Cuba’s electoral system doesn’t allow for the direct election of the island’s leaders, but when the newspaper Juventud Rebelde asked readers about how the Communist country elects its leaders, their opinions were clear: They direct and secret votes.
“Yes to the direct and secret ballot of the entire population to elect the positions of President and First Vice President of the State Council,” suggested one responder identified only as Rafael. “Also, you should reduce the number of terms to two.”
Rafael’s comments were posted on the newspaper’s website Thursday in response to a query in its digital edition, “What would you like to know about Cuba’s electoral system?” The question was spurred by the Communist Party’s decision in February to enact a new electoral law between 2015 and 2018, but it has given little information about any changes.
Upon his reelection in 2013, Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced that it would be his “last time” holding the five-year position. Previously, Castro had called for two-term limits on all high-ranking public officials, a measure that would require an amendment to the constitution.
On Thursday, a team from the National Electoral Commission was on hand to answer questions from readers. It was not the first time that Cuban digital media outlets have held forums; others have tackled such topics as housing in Cuba, the services provided by the state’s telecommunications company ETECSA or the tax system.
But just a few years ago, opinions such as those published on the website would have been unthinkable.
Rafael wasn’t alone in his request for direct and secret voting procedures to elect the delegates to the National Assembly and senior government leadership posts. A more prudent reader, identified only with the initials GCR, asked whether government leaders have “evaluated the option of direct election … now that a new electoral law has been discussed even though no details have been released and the current [voting] system is extremely (in my opinion) unpopular.”
Another reader identified as Braulio agreed with the secret vote concept and added that “nobody wants to vote” under the current process. Reader Carlos Gutierrez suggested that a poll be carried out on “Cuban public opinion” to collect proposals for a new electoral process and proceeded to offer his own:
“That the representatives of [the National Assembly] in all its posts and charges, be 100% integrated individuals nominated and elected by a direct and secret vote carried out by the population; that members of the executive not be allowed to, at the same time, also be part of the legislature, that the positions of President and First Vice President of the State Council be held by representatives elected by a majority vote, via direct and secret ballots cast by the entire population, that all sessions of the National Assembly of People's Power be made public and be fully broadcast live on radio and television throughout the country.”
“Is that too much to ask?” Gutierrez remarked.
Cuba’s current election process is convoluted, involving the nomination of municipal candidates by voters who are part of nomination assemblies, and the nomination of provincial and national candidates by candidacy commissions. Parliamentary candidates are proposed by nominating assemblies, and the final list of candidates is drawn up by the National Candidature Commission, taking into account criteria such as candidates’ merits, patriotism, ethical values and revolutionary history. Winning candidates must obtain more than 50 percent of the valid votes cast in the constituency in which he or she is running. If this is not attained, the seat in question remains vacant unless the Council of State decides to hold another election.
In response to Juventud Rebelde’s online forum, another commenter named Noel asked whether “a mechanism exists to measure the performance of the President and First Vice President of the Council of State and Ministers and if it is within the power of the National Assembly to remove them from office even if they have not completed their mandate?
“I know of similar processes in other countries but here I’ve never heard anything about it,” Noel wrote.
The list of suggestions and criticisms was long. Others complain about “irregularities” in the assemblies responsible for nominations, or about not being able to attend National Assembly sessions although they are public, as well as the scarce contact that citizens have with government officials.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to discuss my worries about the nation’s politics with government officials who in theory (and only in theory) represent me in the Assembly. If this dynamic doesn’t work, democracy suffers greatly because how can an official represent the people, the community, (me), if it has no contact with them (or with me),” asked Juan Manuel.
Readers did not request elections with multiple political parties, a demand often made by petitions crafted by opposition leaders and other members of civic society, who despite not identifying themselves as being in opposition to the present government, would love to see constitutional changes allowing presidential elections by way of direct vote as well as the legalization of other political parties.
In the recent Cuban and Cuban American Studies Conference held at Florida International University, several panelists speculated about the content of the new law.
“I imagine that they will expand the space for candidates without a party. Announcing a new electoral law without making any concrete change doesn’t make sense. They will most likely make some type of change,” said Ariel Lopez Lazo, a philosopher and professor at Miami Dade College who referred to precedents set in other countries, such as the perestroika in the former Soviet Union, where opponents were integrated into Communist Party structures.
The response from the National Electoral Commission to the questions might have left some disappointed.
The team of “electoral authorities” responded to Noel by thanking him for his participation and adding that they were unable “to respond to your restlessness since it is no longer our responsibility.”
On GCR’s suggestion of a direct vote for those who hold key positions in the country, officials responded: “Currently, working on the publication of the amendment to the Electoral Law and eventually queries that match will be made as part of the legislative policy. It is necessary to note that the electoral authorities rightfully organize, manage and validate the electoral process and the National Assembly's legislative function.”
Braulio, who questioned the popularity of the current electoral system, was told that “regardless of your criteria, we inform you that voter turnout at the polls exceeds 90%.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter @ngameztorres