender-inclusive language) to the Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power.
“Pepe,” I said, “people in the U.S. have no idea that Cuba has elections. Can I watch?” He said, “Anyone can see our elections.” “And can I take photos?” “You can take all the photos you want.”
What’s this election about? Candidates for what? How does it work? Specifics on the process later.
On Nov. 26, I got up early and went around the corner and up the street to Polling Place No. 3, at the next corner. But wait—just halfway up the street at the Roberto Poland Sports Center was Polling Place No. 4. I asked the woman in charge, who I did not know personally, about watching and taking pics. “Yes, you can do that,” and she introduced me around as a U.S. observer. One of the poll workers looked at my slightly Slavic face and said, “I thought the Russians had sent us an observer.”
I asked why there were so many polling places. “So it will be easy to vote and people won’t have to wait in long lines,” she said. Duh. Why didn’t we think of that?
The ballot box was inspected at the start (7 a.m.) to show that it is empty, then sealed and guarded by schoolchildren, with their sharp eyes and literal minds. People arrived, were checked off on the rolls, handed a ballot, went to a screened-off voting booth (the sports center hung curtains) and voted in secret for one of three candidates, folded the ballot, dropped it in the box as the schoolkids gave a little wave-salute and said, “You (formal) voted!”
Many voters were less formal and patted the kids on the head or gave them a kiss. “Hey, that’s my grandfather,” said one little boy, and minutes later, “That’s my uncle!” When his mother arrived, he tried to look very correct indeed. Some kids are serious, some show they’re bored—a boy’s hand wanders to his crotch, a girl does a huge yawn.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly, so I headed up the street to the polling place I’d originally sought permission to visit. Same procedure—a list of voters registered in the precinct, which is every Cuban citizen living in the district age 16 and older resident on the island for two years and not under penal sentence. (The right to vote returns automatically when a sentence is completed.)
One of the poll workers recognized me; we exercise at the same field in the mornings. This gives me a nice sense of neighborhood; it’s always a warm fuzzy belonging feeling when someone knows me from around here, where I spend a bit more than two months each year.
My friend Pepe is buzzing around like a bee, trying to be responsible for everything, and someone suggests a transformer to dial him down from 220 volts to 110; the room cracks up. The diversity among the poll workers and the voters reflects the diversity in the community.
My friends Nora and Gilberto are both incapacitated. She has a serious leg infection, for which she is getting IV antibiotics morning and evening—I do the morning doses, and a doctor and nurse come in the evening. He has a loss of central vision caused by a vitamin deficiency during the Special Period in the 1990s, the period when the United States tightened the blockade after the fall of the Soviet Union in an attempt to starve Cuba into submission. They suffered but did not surrender. The U.S. blockade of Cuba is still in effect.
Gilberto functions looking sideways and with a huge magnifying glass if he needs to read print. All people with handicaps or illness have the right to have an electoral official, complete with two schoolkids, come to their house with ballots that are cast into a sealed envelope and taken back to the polling place.
After they voted, I asked how they chose who to vote for, and they said that they had voted for the incumbent because she had worked hard and done a good job. There were problems she couldn’t resolve but she put in a good try, better than any previous delegate. So she might receive a majority. If no candidate of the three gets a majority, the runoff is Dec. 3.
In general, people say they vote for a delegate who they think will be capable and work hard for the district and be accountable, accessible and good at explaining. The candidate bios have been posted for a month in various public places, but because the electoral districts are not huge (there are 1,331 in Havana alone) and the neighborhoods are stable, people often know the candidates personally.
I go about my day. Someone says, “You ought to go watch the ballot counting.” Can I? “Everyone has the right to watch the ballots counted.” The polls close at 7 p.m., and I’m around the corner at Polling Place No. 4, the Roberto Poland Sports Center. Everyone gathers and looks on as the seal on the ballot box is broken and the ballots dumped onto the table, sorted, counted and observed. There is nothing on the ballot to identify the voter¾just three names, three boxes you could put an “X” in.
