The Razor's Edge
2013-10-12 12:24:23 UTC
The publication of Arnold Augusts book Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy
in Motion is an event. The author establishes that democracy is alive in
Cuba. He views Cuban democracy as a process moving ahead, but with course
corrections. Democracy, he suggests, is really democratization.
The process has relied upon political participation by all citizens,
progress toward unity and consensus, and exclusion of those bent on
August took on a big job. Not only does he detail workings of Cubas
national parliament and municipal assemblies and explain how elections work
a signal contribution but he also traces the origins and evolution of
democratic stirrings from colonial and slavery times to the present. He
summarizes varying approaches to building socialist democracies in Ecuador,
Bolivia, and Venezuela, plus points out limitations of U.S. style
democracy. With its rush of themes playing out both simultaneously and over
many years, Augusts narrative is slow-moving at times, yet remains
coherent, factual, and non-polemic in tone. He made effective use of
interviews with Cuban activists and analysts.
Discussions in the United States about democracy in Cuba often stumble on
the absence of elections following the victory of the revolution in 1959.
August explains that revolutionary leaders concurred with most Cubans then
that corrupt multi-party elections of the past had no place in the new Cuba.
Democratization materialized as the Federation of Cuban Women, Committees
for the Defense of the Revolution, and the 1961 literacy campaign. A new
Constitution in 1976 instituted elections for municipal assemblies,
provincial assemblies, and the National Assembly.
Soviet Bloc parliamentary and electioneering precedents were rejected.
Constitutional reforms in 1992 barred the Communist Party from designating
members of nomination commissions and provided for popular election of
deputies to the National Assembly. Augusts book tells of nationwide
community meetings attended by almost all adults where national problems
were discussed and action possibilities debated.
Recommendations from these episodic meetings often ended up as government
decrees and legislation. Such meetings took place prior to the referendum
approving the 1976 Constitution and again while constitutional changes were
being considered in 1991. In 1994, they centered on the economic crash
following the fall of the Soviet Bloc; in 2007-08, on social security, low
food production, and low wages; and in 2010, on the Communist Partys new
Guidelines for bringing about changes in the economy.
August sees participatory democracy playing out in municipal assemblies,
which are tools for achieving decentralization, a prime goal of ongoing
transformations. He indicates some local assemblies are unable to respond to
local needs. Specialists and local delegates are involved in attempts to
overcome these weaknesses. Entities known as Peoples Councils are
governing in sub-municipal districts.
Arnold August highlights obstacles for democratization, chief among them
corruption and bureaucracy. And tension remains between discontent and
consensus, between traditions of centralized authority and notions of
popular sovereignty, the latter ironically enough having been endorsed by
the government. Uncertainties, suffering, and scarcities at the hands of
U.S. economic blockade receive scant attention, yet few would argue they are
good for democracy.
The book gets high marks for covering the democracy movements deep
historical roots. Independence wars in the 19 th century fought by poor,
racially-oppressed rebels took on social justice, particularly equal rights
for black people and equitable land distribution. The 1976 Constitution
incorporated words and concepts from constitutions of that era and from
ideas of José Martí, Cubas national hero. The author honors the mentoring
and ideological legacies of Martí, who fell as a martyr in the liberation
struggle. Cubas alliance with the former Soviet Union and the Communist
Partys role in propelling political change are hardly reassuring to
northern neighbors susceptible to red- scare.
For Arnold August, Cubas Communist Party is a special case. Martís Cuban
Revolutionary Party served as its model, that of a single national party.
And in 1965, the present Communist Party was brand-new, formed of two
non-communist revolutionary organizations and the old Communist Party. The
Party runs no candidates in elections and operates in a spirit of
August wanted to provide readers with some tools for following the future
situation [in Cuba] independently, without the blinders of preconceived
notions. He achieved that. His main point, that Cuban democracy is a moving
force and seems to be gaining strength, is convincing. It may be unique on
that account, and also for priority given to participation, unity, and
consensus as tools for building socialism. If true, that may help explain
why Cuban socialism survived the disappearance of the Soviet Union and how
Cuba has withstood siege from the neighboring superpower.
Imbued with an understanding of democratic realities in Cuba that this book
surely provides, readers in the United States and elsewhere especially
those who are progressive but silent on Cuba may now see fit to speak out
and act in solidarity with a people victimized for 50 years by every
stratagem short of open war.