Democracy and US Policy on Cuba

Primo io, dopo io, sempre io, viva io.

Benito Mussolini

Our government has said for years that the purpose of its Cuba policy is to bring democracy to Cuba’s people who it says lack it but need it. Unfortunately, one of the most important things we lack in this mass community of 270 million people we’re trying to create is a common English language for our political discourse. It’s not just that conclusory words like “democracy,” “socialism,” “capitalism,” “imperialism,” “liberalism,” “conservatism,” “terrorism” have become so vague as to be virtually useless (as time goes by the reality underlying the concepts, being dynamic, changes). It’s also that each person develops his or her own understanding of these words based on his or her learning, which often differs considerably from the understandings of others. Our common language deteriorates and the essential ingredient of community — communication — disappears, leaving us like those who lived in the Tower of Babel.

Since the word democracy derives from the Greek word “demos” meaning “the people,” it would seem that to have an intelligent connection to the past it must involve people participating somehow in the important societal decisions which affect their lives, such as “government by the people,” an idea that the people can collectively manage their societies. Because in mass society each individual cannot meaningfully participate in decisions for the whole, it has come to mean decision making by “representatives” (career politicians in the United States) who are said to decide and act on behalf of the people who elect them.

US political philosopher Cliff DuRand indicates that the core of the idea of democracy is the possibility of collective decision making about collective action for a common good. He says this is the opposite of the concept of democracy found in US popular consciousness today which defines democracy as the freedom individuals to decide on their own about actions to pursue their own purposes. (DuRand paper presented at U. of Havana, June, 1997)

The question of freedom brings to mind the observation of the lawyer Cicero at a time when the Roman republic was deteriorating into empire: that freedom is the participation in power. There seem to be two interrelated types of freedom: “freedom from” (domination, coercion), and “freedom of” (meaningful participation). History indicates that the more participation we have, the less necessary the coercion, since we are more likely to accept and implement decisions we joined in, or at least had an opportunity to be heard on personally or by true representation. Significantly, the US has at least double the number and percentage of people incarcerated in any other nation, whereas Cuba is known for its relatively low incidence of crime.

The men who set up the US government were not so dishonest as to call it a democracy, rather its form was said to be that of a republic. Our revolution was essentially an act of political decentralization by propertied white males who wanted the power to run things here rather than submit to a parliament in London. They sent their delegates to Philadelphia in 1787 to frame our political institutions so as to limit popular participation, protect their class, and structure the government so that it could not interfere in their private pursuits, which is precisely what they did. As DuRand points out, this gave institutional backing to a turning away from collective action toward a culture of individualism, where the state, rather than the means for pursuing action for the common good, becomes an instrument limited to ensuring the conditions for pursuit of self interest, promoting a privatization of life.

Today in the US the common interest is seldom the real basis of political decision at the national or state levels. Although it’s often given lip service, it’s usually by politicians and others serving private interests. Rather than through public institutions, individual and group interests are pursued in civil society where they are not subject to any common good test until they reach the national level. The victors in the self interest game are always the business organizations because they are considered by the law to be “persons” with all the rights and priveleges of real persons and they are able to amass and invest in politicians and the media much more money than real persons can, or even unions or environmental or other special interest groups no matter how large they are (such groups not being involved in the business of making money).

Increasingly larger, more centralized, wealthier and therefore more powerful, far beyond any control by owners or government, with common values and aims, a relatively few businesses fund our politicians and mass media (for most of us our only information source) and through them obtain our support for the key policy decisions they make for us. Their ideology says there is no common — only private — good, therefore our political institutions should not be changed. Such a system can only accurately be described as a commercial oligarchy because those who have the power are pursuing private rather than public interests.

Although the dice are loaded against most of us, we Americans have apparently chosen for ourselves to continue playing the self-interest game. This does not mean, however, that we should accept or allow US oligarchic interference in the political institutions of other countries which have made different choices, particularly those whose people face entirely different circumstances and are pursuing different kinds of national projects. To impose our political standards on them would be the ultimate travesty of the idea of democracy.

The Cuban revolution, arising from an economic rather than political crisis, defines the nation by a different project. Under conditions of neocolonialism, the needs of property owners became secondary, and after the initial period the revolution was able to widen the scope of public affairs to include the human needs and social justice demands of the workers and unpropertied people as its driving force, with the government becoming the institutional structure for popular participation in collective decisions about action for social change. This was embodied in the Cuban Constitution, adopted in 1976 with 76% voter approval out of over 90% of eligible voters participating, and amended in 1992 by more than three-fourths of an elected National Assembly as constitutionally required. In June of this year over eight million Cubans, more than four-fifths of the adult population, signed declarations in support of their constitution.

