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Why Cuba is a democracy and the US is not

By Tim Anderson - posted Thursday, 15 March 2007


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has run a powerful and illegal economic blockade against Cuba for almost 50 years, after its investment privileges were withdrawn.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.

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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 (for example, Puerto Ricans, who pay tax but have no representative in Congress).

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In Cuba, very few are excluded from voting, and well over 90 per cent of the adult population (those over 16 years of age) actually do vote at each election. In the US, voter participation is often around 50 per cent.

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 co-ordinated social responses to social problems.

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 60 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 (for example, 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] 60 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 70 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.

The US State Department - a fierce ideological opponent of Cuba - was forced to acknowledge in 2004 that Cuba had “no political killings ... or politically motivated disappearances", no religious repression, little discrimination, compulsory and free schooling, a universal health system, substantial artistic freedom, and no reports of torture. This contrasts strongly with the death squads and torture of dictatorial regimes trained and supported by the US throughout Latin America, for example in Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia.

Cuban moves against homophobia and in support of gay rights have been more effective than those in the US. There is greater tolerance of sexual diversity in Cuba than in most Latin American countries and Churches which sustain such discrimination have less political influence in Cuba than in the US.

Cuba’s Centre for National Sex Education (CENESEX) since 1989 has pushed sexual tolerance, including acceptance of and support for trans-sexuals. Effective education campaigns and testing has meant that Cuba has the lowest HIV infection rate in the Caribbean region, lower than the US. Since 2001 every HIV positive Cuban has had free access to highly active anti retroviral treatment (HAART). The US has developed strong HIV-AIDS programs, as a result of pressure group lobbying, but access to health services is not guaranteed.

US backed, Cuban exile “pro-democracy” activists are mostly terrorists, as far as Cubans are concerned. For example in March 2007 the Madrid Municipal Government awarded Cuban exile Carlos Alberto Montaner the “Tolerance Prize” for his writings on Cuba. Yet Montaner is a European-resident fugitive from Cuban justice who has been on the CIA payroll for many years. He is wanted in Cuba for bombings carried out in Cuba, many years ago, and has close links to the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which openly backs terrorist attacks on Cuba.

The Cuban Government has not moved against the celebrated “pro democracy” activist Osvaldo Payá, who was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize in 2002 for “Freedom of Thought” following his creation of the “Varela Project”, essentially a petition for small business rights. However Cuban television in December 2005 pointed out that Payá was receiving $1,000 a session for his classes on managing a US-backed “transition” in Cuba, held at the US Office of Interests in Havana. This is a clear breach of Cuban law, but Payá has not been arrested.

In 2005 Australian journalist Paul McGeough feted another CANF and Miami-backed “pro-democracy” activist, Raul Rivero. McGeough asserted that Rivero’s arrest in 2003 “revived memories of the worst Soviet human rights abuses” and claimed that “Rivero's crime was twofold - possession of a typewriter, and a will to dream”. McGeough did not point out that Rivero was convicted of receiving money from the US Office of Interests and the CANF, as part of quite explicit plans to overthrow the constitution and install a foreign-backed regime. Such activity is a crime in every country.

The most notorious US-backed “pro democracy activist” is Luis Posada Carriles, currently held in the US on immigration offences. The US refuses to extradite Posada to Venezuela, where he is wanted for the 1976 bombing of a Cuba passenger plane, which killed 73 civilians. Posada publicly confessed (in the US) to the bombings of Cuban tourist hotels in 1997, but was never charged. He was arrested and convicted over an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro in Panama in 2000, but was pardoned and released in 2004 by outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso, a US ally. The US government, in the middle of its self-proclaimed “war on terrorism”, refuses to consider Posada a terrorist. Such is the US support for democracy in Cuba.

The US government funds a number of “civil society”, “pro-democracy” and human rights groups, to support the US image of the world. For example, the France-based group Reporters without Borders, backed by the US National Endowment for Democracy, portrays Cuba as the single worst violator of “press freedom” in the Americas. However the International News Safety Institute notes that while no journalists were killed carrying out their work in Cuba over 1996-2006, 21 were killed in the USA, most of them murdered. (Let’s put to one side the 72 others killed in Colombia, 31 in Mexico, 27 in Brazil, 16 in Peru, 13 in Guatemala, and so on.)

On participatory democracy, the US has very poor credentials. Economic policy is regarded either as “technical”, to be managed by experts, or a province of the private corporations that dominate US social and political life. Consequently there are few debates or participatory initiatives on issues of major public concern, such as health care, access to education and military spending.

In Cuba, by contrast, there are substantial debates on public policy issues, through the elected assemblies and social organisations. For example, in Cuba’s economic crisis of the 1990s, 18 months were spent debating the introduction of major economic changes such as introducing regulated foreign investment, the development of mass tourism, adjustments to services and taxes, preservation of free health care and education.

In the US, “structural adjustment” was a formula developed by the private banks, adopted at home and enforced in debtor countries. This “technical” formula, comprising privatisation, high interest rates, cuts to social services, user pays regimes, privileges for private investors and exporters, is presented as a “fait accompli”. There is no public inclusion in a policy debate, so communities are forced to react defensively to this “technical” economic policy.

There is one final, important reason why the US cannot be a democracy. An imperial ambition drives it to dominate, invade and exploit the resources of other countries. US “defence forces” are almost exclusively deployed abroad and current US “national security” policy contemplates pre-emptive military strikes on more than sixty countries.

Like other imperial ventures, US ambitions are pursued on behalf of a small clique of private investors, at the expense of millions of poor and marginalised people within the US. Yet as the US writer Gore Vidal has pointed out, no imperial project can be mounted in a genuine democracy, or a genuine republic.

Cuba, on the other hand, has never invaded another country. It has only used its defence forces to defend its own people or to support others under attack, such as defending the Angolan and Namibian people from the apartheid South African army, in the 1980s.

Cuba has used its world class health sector to assist other countries. While the US sends thousands of troops to other countries, Cuba sends thousands of doctors. Further, more than 20,000 foreign students are studying medicine in Cuba, on fully-funded Cuban scholarships. This includes nearly 100 US students. This is one more reason why, if the word is to have any meaning, Cuba is a democracy and the US is not.

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About the Author

Tim Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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