For Cuba, of course, the development of a viable socialist democracy is essential if it is to survive the passing of its revolutionary generation. And for that reason alone, Cuba provides a quite compelling laboratory for next generation democratic theory built on non-Western liberal assumptions. For these reasons we have chosen this years series theme: Caribbean Marxism's Socialist Democracy, Considering the Cuban Constitutional Project From Communist Party to Popular Plebiscite.
This Post includes Part 9:The Referendum in the Shadow of Cuban Socialist Democracy 1.0
The Referendum in the Shadow of Cuban Socialist Democracy 1.0
Contributor: Flora Sapio
Cuba is a challenging case, given that forms of democratic expression occur both exogenously and endogenously. Narrations of Cuba’s trajectory of political development start with the observation that from 1959 to 1976 Cuba was without a formal constitution. Even though in 1959 Cuba adopted a Ley Fundamental (Basic Law), institutionalization would take place only in the 1970s. This ‘delayed’ institutionalization can be explained with the fact that, in its early days, the Cuban revolutionary government saw the locus of democracy not in institutions of the Party or of the State, but in the unmediated will of the people. In fact, the Ley Fundamental contained provisions about the executive, administrative, and judicial organs of the new state, but had not created a national parliament. The 1960s saw the making democratic choices through plebiscitarian meetings, where vote was expressed by acclamation. Of crucial importance was the mass rally held in Havana on 2 September 1960. This meeting saw the more than 1,000,000 people in attendance constitute themselves into a National General Assembly, and adopt decisions that in representative democracies are a prerogative of national parliaments. Those decisions concerned Cuba’s foreign policy, but most importantly Cuba’s electoral system.
If all Cuban citizens enjoyed a formal right to “universal, egalitarian and secret suffrage”2 the specific modes of voting were still in the making. The First Havana Declaration crystallized one the possible modes of voting into decisions taken collectively, and by acclamation, at mass rallies, “anonymity” being granted by the impossibility to identify each one of the persons attending large rallies.3 Coherent with this mode of voting, two years later, on 4 February 1962, a one-million people National General Assembly was again convened to decide on Cuba’s sovereign authority, the principles of domestic governance, and the Island’s relationships with neighboring states, adopting the Second Declaration of Havana. The plebiscitarian meetings of the 1960s provided a platform to articulate the core political principles of “Socialist democracy” in a Caribbean context. These principles related to vanguardism; modes of making collective decisions; political citizenship; accountability; transnationalism.
The Castrist government had initially acquired popular (and conventional) legitimacy through victory in an armed conflict joined only by a minority of Cubans. Such a legitimacy, however, had to be sanctioned by a meeting large enough to allow those in attendance to either approve or the revolutionary government, or to undo it through an act of mass revolt.4By obtaining affirmations of consent at the two Havana rallies, the armed nucleus of the Cuban Revolution posited itself not as the political representative of the people, but as its acting core.5
The revolutionary regime had rejected notions of political representation by candidates from competing parties chosen through the casting of ballots. Such a rejection was based on the vulnerability of electoral processes to exogenous and endogenous interference. Electoral fraud, intervention by agents of foreign governments and by economic lobbies, the adverse impacts of socio-economic malaise on popular awareness of and engagement in governance were seen as factors impeding the formation and manifestation of a truly free will. To these perceived ills, the revolutionary regime found the antidote of collective decision-making through acclamation.
The resulting demos – as opposed to the ochlos – was defined not along the lines of class divisions, in a Marxist sense. In a more classically Socialist fashion, political citizenship belonged to those willing to eliminate all the factors leading to economic and social subordination, achieve individual and collective self-determination, and who supported the endeavors of the more active nucleus of the Cuban Revolution. Such a conception of the demos was transnational, as political citizenship was earned not by virtue of legal citizenship, but by the mere belonging to any of the social groups bearing the negative externalities of regional economic and social development policies, and by a rejection of such an individual and collective condition. Political citizenship cut across the lines of national borders, ideologies and apparatus of governance, including persons born in Latin America, but also – ideally – U.S. citizens, and persons living in other continents. If participation to mass rallies granted political citizenship, then such participation could not be entirely spontaneous. Exclusion of those unwilling to participate in the Revolution was proven by nonattendance to the rallies convened in the 1960s. More important was avoiding that manifestations of direct democracy be polluted by the intervention of the same interests and forces who could manipulate conventional electoral processes.
