Sunday, February 24, 2019

Part 6: On the Nature of Voting in Cuban Marxist-Leninism; Situating Popular Assent Within an Ideological Cage -- Series, Considering the Cuban Constitutional Project, From Communist Party to Popular Plebiscite

(Pix Credit (c) Larry Catá Backer 2017)
In this post and those that follow we will begin to flesh out what we see as the great challenges of democracy in illiberal states, and the methods undertaken by the Caribbean (Cuban) form of Marxism Leninism, to meet those challenges. We will asses the extent to which they might claim success, and more importantly the extent to which the gulf between theory and execution remains a problem. We hope you will join us on this journey and look forward to engagement and discussion over the month. develop an approach. This February series is wrapped around work that Flora Sapio, James Korman and I are undertaking on the Cuban process of constitutional reform.

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 6: On the Nature of Voting in Cuban Marxist-Leninism; Situating Popular Assent Within an Ideological Cage.

Index of posts n this series HERE

On the eve of the plebiscite on the 2019 reforms to the Cuban Constitution, Jaime Aparicio Otero the former president of the Comité Jurídico Interamericano of the Organization of Amerucan States, published a widely circulated opinion in which he denounced the anti-democratic character of the plebiscite and the political-governmental system from which it emerged (“Apariencias cubanas; La Constitución que se vota hoy en la isla es una obra de ingeniería política para seguir controlando el poder,” El Pais (España 24 February 2019 ( and in full below). In it one can find encapsulated the liberal democratic critique of the notions of popular participation developed under principles of Caribbean Marxism in Cuba.

Mr. Aparicio Otero’s critique is quite simple and based on an even more specific set of principles form which there can be little deviation: Latin America embraced notions of European constitutionalism, grounded in the core ideal of the Reschtsstaat (estado de derecho) after 1945.  Those principles were then internationalized within the family of Latin American States through a series of international agreements, many with the force (such as it is) of international law especially after (ironically) 1959 with the Declaration of Santiago, an agreement to which Cuba subscribed at the time. These clearly signaled the necessary elements of democratic constitutionalism in Latin America—direct and free popular elections of government representatives, subject to autonomous direction, a government based on separation of powers, respect for individuals rights, multi-party political organization, and freedom of liberty and expression. The Cuban constitution as reformed does little to embrace any of these principles. The Constitutional project takes important elements not just from European Soviet manifestations, but also from that of Western fascism, particularly Franco’s Spanish variation.

Mr. Aparicio Otero’s key insight is also his most ironic:

El régimen de Fidel Castro tuvo la habilidad de adueñarse por muchos años de la cultura internacional y de las emociones que cautivaron a una generación. Hoy, el intento de mantener el enclaustramiento de la sociedad cubana en la prisión de una ideología arcaica que niega de raíz los derechos del individuo, demuestra que también aquella habilidad se ha desvanecido. [TRANS: For many years, Fidel Castro’s regime used its abilities to capture international culture and to capture the emotions of a generation. Today, the intent to maintain the cloistering of Cuban society] in the prison of an archaic ideology that denies individual rights, evidences the way this ability to capture a generation’s imagination has also vanished].  

It is in fact the ability to own the narrative and to assert an ideological orthodoxy that has marked served as the foundations of conflict from the middle of the 20th century (except in those areas where religion still serves those purposes). But that ownership, and the prison’s of orthodoxy tend to mark liberal democracy as well as its Marxist Leninist and religious variations.  This is not to suggest any ideological failures of liberal democracy.  But it does put a spotlight on two issues.  The first is that the failures of one ideology cannot usefully be measured by suggesting its inability to conform to the principles of another.  That, of course, is the principal weakness of Mr. Aparicio Otero’s argument (and of most of those coming from the West). The second (and more important) is that the failures of an ideology requires a more rigorous focus on that ideology’s own principles—something that tends to work well within liberal democracies. But liberal democracies are not interested in applying the same self-critique to other systems (viewed as in need of reforming not analysis) because to do so would be to aid in their legitimization.  And that, liberal democracy finds intolerable, in much the same way that Soviet Marxist Leninist systems (and Cuban elites) find liberal democracy beyond redemption.

