Elections. What for?

Havana, Sunday, April 19, 2015. That was the day when lawyer Hildebrando Chaviano and activist of the Independent and Democratic Cuba movement (CID) Yuniel Lopez participated as candidates in a secret and direct election for an office and the day when dozens of members of the Ladies in White movement were arrested around noon after attending a mass. A paradoxical situation similar to that which occurred in the recent Summit of the Americas held in Panama: the event attended by Cuban democrats suffered disruption by communist mobs led by Abel Prieto, while the General President Raul Castro Ruz was trying to establish a new relationship with his geopolitical foe.

On Sunday, April 19, over eight million Cubans were called to participate in the socialist elections and deposit their vote in one of the 24,000 ballot boxes. Candidates competed for over fourteen thousand public offices at the primary level (Administration and People’s Council), which will later form municipal governments controlled by the Communist Party.

Everything seemed to run smoothly – no wonder, the election was an act of the most perfect democracy in the world, as the government defines it, and there can be no doubt that the public offices will be resumed by the supporters of the “single party”… Unless… Actually, for the first time in the fifty years of dictatorship, official candidates of the regime competed for offices with opposition candidates – independent nominees appointed by the public. However, their participation in the election was marked by the impossibility to make an independent electoral campaign which would comply with the Law, the Communist Party’s dominance of the media and partiality of the National Electoral Council (CNE), which, of course, favoured the governing party. Also, the opposition suffered from various internal maladies such as lack of structure and institutional framework that would help its candidates face the challenge and fought with insufficient financial and logistic resources.

The sixty-five-year-old lawyer and independent journalist Hildebrando Chaviano Montes, resident of the el Vedado municipality, was one of the candidates for public service appointed by the neighbourhood he lives in. He had a simple program: to serve his neighbours the way he would like them to serve him. Well aware of his handicap in the election, he didn’t expect to defeat the official candidate – he knows well all the tricks that the government uses to push their nominees to the posts. After the ballots were counted, he learned that he received over 30% of the votes, which he considers a major political triumph as these elections gave citizens an opportunity to use their votes to choose an alternative to the governing political party.

Member of the association of independent lawyers known as “Corriente Agramontista” and the “Candidatos por el Cambio” movement, Chaviano was the head of the team that composed letters of objection against partiality of the National Electoral Council, which were delivered to the Provincial Tribunal of the capital of Havana and the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP). The letters questioned the role of the Council, accusing it of partiality.

The “Candidatos por el Cambio” (Candidates for Change) is a movement coordinated by Pastor Manuel Morejon. It sees itself as an independent (non-party) platform, which seeks unity among various opposition platforms and strives to boost citizen participation in elections in an attempt to find what they call a “good government”. With this intention, the movement organized pre-election trainings and meetings of opposition members in 13 municipalities in seven provinces of the country. In these meetings, candidates were nominated after the example of the Venezuelan Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).

Candidate nomination meetings in individual districts were held until 25 March and only 5 of the 15 presented candidates won the nomination on a show of hands in an environment of inertia characterized by acts of repudiation against independent candidates.

Yet, independent nominees are nothing new on the insular political scene, they follow the path set as early as in 1989, when the engineer Bahamonde Masso presented himself in the capital of Havana as election candidate for the San Miguel del Padron municipality and won at all repetitions of the vote. Nevertheless, the election ended up with Bahamonde’s four-year arrest on charge of pre-criminal danger to society under the law known as “Ley de Peligrosidad Social pre Delictiva”. After serving the sentence, Bahamonde went into exile, where he died just over a year ago. Although there have been other democrats who followed his example, none of them has succeeded in winning a nomination until this year.

These midterm elections (April 2015) were held, for the first time, with a structured participation of the democratic opposition. Little is known about the work done by the independent political party Partido Autonomo Pinero, which presented sixty candidates to the Municipal Electoral Commission (CEM) in the Isla de la Juventud district, although they failed to present themselves in the candidate nomination meetings in the end. All of this is happening in the context of the General President Raul Castro Ruz’s promise of a new electoral law, which is supposed to be passed this year.

However, in a society in transition with an increased presence of international players, the promise of a new law can only be credible (and fears of continuation of the status quo shattered) if the government changes the image of the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is now controlled by the Communist Party. Also, more attention should be given to the history of individual candidates than to their management projects. The government should also clarify the inclusion of political pluralism as well as financial structures of individual participants.

Participation of opposition candidates in the election along with the aforementioned bill have opened up new prospects and to top it all, even a Castro intellectual, in an attempt to adapt to changing times, proposed several changes in the “Segunda Cita” blog, including direct election of the President of the Republic, existence of several candidates for the election, reduction of the number of Vice-presidents to just one (held by the second most voted candidate) with subsequent election of the Council of State. Although any of these arguments doesn’t throw the one-party system off balance, they all create a fertile ground for a more intense discussion.

The independent candidates participating in the recent election were not only recruited from the members of the democratic opposition and of the “Candidatos por el Cambio” movement. At least in two Havana districts, local people campaigned for independent candidates (as opposed to Communist Party members), putting their names on public posters inviting local people to candidate election meetings.

Yet, it needs to be remembered that the pro-democracy groups see participation in elections as a kind of legitimization of the regime, or even a means of collaboration with the dictatorship. In fact, most visible democratic opposition members refuse to participate in the electoral system due to manipulations to which the whole process of election is subjected. Yet, they lose sight of political learning, which is part of the work with communities in search of a good government.

“Elections, what for?” That’s what the brand new dictator asked in 1959. Now we can finally answer his question: “To build democracy.”