Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair
The socialist governments of the Third World plus China have developed popular democracy, with structures that are alternatives to those of representative democracy. Laws and policies are decided by deputies of the people, and not by politicians dependent on the support of corporate and wealthy interests. Let us look at the historical development of the alternative political process in the case of Cuba.
During the neocolonial Republic of 1902 to 1959, Cuba had the basic structures of representative democracy. Military dictatorships periodically interrupted the democratic process, in response to political instability, which itself was a consequence of the incapacity of the Cuban system of representative democracy to ensure the sovereignty of the nation or the needs of the people. It was a system designed to support the interests of international capital and a weak international bourgeoisie, with political power in the hands of a political class dependent on both. In key historic moments (1924, 1944, & 1948), the people were able to elect candidates who promised reform, but once in office, they were not able to deliver on their promises. Revolutionary leaders in Cuba could not possibly overlook the limitations of representative democracy.
The July 26 Movement led by Fidel Castro came to power on January 1, 1959, with overwhelming popular support. At that historic moment, the principal concern of the revolutionary leadership was the challenge of delivering on promises made to the people, given the political and economic obstacles, both national and international, that they confronted. Such promises included the redistribution of agricultural land, the raising of salaries of workers, an increase in the standard of living, the nationalization of foreign utilities companies that set exorbitant rates, confiscation of property fraudulently obtained through government corruption, and restructuring the economy away from its peripheral role in the world-economy. In that challenging and confrontational situation, holding elections seemed a superfluous activity; no one doubted that the program put forth by the revolutionary leadership had the support of the people.
Rather than organizing elections, the revolutionary leadership took decisive steps in mobilizing the people, so that the people would be an effective arm in the attainment of revolutionary goals. In 1959, in response to acts of sabotage and terrorism emanating from the Cuban counterrevolution in Miami, a civilian-militia was formed. In 1960, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were formed in all neighborhoods, for the purpose of vigilance over sabotage and terrorist activities. At the same time, revolutionary leaders from the ranks took control of the Federation of Cuban Workers and the Federation of University Students, previously controlled by leaders tied to the neocolonial order, and they expanded their numbers. In 1961, small farmers were organized into the National Organization of Small Agriculturalists. Thus, in responding to political necessities, the revolution took in practice the first steps in the formation of an alternative political process; it created mass organizations of workers, women, peasants, and students, which provided structures for active popular participation.
At the same time, a political process in which the revolutionary leadership and the people interacted in mass assemblies emerged. The speeches of Fidel were pedagogical, with detailed descriptions of the challenges that the Revolution confronted, as well as formulations of revolutionary goals. The mass assemblies also enabled the revolutionary leadership to assess the pulse of the people. At the peasant mass meeting in Havana on July 26, 1959, the people demanded that Fidel return to the post of Prime Minister, from which he had resigned due to the anti-communist declarations of the President. On September 2, 1960, the National General Assembly of the People of Cuba emitted the Declaration of Havana, which defined the concepts and rights that would guide the revolutionary process in the subsequent stage. The National General Assembly of the People of Cuba was constituted by a mass meeting of one million persons, constituting perhaps 20% of the Cuban adult population of the time.
Fidel expressed the new concept of democracy, evolving in practice, on May 1, 1960. “They made up a democracy for you, a rare and strange democracy in which you, who are the majority, count for nothing.” He characterized it as a “false democracy where all the means of corruption and fraud are used, in order to distort the true will of the people.” In contrast, true democracy protects the rights of peasants to land, of workers to a decent standing of living, of all citizens to schools and doctors. Moreover, true democracy is “direct democracy,” which has existed in Cuba since January 1, 1959. “Real democracy . . . has been expressed in this form; it has been expressed directly, in the intimate union and identification of the government and the people; in this direct agreement; in this making and struggling for the good of the great majority of the country, and in the interests of the great majority of the country.”
Everyone understood that the Revolution was being led by a person with an exceptional capacity to analyze national and international affairs, to discern politically intelligent solutions to problems, and to forge the necessary unity of the people. And everyone understood that in the long term, this form of revolutionary leadership was not sustainable. As early as 1961, Fidel was speaking of the importance of replacing leadership by one person with the collective leadership of a vanguard political party. During that year, attempts were made to form a vanguard political party thought the unification of the revolutionary organizations, which were the July 26 Movement (established and led by Fidel), the March 13 Revolutionary Directory (initially a revolutionary student organization), and the Popular Socialist Party (the first Communist Party of Cuba). After some problems, these efforts eventually culminated in the formation in 1965 of a new Communist Party of Cuba.
