American Democracy, a Lesson for Cubans

by Nelson P. Valdés

On the 22nd of April of this year USAID announced its yearly cycle of seeking proposals for its "Outreach to the Cuban People" Program for 2002. (M/OP-02-916). Since 1996, USAID has awarded more than $15 million "to support Cuba’s transition to democracy." The United States government has been so concerned with "democracy" in the island that it has spent over $1.00 for each Cuban child, adolescent and adult in the island.

The "successful applicants"–says the request for proposals- is expected to "increase the flow of accurate information on democracy, human rights and free enterprise to, from, and within Cuba." Each applicant can received anywhere from $400,000 to even one million dollars.

Although the taxpayers’ money ends up in the pockets of Cuban exiles, we have decided to write this piece and publish it in a Cuban newspaper, without charging anyone. We certainly hope that this piece will contribute to a thorough understanding on the part of the Cubans on how "democracy" operates in the United States, where I live. Moreover, maybe the US Interests Section in Havana will distribute this information to all those Cubans who visit them in order to learn about the American democratic system and "free market economics" (i.e. capitalism)–which is a stated goal of American policy.

A fundamental aspect of democracy is elections. You should know that in our democratic system presidential contenders have a limit on how much they can spend–if they receive federal funding. Yes, the federal government can finance candidates (but only if they obtained a certain % of the votes on a previous election. You might think that such practice is not fair for new political parties, but as President Jimmy Carter stated, the world is not fair.)

In the 2000 presidential election the Federal Elections Commission (it writes the rules on expenditures) established that if a candidate for president accepted funding from the government, the candidate could spend $40.5 million in order to obtain the nomination for his respective party (Democrat or Republican). In the United States the political party does not select a candidate, rather candidates propose themselves to the party–and that costs money. Once the political party selects someone as its candidate, then the party candidate can spend up to $67.5 million during the presidential election. Moreover, each of the two political parties is also allowed to spend up to $13.6 million for its respective nominee. Each party can spend as well as $13.5 million on each of the two party conventions. Overall each candidate has a spending limit of about $122 million. If one agrees to public funding you then get another $122 million for each candidate from the federal government.

In other words, each candidate could spend the modest amount of $244 million to become president of the United States. You might think that is a lot of money, but as W. C. Fields said once, we in the United States get the best presidents that money can buy. However, you should know that spending limits are not applicable if a candidate decides not to accept federal funding, then the sky is the limit on how much you can spend on your campaign.

Although this is a fascinating aspect of market democracy, it is not the fundamental concern of this report. Nor do I want to discuss the "inefficiencies" of counting votes. You probably heard about that during the last presidential elections. Let me just note that besides uncounted votes, in the last election 5 million votes actually disappeared. This is one of those unexplained phenomena that our scientists have not been able to comprehend or explain, it just happens. We know though that it is easier to trace the path of neutrinos than to capture the invisible hand of democracy.

This report, however, is going to discuss demographics. And we are going to concentrate on voter registration and voting in the presidential elections of two years ago (2000). For those who might doubt the information provided here it should be noted that the material comes from the US Census Bureau report issued on February 2002, entitled Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2000: Population Characteristics.
In the year 2000 there were 203 million Americans of voting age (Over age 18). Of those, 186 million were US citizens and had the right to vote, only 130 million registered to vote.

Yes, in the US it is not an automatic right to vote, you have to activively do the necessary paperwork in order to become a "registered voter." So, 56 million never registered to vote. Of those who registered to vote (130 million), 19 million did not vote either. Thus, 56 million plus 19 million= 75 million people who can vote just did not do so. Out of 186 million Americans who can vote, 111 million do –although 5 million votes magically disappear. In as sense they vote but are not counted, so we end with 80 million Americans who are not a part of the American democratic experience.

In the last presidential election only 27.5% of "Hispanics" (Cuban Americans are included here) who were citizens voted. Out of every 100 Hispanos 42 were not registered. Sixty percent of all the U.S. unemployed who had the age to vote did not do so, and only 51% of the employed decided to participate. In our market democracy, voter participation closely follows income. The more income you earn, the more people vote. 72% of those with incomes of $50,000 or more voted. But, if income was less than $10,000 then 62% just did not vote.

There is a correlation between income level and registration as well as voter participation. The poorer Americans are, the less they are involved in the democratic process. Moreover, you should know that the rate of participation in elections in the US consistently has dropped since the 1960s. So we have 80 million Americans that should be involved in elections but are not. They are United States citizens. In fact, in the last presidential election only 49% of the American who could vote did so.

So, the question that you might wish to consider is this: How come the U.S. federal government is so concerned with democracy and elections in Cuba? After all, Cubans are not American citizens. Why spend about $1.00 for each Cuban, regardless of age, to promote "democracy"? I guess less than 6 million Cubans are more important than 80 million American citizens.

You are lucky, we are not.

Nelson Valdes is a professor of sociology specializing in Latin America at the University of New Mexico. He can be reached at: nvaldes@unm.edu


 

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