In the US and all other so-called liberal democracies the national governments are essentially both oligarchic and authoritarian rather than democratic, however democracy sometimes occurs at the local government level or in private special interest groups. The authoritarian character of our governments results from economic centralization at the nation-state level and the size and complexity of the resulting mass societies being created — something peculiar to our last two centuries when technological innovation has been transforming our economies and our populations have been increasing exponentially.

For the same demographic and economic centralization reasons it’s also true that the so-called socialist democracies have been to differing extents authoritarian at the national level — but not oligarchic where, as in Cuba, their national projects have come to operate collectively for the benefit of all. The class nature of Cuban society has gradually disappeared, with the propertied people either giving up most of their property or leaving. Under the 1992 changes to Articles 3 and 5 of the Cuban Constitution, the ultimate sovereignty of the republic rests in the people, from which derives the power of the state; and construction of socialism has become the project of the whole nation with the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) its political guide.

I’m not suggesting that the collectivist approach is inherently superior to the individualistic. Both are pursued by countries in a proportion that suits their national projects. Most societal functions are better performed locally or by private groups, which can be democratic. There will always be questions about which things the government can perform efficiently and well for the common good and which are better done when privatized.

For example our government seems to have taken for granted that one of its primary functions is to help US businesses make profits in foreign countries, even where it involves exploitation of people or empowering oppressors or conducting “regime changes.” Under the guise of national security it has developed an enormous and expensive weaponry system and established military bases and “intelligence” networks all over world — in reality to promote and protect transnational business enterprise. It seems to have forgotten the common need of Americans to have friendly relations with foreign peoples. It’s not in the interest of our families to have relatives killed or injured in faraway places, or to be attacked by suicidal terrorists at home, or to give up our freedom for security. A democratic US government acting for the common good would consider the obvious alternative. It could privatize its role in helping US businesses operate in foreign lands, let them deal themselves with foreign laws and governments, and allow any necessary coercive functions to be performed by international organizations, perhaps a more democratic United Nations.

Social change is structural — it occurs by changing institutions rather than personalities. Democracy at it’s most basic level (the individual) is a desperate human need, but democracy in modern mass society is not a reality, rather it’s oligarchic myth. The contradiction between the individual and the community has been with us from the beginning and as far as we know it always will be. The larger the community, the more difficult it becomes to transcend. At this stage in human development, the only kind of democracy that exists or can exist is the grassroots variety. Mass democracy is propaganda, one of the ways our national oligarchies have managed to maintain the political status quo in the face of dramatic technological and economic change.

In order to make progressive change, we must first get back to reality. If we start from fantasy, change leads us only to another fantasy. The political institutions Cubans have developed over the last forty years are based on their reality — what has worked for them in pursuing their socialist project, which has enjoyed enormous and increasing popular support in the face of economic hardship and struggle.

Last May 20 our President stated in Miami that he might end the blockade and our other attempts to isolate Cuba if they will hold free and fair elections with multiparty candidates and comply with some additional political conditions he requires. Cubans have been holding elections at the local, provincial and national levels for many years, which are at least as free and fair as ours. Political parties are not mentioned in our Constitution. In the early days of our republic they were frowned on, George Washington especially discouraged the idea. Nor are political parties referred to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The US idea of the necessity or advisability of multiple parties is another oligarchic myth. It leads people to believe they have choice in political decisions and maintains the political status quo.

Political parties are not involved in Cuba. The PCC is not a political party in our sense, rather it’s an organization of political activists (about 12% of the adult population are members) which under Article 5 of the Cuban Constitution organizes and orients common forces of the revolution. The PCC Congress, which meets every 5 years, is its highest decision making body. Delegates are elected by its local and provincial branches. Implementation is by its Central Committee (150 members) and its political bureau (24 members) which operate on the principle of democratic centralism. People work their way up through the PCC based on their ability and merit as determined by peers. It encourages free expression of ideas and respect for differences of opinion, within the ideals of the revolution.

