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Arnold August’s Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion is a richly documented and thus very detailed description and analysis of the history, theory, and practice of democracy in Cuba. Based on several years of participant observation in Cuba, in addition to numerous research trips since 1991, Cuba and its Neighbours provides a close-up view of the Cuban process of democratization, primarily focusing on the past decade. This work builds on his first book on Cuba, Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-98 Elections (Havana: Editorial José Martí, 1999), which was based on participant observation during the elections spanning 1997-1998 and focused on the electoral process. In the 2013 book under review here, August focuses on the forms of direct democracy and popular power that exist in Cuba today, the role of mass organizations, the National Assembly, the Communist Party, and the history of Cuban constitutions, set in a wider regional comparative framework that also includes discussion of democracy in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and the US. It is a “must read” especially if you have been trained to accept the orthodox dogma that Cuba is merely a “dictatorship,” a “tyranny” that is exclusively dominated by “the Castro brothers”. August’s book does great justice to the complexity and historical development of Cuban democracy, and no discussion on that subject should proceed if one has not first read this book.
August’s interests in this area go back at least four decades, to when he was a political science student in Montreal in the late 1960s. He was part of a movement to “open the curriculum,” to include “new approaches to the South that did not encompass only theories and analyses based on the racist assumption of innate superiority that dominated academia in the North at the time” (and still today). (August, 2013, p. xiii). His aim in this book is to broaden our understanding of democracy, our understanding of Cuba, and of democracy in Cuba. He does so by bringing to light what is too often ignored, the development of a “grass-roots and revolutionary political culture” (August, 2013, p. xv). His ethnographic work involved living in Cuba for a period that spanned years, participant observation in elections, attendance in municipal assemblies and at the National Assembly, participating in meetings of the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba (CTC), and dozens of interviews with National Assembly delegates, professors, journalists, and trade unionists, among others.
What follows immediately below is a summary and overview of the text as a whole. In part 2 of this review essay, August’s book is placed within a much broader discussion on plural and diverse understandings of democracy, on democracy and political anthropology, and comes back home to discuss the nature of our democracy, at the elite level and in the everyday.
Chapter 1, “Democracy and U.S.-Centrism,” brings to the fore the question of different types of democracy, and he warns against Eurocentric misconceptions surrounding the concept of democracy (August, 2013, p. 2). His argument is that “democracy” cannot be discussed without taking into account the social and economic system in which it takes place (p. 3). Interested in alternatives, he begins by considering socialist systems compared to capitalist ones. With reference to socialist systems, he argues that though they meet a political definition of democracy by constructing collective ownership of resources, either directly or via the state, that does not automatically translate into a real and effective distribution of power. For that to occur, what is needed is participatory democracy, “the people’s ongoing daily involvement in the political and economic affairs of the country” (p. 4). He also prefers to speak of “democratization” rather than “democracy”: democratization “stresses democracy as a progression, constantly in motion. ‘Democracy’ as an abstraction tends to be fixed in time, restrained by predetermined structures and often without any socio-economic content” (p. 5). In challenging Eurocentric conceptions of democracy and politics, enshrined in the modern disciplines created in the West in the late nineteenth-century, August instead directs our attention to the political understanding of Cubanía, of Cubans thinking for themselves–“Cubanía means…putting things Cuban on the agenda” (p. 9). He also shows throughout his book that the Cuban revolutionary system possesses its own originality–it is not some copy of an imported ideology or system.
Chapter 2, “Democracy in the U.S.,” involves an examination of how the US political system works, in a critical examination of US exceptionalist ideology that claims the US as a model of democracy for the rest of the world, the “city on the hill,” the “light of the world,” and other imperial US-centric reproductions of Eurocentrism. August does this so that we can better appreciate the differences presented by the Cuban case. He takes us through a history of the emergence of the US political system and its dominant liberal-capitalist ideology. Turning his attention the US Constitution, a document he sees as “devoid of sentiment and inspiration,” he notes its two glaring omissions: the term “democracy” is not mentioned in it, and the idea that sovereignty is vested in the hands of the people is non-existent (p. 19). In practical terms, August examines the US’
methods of political exclusion–from the early exclusion of slaves and ex-slaves from all politics except participation in the military, to contemporary disenfranchisement of ex-convicts (very significant, in a country with the largest prison population on the planet), to various practices that work to disenfranchise African-Americans. He also surveys the low level of voter turnout in the US and the large and increasing degree of voter apathy. Otherwise, this is a fairly wide-ranging chapter, that moves from an analysis of the “Obama phenomenon,” to the 2012 elections, voter registration, and US foreign policy under Obama and with specific reference to Cuba.
