Book reveals Cuba's hidden story of participatory democracy

March 29, 2014
Voting in Cuban elections on February 3 last year.

Cuba & Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion
By Arnold August
Fernwood Publishing
January 2013
288pp, C$29.95

Surrounded by emerging participatory democracies unshackling themselves from US hegemony, Arnold August writes that Cuba is a laboratory for people-powered politics.

August's latest book, Cuba and Its Neighbours, is easily one of the most comprehensive, approachable explanations of Cuba's particular democratic system that is available in English. Cuba's evolving, participatory model is explored in intimate detail and contrasted with emerging left-leaning democracies in Latin America as well as the United States.

August presents Cuba's democracy from the ground up, explaining how Cubans elect representatives in a no frills, highly participatory model. In Cuba, there are no Western-style electoral campaigns.

The Communist Party of Cuba, for its part, is strictly prohibited from intervening in elections. Rather, neighbours elect their representatives based on merit, not the number of campaign ads they can afford to air. August continues by laying bare the intricate details of Cuba's political system.

The book is a labour of love, and August's passion for Cuba's model is contagious. The intimate attention to detail, and the frank discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Cuba's model, draws on more than a decade of August's own research. This includes dozens of interviews with politicians, academics, journalists and other Cubans.

August first visited Cuba in 1991, and found it “was not at all like the former USSR and Eastern Europe”. Instead, he found a society where people were empowered by experimental forms of democracy.

However, the reader is never presented with a picture of an idealised socialist society. According to August, corruption and bureaucracy remain serious problems that threaten to undermine the revolution. Moreover, there are bad practices imported from the Stalinist Soviet bloc and remnants of capitalism that are yet to be overcome.

Some of the harshest criticisms come from those August interviews -- Cubans who support the revolution, but are brutally self-critical.

Nonetheless, Cuban democracy is shown to be in a constant state of self improvement and self criticism ― “democracy in motion”, as August puts it. Indeed, the thrust of August's argument is that democracy is never a finished work, and Cuba is a “laboratory” of ideas.

Yet as its title suggests, Cuba and Its Neighbours is not an analysis of the island nation in isolation. Instead, August contextualises Cuba in a region filled with other “democracies in motion”.

的n countries that are neighbouring Cuba, such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador ・ and in Cuba itself ・ the thoughts and actions of both the people and the leaderships are increasingly turning towards greater democratisation,・ August says.

In the first 70 pages, the book provides brief explanations of democratic forms in the US, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. It is a breakneck pace, but gives the reader a brisk overview of the two poles of democratic thought in the hemisphere.

August contrasts the vibrant leftist democracies of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia with a relatively static Washington, mired in elitism and exclusionism.

To August, the key difference between US-style democracy and Cuba's political system is private property ・ something that has pervaded democracy in the US since the nation's founding.

August says: “[R]ight from the beginning, a project based on private property provided the foundation for the U.S. political system. This distinguishes it from the Cuban Revolution's social project, which is rooted in socialism.”

For August, Cuba's revolutionary democracy is the product of more than a century of popular struggle, dating back to the island nation's War of Independence in the late 19th century. US democracy, however, is the product of “individual property and expanding capitalism”.

From the days of the founding fathers to the state attacks on the 2011 Occupy movement, the US government has always been opposed to popular participation ・ domestically and internationally. Hence, the ceaseless attempts from Washington to attack popular left governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Ultimately, however, the implications of Cuba and Its Neighbours are that mass movements can overthrow ossified, stale political systems. From the Arab Spring to Occupy, the rise of popular movements across Latin America and the air of frustration in Europe, capitalism has been challenged.

August details how another world may be possible. For revolutionaries, Cuba's experience is instrumental -- both for its successes and failures.

August closes by urging us to rid ourselves of “the blinders of preconceived notions”. We need to be prepared to challenge not only capitalism, but also ourselves.


Is not Cuba's Communist Party the only legal political party allowed in Cuba? If so, it already has a political moopoly in Cuban society. So no wonder it's prohibited from participating in local neighbourhood elections; given its political monopoly it doesn't have to! Presumably groups which oppose Communist Party rule in Cuban society are also prohibited from participating in the political process, whether at the local, provincial or national level. That's hardly a genuine form of participatory democracy!

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.