This is not the only reason why rallies had to be organized by the active nucleus of the Revolution. During the Havana plebiscitarian meetings Fidel Castro, who was then the Prime Minister of Cuba, explained the reasons that had led to the drafting of the First and Second Havana Declaration. In liberal-democratic systems, national governments are accountable to parliaments, and subject to their oversight. In the 1960s, this line of accountability was replaced by a direct, unmediated line of communication between administrative institutions and citizens. Mass rallies, even when convened within a single-party system and heavily watched by security agents, are inherently dangerous. They pose the dual possibilities of agreement through acclamation, or of revolt.
Finally, from its very onset, Cuba’s Socialist democracy had a transnational vocation. The mass plebiscites held on the then Civic Square were meant to provide a model to be followed by other Latin-American states, and more generally speaking, by the economically and socially disempowered.
The two sessions of the National General Assembly had not only produced an ideological urtext where popular affirmation played a fundamental role in legitimating the authority of the revolutionary core. They had also developed a first nucleus of principles of “socialist democracy” in a Caribbean context, that anti-establishment movements in neighboring states would soon embrace.6Even though plebiscitarian meetings no longer took place after 1962, the plebiscite remains as a latent possibility in Cuba’s governance system.
Socialist Democracy 1.0
From the late mid-1960s, the search for a form of collective decision-making alternative to multi-party elections proceeded on two different levels. At the grassroots-level, the format of the plebiscite was maintained and adopted on a much smaller scale, through the formation of committees representing neighbourhoods, and other groups defined along the lines of class, gender, and age.7 At the national level, the spontaneousness of experiments in socialist democracy was encased within a governance model of Leninist derivation, emphasizing rigid, vertical lines of authority. Governance structures realized through political and legal cooperation with the Soviet Union were superimposed on the earlier revolutionary and classically Socialist substratum.
Without doubt, a decisive role in this process was played by the merger of Castro’s 26th of July movement with the Popular Socialist Party and the Revolutionary Director, and the pouring of these Caribbean identities in the vessel of the Communist Party of Cuba. These choices posed the revolutionary government with the difficult challenge to continue to articulate autonomous notions of exogenous socialist democracy, while complying with Muscovite governance recipes about endogenous socialist democracy. The transition to a Soviet-inspired model of state and societal governance was largely foreseeable. Muscovite prescriptions had already been adopted by the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, and Eastern Europe, albeit with varying degrees of success and efficiency.
Less foreseeable was the side-lining of exogenous forms of socialist democracy. Institutionalization and the creation of the Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular were meant to remedy the problems in representation posed by exogenous socialist democracy, and make the workings of the Cuban administrative machinery more efficient, regular and predictable. The price to pay was a measure of compliance with the Soviet model of State governance.8 The features common to Soviet forms of endogenous democracy and Castrist ideology however did not extend beyond limitation of the demos along class lines, and leadership by a group or a leader that personified the Revolution.9 Therefore, an ample space existed to conciliate Cuban notions of endogenous socialist democracy with Muscovite orthodoxy. Also, Cuba was the only country within the Socialist camp where mass affirmation events with a constitutive character were held.10 In China, the invocation of the sovereign will of the people was instrumental to the undoing of governance institutions, rather than to their creation.11 In the German Democratic Republic, political parties were established to provide a safe haven to former Nazis, displaced populations, and other categories.12Differently from Cuban revolutionary assemblies, these parties were not a source of constituent power, and therefore their approval of decisions taken by the leadership and the popular support they enjoyed were irrelevant.13
In Cuba, the adoption of enduring institutional forms took place with an overhaul of the 1959 Ley Fundamental, and promulgation of a new Constitution. The 1976 Constitution in turn could not be come to life without an act of sovereign approval by the people. Given the absence of viable models within the Socialist camp, institutionalization of mass approval proceeded along the path traced by revolutionary practices of mass democracy, the 1940 Constitution,14 and the Ley Fundamental.15
The manifestation of the sovereign, constitutive will of the people developed along two partially distinct lines. The first one of them saw ex-post approbation of decisions taken by the leadership of the Communist Party of Cuba on behalf of the entire people. The second line of development involved popular consultation and referenda vote. An instance of ex-post approbation is given by the vote on the resolutions of the First Congress of the CPC. The rally that took place on the Plaza de la Revolución in December 197516 was void of any constitutive power. Embracing the Soviet model had introduced notions of representation not by the entire body of the revolution – as Fidel believed it was necessary17 - but only by its vanguard. Once the popular will is deprived of its constitutive power, submitting decision taken by narrower sector of the Revolution to the sovereign will of the people can potentially unleash the destructive potential of constitutive power. The Soviet Union directly experienced this truth when independence referendums were convened by some of its republics. Cuba instead decided to preserve the referendum as a legitimate channel through which the sovereign will of the people could continue to find a constructive expression. Such a decision stemmed not from an unwilling retention of models inspired by liberal democratic constitutional theory,18 but by the problems in representation caused by mass rallies.
