Robert Buddan - POLITICS OF OUR TIME
On October 30, The United Nations voted against the United States embargo on Cuba. It did so for the 16th year in a row. This year's vote was a record 184 votes for the lifting of the embargo. The United States found support from Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau only with Micronesia abstaining. These last three have a combined population of 190,000.
Anticipating this defeat, the U.S. announced measures a week before to toughen the embargo, calling for a Freedom Fund to rebuild Cuba when a democratic government takes power. But it did not say how much the fund will need, how much the U.S. would put in, how much the democratic transition will cost, when it will begin and how long it will last. America's allies show very little enthusiasm for the fund.
Because of the heavy cost of the Iraq invasion, the U.S. administration apparently felt that it could not get any more money from Congress and now wants its allies to pay into the fund, the same allies that voted against the embargo and have kept their distance from the failed war in Iraq.
The U.S. says it wants freedom in Cuba. We want freedom for people everywhere but the U.S. cannot pick and choose who gets freedom and who doesn't, and it cannot decide what freedom is and what kind of freedom people should have. There are no free elections in Pakistan, now under a state of emergency, yet Pakistan receives billions of dollars in American aid. The Pakistani people are now demonstrating for elections. Cuba, on the other hand, just held elections of its own free will, and for some people, the form of those elections is fair to democracy.
Some people prefer fixed election dates. Municipal election dates in Cuba are fixed for every two and a half years. Some people want bottom-up rather than top-down democracy. Elections in Cuba reflect a bottom-up form of democracy where the municipalities are elected first and then its members elect the provincial governments that elect the National Assembly (parliament). The Assembly elects the Council of State (the supreme governing body), which elects the President.
Everybody wants high voter participation. Cuba's election turnout (95 per cent ) was among the highest in the world, in fact, the highest among countries with non-compulsory voting. The Americans and the dissidents wanted Cubans to deposit blank ballots as a sign of protest against the system, but the number of blank ballots (four per cent) was no greater than in the past. Cynics might say that Cubans are forced to vote. But voting is not mandatory. Dissidents and human rights activists did not vote. In contrast, voting is compulsory in more than 30 free countries like Australia, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus, and some elections in France. Voter turnout in Cuba is helped by the fact that elections are held on a Sunday and voter registration is automatic.
essence of election
In the October elections, 37,258 candidates competed for 15, 236 posts. There were at least two and sometimes three or more contenders for a seat and candidates sometimes have to go through two, not just one election. If a candidate does no receive at least half of all the votes cast then a second round of elections is held a week after in which the two leading candidates in the first round compete and the rest are removed. This forces candidates to have widespread acceptance. Cuban elections are not competitive between parties since only the communist party is legal, but it is competitive between candidates. The candidates do not have to be members of the communist party and usually about one-third are not.
Elections should not be determined by money. There is no financial competition between campaigns in Cuba and money does not determine who wins as it does in so many western elections. Information about candidates is posted in communities. The National Electoral Commission regulates elections. One of Cuba's electoral rules is that you can vote from the age of 16, probably the only country where this is the case. Another rarity in Cuba is that the polling stations are also manned by children, possible only because there is no violence and cheating found in so many other democracies. Children in the fifth to ninth grades learn about the system of voting as a civic responsibility and assist disabled voters at the same time.
Western democracies have advantages of party competition and political and civil freedom. These are very important but they come at a high price. They are costly, are often bought, run with media gimmickry and attract so much cynicism that large sections of voting populations do not participate.
A recent U.S. poll shows that only 55 per cent of Americans consider themselves to be Democrats (33 per cent ) or Republicans (22 per cent ) and we already know that only about half of Americans vote. The average turnout in elections in western democracies is some 20 per cent less than it is in Cuba. It can be as low as 60 per cent of Cuba's turnout in municipal elections. Such are the problems with getting people to vote that Barbados, one of the most stable democracies in the hemisphere, can only hope to improve voter turnout to 90 per cent by 2025, a long-term projection.
rights of cuba
Clearly, all democracies need improvement. In 2002, a Cuban campaign produced 25,000 signatures calling for western style elections. But you will also find a majority of Americans who want greater restrictions on money in politics. Despite its own weaknesses, Cuba offers rights that other countries do not. It is one of only 32 countries that include the right to food in their constitution and is one of the few that actually meets this objective.
U.N. Special Rapporteur, John Zeigler of Switzerland, appointed by the U.N.'s Human Rights Council on The Right to Food, just spent 11 days in Cuba on a fact-finding mission, and said he had not seen a single malnourished person and that despite dependency on foreign imports and lower food productivity, Cuba was feeding its people. The right to food is a human right not achieved by most countries. Health and education are free in Cuba and regarded as rights as well.
Women make up 35 per cent of the Cuban parliament, ranking the country sixth of 162 countries with some gender equality in parliament. The bottom line is that Cuba is no less free then many of America's allies and this cannot justify the embargo, which makes people even less free.
A group of children celebrating the 81st birthday of Cuban leader Fidel Castro around a cake that reads in Spanish 'Congratulations Commander' at the Ernesto 'Che' Guevara Palace of Pioneers, on the outskirts of Havana, Monday, August 13, 2007. - file
BEYOND THE EMBARGO
America must be free with Cuba as Cuban society more freely debates its future. It is now in a process of more open and frank debate about economic inefficiencies and many expect that more private ownership is to come. Many countries are already positioning themselves to do greater business with Cuba. The Cuban government does business with some 3,000 companies from 176 countries. A few days ago Cuba held its annual Havana Trade Fair at which some 1,400 companies from 53 countries participated. Its leading trade partners are Venezuela, China, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Italy.
But despite the embargo, 100 companies from the United States participated in the trade fair. The United States is Cuba's main supplier of food and farm products. Many American farm states regularly send delegations to Cuba and are planning future relationships beyond the embargo. In a sense, the Americans states are also voting (with their business) against the embargo.
Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona.Email: Robert.Buddan@uwi mona.edu.jm