How Cuban Elections Work

This is a slightly modified version of the script I wrote for this video.

If you live in a NATO country, and by a NATO country I really just mean the USA, it may come as a shock to you that Cuba is not a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by a single guy.

In fact, Cuba has a very interesting system of participatory democracy that I’m going to explain to you in this blog post.

Let’s start with the Cuban Constitution.

The Cuban Constitution was a result of thousands of broad discussions in advisory meetings, involving more than 6 million citizens, which was practically the entire adult population of Cuba at the time. The draft for this Constitution was to be either rejected or denied via a popular referendum. The referendum had a 98% turnout rate, and out of those 98%, 97,7% voted to accept the new constitution. This almost unanimous agreement was a result of the previous broad discussions, which resulted in 16,000 amendment suggestions.

Elections

Despite popular belief, elections do take place in Cuba. Cuba has 169 municipal assemblies, and each one has an election every two and a half years. Every fifth year, three months after the municipal elections, there is an election to the Cuban parliament - the National Assembly of People’s Power - as well as to the 14 province assemblies. All Cuban elections have had turnouts of over 95% ever since 1976.

It is not a requirement for you to be a member of the Communist party of Cuba to vote or to be elected to any position, and the Communist Party does not propose, support nor elect any candidates. In fact, the Party doesn’t participate in the elections at all.

No one here has gone to an election and been presented a ballot paper and told, these are the Party members for whom you have to vote, nor is anyone nominated for being a Party member, this element can perhaps be invoked as a reflection of leadership, fitting conduct, good performance, of a vocation for public service, but not because the condition of Party member is established as a requirement to enter public office in our laws.
— Dr. José Luis Toledo Santander.

Anyone over the age of 16 can vote and can be nominated to be a candidate for election in one of the 169 Municipal Assemblies or one of the 14 Provincial Assemblies, however you must be at least 18 years old to become a candidate for a seat in the National Assembly. Neither money nor political parties have a place in the nomination process. Instead, individuals directly nominate those who they think should be candidates.

As a result, the Cuban Parliament has representatives from across society, including an exceptionally high proportion of women. 48.9%, to be exact. In comparison, the percentage of women in the United States House of Representatives is 19.4%. Among all countries, the US is ranked 101st. Out of 196 countries in total. Cuba is number 3, behind only Rwanda and Bolivia.

Fun fact: Saudi Arabia has a higher percentage of women in its legislative assembly than the United States does.

Furthermore, 88% of Cubans participate in what is basically a system of direct democracy. The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) allow anyone over the age of 14 to join, and they meet a minimum of once every three months to plan the running of the community; including the organisation of public health campaigns to promote good health and prevent disease; the upkeep of the area in terms of waste and recycling; the running of voluntary work brigades, and providing the adequate support to members of the community who are in need of help (for example in the case of domestic disputes). The CDRs discuss nationwide issues and legislation and feed back their proposals to the National Assembly and other organs of popular democracy.

But at the heart of the Cuban democratic system is the locally elected delegate. Prior to the municipal elections, residents of all the neighbourhoods of that municipality gather to a meeting in order to nominate candidates. If you’re nominated, you’re free to either accept or decline the nomination. If several people are nominated, a meeting appoints a person whom the neighbourhood trust as their candidate via discussion and show of hands. Up to 8 adjacent neighbourhoods make up a constituency. Each candidate is presented with a short biography and photo on an A4 sheet of paper. Election promises or electoral pledges are forbidden.

On election day the elections are conducted via secret ballot like in most democratic countries. Then a minimum of two and a maximum of eight candidates from a single constituency are be elected to the municipal assembly. The polls are guarded by school children and everyone has the right to monitor the votes being counted.

Wait, hang on… School children? What?

Yes, it’s a bit weird when you first hear it but the ballot boxes are guarded by elementary school children, called pioneers. Elections are very calm and take place on Sundays so that people can go to vote, and so that pioneers aren’t in school when the voting is happening. The idea behind this is that when a son, daughter, nephew, niece, granddaughter, or grandson is taking care of the box, the family spends the day checking on them to see that they’re behaving well and so on. So the polling station is taken care of by everyone.

The counting of the votes is public and any citizens who wants can be present. The ballot box is opened, all the ballot papers are laid out, they are counted and the result is given immediately. So there cannot be any greater transparency. And if that were not enough, the national electoral commission, once the electoral processes have concluded, conducts random audits of polling stations.

Deputies

So let’s say you won your local municipal election.

Congratulations! You now get to join the Municipal Assembly, which will choose from among its members a president, a vice president, and appoint a secretary.

As an elected representative, you don’t receive a special wage, but you also don’t have to pay for related expenses out of your own pocket. You remain at your normal job, carrying out the civic duties in own time. The duties of a delegate are many and varied and the role is demanding, requiring an understanding of public policy and finance, business and administration, and the ability to negotiate, explain, motivate and lead. And because you’re known to almost every one of your electors, and you live among them, people will call on you at all hours of the day and night with all manner of problems, ranging from broken water pipes to broken hearts. Delegates carry out the inspection and monitoring of services provided by the Municipal administration, and of the factories, shops and businesses in their area.