If Fidel was searching for forms of “pure” - “pasteurized”, in his words19 – democracy, it soon became clear that mass rallies had limitations similar to those of multi-party elections. the constitutive and non-constitutive mass rallies held until the mid-1970s could include fellow Latin Americans in the demos, bestowing Cuban political citizenship on persons of non-Cuban nationality. But, Cubans who lived in the Eastern provinces of the Island were routinely excluded from mass events taking place in Havana. Their absence was due not to a rejection of their role within socialist democracy, but to their mere inability to travel to Havana. Thus, they found themselves in a position analogous to those whom, in liberal democracies, could not exert their right to vote due to illiteracy, poverty, or other socio-economic hurdles.
A solution was found in submitting the Draft Constitution to popular consultation, and then to popular vote. The soliciting of popular comments on the Draft Constitution took place simultaneous to the holding of the First Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, in the spring of 1975.20 The resolution to hold the referendum was conveyed through the organization most representative of the Party, its Central Committee and its First Secretary.21
The First Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, in consequence, gives its approval to the improved text of the Draft Constitution and recommends that it be officially published as the Constitution Project of the Republic and submitted by referendum to the universal, free and secret vote of citizens, together with the Constitutional Transit Bill; that the referendum be organized so that all citizens with the right to vote have the opportunity to vote in it, for which polling places must be established with reference not only to domicile, but also to where the voters are located (...)22
This solution preserved only some of the essential features of earlier forms of exogenous socialist democracy. Gone were the transnational aspirations visible in the two Havana meetings. Only Cuban citizens living on the Island could cast their ballot at the referendum. Gone were ideas about the Revolution being an indivisible unity of an active nucleus, held into place and supported by its followers and contributors. These ideas were replaced by the imposition of an institutional and ideological hat on the head of the Revolution. This “ideological hat” established an identity between the leading force of the Revolution and the CPC understood as a bureaucratic apparatus; between Party cadres and the representatives of popular will; between the CPC as the driving force of the Revolution, and the incarnation of the will of Cubans. The 1976 consultation and referendum preserved the elements of popular participation, and elité accountability to popular will. A degree of popular participation was allowed by soliciting popular comments on the Draft Constitution – a process that other Marxist-Leninist systems would launch much later.23
Most important was the element of accountability. A refusal to comment on the Draft Constitution, and a rejection of the Draft at the referendum would not only have been powerful signals of distrust towards the CPC. They would have stalled the entire project of institutionalization, with potential repercussions on Cuban’s receipt of Soviet aid, and a likely intensification of the United States’ attempts at overthrowing Castro. Given the potency of such a political signal, it is difficult to imagine how laying the blame for popular discontent on middle or high level cadres could have restitched the fabric of popular trust in (or acquiescence to) the government.
But long before the Periodo Especial, at a time when the memory of pre-revolutionary days was still fresh, and the Soviet model still provided a credible route to prosperity, the results of the 1976 referendum were strongly in favor of the new Constitution. On 15th February 1976, 5,602,973 Cuban citizens went to the polls. Of 5,523,604 valid votes, 99,02 per cent were in favor of the Socialist constitution,24and only 0,90 per cent against it. The voter turnout was of 98 per cent.
The Constitution of 1976 “conceived of Popular Power as an organizational structure of the State, and popular sovereignty and socialist democracy”25 as the basic principles of Caribbean Marxism-Leninism. The notion of popular power as an organizational structure of the state was enshrined throughout the Preamble.26 Coherent with the features of socialist democracy, the 1976 Constitution was drafted by a commission appointed by the CPC. But, it could have never been adopted without the approval of the Cuban people. The most immediate effect of this act of approval was encasing popular will within the structure of the Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular. Popular will should have underwent the same process of institutionalization and regularization witnessed by other organizational structures of the CPC and the state apparatus. After all, the logic behind the Leninist model was geared towards a clock-work regularity and predictability of governance processes,27 and such was also Castro’s aspiration.28
But, compared to other bureaucratic structures of Cuban governance, organizational structures and processes based on popular will remained somehow peripheral to the governance apparatus. Popular will could be invoked only by its representatives,29 on occasion of a constitutional reform of the supreme legislative, administrative organs of the state, or of rights and duties of the people.30 Popular consultations and popular referenda remained relatively under-institutionalized.