Cuba Votes as Fidel Castro Steps Down

A Cuban woman casts her vote during parliamentary elections on Jan. 20 in Havana. (Photo: Adalberto Roque / AFP-Getty Images)

As the Jan. 20 Cuban national elections came to an end, after which Fidel Castro predictably announced his future status as a civilian with only his self-assigned responsibilities, Washington flat out rejected the results of the elections, claiming that they were, like all of Cuba's post-1959 ballots, illegitimate.

With the enactment of the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the United States defiantly declared that the Cuban communist government does not "encourage free and fair elections to determine Cuba's political future," and that, "the Cuban people have demonstrated their yearning for freedom and their increasing opposition to the Castro government by risking their lives in organizing independent, democratic activities."

With Tuesday's news that President Castro is immediately stepping down from his office and will not be a candidate to succeed himself, the Bush administration has not eased up on its contentions that the Cuban elections are rigged by the Cuban Communist Party and that Cubans do not elect their own representatives in an entirely open manner. Despite these claims, party officials and many ordinary Cubans remind their critics that the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba in 1992 declares that "all citizens, with the legal capacity to do so, have the right to take part in the leadership of the state," either directly or through their elected representatives "and to participate as prescribed by law in the periodic elections and people's referendums through free, equal and secret vote."

As the United States and Cuba have exhibited dramatically conflicting beliefs about the authenticity of the island's democratic electoral system, who is the American public to believe? Do Cubans actually only cast votes on pro-communist ballots? Are the Cuban elections legitimate? Why is the Cuban Communist Party the only legal party on the island?

As Americans see themselves as citizens of a free, democratic country, which tolerates diverse and distinct political views, they must understand the relatively exotic nature of Cuba's electoral system, the skewed perspective of many of its citizens, and the fundamentally unique nature of its history before any evaluation regarding the legitimacy of Cuban elections can begin. We must first start by analyzing the electoral system that Fidel Castro has left for Cuba.

Cuba's Electoral System

The Cuban electoral system is almost inexplicable when compared to that of the United States and other Western nations. Gerardo Bencomo, a Cuban citizen and a historian at the prestigious Cuban government-sponsored Casa de Las Americas cultural institute in Havana, explained, "Only candidates who are nominated by ordinary citizens are allowed to run for local office." In this process, electoral commissions are set up at the municipal levels. These are formed by citizens known for their exemplary work within the community who also are regarded as loyal to Cuba's revolutionary ideals and its present leadership. The right to vote is the only precondition to attain membership on the electoral commissions. Neither the Communist Party of Cuba nor any other political or social organization officially sponsors these steps in the process. Subsequently, Bencomo said, "the electoral commission uses a simple hand-vote to select the list of nominees for the municipal elections and for half of the provincial legislature offices." At this point, 12,000 municipal council representatives and half of the provincial legislatures are then elected by eligible voters by means of a secret ballot. The effectiveness of the electoral system depends on the high rate of participation at these local meetings where candidates for the next level are selected. The municipal elections are an essential element of the evolving Cuban representative system, which will indicate promise as long as true engagement and unfettered rights of Cubans to choose their candidates are respected.

National Assembly

According to the respected worldwide, nonpartisan Inter-Parliamentary Union, candidates for the other half of the provincial seats and the National Assembly of People's Power "are otherwise proposed by … [municipal and provincial electoral commissions] which [are] comprised of representatives of workers, youth, women, students, and farmers as well as members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. The final list of candidates, (which corresponds to the number of seats to be filled), is drawn up by the National Candidature Commission, after taking representing local block groupings into account, criteria such as candidates' merit, patriotism, ethical values, and revolutionary history." Although the number of candidates listed on the ballot is exactly equal to the number of seats open in the provincial legislature and the National Assembly, the candidates still must win 51 percent of the votes to get elected. Unlike in Australia and Argentina, among many other countries, voting in Cuba is not mandatory. However, electoral commissions may keep tabs on those who habitually do not vote. Non-voters are then sometimes labeled as unpatriotic and may even be subject to a fine. So, citizens are normally well motivated to vote. Nevertheless, Bencomo states that "voters can enter the voting box, where they have the choice to destroy their ballot or place an X next to 'refuse to vote.'" The point is that Cubans don't have to participate in elections even if it means annulling their ballots, and even though voting is considered a patriotic act in Cuba.