Cuban government bodies at the municipal, provincial and national levels are autonomous, positions are elective and neither parties or PCC are involved in elections. Candidates are elected for short terms, and are accountable and subject to recall. They are not career politicians: neither personal benefit or advancement influence their decisions. All citizens are entitled to vote, the ballots are secret and Cubans vote in much higher percentages than Americans. Rather than a coercive or dominating force to be feared and limited, Cubans view government as the primary structure for participation by the people in collective decision making. They participate at the grassroots through elections and personal and group appearance at local government meetings and as activists through special interest organizations often but not always sponsored or encouraged by the state under Article 7 of their Constitution.

In the so-called liberal democracies, the multiparty system is a thing of the past if one is speaking of the value based political party. All modern nations are ruled by elite’s who are in agreement as to the general nature of their project and the actions they take on fundamental issues. In the US the so-called two party system offers no real choice regarding basic values, approaches, ideology or policy, particularly as concerns structural change in the political economy. There are some differences in emphasis and rhetoric, which are usually highlighted in the media. But in reality the two parties function primarily as money raisers and accounting firms for the candidates, who are elected on the basis of their celebrity, incumbency, financial backing and capability (which permits exposure in the media), administrative abilities, perceived personal characteristics and other matters unrelated to party values. They must think and talk within the narrowing “mainstream” in order to get mass media attention and become serious candidates. Over 85% of our Congressional races are either uncontested or not seriously contested.

Correctly perceiving that our “representatives” are in reality acting on behalf of powerful private interests — which situation can’t be remedied by voting for major party candidates — an increasing majority of eligible Americans don’t vote, despite all the urging they get. Although in the past two centuries we have enfranchised new groups, such as unpropertied people, racial minorities and women, it’s clear that voting every two or four years for national or state candidates is not an accurate barometer the quality of our democracy.

If an unbiased observer from another planet were to try to make an assessment of democracy in the US nation as compared to Cuban nation he would probably conclude that the US is ruled by elite’s on behalf of commercial and business interests, whereas Cuba is ruled by elite’s on behalf of working and poor people–that is, the whole nation, because everyone in Cuba is now in our sense poor individually, most of the property being held in common. To compare the quality of true democracy, he would focus his attention on the grassroots, where some people of both countries can and do participate meaningfully as activists, either before local government boards, which have jurisdiction in limited areas, or in special interest organizations, usually limited to one area.

The Cuban Organs of People’s Power (OPP’s) are responsible for administration at the municipal and provincial levels and for legislative and constitutional matters at the national. Locally they’re analogous to our town and county governing boards, but with much broader authority. They deal with community issues such as economic enterprise, construction, health, employment, social services, environment, elections and many other matters. They meet frequently and publicly and have substantial participation by individuals and groups, which results from their broad authority. Decentralization of political power, which permits and promotes popular participation in decision making, has been going on in Cuba for more than twenty years.

There are many thousands of Cuban special interest groups in which most Cubans participate, seeking to improve their communities. Some are national or provincial only, most of them are local and federated at the provincial and national levels. The local PCC groups do political work, advocating the needs and ideals of the revolution before officials and the public. The more than 20,000 CDR’s (Committees for Defense of Revolution) are neighborhood associations which do almost anything and everything, from locating emergency medical care to improving local peace and tranquility. They are also social and to some extent counteract the atomization and depersonalization of life in modern mass society. Other well known advocacy groupings, which formed naturally from the bottom up and operate that way, are the Women’s Federation, the trade unions, the small farmers’ unions, the environmental groups, the student groups, scientific groups, religious groups and charities, social service groups, professional groups for teachers, nurses, doctors and cultural groups.

These all have quick and easy access to official decision-making, and often are the main players involved in such. Mechanisms exist so that local groups can bring appropriate matters up for discussion and decision even at the provincial and national levels. For the past twenty years Cubans have been pursuing an anti-bureaucracy campaign at all levels, which has had some success although it still has a long way to go. The time consuming formalities and contentious advocacy peculiar to countries dedicated to serving private interests are not seen much in Cuba. The distinction which counts is whether a practice is within or without the needs and ideals of the revolution, which to most people, especially those who participate, represents the common good. The system is geared to operate without lawyers, and the few lawyers there practice mostly in areas involving foreigners or foreign investment. Neighborhood courts usually involve relatively quick decisions by a legally trained judge sitting with a citizen chosen for the case. To Cubans formalities, legal technicalities, jurisdictional infighting, distinctions such as “private — public” are irrelevant.