Chapter 3, “Exploring Democracies in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador,” begins by considering new experiments in participatory democracy in Venezuela, with what first appeared (however mistaken the impression) as a top-down revolution, instead serving to inspire and facilitate new forms of bottom-up political participation, while also diminishing the power of the traditional elites/oligarchy. August provides a detailed overview of the impressive stream of electoral victories won by Hugo Chávez in hotly contested but free and fair multi-party elections. More than that, August points to the drafting of the new Constitution, which involved mass participation, producing hundreds of proposals apart from those made by parliamentarians, that were incorporated into the Constitution (p. 46). Direct participation at multiple levels of the political system in now protected by the Constitution, as are basic socio-economic rights. August’s descriptions and analyses of the similar paths taken by Ecuador and Bolivia is especially useful as a summary and for those who have little knowledge of the two cases. His argument is that, “participatory democracy is linked to the actions and aspirations toward a social system (socialism) that negates the sanctity of unlimited oligarchic accumulation of private property” (p. 71).
Chapter 4, “Participation in Constitutions, Elections and a New State (1868-1952),” provides a valuable historical overview of the experiences and ideas that served as precedents and inspiration for Cuban ideas of grassroots democracy. Tradition matters, as August explains:
“Cuba has a rich, homegrown experience and custom regarding constitutions, elections, the state and the battle for democracy that originates in the nineteenth century. There are two common threads: first, the participation of the people, and second, the value of social justice over and above private property as the sole consideration. These motifs have necessarily meant the defence of Cuban sovereignty, at first against the Spanish colonizers, and then U.S. neo-colonial and imperialist interests”. (p. 77)
Charting the history of homegrown constitutions in Cuba, August begins with the figure of Félix Varela in the 1820s, a religious leader who inspired ideas of mass participation, fighting against foreign domination, and the liberation of slaves. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes adapted ideas inspired by the French Revolution; he turned against Spanish domination and then set an example by freeing the 20 slaves that worked on his estate. Along with the freed slaves, he formed a small army of liberation, involving about 500 collaborators. Céspedes founded a Republic in Arms, with Bayamo as its capital, and a rudimentary local government that included former slaves. The first Cuban Constitution thus came about as a result of the Liberation Army and the formation of the Guáimaro Constituent Assembly established in 1869. Emerging from the ranks of the Liberation Army, and in opposition to some of the backtracking and reversals of resistance leaders over the years, General Antonio Maceo led a new wave of anti-Spanish resistance during the First war of Independence (1868-1878), and he campaigned for the total abolition of slavery. Maceo and his followers drafted the new constitution of the Republic of Cuba in Arms, known as the Baraguá Constitution of 1878. José Martí introduced the concept of a party to lead the nation and the revolution. Organizing in exile, Martí formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party (PRC) in 1892, and then led armed expeditions to Cuba in alliance with supporters on the island during the Third War of Independence (the second one, the “small war” of 1879-1880, was vanquished). During his time in the US, Martí also became critical of the dominance of the two-party system, seeing both parties as equally abusive in governance, both manipulated by powerful business interests. Martí also articulated a critique of US imperialism which, after Spain, he saw as coming to stalk Cuba. For Martí, the principal contradiction to be solved was that which existed between the Cuban people and Spanish colonialism and the new imperialism of the US–it’s important to remember this point when reading part 2 of this essay. After solving the first contradiction, Martí argued, the Cuban revolution would then need to tackle the social contradiction, that is, the injustices of unequal wealth distribution. Building on the ideas of Martí, Cubans wrote for themselves their third constitution, the Jimaguayú Constitution of 1895. The result was to broaden participation and to extend the franchise to youths, sixteen years and older, which is today a distinguishing feature of the Cuban political system. The Yaya Constitution was the fourth constitution drafted in the 1868-1898 Wars of Independence, which established the right of universal suffrage, and the right to free education. Following a brief review of the events leading to US intervention in Cuba in 1898, and the US’ subsequent domination of the island until 1959, August points to the significance of the 1933 Revolution and the 1940 Constitution, for what would come after 1959. The Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), founded by a close ally of Martí in 1925, played a critical role in the 1933 Revolution along with students and workers. The 1940 Constitution, which was an attempt to deal with the forces unleashed in 1933, became what August calls the most progressive constitution in Latin America at the time, symbolically signed in Guáimaro, where the first constitution was signed in 1869.