With this in mind, from the perspective of the principles of liberal democracy, Mr. Aparicio Otero is right. And he makes the most powerful conventional argument for Cuban nonconformity with the strictures (in ideology and practice) of the core manifestations of liberal democracy. He reminds us that these core ideologies have now been embraced as a fundamental part of the project of Latin American regionalism, one that calls for mutual defense of these principles at least, as we have seen, in the cases of Honduras in 2009 and Venezuela in 2019.  At the same time, it also illustrates an unwillingness to consider the failures of the Cuban political model in its own terms—and subject rigorously to scrutiny on the basis of its own principles.

More importantly, it highlights, especially with respect to the mechanics of democratic practice. The result tends toward adherence to a rigid and immovable approach to the issue of democracy that has the potential to lose relevance through ossification, and to become a tool for power relations. In this respect, and from the perspective of the Cuban Constitutional project, though, Mr. Aparicio’s essay is most interesting for its view of the necessary character and expression of popular participation in the state through voting.  

El proyecto de Constitución cubana que se someterá a referendo hoy es una obra de ingeniería política y jurídica para aparentar reformas cuya aplicación seguirá controlada por el poder. El motivo por el que el actual Gobierno cubano se ha propuesto aprobar una nueva Constitución tiene que ver con la estrategia seguida en otros países del antiguo bloque comunista: la voluntad de legitimar cierta apertura económica necesaria para traer mayor inversión, evitando emprender reformas políticas de contenido democrático. [TRANS: The Cuban constitutional project that is to be submitted to a referendum today is a work of political and juridical engineering to advance reforms whose application will continue to be controlled by the political apparatus. The motives animating the Government’s move to seek popular approval of the new Constitution has more to do with strategies followed in other states from the old soviet bloc: the need to legitimate certain economic reforms necessary for mayor investment, but avoiding political reforms with democratic content.]

The question worth considering then, is what exactly is the ideology of voting and of representation at the base of the construction of the Party and state apparatus after 1975 (assuming of course that much has happened since its “big bang” with the 1st PCC Congress).  Also worth considering are the related questions: to what extent does this ideology augment the difficulty of cross systemic discussion (we have seen a good example in the essay by Aparicio Otero), and then the extent to which it is worth considering whether the current constitutional project lives up to its ideological principles in fact. Left for another time is the harder question: might this ideological system posit a view of democracy that might itself be legitimately viable in relevant context.  

In the run up to the 24 February plebiscite on the 2019 Cuban Constitutional Project I have been trying to develop a more meaningful context from which one might better appreciate (even without agreeing with) the core principles and historical practices from out of which the current plebiscite has been fashioned (here Parts 1-5). The arc of development of notions of popular engagement from 1959 on reflected in part the ideological development of those who drove out the prior dictatorship from a sort of hard leftist and anti-imperialist concoction well understood in then contemporary Latin America to a more orthodox Leninism with Marxist objectives for which the institutional structures of European Soviet Leninism proved convenient.  

That development had one constant--the leading role of the core revolutionary group that ousted the prior government. The manner in which that leadership role was to be asserted, and how it was to be eventually institutionalized, proved to be a more uncertain task than might have been expected.  And of course, much of it was undertaken not from a positive but from a reactive framework; to some extent what was fashioned was as much a product of U.S. initiatives as it was of Cuban reaction. Sadly, though, that dynamic has set the pattern of ideological and institutional development in Cuba that continues to structure state, government and ideology. Irrespective, by the middle of the 1970’s the ideological and institutional course had been set by what had been a more free-form revolutionary government—it was to embrace some version of orthodox (for its time and then set in stone) European Marxist-Leninist structure founded on what would become a more well defined Caribbean variation of Marxist ideology.

That leadership role, however, was from the first meant to be attached to popular participation in some form. What emerged early on, from 1960, was that this popular participation was to have little relation to the forms or ideologies of liberal democratic states. Yet, the revolutionary group's early experiments (or uncharitably its publicity stunts) have also distinguished its approach to popular participation from those of other Marxist-Leninist states. Indeed, and ironically enough, there appeared to be more concern about the operation of what in China would be called the “mass line” (the principle of “from the people to the people”) in the early period of the Cuban revolutionary government than there was in more orthodox Marxist-Leninist states. The notion here from the first appeared to be to embed popular participation within the structures of the leadership of the revolutionary government, and thereafter within those of the Communist Party-State. But until that leadership structure (and its institutions) was established and settled, it would be impossible to expect much stability to the corresponding notions (or practices) of popular participation.  That settlement came with the 1st Communist Party Congress and the 1976 Cuban Constitution and its establishment both of the institution of the revolutionary government within the Cuban Communist Party and the institutionalization of popular participation within the structures of the National Assembly of Popular Power.

