Comparative Democracy: Revolutionary versus Capitalist

Review of Cuba and Its Neighbours

Recent times have witnessed a number of pseudo-revolutions like in Eqypt, Tunisia, Philippines, and Indonesia where leaders of the old order were overthrown, but the corrupt system remained in place, and a new servant of the system was brought in. Cuba is an important anomaly; it is one of the few lands where a genuine revolution pulled down a capitalist system of oppression and replaced it with a people-centered system.

For daring to be a successful revolution, for daring to stand as a symbol that there is a viable alternative to the capitalist order, and for persisting as a reminder that capitalism can be replaced, Cuba is a country that evokes scorn and intrigues from the bastion of the capitalist order. The United States has imposed an illegal economic embargo and run several violent CIA-backed operations against Cuba.1 Yet Cuba – comparatively – thrives, and the Revolution continues. Isaac Saney captured the essence in the title of his informative book – Cuba: A Revolution in Motion.

Writer Arnold August, similarly, captures the dynamism of Cuba in his book – Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion. He compares and contrasts democracy in Cuba, the US, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.
August begins by defining democracy, noting that etymologically it means “power of the people.”

The US is usually referred to as a democracy, specifically a representative democracy; the idea being that voters choose from a slate of candidates someone who will represent them. There are many serious flaws in America’s so-called democracy. Why “so-called”? Because if the people are effectively powerless then by its core definition, democracy is non-extant. This characterizes the situation within the US since so-called representatives function largely independent of their constituency. Numerous examples adduce this; a stark recent example was the popular will opposing a bailout of Wall Street and supporting aiding homeowners. Representative democracy did not respect the will of the people.

August contrasts the American constitutional right to accumulate private property with the Cuba emphasis on socialism and social justice. (95) “The entire political superstructure reborn as U.S.-centrism is an offshoot of Eurocentrism: individual property and expanding capitalism, with the added powerful dose of racism applied inside and outside its own borders.” (20) Succinctly, the so-called US democracy provides a limited right to vote for candidates whose views are largely a function of money and access to media. The result speaks for itself: a choice between the lesser evils of two corporate parties.2 Is that democracy?

August finds that “the crucial step to democratization will have been achieved only once the modern-day oligarchy – holders of private property – is forced to give up at least part of its wealth and privileges toward the well-being of the people.” (52; italics added by reviewer) Can wealth be fairly accumulated, and does one segment of society deserve privileges that do not belong to all people in society?

cuba_augustAugust examines the movement toward participatory democracies in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia through the empowerment of the people, the workers, and Indigenous peoples. This has meant the wealth and property of the nation belonging to the people. Hence, constitutionally hydrocarbons now belong to the people of Bolivia, and water is a right of each person. In Ecuador, the Indigenous “principle of sumak kawsay, the Kichiwa concept of a Good Life (not just living better)” endorses the Bolivian commonwealth of the people and steers away from the US- and Euro-centric ideologies. The conceptualization of nationalizations in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela has made all three countries the targets of coups. What does a coup against a popularly elected government represent, if not a disrespect for democracy?

The later chapters of Cuba and Its Neighbours are devoted to the evolution of democracy in Cuba, which stands in stark contrast to the relatively static nature of American democracy, as if American democracy was already apical. Imperialism is central to US government policy, thus the Monroe Doctrine became de jure doctrine. Therefore, when grassroots resistance developed against Spanish colonial masters in Cuba, the US saw this as an opportunity to exploit the explosion aboard the USS Maine as a pretext to war against Spain and seize colonies for itself. The question arises whether a nation can be judged to uphold democracy and constitute an exemplar of democracy (a beacon on the hill, so to speak) while it subjugates the peoples in nations beyond its shores?

Can the US be construed as democratic when it supports dictatorships abroad, such as the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, and oppose the democratic will of the liberated Cuba people? The problem, as August points out, is that the Cuban Revolution, headed by Fidel Castro, pursued socialism. Consequently, the US oligarchs sided with the capitalist class of Cubans that flocked to the US.