Chapter 5, “Democracy, Elections and the New State,” is one of the pivotal chapters in the volume. It opens with some of the text of an address by Ernesto Ché Guevara, following the attack on the Moncada garrison of July 26, 1953, led by Fidel Castro. In that text Guevara made it clear that Cuba was rejecting any imported dogmas, and that the Cuban Revolution would be led by the ideals of Martí, the program of the Cuban Revolutionary Party (PRC), and the traditions that pertained to the fighters of the Liberation Army of the previous century. Fidel Castro’s famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech, also spelled out the ideals of this revolution. In that speech, Fidel proclaimed that the 1940 Constitution would be the supreme law of the state. Properties would be redistributed to workers and peasants. Education would be free. The US had every intention of preventing such a revolution from happening, and August describes some of the overt and covert interventionist measures taken by the US to fight against the revolutionary forces and to install a government favourable to US interests. The US media, as usual, played a supporting role as well. After Moncada, one election brought pro-US Fulgencio Batista to power, unopposed. The next election, less than two months before revolutionary forces were victorious in 1959, was such a shambles that even the US government privately admitted that no acceptable election would be possible in Cuba. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled and the Cuban revolution led to the formation of a Provisional Revolutionary Government. The PRG nominated Manuel Urrutia as provisional president, and he in turn appointed Fidel Castro commander of the armed forces. The 1940 Constitution was adopted, along with more revolutionary modifications, and remained in place until 1976. The Agrarian Reform Law was passed on May 17, in a country where US interests owned 75% of all the arable land. Private and state lands were distributed to agricultural workers, either individually or to co-operatives. There was to be no “compensation” for US land interests after the nationalizations. Reasonably enough, most Cuban workers and peasants saw this new government as their government, one that ruled in their interests alone, and what democracy sought to achieve in principle, in the past, had thus been achieved in practice, in the present. Democracy became materially real, not a lyrical promise. At a large rally held at the Marta Abreu Central University in Las Villas, Santa Clara, Fidel Castro raised the question of holding national elections for a new government. Numerous people at the event shouted disapproval at Castro, and booed him. This was not the last time Castro would raise the question in public; on subsequent occasions the mass response to the question was always negative. The years that followed would witness ambitious and extensive new programs, offering free health care, and the 1961 Literacy Campaign which resulted in 700,000 more people learning to read and write.
August substantiates his point that much of US scholarship on Cuba suffers from a blind spot when it comes to participatory democracy in the country. If multi-party elections were rejected it was because they symbolized the old order when a minority ruled in the interests of a minority–such a system not only coexists happily with oligarchy (as we ought to know), it serves it. Even the US State Department had to admit in 1960 that “the majority of Cubans support Castro”. In building up the participatory feature of the new Cuban political system, Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) were established at the neighbourhood level. Just one year after their founding in 1960, more than 800,000 Cubans voluntarily participated in these associations. A counterpart of the CDR are the National Revolutionary Militias (MNR), that were first established in the autumn of 1959. The Literacy Campaign was also built on grass-roots participation, and one of the key organizations behind it was the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). Local government was also redeveloped from 1961 onwards, with elections for municipal delegates organized in neighbourhoods and places of work from 1966. This was known then as “Local Power,” and as August explains, was the first systematic attempt to create government institutions that were directly accountable to the public. At the party level, multiple leftist organizations and movements developed a new Cuban Communist Party (PCC) by 1965, the passage of years reflecting the critical degree of work required to bring together multiple factions. By 1970, the PCC launched an effort to further democratize the revolution by suggesting the creation of Organs of Popular Power (OPP). A new Constitution was also drafted. This was not some party dictate–the draft was taken to the public, and discussed in schools, workplaces, in rural areas, and by the end of the months of discussions there had been 70,812 neighbourhood meetings with 2,064,755 participants (p. 114). In 1976, by universal, secret ballot, the Constitution was approved by 97.7% of voters, with a voter turnout of 98%. After that, municipal, provincial and national elections took place that resulted in the formation of the National Assembly of Popular Power (ANPP). The PCC, meanwhile, never functioned as an electoral party.
Chapter 6, “The 2011-12 Communist Party Congress and Conference: Democratization and the Press,” reviews the role of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) in the political system, in light of the fact that most outsiders see its very existence as somehow the antithesis of “democracy”. This is one of the important features of this book: August is essentially challenging the idea that Cuba can be accurately described as a “one-party state”. It is a state that has one party, but that one party does not represent the sum total of either the locus or method of Cuban political participation. The PCC, as August shows, was not “imported” from the Soviet Union nor developed to be a copy. Instead, understanding that the revolution could only thrive and reproduce itself if the majority of Cubans supported it and felt they had a stake in it, the PCC’s main role has been to open up new paths of popular participation, in what August calls “democracy in motion”. The other significant facet of this chapter is its discussion of “free press” in Cuba. The interesting thing that August points out is that Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution stipulates that “citizens have freedom of…the press,” but it must be “in keeping with the objectives of socialist society,” and “can never be private property” (p. 132). I especially like and fully support the latter point in particular, that the media should never be privately owned, private ownership producing anything but “free” press, let alone intelligent, useful, informative, open, balanced press, none of which are qualities of our supposed “free media”. The other valuable feature of this chapter is that we see the degree to which August’s work is the product of ethnographic research, and the degree to which he maintained a vibrant dialogue and engagement with numerous Cuban scholars, journalists, and elected officials.
