On January 20, 8.4 million Cubans — 95% of those eligible — voted to elect their People Power National Assembly (NA), according to a January 21 Inter Press Services (IPS) article. The election comes amid an unprecedentedly widespread and open public discussion of the countries challenges and way forward.
The newly elected delegates to the NA will in turn elect the president, vice-presidents and secretary of the NA. The NA will also elect the 31-member Council of State, which has authority to pass legislation between NA meetings, and includes the president, vice-president and key ministers. Fidel Castro has been elected to the position of president since the establishment of the current "people's power" electoral system in 1976.
Instead of a corporate-funded electoral campaign, in the weeks preceding the election candidates met and discussed with their local community members as well as student and labour organisations.
On January 4, Cuban newspaper Granma reported that a record number of young people had been nominated as candidates, and that 43% of the candidates were women, giving Cuba the third-highest political representation of women in the world.
Mainstream western media outlets, however, have tried to distort the electoral process, claiming that the apparent absence of opposition candidates for the NA is proof of the "undemocratic" nature of the elections.
While there is only one political party — the Cuban Communist Party — it plays no role in elections.
The corporate media have focused on the fact that the election for NA deputies involves only one candidate per seat. While this is true, it ignores an entire tier of the electoral process in Cuba.
The NA is chosen out of those elected to the municipal level government. Therefore, all candidates in the NA election have already been elected, in municipal elections held in October.
These elections were competitive. Out of a total 55,000 candidates, 15,236 municipal representatives were elected.
Under Cuban electoral law there must be at least two, and up to eight, candidates for each seat. They must be nominated from the community they seek to represent.
The purpose of the recent election was to select, from those municipal representatives, 614 delegates to the NA, and 1201 provincial delegates. Every candidate to both lists must have already been elected a municipal representative — right up to Castro who must, and did in October, stand in competitive municipal elections.
Voting is voluntary for everyone over 16, and any candidate that receives less than 50% cannot be elected. It is indicative of the popular democratic process in Cuba that all candidates received well over half of all votes cast.
Those who claim the NA elections are meaningless cannot explain the extremely high turn out in voluntary elections.
The corporate media has also speculated that the elections will herald a formal handover of power by Castro — salivating over the prospect that a new generation might be more "open" to restoring capitalism in Cuba, returning it to its former position as a de facto US colony, dominated by US corporations.
This is, of course, the same media that speculated that the existing social order would fall apart after Castro temporarily stepped down from public duties due to illness in July 2006, his position as president being filled by the next in line constitutionally, First Vice-President Raul Castro. Those commentators were left disappointed.
Meanwhile, Cuba has embarked on a high-level public debate to address the very real problems that exist in Cuban society, not in order to change the existing system but to strengthen it.
Announcing the current process of public debate on July 26 last year, Raul Castro emphasised that while Cuba has defied expectations by surviving the harsh 45-year long US economic blockade, there is a need for "a clear conscience about our problems, our inefficiencies, our errors and our bureaucratic and/or slack attitudes".
He also referred to the need "to change concepts and methods which were appropriate at one point but have been surpassed by life itself. We must never fall prey to the idea that what we do is perfect but rather examine it again."
The most pressing issues identified include relief of some ongoing daily hardships that have resulted from the combination of the US economic blockade and the legacy of the crisis caused by the collapse of Cuba's largest trading partner, the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s.
There is a pressing need to boost productivity and agricultural output to provide more and cheaper food. Food imports have risen 35% in the last two years, according to an IPS report last August.
Raul Castro commented: "We are aware that in the midst of the obvious difficulties that we are facing; wages are clearly insufficient to meet people's needs." Many see solving these hardship as a crucial challenge, now that the economic crisis of the 1990s has passed.
The debate has been genuinely widespread and deep-going. Official positions have been criticised and official statistics challenged. Many competing views on the source of the problems and the solutions are being presented.
Possibly the most crucial discussion has centred on the "battle of ideas", how to win the young generation that have grown up during the difficult post-Soviet period to the socialist goals of the revolution.
At the forefront of the debate has been Juventud Rebelde, the paper of Cuba's communist youth organisation. It has criticised shortcomings in official statistics regarding employment and university attendance, and taken up social issues such as homophobia and gay rights.
In all, 1.3 million proposals have been made during the national discussion, which has involved 215,687 public meetings.
Another key question has been how to maintain economic growth — Cuba's economy grew by 7.5% in 2007, well above the Latin American average, by incorporating limited market measures without eroding the gains of the socialist revolution.
Important to this has been the growing trade with Venezuela, encouraged by the revolutionary government of President Hugo Chavez, which has helped ease the effects of the US blockade. In particular, Venezuela provides Cuba with 93,000 barrels per day of badly needed oil as part of an exchange whereby Cuban doctors provide free health care in Venezuela.
Venezuela has provided significant investment into Cuba to assist economic development. A joint venture between the Cuban and Venezuelan states will allow for the reopening of the Camilo Ceinfeugos oil refinery, closed since the Soviet Union collapsed, with the aim of increasing its refining capacity to 100,000 barrels per day.
Some market measures — such as a dual currency system, and limited foreign investment — were introduced during the "Special Period" following the Soviet Union's collapse, which saw Cuba lose around 85% of its trade.
Tourism was strongly promoted and quickly became the main source of foreign income, only recently surpassed by nickel exports. However, while these measures brought economic gains, they also had negative social consequences, encouraging corruption, inequality and a growing black market.
Anti-social problems also developed amongst those Cubans whose relatives in the US sent them the money to live a comfortable life without working.
Despite some relative privileges created by unequal access to foreign currency, the key gains of the revolution remain intact. Access to health and education remains free and universal.
MinRex, Cuba's foreign ministry website, has reported that Cuba has maintained an infant mortality rate of 5.3 deaths per thousand live births for the second consecutive year. Comparatively, the world average is 52 per 1000, Latin America's average is 26, and the US rate is 6.4.