August compelling portrays the refusal to hold elections early after the victory of the Revolution in 1959 as democratic; conversely, to have held elections at that time would have been anti-democratic, as the people did not want them, at least not under the old system. (104-105) Since then Cuba has made impressive strides in democratization, and in 1975 a new constitution was approved by 97.7 percent of the population with a 98 percent voter turnout! (114)

The Cuban Revolution does face challenges within its own borders, and these pose a danger to participatory democracy: namely, bureaucracy and corruption, which the Revolution is fighting to defeat. (153)

Another challenge is maintaining press credibility. Writes August, “Independence is the sine qua non of socialism in the Cuban context. The paradox is that what is presently limiting freedom of the press in Cuba is not socialism.” (134) The source of the problem lies with “those bureaucrats and corrupt individuals who are fighting against updating socialism.” (135)

August identifies renewal as vital to the Revolution and socialism. Addressing some of the criticisms against updating socialism,3 avering that “Cuba is clearly not moving toward capitalism.” (144) Augusts supports this contention by noting the new tax system is designed to oppose private property accumulation and reduce inequality through income redistribution. (223)

In the final chapters of Cuba and Its Neighbours, Cuban democracy is laid out for the readers. Among its facets are:

  • “the right to vote is recognized by the state without any effort of the voter” (146)

  • secret ballot universal suffrage

  • minimum voting age is 16 (157)

  • municipal elections involve no candidate expenses and no campaigning

  • municipal delegates work as volunteers (except presidents and vice-presidents who receive same salary as at workplace)

  • up to 50% of municipal delegates are elected to Parliament (ANPP) and are known as de base deputies

  • the other approximately 50% of parliamentarians, known as directos, are nominated directly by organizations; everyone not already elected to municipal assembly, can be a directo

  • ANPP deputies are volunteers with some exceptions such as president, vice-president, secretary of the ANPP

  • a candidate must receive 50+% of the vote

  • the president is chosen by the ANPP

Other features are a high voter turnout which contrasts with voter disgruntlement in the US (57.5% in the 2012 US presidential election) while even municipal elections draw 90+% in Cuba.

A cross section of Cuban society is represented in the ANPP. In 2008, women constituted 43.2%; Whites 64.3%; Blacks 19.2%; Mestizos 16.45%. These demographics are pretty much in line with the Cuban census figures. Further in depth insight into Cuban elections and composition of the governmental bodies is beyond the scope of this review; read Cuba and Its Neighbours.

So what about the Castros? August asserts, its “a question of quality and not … a question of nepotism.” (193)

In the consensus-driven Cuban system, representative democracy finds ill favor. “Participatory democracy should dominate over the concept that the elected ‘represent’ the electors, who maintain a relatively passive role.” (212)

Cuba and Its Neighbors does not sugarcoat the situation in Cuba. There are challenges. Democracy in Cuba is not perfect, but the Revolution strives; it is an ongoing process. The basis is that power resides in the people, not as a motto, but as a practical reality.

If you are interested in what kind of democracy, or whether democracy exists in any form in Cuba (especially compared to the US), the western corporate media is a dubious source of information at best.4 I highly recommend grabbing and reading August’s Cuba and Its Neighbors with an open and skeptical mind. Inform yourself and reach your own conclusions.

  1. See William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2000). []
  2. I have written on lesser evilism on several occasions, among the more recent articles are: Kim Petersen, “The Utter Futility of Lesser Evilism,” Dissident Voice, 24 May 2007; “Evilism: There Is No Lesser,” 29 July 2011: “No Such Thing as Lesser Evilism?” 6 November 2012. []
  3. See Ron Ridenour, author of Cuba: A Revolution in Action (2010): “Cuba’s New Reforms Bode Shaky Future,” Dissident Voice, 5 December 2010. []
  4. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon Books, 2002). The propaganda Model elaborated by the professors compellingly destroys the notion of a free press in the US, and likely applies in other western capitalist societies. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.