The organization of popular participation within the structures of the National Assembly of Popular Power, however, tell us little about the ideological character of popular participation.  Moreover, it appears to add a layer of confusion respecting the forms through which popular participation is manifested.  So let us try to start at the ideological beginning.

From the time the revolutionary group rolled into Havana in the early days of 1959, it was confronted with a core ideological problem--how to remain revolutionary and how to be democratic.  To do both required a considerably long journey away from the structures of liberal democracy that were even then taking definitive shape (though they had not yet by any means taken that definitive orthodox shape then). But it was not clear that the road would necessarily lead inevitably to an identity with what was passing for the ideological structures of European Marxist-Leninism (already weakened in fact (e.g., Hungary 1956), despite (or because of) a long and intense effort at a theoretical elaboration of a system that was meant to be profoundly liberal and democratic (and which in fact was neither). On the other hand, Marxist-Leninism provided the revolutionary government with the one key ingredient it needed if it were to try to perpetuate its rule without appearing (theoretically) to descend into the common mud pit that was Latin American dictatorships). To that end an ideology was necessary, and the appearance of an avoidance of a cult of personality (the caudillo effect so well known within the ancient boundaries of the old Spanish Imperium). And it needed some connection with democratic institutions as well, both because the revolutionary party rode to power in part on that promise, and because that too might present an avenue for longevity. 

The first efforts at direct democratic performance (discussed  Part 2: Caribbean Socialist Democracy 1.0--A pure Theory of Elections Within A Caribbean Leninist State) produced a number of insights.  The first was that the practice or direct democracy tended to serve as an important method for the management of the direct connection between the revolutionary government and the people. The second was that the physical performance of direct democracy was not then possible, except for extraordinary events. We leave for another day whether technology has now made possible in cyber spaces what the revolutionary government attempted to do in physical space. The third was the development of a distinct view of the meaning and practice of voting. The fourth was that alternatives were necessary to develop at least theoretical connections between the revolutionary government and the people.  To that end, the rudimentary modalities of supervision could also be used as a means of acquiring information about popular sentiment with respect to revolutionary government initiatives.  The fifth was that a mechanism was necessary to establish two sets of institutions--the institutionalization of the revolutionary government and the institutionalization of popular participation--which required a further refinement of the meaning and practice of voting.  The sixth was a need to preserve direct popular participation in extraordinary cases (following the model of the Havana Declarations).  And the seventh was to be able to distinguish both voting and participation from its counterparts in liberal democratic states.  To fail to make that distinction was to open the Cuban state apparatus (and rightly) to the criticism that it was merely creating showcase institutions and events with no real meaning to cover up the structures of dictatorship (criticisms that echo strongly in the Aparicio Otero opinion essay. 

Reduced to its essence, however, these insights turned, in their ideological manifestations on two principal elements--voting and participation of the people. Each will be discussed briefly in turn. 

Voting. At first glance one might be tempted to say voting is voting.  There can be little ideologically to quibble about voting except its object.  And in that respect both Caribbean Marxism and liberal democracy agree.  Where liberal democracy sees contests among factions (political parties, for example, but also interest groups and the like), Caribbean Marxist Leninism sees the use of voting to mask a dictatorship built along class lines. Caribbean Marxist-Leninists, then, view voting as the means by which the class dominance of (in their view) capitalist elites can be maintained by providing the appearance of choice and political clashes over policy while masking that those clashes actually ensured that the same ruling class continued in power (whatever the voter's choices among policy options). That provided no choice but reinforced the class corruption at the heart of which was the voting system that served as the foundation of liberal democratic practice itself. Thus to vote for any particular candidate was to vote for a different mask behind which the same class ruled.

If that was the case, then both the issue of representation and the issue of voting presented substantial obstacles to popular participation. For them, the way around the problem involved three distinct elements.   

The first was voting as an act of affirmation or rejection. Voting was to tie the regulation of voting to the guidance of a revolutionary party committed (and in theory at least obliged to ensure) that all actions be drawn to further the fundamental goals of the society. If that was the case then voting moved from democratic to corporate principles--and the revolutionary government (and later the PCC) transformed itself from a revolutionary system of soviets to a board of directors required to obtain shareholder approval of actions they initiated.  The revolutionary party  itself however would be self regulated, internally responsible only to itself. It would follow that direct popular participation through voting would be limited to the purpose of affirming and rejecting the actions put to them for a vote. In the context of the constitutional plebiscite, the idea would be that the proposed constitution could be affirmed or rejected by the voters and if rejected that would signal that the leadership of the PCC as well as of the people's representatives in the Asamblea del Poder Popular had also failed in their leadership.  In theory that also ought to produce a crisis of leadership requiring purges of the leadership group who failed in their responsibilities. At the margins, limited affirmation should also send strong signals that the PCC would be obliged to recognize and to which it ought to respond. 

