On October 24, US President George Bush — a firm defender of freedom and human rights, as any Iraqi tortured by US forces at Abu Ghraib could testify — denounced Cuba as a "tropical gulag". Bush said that Cuba is characterised by "terror and trauma". The president also reaffirmed his support for the punishing US economic embargo against Cuba, which has lasted almost half a century and cost the Cuban people some US$89 billion.
A report from the Prensa Latina news agency noted that "The economic siege, officially established in 1963 and maintained for ten US administrations, aims to make the Cuban people surrender by [promoting] hunger and diseases."
In view of the blockade's failure to crush Cuba's will to defy Washington, "Bush decided to approve a plan in May 2004 to speed up the destruction of the constitutional order agreed by the Cuban people. Only two months later, he reviewed the plan and added new measures to toughen the blockade, something he has been doing frequently in the last three years."
On October 30, the UN General Assembly will vote for the 16th time on a resolution calling for the blockade to end. It will no doubt be passed, like always, with overwhelming support. And, like always, the US will ignore the result.
Bush's speech urged other countries to aid Cuba's "transition" to a "democracy" in a speech in Washington on October 24. Bush said Cuba had a "totalitarian system". He failed to mention the national Cuban elections that took place just three days earlier, or the September 23 call by Raul Castro, who is Cuba's acting president, for the establishment of national forums to discuss challenges and problems that the country faces, as well as proposed economic and agricultural reforms.
In an attempt to internationally isolate Cuba, Bush also announced that US Congress had recently voted to increase its funding to anti-Cuban government groups and called on US allies to contribute to a "Freedom Fund for Cuba" to aid so-called democracy efforts in the country.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque responded within hours, according to an October 24 Associated Press report, saying that Bush's speech was in effect a thinly veiled call for the "re-conquest of Cuba by force" — an attempt to rally Cubans to violently overthrow Cuba's socialist system.
The timing of Bush's speech is crucial — the US has found itself increasingly isolated in its hostile policy toward Cuba. For instance, parliamentarians from 79 countries condemned the US economic blockade on Cuba at the September meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. President Fidel Castro's ailing health has failed to incite internal chaos or political disintegration in Cuba. Meanwhile, Cuba has continued to diminish its isolation by strengthening political solidarity and trade links with Venezuela, which also has a popularly supported socialist government, as well as China, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Russia in recent years.
Cuba's recent municipal elections don't seem to herald what Bush called the "dying gasps of a failed regime", as much as a strong culture of grassroots democracy and genuine popular participation that extends beyond parliament. Cuba is not Fidel Castro — and the Cuban people have once again demonstrated their intention for the country to continue on its revolutionary course, with or without him.
In an October 22 article, Castro noted that at the same time that Bush was wheeling out Washington's usual hollow phrases about democracy and human rights, "In elections where voting is not mandatory, our people have just given their verdict, with more than 95 percent of the electorate casting their vote at 37,749 polling stations, in ballot boxes guarded by school children." Castro added: "That is the example provided by Cuba."
By 3pm on October 21, 90.32% of Cubans had participated in the national Municipal Assembly elections, which are held every two-and-a-half years, electing over 15,000 delegates to the Municipal Assembly, reported Prensa Latina on October 22.
Just over 37,000 candidates stood for election, and as usual, polling booths were staffed by fifth- to ninth-grade students. Local Committees in Defence of the Revolution, mass revolutionary organisations, played a key role in collecting information for voter enrolment lists and encouraging and mobilising people to vote.
National Electoral Council (CEN) president Maria Esther Ruez said on October 24 that early statistics indicate that one third of elected delegates are not members of the Cuban Communist Party, and that 26.8% of delegates are women, and 16.7% are young people.
This round of elections will culminate in the formation of a new National Assembly in early 2008, and the election of a new 31-member Council of State, which in turn elects the president from the national delegates.
Although the basis of Cuba's democracy, and its ongoing resistance to US hostility and attempts at economic sabotage, is the actual political participation in the ongoing revolutionary process and high political consciousness of ordinary people, the country's People Power election system is an important aspect of creating a government that governs in the interests of the people.
This system allows anyone over the age of 16, who is not in jail or mentally unfit, to vote and stand in elections. The municipal (local) governments, primarily preside over the allocation of funds to health, education, development of culture and the arts, prices of goods in shops, restoration of public buildings, housing plans and other decisions regarding major services.