Here in Polling Place No. 4, there are 586 people eligible to vote. The total number of ballots voted was 472, but 22 were blank and 34 were invalid because the voter voted for more than one person. In round numbers, 86% of the eligible voters voted and 88% of the ballots cast were valid, but 7% of the voters voted for two or three candidates rather than one as required and 4.6% of the voters cast blank ballots.
The ballots are counted and recounted. The numbers are checked against the number of voters. The results are verified and signed for. The ballots themselves are sealed into envelopes and signed for. Observers—everyone present in the room—must write their name and sign. I didn’t expect this, but I sign. I’m an official witness; don’t tell my government. The election result is posted at the front door immediately after the count is done and checked as well as given to the official responsible for transmitting the result up the line.
Some info about the process.
Elections in Cuba have two phases: the election of delegates to the Municipal Assembly and the election of delegates to the Provincial and National Assemblies.
Candidates for municipal assemblies are nominated on an individual basis at local levels by the local population at nomination assemblies. Nomination assemblies are held about a month before the election. During regular elections, from 70% to more than 90% of the electorate attend the nomination assemblies.
Municipal candidates must be at least 16 years old. The election of municipal assembly delegates also includes the compilation of and posting of candidate biographies, voting by secret ballot and recall. Municipal assemblies are elected every two and a half years.
Candidates for provincial assemblies and the National Assembly are nominated by the municipal assemblies from lists compiled by national, provincial and municipal candidacy commissions. Suggestions for nominations are made mainly by mass organizations, trade unions, people’s councils and student federations.
The final list of candidates for the National Assembly, one for each district, is drawn up by the National Candidacy Commission; the candidates are submitted to the voters for a referendum. If a candidate doesn’t get 50% approval, a new candidate must be offered, and at least half the National Assembly candidates must be “delegados de base”—delegates chosen directly by voters in the municipal elections. Cuba’s national legislature, the National Assembly of People’s Power, has 609 members who sit for five-year terms.
The system is designed to be grassroots driven and immune to the influence of money. The Communist Party of Cuba is the official state party, and various other political parties have been active in the country since the existence of multiple parties was legalized in 1992.
Members of any political group are free to put themselves forward at nomination assemblies and, if they get a simple majority of those present, they will be placed on the ballot and have their bios posted. Elections are officially nonpartisan.
It’s not a top-down process, and the results are not predetermined. Back in the 1980s, before the reforms begun in 1990 that allowed people of all religious convictions full participation in the revolutionary process, my neighborhood, part of Pogolotti in Marianao, chose Clara Rodés, a Baptist pastor, to be their representative. Not eligible, said the authorities, and held a new election. The people elected her again, and this time the Asamblea Muncipal de Poder Popular duly seated her.
(Now, of course, there is full religious freedom, including the right of religious people to belong to the Communist Party. Yeah, I know. That’s another thing you’ve always heard about Cuba—no churches. There is an abundance of churches and of religious celebrations of the Regla de Ocha and other African-derived religions.)
There is some social pressure to vote, though not everyone does, but no way to see whether a ballot is cast blank, or who someone has voted for. Our results were typical—fewer than 5% blank ballots.
So, if elections are transparent and honest, how come Fidel Castro was head of government for all those years? Because the Cuban people wanted this. He was George Washington and independence and national pride and victory and a father figure, and the sense of loss when he died a year ago was overwhelming, although he’d been out of office since 2008.
Why was Raul Castro chosen to succeed him? Because he was a revolutionary hero in his own right. He will step down in 2018, and Cuba will choose a new president. These municipal elections are the first step in that process.
Free and fair elections? Cuba has those. Campaign contributions, paid political advertising and campaigns, paid-for politicians? Nope. No money is raised or spent by candidates or parties. All that money required in the United States to get elected, and we call our system “free”?
From Circunscripción #34, Pogolotti, Marianao, Cuba. This is a tough, revolutionary, often religious neighborhood, and people vote here.
Leni Reeves is a local physician and activist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.