National Assembly

Lastly, the National Assembly. This is practically the parliament of Cuba. Out of the Assembly’s 612 seats, exactly 50% consists of nominated delegates from mass organisations (namely the CDRs, the Women’s Federation, the trade unions, the Students’ Association, and the Association of Small Farmers) and 50% Municipal delegates.

The elections to the National Assembly take place every five years at the same time as the Provincial Assembly elections. Deputies in the National Assembly are from all walks of life and like municipal deputies they do not receive a special wage for being deputies.

The National Assembly is responsible for electing the 31-body Council of State, which is the governing body of Cuba, like a Prime Minister’s Cabinet. It contains one President of the Council of State, whom you can think of as the prime minister of Cuba, as well as 6 vice presidents, a secretary, and 27 additional members.

Now, don’t confuse the Council of State with the Council of Ministers. While the Council of State has the authority to exercise legislative power between sessions of the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers exists is an executive and administrative body that only exists to enact legislation already approved by the National Assembly. The Council of Ministers consists of the President of the Council of State, as well as the vice presidents. The 23 remaining members are ministers, like the Minister of Economy and Planning, the Minister of Education, the Minister of Science, the Minister of Labour, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and many more.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can everyone vote?
Yes, if you were born in Cuba you are automatically registered to vote. There is no need for you or your parents to do any paperwork or pay any tax. You can vote in all elections when you turn 16 and you can also participate in local elections. Once you turn 18 you can also run for a seat in the National Assembly.


Will everyone know who I voted for? Will the secret police come get me if I vote for someone the government doesn’t like?
No, voting is done via secret ballot, so no one knows who you voted for except you.


Do I have to vote?
If you really don’t want to, then no you don’t have to. Voting is completely voluntary.


If I’m super rich, can I spend all my millions promoting candidates that I like?
No, it is illegal to spend money promoting candidates. Candidates’ biographies and their reasons for standing are simply displayed on local notice boards so that every candidate receives the same exposure. Political parties are permitted in Cuba, however they are not allowed to nominate or campaign for candidates. This includes the Cuban Communist Party which is forbidden by law from interfering in the electoral process.

Wait hang on, if the Communist Party can’t nominate candidates to the elections, what the hell is the point of it?
The Cuban Communist Party is really a product of Cuban history. The Cuban Communist Party traces its ideological roots to the Cuban Revolutionary Party founded by Cuba’s national hero, José Martí, in exile in New York in 1882. Its purpose was to free Cuba from Spanish rule by uniting into a single party all those who wanted Cuban self-determination. Following the 1959 Revolution which swept out the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s progressive forces began a process of uniting into a single party, which finally came to fruition six years later when the PCC was formed in 1965.

Today one in six of Cuba’s eleven million people are Party members. To become a member of Cuba’s Communist Party, a person must be first nominated by fellow workers or neighbours and then voted in by their local branch.

A year has to be served as a ‘candidate member’ before becoming a full member as this brings with it responsibilities and duties, especially within the local community. To be a member of the PCC is seen as an honour in Cuba, and members are generally respected as honest and committed revolutionaries.


So it’s like a club?
Yeah it’s kinda like a club where you help out your community.


Can I win even if I only get 46.1% of the popular vote?
That’s an oddly specific percentage but no, to be elected, you must receive at least 50% plus 1 of the votes cast. If this doesn’t happen, run-off elections are held.


Once I’m elected, can I become an evil supervillain and take over the world without anyone to stop me?
No. Delegates are required to meet with their electors at least once every six months for ‘accountability sessions’ where they must take up issues and problems raised by their constituent s and seek solutions. They can be recalled at any time if their constituents feel that they are failing to perform their role adequately. So if the people who elected you think you’re doing a bad job, you’re out.


So… Why don’t Cubans get to elect their own President?
Well, they do. Just indirectly. Same as the prime minister in the UK or Sweden or lots of other countries, the leader of the country is elected by the legislative assembly. This is because Cuba does not have a presidential system, merely a semi-parliamentary one. The President of Cuba doesn’t have the power to make decisions alone, he doesn’t appoint and dismiss ministers, he doesn’t grant honorific positions or appoint ambassadors. That is to say, all the major decisions are concentrated in the hands of a large number of elected representatives, not in a single person. The President of Cuba is a figurehead more than anything. That said, it is possible for the President of Cuba to also be the President of the Council of State, meaning one person can be both Head of State and Head of Government. This makes them less like the figurehead President of Ireland, and more like the President of the United States, which is also a combination of Head of State and Head of Government. However, if you wish to become both President of Cuba and President of the Council of State, you have to be elected to both at two separate elections.

If you’re really interested in how to become President of Cuba, then here is a 5 step guide:

  1. Be nominated and approved in a plenary vote by a social or mass organization;
  2. be approved in a municipal assembly vote
  3. be elected via direct and secret vote by voters from your electoral district, if you are not elected at this point you can’t be a deputy;
  4. have your nomination be be approved by the National Assembly
  5. be elected by deputies via direct and secret vote.