The Batista Reign

Cuba's electoral system is very different today from the one that operated on the island prior to 1959. Before the Castro revolution occurred, the existing electoral was cynically manipulated by the Fulgencio Batista regime, as deceased Cubans miraculously were exhumed and then voted, while government sympathizers were allowed to cast multiple ballots. According to the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the 2003 national elections reflected a 98 percent voter turnout. Conversely, in 1944, Ramón Grau San Martin was elected president of Cuba with only a 45 percent voter turnout rate, and in 1954, a similar situation occurred when Batista was elected with a voter turnout rate of 46 percent. The high abstention rates in Cuban elections before 1959 compares with the 2000 presidential election in the United States, where George W. Bush was elected with only 37 percent of all registered voters. Needless to state, the legitimacy of Bush's electoral victory is still being aggressively debated today.

While I was studying at the Casa de Las Americas in Havana, the president of the country's national assembly, Ricardo Alarcón, expressed his perspective on Cuba's developing democracy as he talked to our class. He stated that he believes the democratic process in the national assembly is improving because members in the parliament have to be nominated and then elected by the community. Hugo Chávez enthusiastically has labeled Cuba's electoral system as a "revolutionary democracy," while other Cuban sympathizers routinely call it "grassroots democracy."

The 2008 Cuban Election and Opposition Groups

On Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008, Cubans voted to elect members to the national parliament and to fill the other half of the open provincial seats for five-year terms. The new 614-member national parliament—National Assembly of People's Power—will elect a 31-member Council of State (which includes the ministry positions) as well as the nation's president from within the legislative body in February. Similar to the United States, with its Electoral College, Cubans technically indirectly elect their president.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry reported that in October of 2008 "more than 8.1 million voters—95 percent of those registered—cast ballots to elect more than 12,000 delegates to 169 municipal assemblies across the island." According to BBC News, several dissident groups, with a history of being ignored or denounced by Cuban authorities, once again boycotted these municipal elections. For the Jan. 20, 2008, provincial and national elections, Reuters reported that a resounding 96 percent of registered voters turned out to cast their vote for provincial bodies and the National Assembly for People's Power elections.

The Role of the Communist Party

Critics of Cuban elections are quick to claim that voters are compelled to vote for communist party members because they are afraid either to abstain or to cast their ballots against the official candidates. Cubans, in fact, consistently tend to elect members who have significant ranking within the regime. According to the Latin News, the election of Raúl Castro and other members of the regime to the National Assembly in the Jan. 20 elections carried with them no surprises because "there were 614 candidates for exactly the same number of seats in congress." However, despite the fact voters do not have to vote for the candidates listed on the ballot, and that the candidates need to obtain more than 50 percent of the votes to get elected, to say that voters are intimidated to vote for Communist Party members ignores the fact that many Cubans actually eagerly vote for them because they passionately believe that the party officials advocate for the progress of the Cuban society as a whole. It would be simplistic to conclude that Cubans are forced to vote for members of the regime. These blanket statements contribute to the prevailing, albeit relatively uninformed, United States analysis of Cuba's electoral process.

On the other hand, several Cuban-American anti-Castro groups, as well as dissident bodies within Cuba, together with human rights organizations in the United States, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and nongovernmental organizations (such as Human Rights Watch) claim that Cuba's elections lack legitimacy because nonofficial factions are either ignored or barred from participating in the electoral process.

Although dissident groups are not legally recognized by Cuban authorities, their justification for not recognizing such groups formally is based on the argument that some of these small opposition parties are allies of the United States, Cuba's most lethal enemy, which poses a mortal threat to the existing regime. As the United States often has succeeded in obtaining a high degree of penetration into different types of dissenting groups, some specialists believe that the Cuban government can contrive a case for justifying the unwillingness to extend political freedoms to certain cohorts because to do so might pose a national security threat to the island nation. This is because instances of the manipulation of dissent in the island by United States agents are beyond dispute.

Posada Carriles

In October 1976, two bombs exploded on a Cubana Aviación flight killing all of the 73 passengers on board. Freddy Lugo and Hernán Ricardo Lozano, who worked for Luis Posada Carriles' private detective agency in Venezuela, admitted that they carried out the bombings in the name of democracy and under the instruction of the Cuban exile terrorist. According to the National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 153, relating to International Terrorism: Connection to United States, "the C.I.A. had concrete advance intelligence, as early as June 1976, on plans by Cuban exile terrorist groups to bomb a Cubana airliner" and "another document shows that the F.B.I.'s attaché in Caracas had multiple contacts with one of the Venezuelans who placed the bomb on the plane. He was provided a visa to the United States five days before the bombing, despite suspicions that he was engaged in terrorist activities at the direction of Luis Posada Carriles." The latter is classified by both Cuba and Venezuela as a "terrorist," allegedly funded by the United States, who, in 1997, carried out a series of terrorist bombings in the tourist district of Havana in order to obstruct the growth of the tourist sector.

