Cuba’s Elections, 2017-2018

Cuba has elections by private ballot for members of its local legislatures (Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power); provincial legislatures (Provincial Assemblies of People’s Power); and national legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). The initial such election in 2017-2018 occurred on November 26 for the local legislatures. This post looks at that election and the direct elections early next year for the other legislatures and the indirect election on February 24, 2018, of Cuba’s president.[1]

Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power Election

On November 26, Cuba held its national election of delegates to 168 Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power, which are local governing bodies. There were more than 42,300 polling stations and 27,221 candidates, 35.4% of whom were women, and 19.4%, young people. The majority of candidates have secondary and higher education, and workers from the production and services, as well as administration sectors, are most widely represented, although there are also non-state sector workers among the candidates. These candidates were chosen by nomination assemblies from September 4 through October 30 with the participation of 6.7 million voters. Such elections occur every two and a half years.[2]

Preliminary electoral data reveals that 7.6 million Cubans voted, which was 85.9% of those on the electoral register and that 11,415 delegates were elected. Another 1,100 delegates will be elected in a second round of voting on December 3 as a result of ties or no one receiving more than 50% of the valid votes.[3]

The 85.9% turnout sounds incredibly high to American observers. However, it was the lowest participation since the late Fidel Castro imposed a system of elections in 1976. Moreover, 8.2% of the ballots were left blank or annulled. Thus, a combined 22.3% of the population did not vote or rejected the government-sanctioned candidates. Even this figure may understate the proportion of non-participation as opposition activists question the validity of the official statistics.

The U.S. State Department immediately attacked the validity of these municipal elections. Its spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said they were “the first stage in what we consider to be a flawed process that will culminate in a non-democratic selection of a new president in 2018. Unfortunately, the elections that took place further demonstrate how the Cuban regime maintains an authoritarian state while attempting to sell the myth of a democracy around the world.” She added, “Despite courageous efforts by an unprecedented number of independent candidates this year, none . . . [was] allowed on the ballot. The regime, once again, used intimidation, arcane technicalities, and false charges to discourage and disqualify independent candidates from running. Democracy is not quantified by participation alone; democracy is undermined when voters may only choose candidates who follow one ideology.” [4]

Yet another negative comment was made by Ms. Nauert. “It’s important to remember the dozens of political prisoners who are unjustly held in Cuba. So far in 2017, there have been more than 4,500 arbitrary detentions for political motives. The detentions show that Cuban citizens cannot exercise their fundamental freedoms to organize, assemble, or express themselves. Those are all vital components of democratic elections.”

There indeed is evidence that the Cuban Government took steps to discourage, and in fact, to eliminate independent candidates from running for these municipal government positions. An independent Cuban news source reported that the “majority of the  independent candidates  who tried to run for the ‘elections’ in the Nominating Assemblies of constituency delegates did not achieve their goal. The regime frustrated the effort through arbitrary arrests, police summons, criminal proceedings, acts of repudiation and even the capture of people.”[5]

Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President and the rumored next President, openly said before the elections that the government was  “taking all steps to discredit” the  independent candidates because if they reached the Municipal Assemblies that “would be a way to legitimize the counterrevolution within our civil society.”  Just after he voted, he made a lengthy statement to the  press, saying the voting would deliver a message to the world. “What message? Unity. Conviction. A message that our people don’t bow down, not to a hurricane and even less to external pressure and some people’s desire to see our system change.” He also said the future presidents of Cuba “will always defend the Revolution and will rise from among the people. They will be elected by the people. Are people forced to vote or do they take on a duty, take on an expression of continuity” in the socialist system?  “I believe in continuity and I am certain that we will always have continuity.”[6]

Provincial Assemblies of People’s Power Election

Each of Cuba’s 14 provinces has its own Assembly of People’s Power that oversees transportation and communication systems throughout the province and recommends legislation regarding national crime and allocations of resources for development. Each such Assembly elects a provincial committee whose  president functions as the provincial governor.

The provincial assembly members are elected directly by the people to five-year terms, Only candidates belonging to the Communist Party of Cuba are allowed to run. Their next election will be in early February 2018.

 National Assembly of People’s Power Election

In early February 2018 there will be a national direct election of 614 members of the unicameral National Assembly for five-year terms. This election is limited to a slate of approved candidates chosen by the National Candidature Commission, and such candidates run unopposed. Candidates are required to obtain at least 50% of the valid votes to be elected. If no candidate passes that threshold, the seat is left vacant although the Council of State my choose to hold a special election to fill the vacancy.

The National Assembly “is the supreme organ of state and the sole legislative authority. . . . [and] has the formal power, among others, to approve the budget and the national economic plan; elect the members of the Supreme Court; and generally oversee the rule-making activities and electoral processes of the provincial assemblies and municipal assemblies.” But it “meets [only] twice a year for a few days to rubber stamp decisions and policies previously decided by the governing Council of State.”

Since the National Assembly meets only twice a year for a few days each time, the 31-member Council of State wields supreme legislative authority. Another body, the Council of Ministers through its nine-member executive committee, handles the administration of the government and the economy.

Cuba’s Presidential Election

There is no popular election of the president of Cuba. Instead, the newly elected National Assembly will elect an individual for that position for a five-year term with possible re-election to another such term. The current president, Raúl Castro, age 86, has said that he will not seek another term, and the current First Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is widely expected to be chosen for that office on February 24, 2018.

In addition to Diaz-Canel’s recent comments noted above, he also was the highest-ranking official at a concert held on the steps of the University of Havana last Saturday night in tribute to Fidel Castro on the first anniversary of his death. Afterwards Diaz-Canel said he was optimistic about the attitude of Cuban youths toward the system founded by Fidel Castro in 1959 and led by a member of the Castro family for nearly six decades. “When one sees young people gathering in solidarity in the name of the Cuban people, feeling so much for Fidel, I’m convinced that we’ll see the youth and the Cuban people out defending the revolution at the polls tomorrow.”[7]

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[1] This post’s simplified account of the provincial and national legislatures of Cuba and certain other organs of its government is based upon the following sources: The structure of Cuban State, Granma (Mar. 11, 2014); Cuban Government, Legislature, countriesquest.com; CIA World Factbook: Cuba;    Cuban parliamentary election, 2018, Wikipedia; Cuba’s Government, Global Security.org. Comments correcting any errors in this account are most welcome.

[2] Elections begin in Cuba, Granma (Nov. 26, 2017); Morales, Garcia & Pérez, Cuba ready for election day, Granma (Nov. 24, 2017); Elections in Cuba, Wikipedia.

[3] Morales, Second round elections scheduled for 1,100 constituencies, Granma (Nov. 28, 2017).

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Daily Press Briefing (Nov. 28, 2017); Reuters, U.S. State Department Criticizes Cuban Municipal Vote as ‘Flawed,’ N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2017).

[5] Independent observers register numerous ‘incidents’ in the municipal ‘elections,’ Diario de Cuba (Nov. 27, 2017).

[6] Torres, Cuba had the lowest election turnout in four decades. Is the government losing its grip? Miami Herald (Nov. 28, 2017); Low participation in the ‘elections’ without opponents of the regime, Diario de Cuba (Nov. 28, 2017); Torres, 175 Cuban dissidents tried to run for office. Here’s how Castro’s government reacted, Miami Herald (Nov. 10, 2017).

[7] Assoc. Press, Cuba’s Expected Next President Starts to Take Higher Profile, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2017).