The second was the voting for the representatives of popular power in local and national assemblies. Here voting posed the greatest challenge for the Cuban revolutionary government--how to distinguish popular voting for representatives to a legislative national and local assembly for the elections at the heart of liberal democratic states. Here, again, the idea was to move from the liberal democratic baseline of voting for one of several competing candidates, each competing on the basis of personal agendas and qualifications, to one of affirming the selection by the ruling leadership of a slate of candidates.  Here again, the act of voting is detached from the act of choosing to the act of affirming a set of choices made under the guidance of the ruling party.  The idea is that such candidates could be affirmed (elected) and removed by the people as they liked, but that those choices would be made under the shadow of the overarching obligation by voters and the PCC to select and retain only those representatives committed to the economic and political model and the long term objectives toward which the state was obliged to move. This makes perfect sense within a Marxist Leninist framework, where the fundamental commitment is to move the state and society toward the goal of establishing (ir in the case of Cuba of preserving specified elements) of a communist society. The only was around that was not through elections (this is the case in liberal democracies as well) but through a revolutionary act that overcomes the basic economic and political model.

The third was the shifting of the focus of democratic accountability from voting to participation (within the struct boundaries of the political and economic model). Voting as affirmation becomes more palatable (perhaps) when what is to be affirmed is the product of a substantial amount of popular consultation.  It is this thinking that makes plausible this quote: "Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez also exercised his right, announcing on his Twitter account that he voted for the continuity of the Cuban Revolution. "I defended a Constitution that is the result of a collective project with a ‘Yes,’ which reaffirms the will of the majority, and which protects the future of my family and of the heroic people ratifying the independence and sovereignty of socialist Cuba."  ('A Victory for Latin America': Cuban President Diaz-Canel Votes on New Constitution) Of course that is true only to the extent that the consultation is deep enough, and effective enough to warrant public trust. And it will evidence its tolerance of popular voices by the extent to which it encourages or acknowledges opinions and suggests inimical to the proffered guidance. But the theory at least suggests that a comprehensive enough process for effective consultation that produces changes invokes a democratic accountability that reduces the centrality of voting to the construction of democratic mechanisms (e.g., here).  Of course, the chasm between theory and practice may be broad.  But if there is a theory that justifies, then the issue changes complexion, at least in terms of any legitimacy argument. 

These three theoretical approaches to voting, then, permit a more rigorous consideration of Cuban practice on its own terms. Clearly, the core understanding of the role and practice of voting within the Cuban political model raises significant issues.  But it also suggests that the usual criticism grounded in the deviation between Cuban practice and the ideal model of liberal democracy also reduces itself to farce. Everyone can agree that Cuba's system does not conform to the theory or practice of liberal democracy.  But the Cubans would tell you this themselves. If that is all one was looking for then there is no point in investing any more time in the matter, and one moves back to the issue of "transition." But if instead we move to the question of the theoretical possibility of democratic structures in systems grounded in popular affirmation and consultation, then the issues become far more interesting. More interesting still are the host of issues around the question: whether the current constitutional project lives up to its ideological principles in fact. Within the constitutional project itself the principal questions ought to go to the extent and value of the popular consultations, both at the time of the reconceptualizaiton of the economic and political model before the 7th PCC Congress and thereafter in the context of constitutional reform. Also important is the extent to which those consultations are transparent--for example circulating the public and formal consultations presented to the National Assembly--it is too late in the day to claim that this is not possible given the sophistication of the state's web presence. Lastly, the balloting for the affirmation and the consequences to those who voted "no" would be of interest. Related to this is the issue of the state with respect to a failure to capture a large affirmation (e.g., Cubans expected to voice unprecedented opposition in constitutional vote).  How much affirmation is enough to provoke a review and reform of the proffered text?

Yet these are questions that become possible to consider only once considers the possibility that there is an ideological possibility for the construction of democratic models are do not conform to the principles of liberal democratic states as these have been refined since 1945. These are the issues to which this series turns its attention in future posts.

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