Venezuela and Cuba charged that the United States was funding the terrorist Luis Posada Carriles and now United States government archives substantiate their allegations. Along with these attacks on Cuba, the Bay of Pigs, and other subversive involvements such as multiple attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, these forays often have caused well-merited paranoia in the upper stratum of the Communist nation, let alone with ordinary Cuban citizens. Havana has been compelled by external events to treat with suspicion all segments of society who are not enthusiastically associated with the Cuban revolution. While the regime has displayed a determination to do everything possible to uphold their revolutionary policies—espousing universal health care, free education, eradication of illiteracy and racism—the Cuban government also tracks domestic and foreign dissenters abroad deemed to be mercenary groups at the service of the United States. However, as assassination and domestically subversive attempts have decreased, Havana is allowing a broader representation of religious and civic organizations to reestablish their presence in the country.

The all-pervasive bellicose attitude by the United States toward the Cuban regime unquestionably has been a factor in discriminating against dissident figures on the island, some of whom may actually be ordinary Cubans who are trying to promote legitimate change on the island, in their own person, without United States direction or complexity. The Christian Liberation Movement, the Ladies in White, the Lawton Foundation, and the Assembly to Promote Civil Society are dissident groups in Cuba said to promote democratic freedoms and economic and social change on the island. They also bear witness to the imprisonment of political dissidents who have been unjustly detained by the Cuban government. Up to now, the government has not often been able to make a strong case that these dissident figures were subversive. For example, in 1988, Oswaldo Payá and his supporters formed the Christian Liberation Movement, a secular group of Catholics, to strive toward implementing "real" democratic change on the island. In 1997, members of the Christian Liberation Movement collected hundreds of signatures in support of Payá's candidacy to the National Assembly. It was the first time that ordinary citizens without vital communist connections had presented themselves as candidates, albeit with limited popular support and without the government's backing. However, to the surprise of only a few, the electoral commission did not accept their candidacies. In 1998, the group initiated the Varela Project—based on a referendum that if its strategy would be approved by the government, would allow for an open ballot on pressing political goals. These could have been used to implement the right to guarantee freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of press, free elections, and the right to operate private businesses, as well to see the granting of amnesty for all political prisoners. Dissidents backing the project presented a collection of more than 10,000 signatures of Cuban citizens to the authorities. The unofficial national referendum was ultimately ignored by the National Assembly during its 2004 legislative sessions.

However, the faculty and staff at the Casa de Las Americas, along with other Cubans with whom I spoke while studying in Cuba for a three-month period, expressed their concern regarding the activities of the island's dissident groups. Like the Cuban government, they are also skeptical of such forces and the democracy movement in general because of their memory of the Bay of Pigs, the 1997 terrorist bombings against Cuban hotels occupied by foreign tourists, and past assassination attempts against Castro. So, Cubans may feel compelled to support pro-government candidates because the Cuban leadership is adamant about not yielding to would be or putative foes that are feared throughout the island.

Many Cubans believe that the dissenters intend to undermine revolutionary principles, such as national independence, when opposition groups could be able to infiltrate the country's vital institutions. Most Cubans trust the Cuban Communist Party to guide the nation toward economic prosperity and ideological purity since the party, loyally backed by much of the citizenry, already has been moderately successful in the eradication of the severe social distortions that were to be found in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Now the government finds itself in a struggle to prosper economically while facing an embargo being maintained against it by the world's richest nation.


Flaws are fully apparent in Cuba's electoral process, but then again, as we have recently seen, the same is true with the United States' equally troubled electoral process. While Cubans directly choose the candidates for municipal elections by means of a pyramidical system, United States voters merely decide from the limited number of choices they are given to make their selection. Similar to the United States voters, Cubans indirectly elect their president. Cuban officials emphasize the point that candidates have earned the respect from their constituents rather than from being able to outspend their opponents as often occurs in the United States.

If legitimacy and implementation of free elections is an issue of great concern for the United States, Washington should also strive toward pressuring some of its authoritarian allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates to implement free elections also. Before the United States starts critiquing the Cuban electoral system, Washington should end its contradictory policy of expressing selective indignation toward the shortcomings of leftist regimes while displacing preferential treatment toward right-wing governments.

From the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.