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 7: The Results of the Cuban Constitutional Referendum 2019.
Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta's reporting for Reuters nicely summarized the results, its context, and the reaction:
Cubans overwhelmingly ratify new socialist constitution
Marc Frank, Nelson Acosta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans have overwhelmingly ratified a new constitution that enshrines the one-party socialist system as irrevocable while instituting modest economic and social changes, according to the national electoral commission.
Alina Balseiro Gutierrez, president of the commission, said at a Havana press conference on Monday that preliminary results showed 84.4 percent of the 8.7 million potential voters participated in the Sunday referendum.
She said 86.85 percent of voters ratified the charter, 9 percent opposed ratification and 4.5 percent spoiled or left ballots blank.
By comparison, in 1976 when the current constitution was ratified, 99.02 percent of voters in a 98 percent turnout reportedly ratified and just 54,000 were opposed.
There are no independent observers of Cuban elections, however citizens may observe the count at their precincts.
Scattered local reports on social media seemed to somewhat confirm the results.
Cuba’s best-known dissident and pioneer blogger, Yoani Sanchez, who runs an online newspaper from a barrio known for its support of the government, wrote she braved insults and yelling to witness the count in her precinct of 400 yes votes, 25 no votes and 4 blank ballots.
The independent online newspaper El Toque asked readers to send in local tallies, a dozen of which showed overwhelming support for ratification.
A report from a district in central Villa Clara province had the new constitution ratified by 414 votes versus 66 opposed, and another from a district in westernmost Pinar del Rio reported 298 yes votes and 18 no votes.
Debate over the constitution has dominated Cuba’s politics for months, with the government arguing it represents both continuity of former leader Fidel Castro’s policies and adaptation to today’s demands and opponents insisting it is a continuation of Communist party rule and oppression.
The government orchestrated a grassroots debate on a draft of the new constitution last year, but after it approved a final version for the referendum in December it used its monopoly of traditional media and public spaces to press for approval.
Nevertheless, dueling campaigns to vote ‘yes’, ‘no’ or abstain raged on the internet. The Roman Catholic Church issued a critique read in churches, and many evangelicals said they were opposed.
Dissidents, who were divided between those who advocated a ‘no’ vote and those who called for abstention so as not to legitimize a process they deemed a fraud, reported a few incidents across the country of members being temporarily detained or harassed.
“The Cuban government engaged in an unprecedented campaign to assure an overwhelmingly positive vote on the new constitution as a way to legitimize both the market-oriented economic reforms underway and the new leadership of President Miguel Diaz-Canel and the post-revolutionary generation,” American University professor of government and Cuba expert William LeoGrande said.
There are important changes in the new constitution that reflect the gradual opening of the Caribbean island nation since the fall of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union.
There are references to markets and recognition of private property, foreign investment, small businesses, gender identity, the internet, the right to legal representation upon arrest and habeas corpus.
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(Corrects number of potential voters in paragraph 2 to 8.7 million instead of 7.8 million and changes percentages to reflect actual voters in paragraphs 2 and 3.).
Reporting by Marc Frank, additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and James Dalgleish
1. "Debate over the constitution has dominated Cuba’s politics for months, with the government arguing it represents both continuity of former leader Fidel Castro’s policies and adaptation to today’s demands and opponents insisting it is a continuation of Communist party rule and oppression. "
All three statements are true and not inconsistent. Debate has dominated portions of the Island's population. That the state encouraged this or at least permitted a substantial flexibility with respect to dissenting views was to some extent (in the Cuban context) remarkable. One need only compare the expectations within Chinese Marxism under which such open dissent might not have been tolerated int he same way. Second, both state and PCC made it clear over and over that the entire constitutional project had as its objective the preservation of traditional Caribbean Marxism but now operationalized within a contemporary context. Third, it is also true that by continuing with the political and economic model (as adopted by the 7th PCC Congress), the object was to ensure the continuation of PCC rule. That continuation would be seen as necessary by its supporters and as oppression by its opponents; support or opposition, of course, determined by an adherence to quite distinct models of political organization.
2. "The government orchestrated a grassroots debate on a draft of the new constitution last year, but after it approved a final version for the referendum in December it used its monopoly of traditional media and public spaces to press for approval."
This statement is also both true and quite unremarkable in the context of Cuban theories of voting and engagement we have discussed in earlier posts. First, the state orchestrated a campaign of debate. This well coordinated campaign was less one of debate than of input about the decisions made by the PCC and affirmed by the Asamblea to go forward with both a new political and economic model and to express that new model in a state constitution. The PCC and its instruments of institutionalized popular engagement obviously sought technical suggestions as well as some discussion of policy; in that respect it differed little from what members of liberal democracy are already used to in the context of administrative regulation (or even within the political system in the context of "town hall type engagement mechanisms). The more interesting question ought to be the extent to which that campaign effectively produced robust engagement at the grassroots level. Here there is room for substantial discussion (and to that extent also substantial room for criticism of the forms of engagement and thus the value of the process including the referendum). Yet this discussion cannot be started if one presumes no circumstances on the basis of which robust engagement could have been possible. ends Second, it is also true that the PCC anbd its state apparatus used its authority to campaign strongly for popular affirmation. Once popular engagement was concluded, the state moved to effect reforms in the constitutional document on the basis of its official feedback. Once that was done, it made perfect sense for the state to assume that the product reflected both leadership and popular elements and that it ought to be approved. The object of the plebiscite was not to reopen debate but to seek affirmation or rejection. To that end state it would follow that the state apparatus and the PCC would actively campaign for an affirmation of the final product. What is more interesting is the extent to whcih the State and PCC would actively suppress critical voices that rejected both the tenor of popular discussion and the resulting constitutional product.