Chapter 7, “Elections in Contemporary Cuba,” remains possibly the most important chapter for me, and yet it is one of the longest, most detailed, and thus requires careful attention. Elections take place at three levels: municipal, provincial, and national. The Communist Party is not involved in either nominating candidates or electing them–as August explained above, it is not an electoral party, nor does it control the totality of the political system. There are general elections (every five years), that occur in two phases that together take seven months to complete, and partial elections. In the first phase, each neighbourhood in a municipal district nominates a delegate by show-of-hands vote, and then selects from the nominees in a secret ballot. Delegates who are elected to the municipal assemblies, themselves elect the presidents and vice-presidents from among themselves. The delegates serve on a voluntary basis, after work hours. The presidents and vice-presidents function full-time in their positions, and receive the same salary they received at their place of work. In the second phase, delegates are elected to provincial assemblies, and to the National Assembly (ANPP). Delegates elected to municipal assemblies account for 50% of the deputies sent to the ANPP, and are known as “de base” deputies since they were elected at the neighbourhood level. The other 50% of ANPP deputies are “directos,” directly appointed by any of the six mass organizations in Cuba. Elections, however, do not represent the entire political system in Cuba. On the other hand, the municipalities and their system of direct election and mass participation are critical because in Cuba the municipalities are the ones responsible for directing “the economic, production and service entities locally subordinated to them, with the purpose of meeting the needs for economic, health care, assistance, educational, cultural, sports and recreational services” of the people within their administrative area (Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, quoted in August, p. 155). In other words, in practice Cuba’s system of governance is decentralized. As mentioned before, mass organizations in Cuba also play a monumental role in the political system. There are six such organizations: (1) the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba (CTC); (2) the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC); (3) the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP); (4) the Federation of University Students (FEU); (5) the Federation of Pre-University Students (FEEM); and, (6) Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR). This chapter is also an ethnographic one, in that the author talks about his own role in observing the electoral process, and even the counting of ballots, significantly facilitated by the fact that he lived with the family of one of the deputies discussed. Other parts of the chapter discuss voter turnouts–always impressively high–but also the increased incidence of spoiled and unmarked ballots.
Chapter 8, “The ANPP and the Municipality: Functioning Between Elections,” is a chapter whose contents are distributed across the main themes of the volume, in what appears to have been intended as a concluding chapter. Additional content presented here involves the work of the Council of Ministers, and the Council of State, in passing decrees, but also how the ANPP and the mass organizations themselves can and do initiate legislation. What is not clear is how certain individuals retain a nearly constant presence at the executive level such as Fidel and then later Raúl Castro. The answer to this came about thanks to a perceptive student’s question in class when August visited us the second time, in October 2014. The fact is that certain heroes of the revolution, as they are described, retain positions of leadership on that basis. That fact, however, is not sufficient to account for the entire character of the Cuban political system because, contrary to stereotypes, misconceptions, and falsehoods regularly peddled in the Western media and by Western leaders, the system is not one man at a desk issuing orders. Indeed, most of what are called “dictatorships” in the West are not that, and are significantly more complex, which if we tried to engage with their complexity we might also understand why after many decades they retain markedly high levels of public support.
“The Future of Democratization: Facing the Tests,” is an unnumbered final chapter that serves as both conclusion and epilogue. Throughout the book, at different points, August critically raises questions of excessive bureaucratization and corruption as threats or impediments to democratization, which he takes further in this chapter. In addition, he continues his sharp critique of the US political system, in an intellectual act of returning fire that I personally welcome very much, and would like to see more work in this vein.
Finally, August ends with a telling statement, especially relevant to the recent “opening” with the US: “Cuba’s enemies have not been able to defeat Cuba since 1959, nor do I think that they will, despite all the resources at their disposal” (p. 232). Only someone who has been deeply immersed in Cuba and who possesses deep knowledge of its history could write that. It is a welcome antidote to the kind of imperial wishful thinking we see circulated in the US’ Fortune 500 “free media” and voiced by the US State Department, which is unwittingly echoed in the “despondency theory” (Sahlins) of some putative anti-imperialists who see such opening in gloom and doom terms (though as someone with very old autarkic leanings, I can understand their sentiments). The Cuban revolution as described by August is one that is constantly in motion, not static, nor monolithic. Anyone expecting it to roll over and die is in for a surprise.
Dr. Maximilian C. Forte, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Slouching Towards Sirte.
This review originally appeared in Zero Anthropology.