Many people were nursing a hope for change in Cuba with the 2018 elections: a passing on of power and the appearance of new faces in national government. After the list of candidates for the National Assembly of People’s Power was published, which was approved on January 21st, it was confirmed: nothing will change, the same people will continue in power.
The idea of change is the result of the Cuban people’s wishes rather than political interpretations or statements from the Cuban government. The only announcement that Raul Castro has made, which was confirmed in December 2017, is that he won’t continue on as the President of the State Council and Council of Ministers, the highest position in Cuban government. His words didn’t mean a change of power though, as he will stay on as the First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC). Everything seems to point towards minimal change in the rest of the country’s government and political structures, if any at all.
In fact, Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, the first vice-president of the State Council and Council of Ministers and the apparent replacement for Raul Castro as president, said the following at the Municipal Assembly which approved him as a candidate: “This process is an expression of the commitment our people has with the leaders of the historic generation who brought the Revolution to life and its continuity.” Continuity, not a break nor reforms.
In the second stage of the General Elections process, which is scheduled to take place on March 11th, provincial delegates will be chosen (approved) as well as legislators for the National Assembly of People’s Power, put forth by the National Candidature Committee in order to form the State’s top executive body of power, according to what has been stipulated in Article 69 of the Cuban Constitution.
The National Assembly is made up of elected representatives and it is the State’s only branch of power that is elected by the people (directly or indirectly). It is essentially and in spite of its limited functions, the most horizontal and participative framework for democracy in our country’s political design.
Cuban government policies are given “legitimacy” at the National Assembly, they aren’t decided there but they are validated all the same with a raise of hands of the legislators [who meet for a few days twice a year]. The act of voting is reduced to people showing public support for the process, rather than being a key moment in civic participation and in the exercise of their political rights. To date, the National Assembly election has been an act of formal democracy rather than real democracy.
For the first time in the elections of the past 60 years, different people will hold the positions of President of State Council and Council of Ministers and First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC). However, as Article 5 of the Constitution reminds us, “The Communist Party of Cuba… is the superior leading force of society and the State…”, that is to say, it’s above everything and everyone.
After the seventh Cuban Communist Party (PCC) congress, in April 2016, its leader was elected, and Raul Castro will continue as the head of the PCC until 2021. This leadership now confirms the Party’s presence at the National Assembly with the vast majority of its members being elected.
The PCC isn’t an electoral party (it doesn’t take part in the process theoretically-speaking, although it does follow, monitor, suggest and ensure everything). It doesn’t nominate candidates, nominations don’t come from its ranks, but it doesn’t need them to for two fundamental reasons: 1) being a legislator is just a symbolic act at the end of the day, less and less decisions are being made at the National Assembly and 2) just in case, the Party makes sure that its main leaders are put forward via the national candidature committee.
The Cuban electoral system works on the basis of a closed slate ballot where you can’t write in any candidates. Ever since the ‘90s it has a “new” feature: the single vote, a fast way of voting/approving the entire slate with a single cross and making sure that all of the selected candidates are chosen because they need to have over 50% of the vote in order to be elected.
Another thing that candidature committees decide is where the future legislator is going to be elected, which municipalities will vote for them. The law doesn’t force any candidate to present themselves at the municipality they live in and their role in office is understood to be national, even though they are elected by a district in a province.
This ability to “fix the board” ensures that the candidature committee can take other factors into consideration which will favor a candidate’s election. If the candidate would be unpopular in their home municipality (because they know them better and they would have their reasons to not support them), they can be presented at another municipality. This happens with most high-ranking public officials, almost all of whom live in Havana but very few have been elected by voters in this city.
According to official data, the National Candidature Committee, overseen by Gisela Maria Duarte Vazquez (CTC labor federation representative) evaluated more than 12,000 nominations to decide the final 605 candidates. Who were the “other” 11,395 electable candidates? And what were the criteria used to leave them out of the process? The Candidature Committee doesn’t give any explanations, it doesn’t have the obligation to do so in a process that isn’t transparent for the Cuban people.
Maybe this is why the absences of three of the Cuban 5 (who had been imprisoned for long years in the United States, Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino) stirred certain controversy. Maybe this is also why political commentators were left wanting to know why Alejandro Castro Espin, the current head of National Security and Defense, was announced to become a legislator, and then raised eyebrows with his absence from the list.
These elections make sure that the elected legislators, who are mostly in one way or another participants in the government efforts, continue the 2012 elected government’s program, whose results are far from satisfying the expectations that the Party’s Guidelines created.
With so much to do, renewing the government doesn’t sound like a sensible thing to bother doing. The National Assembly is also responsible for putting forward and approving laws, regulating and controlling ministries, among others. That there are legislators today who just do the little they can in the limited framework of their possibilities, without taking a proactive approach, doesn’t mean that they can’t do this. Let’s remember that the only branch of constitutional power which can revoke the president in Cuba is this Assembly.