The four tenets of the system are: the proposal and nomination of candidates arising from voters; election through free, open, secret ballots; control of elected representatives through accountability and the ability to recall them; and people's participation with their representatives. That is, the emphasis of the People's Power system is the involvement of Cubans in the political life of the country.
The first stage of the election process is the proposal and nomination of candidates — each community decides on its own candidates, rather than voting on a pre-determined list decided by parties. Propaganda and money are excluded from the election process. Political campaigning and advertising are banned, and citizens are encouraged to vote on the basis of the individual merits and social and political standing of each candidate. As such, candidates post their biographies, which may include a history of their political activity and educational qualifiations, and photos in a sanctioned public area for voters to deliberate on. This year, neighbourhood meetings were held in the first two weeks of April to introduce and discuss the candidates.
The preselection stage is followed by election by free, open, secret ballot. Candidates must receive a simple majority of votes. A second round of voting will be held on October 28 in provinces where no one candidate received a simple majority. The Cuban Communist Party does not stand candidates in elections (party members stand as individuals), nor is membership of the party compulsory for candidates.
Registration on the electoral roll is automatic. While voting is optional, Cuba has a consistently high rate of voting participation — the lowest registered voter turnout was upon the introduction of the People's Power system in 1975, when 95.2% of Cubans voted. By contrast, a record-breaking 60% of US people voted in the 2004 US presidential elections, according to the United States Electoral Project.
Delegates to municipal and national assemblies are unpaid, and carry out their duties to the community outside their work hours. This is to discourage the formation of a layer of highly paid administrators and bureaucrats who have no interest in, or indeed have interests against, serving the needs of the people and the revolution.
Representatives sign a code of ethics, and report back to their electors twice a year to justify their actions and use of their budget and listen to feedback and criticism. They can be recalled by their constituents at anytime. Citizens have the right to take grievances to a complaints office, and all complaints are investigated. In this sense, people's participation with their representatives is crucial to the functioning of Cuban democracy. The Committee in Defence of the Revolution in each area informs people of discussions and outcomes from assembly meetings, which also take place twice a year.
In light of the reality of the Cuban situation, Bush's recent comments appear deeply ironic, and perhaps more suited to the people of the US: "You have the power to shape your own destiny. You can bring about a future where your leaders answer to you." Indeed, Cuba is in the process of creating a system where its leaders actually do answer to its people by repeatedly and resoundingly rejecting US-style "democracy" since the 1959 revolution, and is striving toward creating a society where citizens have meaningful input into their lives and how their country is run.
The difference is stark. In the US, commentators have argued that the "base" entry level of funding to run a serious campaign for the 2008 presidential election is $100 million. In a September 27-30 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 54% of participants indicated that US forces should be withdrawn from Iraq, "even if that means civil order is not restored there". Yet not a single lead candidate for the Democrats or Republicans is seriously proposing this. The same poll indicated that 55% of participants didn't think the Democrats in Congress had gone far enough in opposing the war on Iraq. Sixty-four per cent disapproved of the way Bush "is handling his job as president"; 65% disapproved of the way Democrat-dominated Congress is doing its job. Time for regime change in the US?
Cuban participation in their political system is not confined to the People's Power electoral system, which is the formal aspect of democracy. Cuba shows that democracy and input from ordinary people must exist at all levels of society — with the implementation of workers' control in the economy, the direction of workplace management by the workers themselves, and the involvement of regular people in the day-to-day, grassroots construction of a socialist society.
"The socialist paradise is a tropical gulag", claimed Bush. "The quest for justice that once inspired the Cuban people has now become a grab for power. And as with all totalitarian systems, Cuba's regime no doubt has other horrors still unknown to the rest of the world." The island nation is indeed home to horrors. But they are found not in Havana or Cuba's other cities. They are found in the US-run prisons at occupied Guantanamo Bay — the real tropical gulag and the site of horrors that put to rest the notion that Bush and his regime care for human rights or democracy.
Cuba faces serious challenges for the future. The embargo has taken its toll, and the country's leaders face the challenge of educating and engaging a new generation to take forward the revolution — young people who have no experience of pre-1959 Cuba and live in a country, that despite its amazing achievements in health and education, remains part of the Third World. However, there is no indication that Cubans are ready to submit to Washington.
As Perez Roque explained: "There is no human or natural force in the world capable of making the Cubans desist from their dreams of justice, freedom and independence. We are a victorious revolution and we have won the respect of everybody."