A foreigner has to adopt a broad perspective, not limited by his own background in a privatized country, to understand and appreciate how politics works in Cuba. In a society where most of the property is part of the common wealth, the people naturally become more concerned with and dedicated to the common interest because it, rather than individual accumulation of money or property, is what serves their self interest. The focus is on people’s responsibility as well as their rights. Problem solving in Cuba usually occurs in a cooperative way, and this happens internally in the local groups where people operate and in their advocacy before local officials. Cuban non-governmental groups have more power as participants than their counterparts in privatized societies, because the amount of money they have or can raise doesn’t matter and everyone sees that they are acting in the public interest as well as their own.

For example the women’s groups pursue post-patriarchal ideals as in other countries, but not in a self interested way, rather to make sure that women are equal participants and beneficiaries in the revolution. The trade unions (over 90% of industrial and construction workers belong) see themselves as having a dual role, to defend workers rights before management, and also to act in favor of values that enhance productivity and other enterprise needs. They accepted a decrease of wages and increase in hours during the “special period” of economic hardship during the 1990s. The environmental and healthcare crises in Cuba, to a large extent resulting from a lack of funds, have led the environmental, health and farmers’ groups to find solutions which don’t require much money. They pursue things like alternative and renewable energy, conservation, recycling, urban agriculture, micro-brigades (volunteer work), community gardens, bicycle transportation, organic farming, natural and alternative medicine and treatments, and many other practices, some of which are innovative and have contributed substantially to human development, especially in poor countries.

In both US and Cuba the national leaders claim to be deciding and acting for the common good. The main difference in how the political systems work has to do with how and by whom the common good decisions are made. In the US these decisions are made nationally by businesses which recognize only private good. In Cuba they’re made by individuals and groups and officials at the grassroots, based on the ideals of their revolution. Although their decisions can be reviewed and changed at higher levels, they usually aren’t.

Obviously there are serious economic problems in Cuba–but they don’t result as significantly from lack of political participation as do the many severe problems existing in the US. Nevertheless, it’s clear that not all Cubans support the revolution and the key to its success will be the people’s confidence in each other — their belief that they can collectively make it happen. When people have to spend most or all of their time individually struggling for the necessities of life, the social bond weakens. Grassroots democracy is what makes it strong.

Our government has embargoed Cuba, unsuccessfully invaded it, sent agents to assassinate its leaders, and allowed US based terrorists to go to Cuba to destroy its crops, its buildings, airplanes and facilities. Under Helms-Burton it blockades Cuba by threatening and punishing foreigners who dare to do business there. By complex and unrealistic financing limitations it prevents medicine, medical supplies and equipment and nutritional food from reaching Cubans. In Latin America it threatens and punishes nations economically for trading and having normal relations with Cuba, and it rewards nations economically for harming or breaking relations with Cuba. It has lost its seat on the UN Human Rights Commission for politicizing the Commission on Cuba issues. It conducts a relentless propaganda campaign against Cuba, and it unconstitutionally prohibits its own citizens from traveling to Cuba to learn what is really happening there.

In the unlikely event that our government ever succeeds in forcing Cubans to adopt a political economy like ours, it will destroy the very significant democracy that exists there at the grassroots. The new and system will likely have to be enforced by a long and severe military occupation. Clearly, democracy for Cubans is not a motive for our government’s policy. It has close, friendly relations with and supports economically many monarchies and other regimes which have never held an election and would never think of holding one. Any reasonable person must wonder what the underlying motive for US-Cuba policy really is. Questions about this must be asked. After all, we’re talking about eleven million people living on an island in the Caribbean. If we don’t like their political system, why can’t we just leave them alone and let them find there own way?

Could it be that something is happening on the island that the world’s only superpower is afraid of? It seems so. Could our oligarchy fear that if the Cuban revolutionary experiment continues succeeding that it’s own drive for world empire will fail by regime change or perhaps even system change here? It seems so.

Article 5 of the Cuban Constitution acknowledges that the political system it creates is based partly on the thinking of its 19th century writer, poet and independence leader Jose Marti. Wanting to learn about the US version of democracy, Marti had lived in the US for several years in the 1890s. Disgusted with elections bought with money and the corruption of the system and resulting commercialization of life he saw, he argued against this type of arrangement for Cuba. A couple of years ago I was given a poster of Marti with one of his sayings on it: “Cuba–al salvarse, salva…” It means: “Cuba–in saving itself, it saves others…”

Tom Crumpacker works with the Miami Coalition to End US Embargo of Cuba He can be reached at: