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Why Cuba is a democracy and the US is not

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Why Cuba is a democracy and the US is not

By Tim Anderson

In an age of propaganda and pseudo-democracy, the strongest opponents of imperial power are subject to the most ferocious attacks. One result of this is that many of the firmly held opinions about democracy in Cuba and in the United States of America bear an inverse relationship to relevant knowledge. As the Canadian scientist William Osler said, “the greater the ignorance the greater the dogmatism”.

The US has run a powerful and illegal economic blockade against Cuba for almost 50 years, after its investment privileges were withdrawn. It now runs propaganda suggesting that the Cuban people need US-styled ‘democracy’. Well let’s look at democracy in both countries, including civil rights and participatory democracy, as well as representative democracy.

In representative democracy, Cuba is clearly ahead. Cubans have open elections for their National Assembly (as well as their provincial and local assemblies), this assembly then elects the ministers, including a President of the Council of Ministers. In the US, there is a directly elected Congress and a President indirectly elected through electoral colleges. This President of state then appoints ministers. Yet a majority of the elected US Congress cannot block many Presidential ‘prerogatives’, including the waging of war. So even when the majority of the population and the majority of the Congress oppose a war, the President can still wage it. In the US, then, the elected assembly does not really rule.

In Cuba, the Constitution (Art 12) repudiates wars of aggression and conquest, and all ministers are accountable to the elected National Assembly. The President of Cuba’s Council of Ministers (falsely called a ‘dictator’ by the imperial US President) is not above the National Assembly and has no power to ‘veto’ a law passed by his country’s National Assembly. In the US, the President can and does veto Congressional laws.

In the US, eligibility for election to office depends on subscription to one of two giant parties and substantial corporate sponsorship. In Cuba, there are no electoral parties and there is no corporate sponsorship. The Cuban Communist Party is constitutionally recognised to promote socialist debate and policy, but has no electoral role. Citizens need not be CCP members to be elected, and many are not. National Assembly members (whether they belong to the CCP or not) do not represent any party, but rather their constituencies. The Cuban system bans foreign powers from funding electoral representatives or parties. The US Government, accustomed to foreign intervention, claims this law is ‘undemocratic’.

In the US, millions of people are excluded from voting, either because they have some criminal conviction or they belong to one or other group of second class citizens (e.g. Puerto Ricans, who pay tax but have no representative in Congress). In Cuba, very few are excluded from voting, and well over 90% of the adult population (those over sixteen years of age) actually do vote at each election. In the US, voter participation is often around 50%.

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While there are constitutional civil rights in both countries, these rights are stronger under the Cuban system. Cuban citizens have the constitutional right to employment, food, free education, free health care, housing (including family inheritance), political participation, freedom of expression, personal property and freedom of religion. The Cuban state is constitutionally bound to guarantee these rights.

US citizens have the right to freedom of speech, unlimited private property and the right to carry arms. They also have the right to participate in a ‘market’ where their education, health and general well-being is often a gamble.

By the constitution, no-one in Cuba can be imprisoned without proper charges, a trial, and the right to a defence (Art 59). Cuba’s ‘political prisoners’ are those who have been convicted of taking money to help overthrow the constitutional system. By contrast, in the US, thousands of people are held without charge or trial, including several hundred in the illegally occupied section of Cuba, at Guantanamo Bay. The rate of imprisonment in the US, which has more than two million prisoners, is far higher than in Cuba (or indeed any other country). African-Americans are massively over-represented in US jails. Prisoners in the US lose many of their civil rights; prisoners in Cuba keep most of their civil rights.

Institutionalised racial discrimination persisted in the US well into the 1960s. Even today, the gap between formal and effective rights is very great in the US, because there are so few social guarantees. Cuba, on the other hand, has made great efforts to overcome the denial of effective rights on racial grounds. The Cuban guarantees of universal and free education, health care and social security have proven powerful and effective tools against social marginalisation. Educational and health standards in Cuba are similar to, and in some respects better than, those of the US. This is despite the US having an average per capita income almost ten times higher than Cuba. The US has permanent wealth and poverty. Cuba shares its ups and downs.

In the US ‘freedom of speech’ means that a handful of private corporations dominate the mass media. In Cuba, the media (television, radio, magazines, newspapers) are all run by public bodies or community organisations. No private individual or investment group can capture or dominate public debate in Cuba. Nor is there mind numbing, commercial advertising. In the US mass communications are dominated by consumerism and celebrity trivia; politics is about individuals seeking public office. In Cuba, mass communications are dominated by education and cultural programs; politics is about coordinated social responses to social problems.

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Cuba does not use state power to intervene in the affairs of others or to push international propaganda, but rather sends doctors to more than sixty countries to assist communities which have no medical services. This internationalism, recognised by the World Health Organization, contrasts with US interventionism. The US government maintains state-propaganda stations (e.g. Voice of America, Radio Marti), funds opposition political groups (through the National Endowment for Democracy, the State Department, USAID and the CIA) as well as funding pro-US academic centres and think tanks around the world.

Cuba’s human rights record is far better than that of the US. Amnesty International said the US in 2006 had “thousands of detainees … without charge or trial … deaths in custody, torture and ill-treatment … disappearances... failure to hold officials at the highest levels accountable … [for] war crimes or crimes against humanity.” Within the US “sixty-one people died after being struck by police tasers … [and] sixty people were executed.” The Amnesty report did not address the thousands killed and maimed in the illegal occupation of Iraq.

By contrast, Amnesty’s criticism of Cuba in 2006 was mild. There were some “restrictions on freedom of expression, association and movement … nearly seventy prisoners of conscience … the government attempted to suppress private entrepreneurship. More than 30 prisoners remained on death row [but] no one was executed.” Amnesty (whose US branch is responsible for reports on Cuba) did not note that the “seventy prisoners of conscience” had been charged and convicted of the specific offences of taking money from a foreign power to seek the overthrow of the Cuban constitutional system. Most were arrested in 2003, during a wave of hijackings, and many have since been released.

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Tim Anderson is an academic and social activist based in Sydney, Australia

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