Thus, in the early 1960s, there was emerging in practice the basic structures of an alternative political process that involved popular participation in mass organizations and mass assemblies and the formation of a vanguard political party that has the duty of educating and leading the people. The conception is that of a united leadership that possesses a commitment to defend the rights of the majority, and as a result of this commitment, is liberated from the distorted understandings that have roots in particular interests. The leadership seeks to educate the people, freeing them as well from the ideological distortions that are disseminated throughout the world. At the same time, it is the people who have political power, because the people are organized in various mass organizations. The people find strength in their numbers and their organizational and ideological unity.
There is a symbiotic relation between the vanguard party and the people. The vanguard educates and exhorts, and yet it at the same time is dependent on the people, who ultimately hold political power. And the people are dependent on the vanguard, for without it, they cannot have that informed understanding that is necessary for their emancipation. The charismatic leader educates both the vanguard and the people, preparing them both for the day in which the leader is no longer physically present. However, everyone understands that the leader always will be present in the form of his teachings and example.
The structures of this alternative political practice were institutionalized in the Cuban Constitution of 1976. The Constitution concentrates political power in the hands of the elected deputies of the people. It establishes a National Assembly that is the highest authority of the nation, with the power to enact laws and designate the high members of the executive and judicial branches of government. The deputies of the National Assembly are elected by the delegates of the 169 municipal assemblies of the nation. These municipal assemblies are elected through direct and secret voting in 12,515 small voting districts, in which voters choose from two or more candidates.
Because direct elections by the people of the delegates of the municipal assemblies occurs in small voting districts, electoral campaigns are not necessary. The candidates are known by the people, because of their work in mass organizations in the community. Brief biographies are displayed in public places. There is no need for campaign financing, and thus the distorting influence of large contributors to political campaigns is eliminated. The structure is designed to ensure that political power is in the hands in the people, and it is so named as “popular power.” The assemblies that constitute popular power are the decision-making voice of the people, an institutionalized version of the mass assemblies of the early 1960s.
The mass organizations established in the early 1960s remain integral to the political process. Among other functions, they play a central role in the second-degree elections for the National Assembly and the executive branch. Candidacy commissions propose lists of candidates to the delegates of the municipal assemblies and the deputies of the National Assembly, when these assemblies carry out their electoral functions. The candidacy commissions are formed by representatives of mass organizations of workers, farmers, women, students, and neighborhoods. The mass organization have a participate rate of 84% to 99% of their respective populations, and they have a similar process of direct elections at the base and indirect elections for positions at higher levels of authority.
The Constitution of 1976 abolished electoral political parties. Candidates for the municipal assemblies are nominated by the people in a serious of nomination assemblies in neighborhoods in the numerous voting districts. The Constitution defines the Communist Party of Cuba as the only party and as the vanguard political party of the nation, consistent with revolutionary intentions of the early 1960s. The vanguard party, however, in guiding the people, cannot usurp the voice of the people. Accordingly, the Constitution prohibits the Party from participating in the electoral process. The Party is obligated by the Constitution to be the highest leading force in the society, but to lead through education and by example. The Constitution establishes that the people, through the structures of popular power, will decide.
The Constitution of 1976, like the 1960 Declaration of Havana, affirms the right of Cuba to sovereignty as well as the social and economic rights of the people, including rights to employment, food, health, education, culture, and recreation. The state has the obligation to play an active role in the protection of these rights.
For the past several months, the Party, the National Assembly, and the people have been developing a new constitution, taking into account the new social and economic model of 2012 and changes in Cuban society. In accordance with their revolutionary socialist tradition of popular democracy, they are forging a remarkable constitutional assembly of the people. As the process unfolds, it is clear that the new constitution preserves Cuban traditions of direct democracy and popular democracy.
The development of an alternative political process by the nations constructing socialism in the Third World plus China is a consequence of political necessity. If the nations of the Third World are to overcome the colonial legacy and become the subjects of their own social and economic development, they must take control of their territories and resources from foreign corporations and governments. In order accomplish this, they must have a political structure that ensures that power is in the hands of the deputies and delegates of the people, and not in the hands of an accommodationist national elite aligned with international actors. For this reason, the nations that are constructing socialism are precisely the ones that enjoy the greatest level of sovereignty.
We of the nations of the North increasingly are discovering that representative democracy does not respond to our needs. We have the right to know that the socialist revolutions of the Third World plus China have responded to their colonial situation through the forging of alternative political structures that provide the foundation for a political debate that leads to consensus and political stability, and not to confusion and division.