3. "Nevertheless, dueling campaigns to vote ‘yes’, ‘no’ or abstain raged on the internet."
This was also true. And not just on the internet. But here the campaign bled well beyond the national territory; and it picked up some elements from the exile community. That debate was lively and to some extent amplified the official debate. But at the same time it served to leverage the voices of those seeking to turn popular opinion against the project. This was especially true with respect to certain key wedge issues. Our data suggests a quite specific form of debate, much of which was not focused entirely on the legitimacy of a Marxist Leninist Party -State. More interesting still was the transnational character of that internet debate, the contents of which were available within the Island. That the State was aware of this internet debate is less interesting for purposes of participatory legitimacy than other questions. The first touches on the extent to which the State permitted such debate to be made available both in its own websites (through comments sections of its won reporting). The second touches on the extent to which the state interfered with these positive and critical internet campaigns. But internet campaigns are elite preserves in a poor country (though also the preserve of the young, and in that respect at least potentially potent). Yet that suggests a third question: the extent to which traditional venues of criticism were permitted among the common eople with no access to high end communication through the internet. The answer to that last question provides a better window on the commitment of the PCC and State to its own political principles and thus to the legitimacy of the plebiscite in a Cuban context.
There can be little doubt that there was some irregularities. But those might have affected only a marginal number of the ballots (if that marginal number was large). One does have to confront the issue of voter affirmation in this context in ways that suggest the power of the status quo even against the blandishments of an alternative theoretical framework for democratic organization, and in the face of substantial economic malaise. This is worth further consideration. So are the issues of transparency, and the secrecy of balloting in small precinct where anonymous voting might have been impossible.There were suggestions that at some balloting sites voters were asked to use pencils rather then pens (and thus a suggestion that penciled votes could be erased and revised). There were also suggestions of ballot stuffing and of the difficulty of preserving secrecy in voting. These are worth considering--but in the overall context of the election itself. Even more interesting might have been the willingness of the state to permit expressions of support and dissent around the balloting stations--though that is problematic even under conditions of liberal democracy.5. "The independent online newspaper El Toque asked readers to send in local tallies, a dozen of which showed overwhelming support for ratification."
This is true but leaves open the fundamental question for the PCC itself. How should the PCC respond to a substantial dissidence (about 10% of the voters). Theoretically, in the face of substantial engagement, the rate of affirmation should have been much higher. That the PCC was unable to obtain such an affirmation could suggests a failure of leadership that ought to produce a response other than one that dismisses the "no" voters as dissidents or ignorant folk. Leadership is leadership and if the PCC means to retain it, some positive response might be required--at least that is what the current ideology suggests. If the leadership means what it says about its responsiveness, then it will have to find a way of responding positively. One gets a sense that this is possible (considering for example the patched up reform of the economic regulation of the private sector during the summer of 2018). But the PCC's history of grudging response does not speak well to the organization of its leadership role and its responsiveness, even if one assumes that this responsiveness would have to conform to all of the principles of the current economic and political model.6. Juan Linz [(2000) Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, p.92], has noted that “plebiscites in totalitarian systems test the effectiveness of the party and its mass organizations in their success in getting out the vote.”
The argument that plebiscites are in effect an instrument for repression and control rather than for a free expression of popular will plants squarely the problem of direct popular participation in the age of the modern bureaucratic state. It posits, without stating this directly, that popular participation is entirely contextual in its character and effects. Thus while a plebiscite for Quebec independence might be viewed as democratic (because the state within which such an event occurs is also democratic) even if its politics are problematic. That is, in the context of liberal democratic states, referendums and plebiscites express and deepen the democratic character of the underlying system. It would follow then, that plebiscites and referendum in states that do not conform to liberal democratic models are therefore capable only of the character of the underlying political system. One cannot, as a result, characterize plebiscites as democratic (understood in its sense of conforming to the principles of liberal democracy) in states that reject the basic principles of liberal democracy. See in this context "La reforma constitucional que será votada en plebiscito el próximo 24 de febrero nace lisiada de origen porque no nace del pueblo, nace del Partido Comunista. La iniciativa no es una decisión soberana de la ciudadanía y no está escrita ni acordada por representantes del pueblo libremente elegido", afirmó." (La OEA considera "ilegítimo" el referendo constitucional en Cuba (12 Feb, 2019) quoting Luis Almagro the Secretary General of the OAS) [TRANS: "The constitutional reform that will be voted in a plebiscite on February 24 is born crippled of origin because it is not born of the people, but born of the Communist Party. The initiative is not a sovereign decision of citizens and is not written or agreed by representatives of the people freely chosen, "he said.""].
But at this point the argument becomes circular--and unhelpful. It can suggest only that all mechanics of states tend toward the affirmation of the core principles and practices of the political model of that state. But here again the Cubans would agree with the critique, even as they reject its core assumption that the democratic impulse can only be understood in terms defined by liberal democracy. And as a consequence, popular participation in states that reject the principles of liberal democracy can fail--not because they are inherently undemocratic but because the rejection of the possibility of its democratic character results in an unwillingness to compel such states to adhere to their own principles and theories int he manifestation of the mechanics of popular participation. And that, in essence, is the fundamental problem of popular participation in Cuba--the more critics concentrate on the failure to conform to the principles of liberal democracy, the greater the ability of such states to avoid their own principles.